Secrets by Bernard Maclaverty


dsc_0118 Secrets by Bernard Maclaverty pivots on the theme of the immortality of letters, in both senses of the word. A parallel theme to this is the guilt complex from the formative years.

The story is rather simple and nothing new. A boy looks through some letters which his great aunt, a spinster, keeps as her secret. They are passionate love letters from a soldier who died in action. The boy gets found out and is cursed by the lady. She dies much later of old age and the letters get burned. The boy is remorseful of what he did.

Though the story is told from the third-person point of view, part of it is in an epistolary form which only helps to hide a lot, revealing only what is necessary. For example, though we know who the hapless aunt’s lover was, we actually don’t hear what happened to him. We don’t even get to hear the full content of the letters even though the narrator has read most of them fully. This becomes a metaphor for the mystery we call life.

The boy who represents a younger generation than that of the aunt does not see that he is more privileged when it comes to relationships and intimacy.

“He had just left his girlfriend’s home- they had been studying for ‘A’ levels together”

when he was asked to be present at his great aunt’s death bed. He is not at all happy to be there and tries his best to keep away from the dying person. From his memories of her, we see that she was a simple person outwardly even though from the choice of books he used to read out to him we find that she was a very passionate and strong person since all those stories depict strong women characters. Her most favourite was Pip’s meeting with Miss Havisham in The Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Far from a coincidence, Pip too gets slapped across his cheek by Miss Havisham in that scene.

The boy’s mother tells him after his aunt’s death that she kept to herself. This is absolutely true but intriguing. We are left to imagine whether the man in the photograph was the same man who wrote the letters, or whether both were dead or not. When she goes for a walk, she is very careful about her appearance, a behaviour we are not led to associate with her. All we are told through the letters is that she was passionately in love with a soldier named John. Benignus means an introverted soul, reserved and secretive, who tends to protect himself from a world that can make him feel a little uneasy at times.

Incidentally, the boy’s reading of the last letter is cut short when the lady returns. This might be symbolic of what happened to the man. The boy fails to sort things out just like his aunt who fails to put her own life in order. Her past is all the sweet privacy she has got in life and when boy trespasses into it, she is infuriated as if her only heaven is taken from her. On the other hand, the boy realizes the intensity of his own foul deed and after the aunt’s death cries begging for forgiveness.

The story incites curiosity in the reader too and so we are forced to pardon the boy for his own curiosity. We feel sorry for the lady even though we are not aware of what happened in her life. True to the title, the secretive nature of life is endorsed in this story.

