The “Slithering Scourge” of the Everglades: Separating Invasive Species from Responsible Pet Ownership

 

By Emily D. Irvine: 3-27-12

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The burmese python. Recently referred to as “the slithering scourge of the Everglades” by the Miami Herald, this southeast asian serpent has the been the subject of endless controversy among environmental protection agencies and reptile hobbyists in the last decade. Officially declared an injurious species in March of 2012, the burmese python, along with yellow anacondas and african rock pythons, was added to the Lacey Act, making their importation and transportation across state lines a felony. This new legislation, fought hard for by the South Florida Water Management District and U.S Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is meant to lessen the impact of the invasive burmese pythons which have established a thriving population in the fragile Everglades, a infestation believed to have been caused by escaped or intentionally released pet snakes. Yes, the Florida infestation exists, it is a huge threat to a precious and fragile ecosystem and it absolutely needs to be addressed and dealt with. In Florida. Restricting the sale of these animals across the country is just one more example of asinine government overreach coupled with an extraordinary ability to waste taxpayer time and money. Because Florida has a problem, a problem specific to Florida only, the whole country is being regulated and countless members of the reptile keeping community who depend on interstate sale and transport of their animals for income are being swept away without a second glance because of one state’s problems. There is appallingly faulty logic in this legislation, and it goes unnoticed because even though the reptile hobby is growing rapidly, snake keepers are a minority among pet-keeping Americans. Therefore, by attacking us, those behind this legislation can preach their heroism, their deep care and concern for the environment through protecting the country from the big scary snakes that are loose in Florida due to the carelessness of all those weird people who keep snakes as pets.

So what exactly are burmese pythons, and why are they a problem? Burms, as they are affectionately called by reptile hobbyists, are one of the most popular large constrictor in the pet trade. Though there are dozens of python species in the the world ranging in size from 3ft to 30ft, burms are perhaps what most people think of when they think of a python: big, squeezing snake. Burms are at the large end of the python spectrum, with 20ft specimens not uncommon. Though they are  a large snake and not a pet for the inexperienced, their docile nature and relative ease of care (as large snakes go) makes them an enticing pet, so they are a staple in the collections of many reptile breeders across  the country. However, their availability has had a tragic downside in the state of Florida. There are people out there who see an adult burm and think it would make them look fantastically impressive if they pulled it out to show their friends at keg parties. There are individuals who have an extremely inflated sense of their own abilities and feel that an adult burmese python would be no trouble to wrangle on their own, a great tool for impressing anyone and everyone. So they buy a 2ft hatchling, put in a box, and watch it grow. As their phallus-enhancing pet approaches 10ft, then 12….15…17ft, many people may come to the conclusion that they made a mistake. If the snake is housed improperly or handled like it is part of a circus side-show, it will likely become stressed, and a stressed snake becomes an aggressive snake. Either out of frustration or fear, many people, at this point, will drive their snake away from their house and drop it off in the nearest swamp, forest, even dumpster. These snakes, unwanted because of the failures of their keepers, are sure to die. Unless they happen to be dumped in Florida.

Why Florida? Because burmese pythons are native to tropical Southeast Asia, a region with a nearly identical climate to the Florida Everglades, at least close enough for these apex predators to survive. The problem is, the Everglades already have a reptilian top predator: the American alligator. In their new home, burms compete with alligators for the same food sources, throwing the whole ecosystem out of balance. In fact, burms get so large they are able to kill and eat small gators themselves, though they are feeding most readily on several endangered species of birds and wood rats. It is an ecological nightmare. But though the snakes will ultimately be the ones who suffer, they are not the ones at fault. People are at fault, people who are ruled by their need for machismo, not their common sense, and who completely fail to value the wellbeing of the animal they adopted out of ignorance.

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So if I fully acknowledge that the invasive python problem in the Everglades is indeed a huge cause for concern, then why do I so vehemently oppose the addition of burms to the Lacey Act? Because the Lacey Act is national, and the problem is not. The Lacy Act is an ever growing list of non-native species, both plants and animals, that are banned from importation into the United States, intended to stop foreign species that could have a devastating impact on ecosystems across the country from every entering it. I oppose the addition of burmese pythons to that list because these are animals that have been in this country as pets for decades with no adverse effects outside of Florida. Those who support the ban say burms are hardy creatures that can survive as far north as Washington D.C. and are beginning to grow in such numbers that they will soon begin to migrate. This is the most asinine statement I have heard in this argument. Firstly, I ask you to ponder this notion: Do you really believe that ONLY the state of Florida is filled with ignorant people who release their unwanted giant constrictors into the wild when they become too big to deal with? Of course not. I can guarantee you someone who should have never have had a burm in the first place has released them in every state in this country. In Florida, they survive. Everywhere else, they would either not last the night, or at the very best, not last a season. Why? Snakes are reptiles and reptiles are ectothermic, and Burmese pythons are reptiles from the tropics where the temperature rarely falls below 80 degrees. Snakes from tropical and equatorial regions where there is not an extreme seasonal temperature differentiation do not and cannot hibernate, unlike North American snakes which are active from late spring to early fall and absent in winter months. A burmese python cannot survive the first chill of fall in 99% of the country. Only in Florida can they thrive.

Because so many burms are already here, the new ban has not banned them outright, but its stipulations certainly will lead to the slow demise of the species in private collections. The new law says anyone who currently has a burm may keep it, but if they move to a different state, they may not bring their beloved pet with them, for transporting the animal across state lines is now a violation of the Lacy Act. This means any breeders of burms may now only sell to buyers in their own state or out of the country, provided the flight the snake is on makes no stops in other states. This significantly damages the market for these animals. The reptile hobby is spread far across the country. We do business with each other from afar and breeders count on business from all states. I personally live in California and purchased my snake from a breeder in Michigan. This is common, and essential for buyers and sellers alike to have access to rare animals to add to their collections. We can say goodbye to all of the beautiful color morphs burms come in. There just wont be a big enough market in any one state for more expensive varieties of these snakes to keep breeders in business.

