12 October 2007

English Class Assignment

Filed under: Christianity, Fiction — ktismatics @ 1:29 pm

Compare and contrast James’s The Golden Bowl with McEwan’s Atonement in light of the following quote:

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them; While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain: In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened, And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low; Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets: Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8)



  1. There is quite a bit of the imagery here that I have wondered as to the meaning of: “and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden…the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern”. Would one of you learned ones please tell me what this is supposed to be about?


    Comment by samlcarr — 13 October 2007 @ 1:19 pm

  2. The imagery strikes me as an extended allusion to old age. Here’s what I sent to Peter about its relevance to McEwan’s book: The writer of Ecclesiastes encourages the reader to seek God while you’re still young, before desire is replaced by fear, energy by lethargy, life by death. Still, all is vanity in the end, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going (Eccles. 9:10). Certainly Bryony should have sought to atone for her wrongdoing right away, before the disastrous consequences of her lie unfolded and before her raw guilt became sublimated and tamed in her literature. By the end the reader is plunged into the utter futility and vanity of these lost lives. Peter didn’t respond.

    I’ve seen some attempts to make each image a metaphor for the failing human body: grinders = teeth, windows = eyes, etc. The almond tree blossoming I’m not so sure about. Apparently it blooms very early in the season, which makes it a harbinger of spring, so I suppose also it’s a sign that winter is just about over. Ecclesiastes is Erdman’s book, so maybe he’ll have something to say about it.


    Comment by ktismatics — 13 October 2007 @ 5:25 pm

  3. Here’s my further observations to Peter on this subject:

    In the James book the golden bowl is emblematic of guilty complicity, as well as of fatal flaws beneath a seemingly flawless veneer. Through a series of seemingly unrelated events the bowl provides evidence of a longstanding affair between Maggie’s husband and her father Adam’s second wife, an affair that preceded these two marriages and that was subsequently rekindled. The bowl is broken: does Maggie ignore the affair, as if the bowl had never existed? Does she allow everything to fall apart? Or beneath the broken veneer is there some deeper integrity to draw upon?

    Maggie comes to realize that she’s not entirely innocent. In her good-faith efforts to provide happiness for her father Adam (ironically, the closest to a true innocent in the whole story), she has not been able to follow through on her own desire. She decides that her atonement must be dedicated to reclaiming her own marriage, to fight for her love for this flawed man. She acts not as passive victim of destruction but as an agent with desire and purpose and will. It’s not too late to seek atonement for her own complicity, and she does it in a very direct way: not by confession and penance but by changing her own motives. Innocence was always a thin veneer; the question is how to live truly in a fallen world.

    I think in Bryony’s case there is corruption both on surface and in depth: the pitcher is already broken before the events begin. She makes up a story that sacrifices Robbie, presumably to protect her sister’s remaining innocence. But you get the sense that Bryony would like to take her sister’s place, or that of the raped girl, as recipient of Robbie’s desire, and that perhaps for Bryony even Robbie is only a stand-in for her own brother, whose attention she craves most of all. But Bryony cannot acknowledge her guilt, in part because in doing so she would have to acknowledge her own forbidden desires to herself. In The Golden Bowl Maggie’s desires are both “wholesome” and legally supported by her own marriage. Bryony’s desire is more deeply flawed, illicit, forbidden. There were no acceptable channels for her desire to flow, nothing else to motivate the atonement she needed to make, no happy ending for herself.

    To which Peter replies:

    Is it possible to know what is going on in Briony’s mind when she lies about Robbie? Isn’t it also possible that she doesn’t know the difference between fiction and reality – and is totally confused about adult emotions and behaviour? I haven’t got that far in the book yet, so can’t make any more informed comment.

    Taking the pitcher metaphor though, I’m not sure it works quite as well as James’s use of – for instance, the cracked teacup in Portrait of a Lady – of which maybe the golden bowl is an echo? In ‘Portrait’, the image is of evil and menace lurking behind even the apparently most innocent of social niceties. Even in ‘the garden’, the serpent lurks – with the conflict of naivety (new world) facing evil experience (old world – Europe).

    In Atonement, the pitcher is presumably some kind of metaphor for an ideal relationship which is ‘broken’, not just through Briony’s lie, but through a wider world of stifling social codes and suppressed emotions. Briony was old enough to have been able to understand adult emotions and behaviour (if anyone had explained it to her), but too young to have had the maturity to understand it personally. It’s also a pitcher brought back from one scene of conflict (WW1), and an ominous portent of the effects of another (WW2) – not just in general, but on the lives of the individuals concerned.

    But does it work in quite the intense, focused way of a Henry James symbol? I’m not sure it does; it’s too unfocused a meraphor (for all its associations); McEwan is for me too artful a writer – there’s something too ‘knowing’, and overwritten about his style generally – at least, that’s what I’m finding. Though I’m enjoying the book.

    Then my response:

    Briony doesn’t see exactly what happened, so her imagination fills in the gaps. I think she has a jumble of motivations roiling around in her unconscious, which she may never come to understand fully — nor do we as readers. McEwan’s The Cement Garden is populated by children who act in very disturbed ways without full conscious awareness of their motivations. But I’m not sure the motivations in T he Golden Bowl are clear either.

    The imagery isn’t a perfect fit between James, McEwan and Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes the golden bowl broken refers to old age — perhaps it represents the skull and loss of memory. Certainly that’s what’s suggested to Maggie when she finds out about her husband’s affair with her father’s wife — forget about it. She doesn’t. If the bowl is the head, then the pitcher by the cistern could represent the pelvis and the waning of sexuality. In Atonement it could certainly be an image for loss of virginity — the pitcher breaks, Cecilia takes off her clothes, they have a tryst in the house. But then through the lie the sexual relation is broken as Robbie is sent off to war. I had forgotten that the pitcher was a WWI object — that’s good.

    The New/Old world contrast is there in The Golden Bowl, with Amerigo the effete Italian nobleman and the beautiful American expatriate compromising rich old American Adam and his daughter. In Atonement the rapist is the American entrepreneur who gets rich as a war profiteer — the source of corruption has shifted dramatically. The main sacrificial victim is Robbie the working-class kid, sent to his doom by the unstated complicity of American opportunism and English aristocracy.


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 October 2007 @ 11:16 am

  4. […] all the details here […]


    Pingback by expressqz » English Class Assignment — 22 October 2007 @ 4:34 am

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