The Fall of the House of Usher

A good work of art will go on intriguing us and will grow as we grow. In fact, a final decyphering of a work of art is impossible both individually and generally. If a work of art is understood forever, then it does not exist as a work of art any more for a particular person or for the world. Even the artist abandons his work unfinished, says De Vinci.
It is in this spirit that we have to approach the novelette The Fall of the House of Usher. The Fall of the House of Usher possesses the quintessential -features of the Gothic tale: a haunted house, dreary landscape, mysterious sickness, and doubled personality. For all its easily identifiable Gothic elements, however, part of the terror of this story is its vagueness. The title itself is intrigung with its double meaning of the word “House” since it can mean a building or a family. Since both the family and the house falls into ruins at the end of the story, both meaning are appropriate.
The possibility of varied reading of the story facilitates the presence of a variety of themes. From a doppleganger effect to incest to twin souls, the story pivots on several themes. The story is about a dilapidated house with fissures and houses usually symbolize the human mind. Madeline and Roderick will die only together in the story suggesting that they have a single soul between them. The building too seems to be a living entity as it too dies with them. The effect of the environment on human mind can also be a theme of the story. The myriads ways in which minds can be twisted is another interesting theme that the story explores.
Very little dialogue is heard in this story and what is heard is more an expression of thoughts that a commentary on actions. To compensate for this absence of voice, a fairly long poem is included and a story is told. The narrator shares all his thoughts with the reader. One of the main characters Madeline does not utter anything at all.
Characterisation is a remarkable aspect of the story. The story is told from the third person point of view and the speaker or the narrator has no access to the thoughts of the two other characters at all and this is highly logical. He can only report what he sees and what he hears. This limited vision of the story proper intensifies the tension and suspense in the story since the reader too is left in the dark as the narrator. The language used by the narrator says a lot about him, his anxieties, fears, apprehensions and nervousness. Everything he witnesses is also looked deep into and analyzed which shows the level of fear he has. His fearful mind reflects on the house and its premises. We have only his word about the state of affairs there. Roderick is depicted as a mental wreck. The narrator suspects substance abuse and sexual abuse when he sees the behaviour of his friend. If Roderick’s relation with his sister has to be put under the scanner, we have more than ample reason to suspect the relationship he has with the narrator. Roderick could be sick, highly tense about the impeding death of his sister, influenced by the gloomy nature of the house he lives in or may be taking some drug which was not uncommon those days. Madeline is more dead than alive all through the story though she is dynamic nonetheless. She passes by the narrator as if he does not exist and then lends herself to be buried alive. She comes back to life after a week to scare the living daylights out of her brother. Around her too there are a lot of clues that pulls the reader to understand her in a good number of ways. She is the perfect symbol of the story itself just as Roderick represents the house and the narrator represents the writer. Roderick and Madeline Usher are the last of their distinguished line. They are, therefore, the “House of Usher,” as is the strange, dark mansion in which they live. The narrator of Poe’s tale is a childhood friend of Roderick’s, summoned to the decaying country pile by a letter pleading for his help. He arrives to find his friend gravely altered, and through his eyes, we see strange and terrible events unfold. The reader is placed in the position of the narrator, and as such we identify strongly throughout with the “madman” watching incredulous as around him reality and fantasy merge to become indistinguishable. The unity of tone and the effortlessly engaging prose are mesmerizing, enveloping both subject matter and reader.
The setting is the most important aspect of the story as it takes the maximum text-space of the story. Instead of standard narrative markers of place and time, Poe uses traditional Gothic elements such as inclement weather and a barren landscape. We are alone with the narrator in this haunted space, and neither we nor the -narrator know why. Although he is Roderick’s most intimate boyhood friend, the narrator apparently does not know much about him—like the basic fact that Roderick has a twin sister. Poe asks us to question the reasons both for Roderick’s decision to contact the narrator in this time of need and the bizarre tenacity of narrator’s response. While Poe provides the recognizable building blocks of the Gothic tale, he contrasts this standard form with a plot that is inexplicable, sudden, and full of unexpected disruptions. The story begins without complete explanation of the narrator’s motives for arriving at the house of Usher, and this ambiguity sets the tone for a plot that continually blurs the real and the fantastic.
Poe creates a sensation of claustrophobia in this story. The narrator is mysteriously trapped by the lure of Roderick’s attraction, and he cannot escape until the house of Usher collapses completely. Characters cannot move and act freely in the house because of its structure, so it assumes a monstrous character of its own—the Gothic mastermind that controls the fate of its inhabitants. From beginning to end we hear a lot about its nooks and corners. It is described more vividly than any of the characters and thus can even be called the protagonist of the story if we consider its immense influence on the characters and their actions. The unnatural interactions between the brother and the sister, the different sickness each of them have and the possibility of something supernatural can be considered as the problem or conflict in the story. In that case, it is the house that eggs them on and finall collapses on them to effect the climax, though a tragic one.
In short, the story is a mirror that reflects the inner life of the reader and gives him exotic experiences which he will never have otherwise. It is a futile task to work towards a conclusive meaning of the story. It is a story to be read repeatedly and slowly, like an imagist poem. This is all the more evident when we compare the language Poe uses here and elsewhere. The sentences are long and goes around in circles giving us more and more abstract as well as concrete images. The narrator gives a running commentary of the action, thereby making us see what we would have missed had we been right there in the scene of action.

The Plot
An unnamed narrator arrives at the House of Usher, a very creepy mansion owned by his boyhood friend Roderick Usher. Roderick has been sick lately, afflicted by a disease of the mind, and wrote to his friend, our narrator, asking for help. The narrator spends some time admiring the awesomely spooky Usher edifice. While doing so, he explains that Roderick and his sister are the last of the Usher bloodline, and that the family is famous for its dedication to the arts (music, painting, literature, etc.). Eventually, the narrator heads inside to see his friend.