The Everglades problem is the result of people who should have never had possession of a Burmese python getting their hands on one and then seeking to get rid of it quickly. This indeed makes the problem lay with the accessibility of these animals, not the animals themselves. While I absolutely despise the majority of government regulations, I feel in the case of large constrictors, a keeper should be required to prove they can meet the care and handling requirements of the animal, as well as be briefed on safety. In the hobby, we go by a general rule that any snake under 10ft in length can be safely handled by one average sized adult. After 10ft, an additional handler is required for every 1 meter of snake. This means an adult Burmese python could easily require 3-4 adults to be safely handled. If you cannot have 3 extra adults around at any given time, you should not own a burmese python. Snakes need to be kept in an enclosure that is at least 2/3 the length of their body. If you do not have the space or the budget to maintain a 15ft  home for your snake, you should not own a burmese python. This is an impractical animal for most people. However, there are true reptile hobbyist who can meet these requirements and then some, and they should be allowed to have their animals and take them where they wish. Logically, this situation requires a permit system. The permit should not be so hard to obtain that true hobbyists cannot have access to it, but enough of a deterrent to keep away those who do not need these animals. A modest fee, required class on animal husbandry and safety, followed by a permit test would suffice. If a keeper possesses the proper permit, they should be allowed to take their snake with them to any state that legally allows them. If Florida would like to regulate themselves and ban future ownership of Burmese pythons in their borders, they’re voters are entitled to do so. This is a state issue, not a national one.

Remember that just because the passage of a law does not effect your personal lifestyle, someday, a new law might, and if you do not speak out, someday there will be no one left to speak out for you. What if pit bulls are deemed too dangerous and banned because irresponsible owners fail to control their pets? What if there is an increase in the number of people injured by horses because they ride them with no experience and the government decides to ban them for the safety of us all? What about feral cats plaguing every neighborhood in the country and the environmental devastation they cause? Should we ban them too? Your government might if you don’t speak out. Find your voice and speak up for your rights. But most importantly, don’t be part of problem. Be a responsible pet owner. This means doing all the needed research before adopting an exotic animal, and vaccinating and spay/neutering domestic ones. This means having a back up plan if you find you can no longer meet the care requirements of your pet, and allowing the proper amount in your budget to meet their monthly needs. And remember, those of us who have snakes love them just as much as you love your dog, and we would be eternally grateful if you didn’t let our voices be silenced. Stand by us and we will gladly stand by you when your rights are threatened.

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Short Shakespeare Readings

By Emily D. Irvine: 3-18-12

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Just some short writing assignments done for a Shakespeare course. Exercises in quick analysis of given scenes and characterizations.

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Hamlet

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Hamlet’s first soliloquy in 1.2 serves to illustrate the overwhelming reasons for the prince’s vexation, as well as foreshadow the conflicts that will arise because of them. Hamlet is furious with his mother for not just re-marrying a month after his father’s death, but marrying his father’s brother, an incestuous, unholy union. Hamlet begins this soliloquy with thoughts of suicide, “That the Everlasting had not fixed/ His canon against self-slaughter!” (1.2.130-131) All that stops Hamlet from ending the play scarcely a scene after it began is the notion that God has decreed suicide to be a sin. Hamlet begins the play in a deep depression, though few could argue his melancholy is unwarranted. At this point, Hamlet has not seen or spoken to the Ghost, and therefore has no knowledge that his father’s death was murder most foul. This later knowledge is what will turn Hamlet’s melancholy to revenge-fueled rage. But the seed that emotionally derails Hamlet is his mother’s betrayal, the notion that a woman could be so cold as to forget her husband in a month. Hamlet views this behavior as a negative attribute of the female sex, “Frailty, thy name is woman.” (1.2.146) This statement foreshadows Hamlet’s romantic exploits, or lack there of, for the remainder of the play. Hamlet’s disgust for his mother’s behavior will infect and destroy his feelings for Ophelia. Hamlet will not be able to separate the actions of the two. Hamlet will revisit the idea of suicide in his most famous soliloquy, and right before he confronts Ophelia and tells her to get to a nunnery. The actions of a woman make Hamlet depressed enough to consider suicide, and the anger he feels toward his mother, Hamlet will direct first to Ophelia. “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/ Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (1.2.133-134) Hamlet has no desire left to continue living, and can find no reason why he should. This callous attitude toward life will be the catalyst that drives him to the brink. Hamlet does not later seek justice on Claudius; he seeks revenge.

Henry IV: Part II

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Prince Hal’s crowning of himself and the ensuing scene, in which we will see his final interaction with his father, shows the young Prince’s maturation from party-hard ruffian to king. In this scene, we see the figurative death of Prince Hal with the literal death of the king, and with the shedding of ‘Hal’ comes the birth of Henry V.  Hal immediately echoes the sentiments of his father, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” (3.1.31.) when he calls the crown a “troublesome bedfellow” (4.3.152.) Hal is not looking at the crown with greed, or even reverence. He clearly sees it as a burden, one that “keepest the ports of slumber open wide/ To many a watchful night!” (4.3.154-155.) Hal has watched the burden of the crown slowly kill his father, and he does not take the crown from him with relish, but with sorrow and obligation.

Henry’s reaction to Hal’s “thievery” is the culmination of years of stress, guilt, and paranoia. Because he came by the crown in a less than honorable fashion, he is convinced he will loose it thus and that everyone is waiting for him to loose it, including his heir. But Hal tearfully and convincingly explains that the thought of his father’s death brought him no joy, stating it struck his heart cold (4.3.279.) We are reminded of Hal’s speech in Part 1, in which he somewhat dubiously stated his intentions of transforming himself into a remarkable example of leadership by abandoning his shenanigans to awe those who doubt him. Hal does not conceal this information, stating clearly that if he be lying about his sorrow over his father’s death, “O, let me in my present wildness die/ And never live to show the’incredulous world/ The noble change that I have purposed” (4.3.280-282). Hal is completely honest about his intentions to his father, and he demonstrates that he knows that what he is about to inherit is a burdensome enemy, not a mark of power and glory.

Hal has matured, or at the very least, he is mature enough to recognize when his young man’s pursuits of drink and merriment must cease and give way to the responsibilities of what he recognizes as a hereditary encumbrance. He does not savor the moment of his self-imposed coronation. To Hal, the crown slowly and mercilessly destroys its wearer, and with that knowledge, with full understanding of the uneasy head of a king, Prince Hal becomes Henry V.

Henry V

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The St. Crispin’s Day speech is only one of many memorable moments that solidifies Henry V’s reputation as a great talker. In under fifty lines, he is able to make a despairing army outnumbered five to one wish their numbers were even fewer. But why? What about Henry’s words so inspire a seemingly doomed army to victory? This speech’s defining quality is its focus on the positive. This is not a speech that tells its listeners “if we die, we die with honor,” or  that tells an army to fight for duty to their country. King Harry instead speaks to his soldiers about the glory that they alone will share for a lifetime should the battle be victorious. He claims that the fewer their numbers, the greater the glory to be shared (4.3.22). It is true, that the French would have little to boast about if they conquered an army one fifth of their size, but the small “band of brothers” than comprise the English army would have every reason to boast of their great feat should the battle prove victorious. In line 63, Harry tells his army every man who fights with him shall be raised to the status of a gentlemen by his great feats upon St. Crispin’s Day. Even more importantly, every man in England, asleep in his bed, “Shall think themselves accursed they were not here (4.3.65)”. Harry appeals to the very human desires for glory and legacy. “Then he will strip his sleeve and show his scars/ And say, ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day’/ Old men forget, yet all shall be forgot/ But he’ll remember with advantages/ What feats he did that day (4.3.48-51). Harry speaks to his men only of the positives, the glory and honor, the lasting benefits of victory. Harry spends only two lines speaking of death, and in such passing that it seems not even a possibility. Henry V is able to make his men so sure of victory that their pitiful numbers seem inconsequential.

