classic

Prohibition, Society, and Self-fulfilling Prophecies

This is my review of Appointment in Samarra, by John O’Hara.

The title of the book comes from an old story, retold by W Somerset Maugham.

“There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me.  She looked at me and made a threatening gesture,  now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate.  I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.  The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.  Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?  That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise.  I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

Julian English is a fairly successful, popular thirty year old living in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. He’s an executive in the automobile industry, is happily married, and has a lively circle of friends. His only vice is drinking- during the Prohibition!- but nobody’s perfect. Despite the ominous beginning, at first the book is a light hearted mockery of American suburban society, with its superficial parties and clubs. Then one day in a fit of drunken annoyance, Julian throws his drink in the face of a business associate. The party is ruined, and so is Julian’s social life. Or is it?

Over the next couple of days Julian, fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol, ‘ruins’ his marriage, reputation, and livelihood. And, as promised by the title, it ends in tragedy. I liked this book because it reminded me that so many things in life- misfortune, friendship, social status- are just a matter of perspective. One can never tell for sure whether a decision is right or wrong, or even if there is a right or wrong. Julian’s happiness was stifling and boring, but the alternative was worse. Whether or not it was a self fulfilling prophecy is up to the reader to decide. The narration is fast paced and descriptive, and he plot is well planned.

Read it, if you didn’t like The Great Gatsby. Read it, if you want a book on a serious topic that isn’t pretentious and dull. 4/5.

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Pretentious Literary Review

Anyone who has studied a second or third language in school is likely to be familiar with amateur literary reviews. The literature section of the syllabus usually consisted of short stories in a variety of different settings. Watered down stories about child marriage in South India, unemployment in the USA during the Great Depression and Norse mythology provided nuggets of insight into different cultures. Also, the stories invariably had hidden, ‘inner’ meanings that were beyond my limited imagination. And linguistic skills, probably.

After years of writing half-hearted analyses of how lamp light is a metaphor for wisdom and how the cutting of one’s hair symbolizes an escape from social norms (or a loss of social status, depending on the context- why can’t these things be consistent?!), I was glad to embrace a career in engineering. Unambiguity is essential in computer languages, a fact that provides me with much reassurance. I remain firmly convinced that all literary devices- similes, metaphors, personification and whatnot- are concepts cooked up by language teachers to harass gullible students. Don’t try to convince me otherwise.

But once in a while, one comes across a piece of work that works clearly and flawlessly on multiple levels.

The other day I came across The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman on someone’s to-read list, tagged as a literary classic. A Google search told me it was a psychological thriller in 6000 words, so I abandoned my buggy code for a while and read it then and there.

On the surface it is a commonplace story of a young mother’s descent into madness during a ‘rest cure’ for what is diagnosed as nerves- post partum depression, maybe. Her description of the unpleasant yellow wall paper in her bedroom serves as an indicator of her weakening grip on reality. It begins with a mild irritation with the vivid colour, and ends with hallucinations of a woman trapped behind the garish patterns on the wall.

So why is this review accompanied by a rant about literary analysis? This story has a real life context that gives it a whole new dimension. Its author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, suffered from depression for several years. A renowned physician, Dr S Weir Mitchell, prescribed what was then known as a rest cure- an extended period of time without any intellectual or physical stimulation. After a couple of months of this, Gilman felt herself sinking further into mental illness and began to work on her writing once more. She intended this story to be a warning to Dr Mitchell and other patients.

Gilman was of the belief that the concept of the rest cure stemmed from the patriarchal structure of society at the time. Men were unwilling to allow women to do anything that might eventually allow them to carve an identity for themselves, so they were actively discouraged from writing and painting. Portraying women as having delicate nerves or fragile mental health was an indirect way of subjugating them.

Whether you view the story as a feminist work, or a public service announcement, or merely a psychological thriller is up to you. It works well at any level and makes a good short read, despite the obvious datedness of the language and setting. It is available in the public domain (legally, for a change) at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1952. It’s worth a shot. 3.5/5