Roderick indeed appears to be a sick man. He suffers from an “acuteness of the senses,” or hyper-sensitivity to light, sound, taste, and tactile sensations; he feels that he will die of the fear he feels. He attributes part of his illness to the fact that his sister, Madeline, suffers from catalepsy (a sickness involving seizures) and will soon die, and part of it to the belief that his creepy house is sentient (able to perceive things) and has a great power over him. He hasn’t left the mansion in years. The narrator tries to help him get his mind off all this death and gloom by using the literature, music, and art that Roderick so loves. It doesn’t seem to help.

As Roderick predicted, Madeline soon dies. At least we think so. All we know is that Roderick tells the narrator she’s dead, and that she appears to be dead when he looks at her. Of course, because of her catalepsy, she might just look like she’s dead, post-seizure. At Roderick’s request, the narrator helps him to entomb her body in one of the vaults underneath the mansion. While they do so, the narrator discovers that the two of them were twins and that they shared some sort of supernatural, probably extrasensory, bond.

About a week later, on a dark and stormy night, the narrator and Usher find themselves unable to sleep. They decide to pass away the scary night by reading a book. As the narrator reads the text aloud, all the sounds from the fictional story can be heard resounding from below the mansion. It doesn’t take long for Usher to freak out; he jumps up and declares that they buried Madeline alive and that now she is coming back. Sure enough, the doors blow open and there stands a trembling, Madeline. She throws herself at Usher, who falls to the floor and, after “violent” agony, dies along with his sister. The narrator flees; outside he watches the House of Usher crack in two and sink into the dark, dank pool that lies before it.

Somerset Maugham’s Salvatore

Somerset Maugham’s short story Salvatore is an example of how a writer uses craft to suceed in the art not only of story telling but of make-belief as well. The story is well structured and each element of  story such as theme, characters, settings, plot and tone are well chosen after much deliberation.

Rather than a plot what we have here is an understatement of a plot. There is no widning plot as such and the events are more or less insignificant though they are given in detail.

The theme as is given out at the end is the exuberance of goodness in an orndianry person. Even when his fate is out to get him, Salvatore shows stoicism and mettle to keep it at bay.

The plot is kep simple. While serving in the military in China, Salvatore falls ill. Consequently, the woman he wants to marry refuses to marry him because she is afraid he will not be strong enough to work. Rather than wallow in self-pity, Salvatore agrees to marry Assunta, a woman he claims is “as ugly as the devil,” and he then faces life with determination and “the most beautiful manners I [the author] had ever seen in my life.” Though he does not live the life he imagined, Salvatore comports himself with goodwill and makes the most of his marriage, his job as a fisherman, and his children.

Among more than half a dozen characters, Salvatore, the protagonist stands out as a round character who is chiselled to perfection by life’s experiences. Even thouugh he appears to be a weakling in the beginning, we eventually find that his weakness is only apparent. His power is the power of flowing water and he himself is in the flow of life. He takes life as it comes. If at all a plan, fails he waits for the next turn to show up.

There is not much in the way of settings or dialogure and the linear narration flows like that of a fairy tale. The writer narrates the story from the third person point of view, as life is experienced by Salvatore. However, at times the author takes the points of view of the minor characters. This cannto be considered the ominscient point of view because we don’t get to know much about what happens in the mind of the characters other than what the express through their actions.

The style is rather detached to the point of being journalistic. The form, multiple view point linear narration with no flashback is made use of so effectively. We are made to feel that the writer is only reporting a real life event. Even when a writer does so, we can only afford to consider it as a creative attempt. ITg does not matter much if he tale really happened. For the writer it is a created story, so to speak. This has a really huge impact on the reader even if it is a famous part of history. Playing on this advantage, Maughm relates the story as if it had happened as such.

In this story, from the very first sentence to the last paragraph in which the writer gives us the idea that the story is about the goodness in the central character, we are made to believe that the  writer is only a reporter and he has not altered the even much at all. Details which are not absolutely necessary are splashed all over the story, right from what the characters are wearing, to the random comment of the foreigners about the fishermen being lazy, the story is made to sound not just realistic but naturalistic as well.