Much Ado About Nothing

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The “wedding” scene in 4.1 serves to illustrate the stark differences between Beatrice and Benedick in comparison to the other characters in the play. Aside from the Friar, Benedick is the only male character  convinced of the possibility of Hero’s innocence, even though his closest friends are her slanderers. Benedick is very astute. He does not defend his friends’ actions, but nor does he slander them. In the midst of the malay, he states, “Two of them have the very bent of honor,/ And if their wisdoms be misled in this/ The practice of it lives in John the bastard (4.1.185-187).” Benedick realizes instantly that if his friends are mistaken, the fault is Don John’s. Benedick is willing to believe Hero innocent and for Beatrice, he is willing to uncover the truth, even if it means exposing his friends’ foolishness. Beatrice was not with Hero on the night her accusers claim she was unfaithful, yet Beatrice never falters for an instant in believing her cousin’s innocence. This shows that Beatrice knows Hero far better than the man who planned to marry her, and even better than her own father. She is not tearfully despairing at the situation, though. She is driven to a fury considered unfitting for a maid. “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market place (4.1.303-304).” Beatrice would gladly kill Claudio to defend her cousin’s honor and innocence. Benedick’s love for Beatrice causes him to consider adopting such rash action in her stead. Beatrice and Benedick are a couple far advanced in emotional depth and understanding, and Beatrice is no love-struck simpleton like the cousin she loves so. When Benedick swears by his hand that he loves her, her terse reply is, “Use it for my love some other way than swearing by it (4.1.320).” Beatrice and Benedick are united most by their mutual command of words in bitting verbal battles. But it takes far more than words to impress Beatrice. She can speak as smoothing as her Benedick. It will take actions to win Beatrice, and Beatrice wishes those actions to liberate a poor soul completely incapable of liberating herself.

Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night

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A Shakespearian comedy ends with weddings, song. and dance.  Of that much, his audience could be certain. Shakespeare’s comedies also tend to end with good cheer for all but one (generally.) The play’s decided “villain” will spend the conclusion pouting or entirely absent. In Much Ado About Nothing, Don John’s fate is deemed too heavy for the present merriment, but his due retribution is to be devised at a later hour. “Think not on him til tomorrow, I’ll devise thee/ brave punishments for him. Strike up pipers!” (5.4.121-122) Because Malvolio is a fun sucking, bumptious prat, his tormentors are fully forgiven at Twelfth Night’s end and Malvolio is left to slink away dejected while the others enjoy the marriage and merriment before them. Both Twelfth Night and Much Ado end in the absolution of misunderstandings, both contain relationships begun by disguise, and both unite two distinct couples after five acts of riotous nonsense. Viola and Orsino are no Beatrice and Benedick in terms of banter, but they just as well serve to represent a love built on intellect, not strictly speaking, beauty and physical attributes. While disguised as a man, Viola speaks to Orsino in riddles that  allude to her sexual concealment. “I am all the daughters of my father’s house,/ And all the brother’s too” (2.4.119-120), and in Orsino’s words at Viola’s feminine reveal, “Thou hast said to me a thousand times/ Thou never shouldst love a woman like to me” (5.1.260-261). Like the overwhelming majority of Shakespeare’s female protagonists, Viola is clever, perhaps more clever than the men who surround her, and in these terms, she is little different from her Shakespearian-sisters Beatrice, Rosalind, Portia, (even Lady Macbeth or Gertrude in the realm of conniving anti-heroines.) Viola and Beatrice are united to men entirely of their choosing by the play’s end. Twelfth Night especially ends in Viola’s triumph, not Orsino’s. Yes, he finds a wife, but not one he realized he wanted until 12 seconds after he learned she was female. Beatrice and Benedick hate each other and love each other in the same timing. Their marriage is a mutual triumph.

In his 116th sonnet, Shakespeare wrote of a “marriage of true minds,” a love that tempests cannot shake and cannot be altered by earthy impediments. It is widely believed and accepted that this sonnet was written for a man. Shakespeare lived in a society that believed women to be the subordinate sex, and intellectually inferior to men. Why then would the Bard create so many women who were the direct antithesis to this belief? Perhaps a literary genius like Shakespeare, married to an illiterate wife, longed for a woman to match him in wit and intellect, a wit and intellect he could only find in fellow men due to the intellectual and educational limitations forced upon the women of Renaissance England. Perhaps the women Shakespeare could not find, he created. Or perhaps he saw what his society did not, that no imposed limitations can crush an intelligent woman. She will find a way around all impediments, even if it means assuming the form of a man, or verbally lashing one with a wit as sharp as his own.

Othello

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As a villain, Iago feels little need to justify his actions with sound reason. His motivations for hating Othello are either obscenely ridiculous or pitifully vague. In the first thirty lines of the play, Iago states his first gripe. Cassio, a man with no skill in battle, Othello has named his first lieutenant. Iago feels he deserves this position by his skill and his experience, and so he is pouting to Roderigo to offer a convincing enough excuse for his hatred towards Othello. Iago’s second line in the play reveals that hatred. Roderigo states, “Thou told’st me thou didst not hold him in thy hate” (1.1.6) to which Iago replies, “Despise me if I do not.” (1.1.7) It is not immediately clear if Iago’s hatred for Othello stems from his rejection of the officer position, or if he hated him long before. The later seems more likely. Iago’s behavior is not that of a person scorned, but of an individual who finds some level of perverse satisfaction in the misery of others. In 1.3, Iago randomly pulls out of the air a rumor that Othello has been sleeping with his wife, Emilia. “I hate the Moor,/ And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets/ He has done my office.” (1.3.368-370) This “rumor,” which Iago seems to have invented himself at this very moment, comes after a scene in which Othello and Desdemona have eloquently and convincingly expressed their genuine love for each other. Iago seems to play into his own game. He plans to undo Othello through the work of lies and deception, and he has just given himself “cause” to act by lying to himself. This moment is a heavy bit of foreshadowing. Sexual fidelity is the single most important issue in Othello. So sensitive is the issue that even unfounded rumors are justifiable causes for action.

Titus Andronicus 

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The first act of Titus Andronicus paints a bloody picture of the barbarism of Roman society, and the gaping holes in their own “civilized” views of their customs. The play’s first blood-shed occurs only 130 lines into the first act with the ritual sacrifice of Tamora’s eldest son. Titus justifies this “civilized” custom on religious grounds, “These are their brethren whom your Goths beheld/ Alive and dead, and for their brethren slain/ Religiously they ask a sacrifice.” (1.1.121-124) Titus, a “civilized” Roman, orders the sacrifice of a prince of the Goths, a “barbarous” people, according to a custom that somehow spiritually atones for the death of his own sons. But one life per act is not enough for Titus. He goes on to slay one of his own sons, Mutius, for having the nerve to defend the actions of his daughter, Lavinia. Titus is scolded for this by his brother, Marcus, “Thou art a Roman: be not barbarous.” (1.1.375) This unflattering portrayal of Roman culture is further accentuated by the simple fact that Rome is quite literally “headless” for the bulk of act 1. There is no true democracy,  nor is the crown passed by right of heredity. Saturninus and Bassianus petition to the people about their right to the throne based on birthright and virtue, only to be passed over by the election of Titus, who refuses the vote and gives the crown to Saturninus. “This suit I make, that you create our emperor’s eldest son/ Lord Saturnine.” (1.1.223-225) What civil government can Rome claim to possess if the people’s vote can be overturned at will? But aside from simply being locked in a brief political debate about the selection of a new emperor, Rome is entirely without direction in terms of its customs and traditions. The condonation of human sacrifice and honor killings are hardly the proud achievements of forward-thinking societies.

Richard III

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The character of Richard III is, I would assume, one of the most challenging of Shakespeare’s characters to portray simply because of his necessity to convincingly deceive. In Olivier’s version especially, I was shocked at how much, as a member of the audience, I was able to buy into Richard’s deceptions of Lady Anne and Clarence. Having just seen Richard plainly explain his plans and motives in soliloquy, I still found his “heartfelt” speeches to Anne to be extremely moving. Olivier’s performance is so convincing, so heart wrenching, that he deceives even his audience, who are well aware of his treachery. This is an astounding level of acting and story telling, and Olivier does it again with Richard’s interaction with Clarence. We see in Richard a “genuinely” concerned and loving brother eager to keep the peace between his brothers. Richard words his treacheries so beautifully that he can make the most heinous of intents sound like a charitable favor: “Simple plain Clarence, I do love thee so / That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven.” (1.1.119-120)

McKellen’s version of Anne’s deception is, in my opinion, ever so slightly more powerful. His decision to include the scene in a morgue with the body of Henry VI in full view adds to the creepiness and irony of the scene. Again, the audience is fully aware of Richard’s malice, but his performance pulls the sympathy strings of our hearts over and over again until we snap out of it and remember his previous soliloquies. McKellen’s performance when Anne spits on him comes off so genuinely tragic that an audience can almost question if it is the character’s malicious speeches that are a deception, not his heartfelt ones. His actions of course prove otherwise.

In the hands of a fantastic actor, Richard III plays with our emotions. His deceptions are a performance within a performance, and in the case of Olivier and McKellen, that performance is flawless. For Shakespeare, the deceptive protagonist technique he penned in Richard III to amazing success was made perfect later in his career when he created Iago. A fantastic plot device to create some bloody great plays!

The Attestation of a Life Worth Lived: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” as a Bildungsroman

By Emily D. Irvine: 3-18-12

This is the term paper I wrote for a Comparative Literature class. The class analyzed the “bildungsroman,” which translates to “the novel of development.” We were asked to analyze as work of literature, film, or television as a bildungsroman and I choose “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” If you haven’t seen the film, this paper makes no sense whatsoever. Maybe it makes no sense even if you have seen it, what do I know? Anyway, I spent many late nights writing it and I am actually quite happy with it. I got an A- in the course and it was the hardest class of my college career to date (knock on wood) so I must have done something right!

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The process of aging and the prospect of death have been the subjects of perpetual unsettlement among mankind, resulting in a tremendous fascination with the manipulation of time. In David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the upturning of the aging process does not illustrate a charming alternate reality, but one of complication, completely depriving an individual of the most meaningful episodes of development. Though the most constant of life’s quandaries is fundamentally altered, Benjamin’s story is still one of human development, moving from birth to death with special attention to middle age, the point in life, no matter its sequence or direction, where an individual must reflect on where they have been and where they are going, cherishing his or her thus-far achievements or mourning their loss. The experiences that result from Benjamin’s aging process are driven heavily by appearance, with the age Benjamin’s outward appearance suggests acting as  the driving influence in how he is treated and perceived by others. His life is one of complication and reflection, a theoretical exploration of the trials and blessings of aging. In the simplest of terms, Benjamin’s story is that of the development of a social outcast, the attempts and ultimate inability of an individual to reconcile their differences to belong with those who can be called “normal.”

In defining the bildungsroman, Susan L. Coacalis describes the need for a hero who “finds himself in conscious opposition to existing forms of society or to his particular social class and who therefore embarks on a mission to ameliorate the situation after a period of passive exposure to the world.” Benjamin’s story deals little with class struggles on a surface level, but more so with individuals’ dissatisfaction by circumstances of choice and chance. Benjamin’s lack of contentment is a result of his existence in a micro-society to which he does not intellectually belong, spending his childhood in a retirement home, surrounded by death and decay while children play in the streets below, unencumbered by arthritis and cataracts. Benjamin later leaves home to see the world, his “passive exposure,” finding meaning in his encounters with others rather than within himself.

David Fincher opens Benjamin’s story with a frame tale, a sequence involving a blind New Orleans clock maker given the name Mr. Gateux, who builds a clock that runs backwards with the solemn symbology of resurrecting the sons lost in the Great War through the reversal of time. J.M. Tyree calls The Curious Case of Benjamin Button a national epic, “unfolding against the sweeping backdrop of America’s involvement in two world wars… tragedies rather than triumphs, reasons to mourn not to celebrate.” This melancholy introduction accentuates the not so idyllic circumstances of the soon to be introduced protagonist’s life. Fincher’s audience is not prepared for a light fantasy, but a drama of poignant reflection treating the passage of time as an unalterable constant. The reversal of the fundamental principals of aging cannot reverse time, rather deprive the individual of life’s most important and cherished milestones. Tyree’s analysis of Gateux’s clock is that it is entirely fantasy, even within the fantasy of the story, stating, “this crazy clock, like all projects concerned with recapturing lost time, can’t work. When separated lovers Benjamin and Daisy are reunited, time remains time and all too quickly slips away.”