The end effect is that, instead of the  readers dismissing the ideal of absolute goodness which can happen only in sentimetal fiction and popular movies, the readers are made to think that it is a possible ideal followed by someone who is physically weak and has had a tragedy in his younger days. This is a challenge posed by the writer to make the readers consider living such a life and that is where the story succeeds. The writes gets to make the reader fall for his magic of story telling

The Rattrap

The Rattrap by Selma Lagerlof, the Swedish Nobel laureate, reads like a folk tale but holds a very meaningful message for us. In the context of a man’s experience around Christmas time, the story explores the edge experience has over intelligence, knowledge and wisdom. It also highlights the importance compassion has in transforming a person.

The story features a vagabond who earned his living selling rattraps. He made rattraps using the scrap metal he found. When he couldn’t find the raw material, he begged or stole them. He always looked hungry and led a life of monotony and boredom.
Then, one day, a thought struck him. He found that the world was very much like a rattrap. The world offers wealth and other pleasures just the way a rattrap offers cheese and meat. Once we go in for them, we are imprisoned in it forever and it entails nothing but eternal misery. He went around telling this idea to everyone he met.
Though he tried to spread this great philosophy of life, a truth which is expounded by all religions, it only remained in his brain as a piece of information. He was intelligent enough to figure it out and talk about it. He was wise enough to understand its significance. But when it came to practising it, he failed miserably. He realized this only when it was spelled out to him by an incident.
One dark evening he was walking along the road and knocked at the door of a poor old man’s cottage. The old man let him in, served him food and gave him shelter for the night. They played cards and the old man told him his story. He used to work in Ramsjo Ironworks but now he was a small time crofter who had just one cow. He said that was good enough for him since it had even given him thirty kroners in a month. Like the Bishop did to Jean Val Jean, he even showed the vagabond the money kept in a cloth bag hung on the wall.
The next day both men left the hut at the same time but the peddler came back and stole the thirty kronor from the old man. Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment he got hunted by his own conscience and he thought he was being followed. He left the highways and entered a forest, but as much as he walked, he was not able to come out of it. He realized that his own medicine had not worked for him and that he had been trapped by money and that the forest was his prison.
At some point later in the same night he heard sounds from the Ramsjo Ironworks and moved in that direction. He reached the factory and went in. Nobody asked any questions since it was normal for vagabonds like him to walk in and enjoy the warmth of the furnace in a chilly night like this.
Just then the owner of the mill walked in. He addressed the peddler as Captain Nils Olof mistaking him for an old friend. The peddler didn’t contradict him. The miller invited him home and this the peddler refused since he feared getting himself exposed in better lighting. Later the owner’s daughter Elda came to get him and forced him to go with her. She had even brought a wrap for him since it was too chilly outside. The peddler went with her. That night both the father and the daughter were so nice to him and made him wear good clothes. But seeing him in those clothes they found they had made a mistake and he too confessed that he was only a peddler. The father thought of calling the sheriff to arrest him. The vagabond told him that he was innocent and if he was dragged into trouble that would entail another cycle of misery through which the miller would also get caught in the trap. His words made the owner change his mind but he asked the peddler to leave. Now the daughter intervened saying that they couldn’t ask him to leave since they had invited him. Moreover, it is Christmas Eve and the man deserved a peaceful life at least once in a year. She served him a good supper. The next morning he slept on and was woken up only for lunch and dinner. He was even invited for the next Christmas.
That night at church, Elda heard that one of the old crofters of the ironworks had been robbed by a man who went around selling rattraps. The iron master now feared that the man might have stolen all their silver spoons. When they returned home the peddler had already left. He had left a tiny rattrap for Elda. There was a note attached to it. It was his confession. There were thirty kronor in the rattrap and he asked Elda to have the privilege of returning it to the old man. He thanked her and her father for the being compassionate to him and thereby transforming him. His intelligence, knowledge and wisdom only took him close to hell (symbolized by the hot burning furnace and the thirty kronor hinting at Judas’s reward for betraying Christ). His transformation came from his real life experience when he was shown compassion by two strangers even when they found him a sinner.