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The reality of aging in reverse requires childhood to be sacrificed in favor of enjoying youthful and vibrant senior years, a trade off shown to be an extreme emotional hardship. Benjamin’s youth is spent as a captive in his own body, the experiences of normal childhood a physical impossibility. Benjamin’s solemn, yet curious glances out the window at other children illustrate his desire to be unbridled and to join in the uninhibited play of his peers (Audio). The proverbial wasting of youth on the young does not apply to this story, which portrays a tragically disabled childhood and empty, unfulfilled “golden years.” At an age when most people reflect on missed opportunities, things not seen and roads not traveled, Benjamin is riding a motorcycle across India. But for all of the romanticism, all the appeal associated with spending the twilight of one’s life in the unstoppable body of a teenager, Benjamin spends this episode of life writing postcards to the daughter he couldn’t raise, culminating in the  plaintive declaration: “I wish I could have told you not to chase some boy. I wish I could have held you when you had a broken heart. I wish I could have been your father. Nothing I ever did can replace that” (Curious). This is  nearly the last we hear from Benjamin’s diary until the film’s final narration, accentuating the importance this film places on parenthood as an essential part of development. To move physical youth from adolescence to waning adulthood is to sacrifice the experience of raising children, a moment a sequentially developing individual can relive though a healthily vicarious relationship with the next generation.

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Raised among the elderly and infirm, Benjamin skips any developmental stage that allows him to live like life has no end, his childhood spent assuming each day is his last. Upon finding the infant Benjamin on her doorstep and being told by a doctor that the child is “on his way to the grave,” Queenie calls Benjamin a miracle, “just not the kind of miracle one hopes to see” (Curious). When Benjamin exceeds expectation and reaches childhood, he is still extremely aware of the prospect of mortality, asking Queenie when he is going to die and being told, “Just be thankful for what you’re given, hear? You already here longer than you supposed to” (Curious). This philosophy, which should ring true to all souls in every stage of life, carries Benjamin throughout his early life with a kind of paradoxical, melancholy optimism. His personality is not gregarious, but subdued and reflective. David Fincher describes Benjamin as a “wallflower,” a protagonist who does not drive action as much as he allows the action to surround him, relishing all experiences like they could be his last. He is indiscriminate, though not reckless, impulsive, but not impetuous. When asked to join a tugboat crew, he says, “I’ll go,” and when asked to go to war, he goes. When asked to be part of an affair, he agrees. These are decisions not so terribly different from those of a teenager experiencing a linear development, but Benjamin’s physical age and understanding of mortality cause him to gain from them a perspective uncharacteristic of a youth, expediting his intellectual maturation. He will greatly surpass Daisy in maturity by their twenties, prolonging their eventual reunion.

A Bildungsroman is brimming with donor figures, characters whose influence, be it for good or for ill, is essential in  shaping the protagonist’s adolescence. Benjamin’s most influential donor figures are Captain Mike and Elizabeth Abbot, two relationships that teach him valuable lessons about life and aging. Captain Mike is Benjamin’s gateway to the world beyond New Orleans, the catalyst that will begin his “passive exposure to the world,” as stated by Cocalis. Captain Mike, the artist at heart, advises Benjamin to, “never let anyone tell you what to do. You have to do what you’re meant to do. And I am a goddamn artist!” (Curious). Needless to say, Captain Mike is not an artist, he’s a tugboat captain, a fact that Benjamin confusedly voices. Captain Mike chooses to define himself as an artist, all the while living a life that allows him to do whatever he damn well pleases, most notable in his definition of Sunday, as meaning, “I was very drunk last night” (Curious). But as he is dying, Captain Mike teaches Benjamin to accept the lot given by life, not dwell on wrongs and missed opportunities: “You can be as mad as a mad dog at the way things went. You can swear, curse the Fates. But when it comes to the end, you have to let go” (Curious).

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Benjamin’s affair with Elizabeth Abbot introduces him to the concept of regret, specifically the regret that accompanies middle age. Like everyone else, Elizabeth interacts with Benjamin as if he is the age appears, the same age as her. She at least subliminally soaks in Benjamin’s intellectual youth, remarking, “You make me feel younger. I wish I was. I would undo all my mistakes. Such as waste. You never get it back. Wasted time” (Curious). This statement of regret, spoken to the object of an extramarital affair, reveals a soul burdened by what it perceives to be poor choices. What Benjamin learns is that just because he ages in reverse does not mean he has time to waste. He too will experience regrets, the feelings of missed opportunities that accompany the waning years of life.  Benjamin recalls Elizabeth’s wisdom of time wasted when he chooses to miss an opportunity to become romantically and sexually involved with Daisy, realizing “our lives are defined by opportunities. Even the ones we miss.”

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Benjamin’s love life is as complicated as it is tragic, his early romanic episodes wrought with confusion and his deep connection with Daisy ultimately destroyed by time. As a child, Benjamin’s fascination with Daisy is one of immediate infatuation, one could even argue immediate love. His appearance, that of a men well in his eighties, puts him at extreme odds with expectations on appropriate behavior. When Daisy’s grandmother discovers Benjamin under the sheets with her granddaughter, she unleashes an understandable furry on Benjamin, adding to an already uncomfortable scene laced with undertones of pedophilia solely on the grounds of appearance. Benjamin turns to Queenie for comfort, tear stricken by his inability to understand what he has done wrong. Appearance cannot change the fact that he is a child, but appearance fundamentally alters the perceptions of others, turning the most innocent of sheet forts into something obscene, denying Benjamin the right to the innocence of childhood.

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This experience does nothing to change Benjamin’s love for Daisy, but forever changes how he approaches it. He leaves Daisy and New Orleans behind, not reopening the possibility for romance until appearance deems it fitting. Daisy makes an attempt to engage Benjamin in a sexual encounter when both return to Queenie’s home in their twenties. He refuses for unstated reasons, as his unspoken love for her is well established. Daisy’s phrase of choice in this sequence is, “I’m old enough,” asserting her opinion that she has reached her final maturation into womanhood and her promiscuous decisions are warranted and appropriate. Perceived age again becomes essential, with Daisy’s false perception of her age and maturity counteractively accentuating her puerility. It could be argued that Benjamin’s caution stems from his childhood encounter with Daisy’s grandmother, the accusations of inappropriate behavior continuing to inhibit his ability to act on his desires. Neither Benjamin nor Daisy are virgins at this point in the film, Benjamin having visited a brothel and had an affair with Elizabeth Abbot, while Daisy speaks of being pursued by lesbian dancers while describing sex as being an essential part of building trust among her dancing group. Daisy asks Benjamin if it bothers him that other people want to have sex with her, to which he securely replies, “you’re a desirable woman.” Benjamin’s refusal to admit to wanting to have sex with Daisy seems to be a question of her immaturity and his appearance. Though he has de-aged considerably since their last meeting, he is still far older, and mentally, Daisy is uninhibited, lost in her clouded perception of her enduring youth and vitality, the prospect of aging as far as it could possibly be in the mind of any vibrant twenty-something. Daisy’s normal development, that of an individual with a youth unclouded by the prospect of waning beauty and eventual death, clashes with Benjamin’s development of uncertain termination, the life that was supposed to end when it began but continues to progress toward and uncertain end. They cannot fall in love yet, at least not actively, not until each reach the middle, the only age they will share together, and for Benjamin and Daisy, the age with the greatest, yet shortest happiness.

In “The Lost Brother, the Twin: Women Novelists and the Male-Female Double Bildungsroman,” Charlotte Goodman describes works that chronicle the lives of a male and female protagonist as following a strict pattern of shared childhood, separation in adolescence, and reunion in adulthood. Benjamin and Daisy follow this pattern, unable to converge until middle-age, where they meet in the middle, both broken by harsh experiences. Daisy’s traumatic leg injury and Benjamin’s involvement in the second world war drive each of them back home, back to the comfort and protection of the familiar. Here they meet, finally have sex, and reembark together, into the “honeymoon sequence” as described by Fincher. This sequence is plagued by a melancholy score, a symbol of the harsh reality that “nothing lasts, and what a shame that is” (Curious). Both are faced with the realization that growing old together is an impossibility. Their romance is confined to a few fleeting years, a second separation inevitable.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

When Daisy announces she is pregnant, an all but unbearable wave of melancholy overtakes Benjamin’s story. Daisy faces the situation with an optimism only an expectant mother can have, naively believing that the situation is possible to reconcile. Fincher places great importance on the loss of fatherhood and accentuates the drama by having the film’s narration pulled from the pages of Benjamin’s diary in the hands of his daughter. Just after Caroline’s first birthday, Benjamin leaves, right in front of Daisy, who’s eyes reveal a feeling of betrayal and abandonment. It is in this moment that Benjamin’s life reaches its climax, transitioning from a puzzling, theoretical quandary to emotionally tragic. The prospects of fatherhood and love slip away from Benjamin forever. Cocalis asserts that the ending of a Bildungsroman should be ambiguous, able to “resolve the loose threads of the plot without recourse to a finite happy or tragic ending.” The last words of Benjamin’s diary, addressed to the daughter he left behind, are as poignant as they are ambiguous, leaving the audience uncertain of the meaning Benjamin managed to find in the remainder of his life, but never the less confirming that the lessons he learned from Captain Mike and Elizabeth Abbot never left him, and his love for Daisy and Caroline never waned with the waxing of his age:

“It’s never too late, or in my case too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. And if you find that you’re not, I hope you find the strength to start again” (Curious).

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the story of one man’s development from birth to death and the people who shape his life. Benjamin’s story teaches us the importance of cherishing the best and the worst parts of development, and to look at all of life’s stages as essential for appreciating the milestones they accompany. Benjamin’s story is both tragic and uplifting, recanting one man’s ability to somehow find peace when forced to abandon what he loved most. Benjamin’s life, like everyone’s life, is one shaped and guided by the contributions of others, and one still governed by the consistency of time. Fincher’s film ends with the clock, the hands of time on Gateux’s creation continuing to tick through Katrina’s flood. Time will always chase us all, no matter which direction we travel. A full life, a life worth living, is one that uses the time allotted to enrich the lives of others, learning as much as teaching, forgiving the unforgivable, letting go and loving long. Benjamin dies without a grudge, meeting his end as he began, “alone, and with nothing,” nothing but a lifetime of experiences, the attestation of a life worth lived.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Works Cited

“Audio Commentary with Director David Fincher” (supplementary material on DVD release of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). DVD. Paramount Home Video, 2008.

Cocalis, Susan L. “The Transformation of ‘Bildung’ From an Image to an Ideal.” Montashefte. 70.4 (1978): 399-414. Print.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Brad Pitt, and Cate Blanchett. Paramount, 2008. Film.

Goodman, Charlotte. “The Lost Brother, the Twin: Women Novelists and the Male-Female Double Bildungsroman.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 17.1 (1983): 28-43. Print.

Tyree, J.M. “Against the Clock: Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Film Quarterly. 62.4 (2009): 34-37. Print.

Why I Hate Twilight: Subversive Sexism in Stephanie Meyer’s Vampire Saga

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For the past several years, I have watched the infamous Twilight Saga overtake the pop culture scene faster than a sparkling vampire can leap through the forests of Forks. Until recently, I stood by the sidelines and raised my eyebrows at throngs of soccer moms displaying an unsettling level of attraction to an under-age, disturbingly toned teen-wolf, and completely lost my sense of tragedy at the conclusion of the film installment of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I thumbed through the first volume of Meyer’s self proclaimed “saga” to make sure I was not missing anything life changing, and having found myself bored, left my drug store volume in a donation bin. It was not until recently that my fiance and I decided perhaps we should rent the available Twilight films in the hopes of having a good laugh at their expense, having already come to the conclusion that the series as a whole is ridiculous. To our dismay, the day was met with few laughs and instead a disturbed silence. What I previously viewed as a series that was stupid but harmless was finally revealed to me as much, much more than a poorly written young adult fantasy. Twilight is a misogynistic mess, a regressive abomination that proudly upholds the premises of “innatism,” the belief that women are innately inferior to men and require a male presence to be fulfilled. It upholds the most negative of “traditional values,” its portrayal of teen sexuality and marriage a convoluted mess.

Stephanie Meyer has claimed that her series is pro-woman and pro-feminism because it revolves entirely around Bella’s choice. After all, is not the focus of feminism a woman’s right to choose her own future and make her own decisions? Sounds right, but in reality, the main goal of the feminist movement is gender equality, beginning with empowering women to not define themselves though men. A feminist sees herself as an individual who forges her identity through her own power and self awareness. A man becomes her companion, a partner with whom she can thrive as equals, not a “spiritual guide” to become her authority, and especially not her source of identity. This is the reason fewer and fewer women are taking their husband’s name upon their marriage, or at the very least opting to hyphenate their name or go by “Ms.,” signifying that her marriage has not absorbed her identity. Meyer is correct in that by allowing Bella the power of choice she is penning a progressive character by archaic standards of the Victorian Era (an era with morals and customs she seems to naively esteem most highly.) But Bella is not given the choice between Edward and herself. She is only portrayed as struggling to choose between Male 1 and Male 2. She has a choice to make, yes, but that choice is not about becoming a stronger, more confident women. Bella is allowed to choose which “dangerous” man she would prefer to have control her.

And the element of danger is essential to Bella. When Edward unceremoniously dumps her at the onset of New Moon, Bella falls into a deep depression spent staring through a rain soaked window for months on end, followed by an obsessive need for male attention. She leaps on the back of a strange man’s motorcycle, despite the bizarre, fantasy urges of an un- present Edward telling her not to do something stupid. Can it be argued that Bella liberates herself and takes control of her own desires when she ignores Edward’s commands and makes her own choice? No, for the simple reason that once again, Bell’s choice is between men. Bella never has the choice or the opportunity to choose independence. When not physically or emotionally attached to a “dangerous” male, she is beside herself with longing and repressed sexual urges. We do not know Bella because she doesn’t know herself.

After unrealistically escaping her motorcycle escapade without being raped, Bella channels her newfound love of adrenaline by seeking to repair a pair of rusty dirt bikes. Great, she has found a personal project to help her get over Edward. Except Bella never lifts a finger to build her dream bikes. Of course not. She finds a man to do it for her, a younger man, someone who can help alleviate her premature sense of aging based on her past relationship with an eternally seventeen, undead, bloodsucking beast. Jacob is sixteen, two years her junior and therefore she can supposedly add “illegal” to his appealing qualities. The love triangle is established, with Bella now caught between two men, given a “choice,” as Meyer sees it, but a choice to attach herself to a male no matter what it takes.

New Moon contains what I see to be the single most disturbing message in the entire series. After the first of Jacob’s numerous shirtless scenes, during which his transformation into a werewolf is revealed, he takes Bella to visit his “pack,” where Bella meets Emily, the girlfriend of Sam, the “pack leader.” Bella is warned not to stare at Emily because it makes Sam angry. Emily’s face is badly scarred with deep scratches, an old injury later revealed to be inflicted by Sam. Jacob reveals this information while emotionally explaining to Bella that he cannot possibly date her because he has the potential to lose his temper and unleash the wolf within, just like Sam did, and cause Bella the same injury, perhaps worse. This is juxtaposed with Edward’s anguish about losing control and draining the blood from Bella’s body, as well as the apparent roughness of Vampire sex revealed in Breaking Dawn, with Edward causing bruising on Bella’s body after the first night of their honeymoon. He is very upset about it though, therefore it is apparently ok. This shocking symbology carefully laced into the framework of these novels suggests that men are just naturally violent beings, but if they physically hurt you and are genuinely sorry about it, then there is no harm done. Sam felt terrible about mauling Emily, so terrible that anyone acknowledging the aftermath upsets him greatly, and Edward is so upset about the massive bruises he inflicts on Bella after their night of passion that he refuses to touch her again. This appalling rationalization upholds male violence as something that can just happen, no matter how hard he tries not to, and a “good” man will feel very sorry if he just happens to lose control, and a “good” woman will be eager and ready to forgive him. Any woman who has ever endured domestic abuse would not hesitate to call this logic abhorrently insulting, and I fear for any girl who reads this literary dribble only to have these subliminal message of female inferiority slipped into their impressionable psyches.

But Meyer has affirmed that the main message of The Twilight Saga is upholding abstinence before marriage as a right and moral choice. I have no problem with this belief as a perfectly acceptable option for many couples, as it is my personal belief that every aspect of sexuality from “when” to “how” to “whom” is only the business of individuals and their sexual partners. Meyer has done no wrong in writing a story that presents abstinence as its focal point. Where her message goes awry is in her choice of using century old morals as the source of this choice. Bella is more than willing to have sex with Edward before their wedding night. This does not make Bella wrong, rather Edward’s refusal simply makes the choice wrong for this particular couple because they are in disagreement over the most intimate aspect of their relationship. Edward tells Bella that he is uncomfortable with a sexual relationship with her because he is from a different era, one where he would have asked her father’s permission to “court” her before they ever entered a relationship, and where there would be no thought of sex until the wedding night. The problem is, vampire or not, Edward is in the twenty-first century and rather than Bella leading him to the standards of equality in her era, Edward is dragging her down to the standards of his. Edward’s centennial age would put his “era” in a time when women were not allowed to vote or hold property, when they did not hold jobs with any regularity, and when a woman was the property of her father before her marriage and the property of her husband after it. It is fine to prize pre-marital abstinence, but in reverently attaching it to a pre-suffrage society, Meyer forces Bella to revert to a role of submission, rather than proudly making a choice about her sex life that has no reason to come with extra archaic baggage. An abstinent woman can still be a liberated one. Bella marries at eighteen, a (thankfully) uncommon practice in modern America, but a common one when women were not afforded the luxury of an individual life and identity. Bella has done absolutely nothing with her life, and her sexual repression has led her to hold experiencing sex as the most important thing left to achieve in her mortal state before fully converting to Edward’s immortal one. Anyone can try to argue that Bella’s agreement to join the vampiric ranks is as act of selfless love for Edward on her part, that she will willingly live her immortal life in anguish with her “vegetarian” vampire family. But in reality, Bella’s transformation is the relinquishment of her identity to assume the identity of her husband. But Bella never had much of an identity to begin with, having always attached her sense of self worth to a male presence. So by the time she says her wedding vows and has abusive sex, leading to a symbolically convoluted pregnancy and “life saving” transformation, I find myself caring less and less.

As Twilight continues to lead scores of young women by the hand to search desperately for a man to “complete” them, I am saddened by the cultural regression it promotes, seeking to undo the progress made and the reform longed for by events such as Seneca Falls, the Suffragettes, and the White Ribbon Campaign. To define womanhood under the umbrella of manhood is to spit in the face of the men and women who have worked for centuries to undo the Biblical, Freudian, and Darwinian standards of what it is to be female. Stephanie Meyer may have set out to write a teen romance and nothing more, but what she created is a subversive cultural commentary born out of the beliefs and morals that were woven into her from her childhood, a belief that women are only as strong as the man they cling to, and that men exist to channel their masculine force into protecting us, but at the risk of occasionally channeling it towards us in fits of passion that they are just unable to control. I mean no disrespect to Ms. Meyer or her religion, for she is free to believe what she wishes and she is free to publish those subliminal messages however she likes. What worries me is the level of acceptance and lack of questioning, and the effect such a message has on the minds of readers, especially impressionable teen girls in the most difficult period of life to find acceptance and self awareness. We are all partakers of culture, and we must all view the media that surrounds us with a critical and analytical eye. Everything we are passively or actively exposed to affects how we perceive the world and how it perceives us. As a woman, I didn’t believe in the messages Twilight promotes long before it ever existed, and I will continue to live my life rejecting the archaic notion that a woman can only find her worth through her man, even if she is given the luxury to choose him.

Dare We Aspire: An analysis of “The Lamb” and “The Tyger” by William Blake

This is a non-research based paper written for my Age of Romanticism Class. The prompt was “analyze how two poems by William Blake present two contrary states of the human soul.” I choose to do an unconventional reading of a VERY conventional pairing.

The Romantic Era of English literature spans the period of time between the French Revolution to the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria (which obviously heralds the arrival of the Victorian Era.) The best known Romantics are probably William Blake, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, and Jane Austen. Austen was born an era too early, as it is the Victorian Era that gave rise to female novelists, all of whom were inspired by the work of Austen. The Romantic Era is known for poetry that uses natural elements as the subject, a direct response to the unnatural world London had become: This was the dawning of the Industrial Revolution.

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When reading Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience by William Blake, the question that arises is not so much which contrary states of the human soul are presented, but how they are manifested. The poems in Innocence and Experience all present a state of being linked with the title of their respective collection, and “The Lamb” and “The Tyger” represent an innocent and an experienced view of creation and existence. When paired together, these poems illustrate the evolution of perspective in regards to the origin of all things where the individual must first ponder their own origin before they can reflect on the origins of things beyond themselves. This contemplation of external forces, a search for answers to unanswerable questions is innate, a characteristic of the human soul present from the earliest stages of development that is honed, but never mastered throughout the course of life. The human mind is made to grow indefinitely, never to reach a point of complete understanding, always questioning that which it does not understand.

The majority of the poems in Innocence and Experience present their message under an explicitly religious motif. In choosing a lamb for the subject, Blake immediately establishes this poem of innocence as a religious allegory. Spoken by a child, “The Lamb” begins with a simple question, “Little Lamb who made thee/ Dost thou know who made thee?” (1-2) and ends with the answer that God made thee, for “he is called by thy name, / For he calls himself a Lamb” (13-14). The simplicity of the structure highlights the innocence of the subject being addressed as well as the innocence of the speaker, and presents an uplifting message of a divine creator who is also a protector, one the speaker of the poem can call on to bless the helpless lamb.

Blake establishes ‘The Lamb” as an incontrovertible work of religious meaning in choosing the most common of Christ allegories for his subject. Why then does he not entitle the poem in Songs of Experience “The Lion” rather than “The Tiger?” It would appear that “The Tyger” aims to purposefully separate itself from the strictly Christian interpretation of “The Lamb” by using a subject unaligned with any established allegory. By making this bold choice, Blake makes “The Tyger” a poem strictly about the contemplation of a creator, not the creator. The “immortal eye” capable of framing a fearful symmetry becomes unnamed and unknown, the poem an agnostic musing by a speaker as versed in Greek mythology as he is in weapons forging. These are the words of one who has seen much in order to conclude that he knows little. “The Tyger” has no answers for its many questions, reflecting the paradox that the more one learns, the less they seem to know.

Fire becomes the most prevalent image in describing the tiger, which is “burning bright / in the forests of the night” (1-2) and also asked, “In what distant deeps or skies, / Burt the fire of thine eyes?” (5-6). The tiger is described as machine or weapon-like, not created from dust but forged by flame:

What the hammer? what the chain,

In what furnace was they brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp,

Dare its deadly terrors clasp! (13-16)

Where “The Lamb” presents calm images of the young and fragile and the meekness of early life, the hellish imagery of “The Tyger” observes a power far greater than that of speaker, a creature of the night that cannot be controlled by mortal forces and could only be conceived by an “immortal eye.”

The simplistic structure and peaceful message of “The Lamb” is, in “The Tyger,” juxtaposed against images of a fearsome creature whose existence baffles the speaker. Where “The Lamb” soothes the reader with images of delightfully soft wool, tender voices, meek and mildness, rejoicing, and blessings, “The Tyger” chooses twisting sinews, fiery furnaces forging hammers and anvils, and the disastrous exploits of prominent figures in Greek mythology to form the tapestry of its narrative. The use of this contrasting imagery represents the contrasting points of view of the states of being Blake is describing. An innocent mind, one in the earliest inceptions of development, focuses its cerebral musing on subjects of menial intellect to the experienced. The speaker of this poem appears to have just been taught the message of the Lamb of God, the allegorical aspects of the story of Christ. But allegory is a hazy concept to a child, so the speaker of the poem addresses and examines the qualities of a literal lamb and applies them to Christ, the irony being that in doing so, the figurative message becomes clear to his or her developing intellect. In realizing, “I a child  & thou a lamb, / We are called by his name” (13-14), the speaker has made a very simple connection between words and concepts, but one of immense importance to his own self-awareness.

The speaker in “The Tyger” makes no reference to his or her self and draws absolutely no conclusive observations. How the speaker views the tiger is entirely open to interpretation. Is it observed with awe and reverence, or fear and loathing? As a work of remarkable beauty, or a horrendous violation against nature? The reader is unsure, and so, perhaps, is the speaker. This imbroglio of emotion surrounding the subject of the poem reflects the views of many an experiences wanderer of the world, a mixture of compassion and cynicism, artist and realist, someone desperate to see hope behind horror and peace behind war. The tiger is simply an object impossible to define, a metaphor for all in the world that is controversial, all that is baffling to the most advanced of minds and all things defined by the point of view awarded by specific experiences. The poem’s denouement essentially concludes that there is no level of worldly experience that can answer the burning questions surrounding the existence of all that is beautiful and powerful. The responsibility lies with the creator, and if that creator be the same creator of the Lamb, then the speaker of “The Tyger” either respects of abhors his daring. The reader is unsure, and so, perhaps is the speaker:

When the stars threw down their spears

And water’d heaven with their tears:

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee? (17-20)

The human soul’s ability to ask unanswerable questions is perhaps its greatest source of torment. In “The Lamb,” William Blake shows us that we emerge into this world prepared to analyze literal and symbolic connections in the world around us, and to ask unanswerable questions, fully equipped to find allegorical meaning in the existence of all things. But though “The Tyger,” he shows us that this fundamental aspect of our nature, a quality that sets us apart from the very creatures these speakers analyze, will eventually lead us to a state of perpetual uncertainty about the world around us. But this is not a negative aspect of ourselves, as a truly open and experienced mind is able to evolve to a point of surrender, the ability to accept and appreciate the questions that perpetually elude an answer. “The Tyger” seems to suggest that this surrender is possible only if the soul entertains the possibility of a mysterious force beyond themselves that forges the flames of creation, that which cannot be explained being the work of an artist of equal mystery. As learned from the woeful tale of Icarus, striving for answers beyond our grasp ends in disaster. A fulfilled soul, and an experienced soul,  is one that asks questions without the need answers, knowing that analytical reasoning and thoughtful contemplation are of far greater lasting value than conclusive knowledge, for when one has nothing left to learn, one has nothing left to live for.