Burial Rites by Hannah Kent Year 12 Mainstream English 2017

Strong prose, vivid characters

For students studying Year 12 Mainstream English in 2017, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is from the VCAA’s List 1 of Novels.  It will be studied under Area of Study 1, Unit 3: Reading and Creating Texts.

All page numbers referenced in this analysis of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent are taken from the Picador edition published in 2014 (as shown on the front cover above).

Genre of Burial Rites

Primarily a historical novel, the narrative was inspired by the true story of the last women Agnes Magnusdottir to be executed in 19th century Iceland.  As in the book, Agnes was convicted in 1829 and beheaded in 1830 for the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson.  Hannah Kent called her novel a ‘speculative biography’ in that she has used what is known of Agnes’ life and presented a possible version of the truth.

Agnes’ fate is a foregone conclusion but the key question running through Kent’s text is that of Agnes’ guilt.  In this regard Kent does build up sympathy for Agnes and allows the reader to explore some mitigating circumstances of which the authorities at the time were ignorant or indifferent.

Post-Modernist Structure of Burial Rites

Kent adopts a post-modernist structure and framework of the narrative which follows primarily the last six months of Agnes’ life with the period of time she is held in custody at Kornsa.  The novel commences in March 1828 immediately after the murders but moves to Toti’s appointment as Agnes’ spiritual guide the following June.  It concludes with Agnes’ execution in January 1830.  Within this framework Agnes recalls the events that led up to the murders.  There are thirteen chapters which are book-ended by a short prologue and an epilogue that provides the last official word on Agnes’ execution.

Kent includes official historical texts about the trial and execution that depict the inflexible administration of justice.  Official documents are juxtaposed against diverse texts, excerpts from Icelandic sagas, contemporary poems and the compelling first person narrative of Agnes, which seems to speak for the under-privileged and homeless people of Iceland.

So like many postmodernist texts, there is a perspective from the point of view of the powerless that exposes the cruelty and hypocrisy of the powerful.  The setting of the novel is an immediate source of fascination, as we know so little about Iceland.  Kent economically creates a frozen world, with its harsh beauty and isolation from the rest of Europe.  Through Agnes’s eyes we feel the struggle to survive in 19th century Iceland, where fish skins substituted for glass windows.

Language of Burial Rites

Kent’s prose is designed to complement the historical documents that preface each chapter with language that is appropriate to both the historical and geographical setting of the novel.  Her language is rich and coveys a rural 19th century sensibility, while remaining accessible to modern readers.  Kent frequently uses earthy similes such as: “Even as the light flees this country like a whipped dog.’’ (p.247), which sounds authentic to the modern ear.  She gives a poetic voice to Agnes’s reflections: “We’re all shipwrecked.  All beached in a peat bag of poverty.’’ (p.248)

At times nature is personified and the novel contains striking descriptions of the harsh elements that the people of Iceland had to deal with on a daily basis.  Agnes describes the highland blizzards and seasons as “Winter comes like a punch in the dark” (p.70).  In chapter 13 Agnes is close to the end of her life and knows the harsh wind “will scrape you up under its nails and take you out to sea in a wild screaming of snow” (p.319).

Convincing Characters in Burial Rites

Kent populates her novel with convincing characters but it is the character of Agnes that Kent explores with a deft touch.  She is neither presented as an object of pity nor even of righteous indignation.  Agnes’ inner strength and intelligence is noted by several characters, but it is a strength which is hard won.  Agnes speaks how the authorities do not know her “I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold onto what has been stolen from me” (p.29).  Agnes articulates a determined struggle to hold onto a private sense of self despite cruel social labelling.  “They will not be able to keep my words for themselves.  They will see whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood on the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt … But they will not see me” (p.30).

This novel tries to reach Agnes in a place of terrible loneliness, something that is achieved to a considerable extent through Agnes’ relationship with Margret, the wife of the District Officer who is required to accommodate Agnes.  At first, Margret is initially distraught at the idea of Agnes coming to stay at Kornsa as she does not want the safety of her two daughters compromised by the presence of a notorious criminal.  When Margret sees Agnes she is outraged by the woman’s condition and insists on the removal of Agnes’ handcuffs so that she can be thoroughly washed.  Margret makes it clear to Agnes she must work for her keep as she has no use for “a criminal, only a servant” (p.62).  Agnes wants to shake her head and say out loud “Criminal, that word does not belong to me, I want to say.  It doesn’t fit me or who I am” (p.62).  The slow thawing of the relationship between Margret and Agnes is handled superbly and becomes the mainstay of the novel.

The Significance of the Title

Burial rites in a conventional sense is a ritual or ceremony performed after death but in Agnes’ case the title suggests a rite of passage as a preparation for death.  Agnes goes on a figurative journey that involves reclaiming her worth as an individual at least in the eyes of the Jonsson family with whom she establishes a connection.  Sharing her story with the family at Kornsa and with Toti affords Agnes a kind of catharsis and the bonds forged between them help her to meet her death with some dignity.

The Historical Setting of 19th Century Iceland

Iceland in the 19th century was a colony of Denmark and ruled by the Danish monarchy.  It was deeply divided by class with land titles concentrated in the hands of a relative few.  The bulk of the society was agrarian at which farmers produced enough food for themselves and their families but life was a tenuous existence.  The society was conservative dominated by a religious ethos and traditional gender expectations.  The peasants lived in turf houses that were made up of small crowded rooms with exposed turf walls that were dank and mouldy in the winter infesting the lungs of those who lived there.  In the novel Margret’s fragile health is probably due to TB which is a lung condition common from breathing the dust inside her house.

The Landscape and Weather of Iceland

Arguably, the landscape and the weather it spawns is the most powerful force in the novel, shaping days and deciding destinies for the Icelanders who live with such a restrictive climate.  In fact the weather’s impact is unavoidable.  Literally everything from burials to executions is contingent upon the weather.  Simultaneously harsh and beautiful the landscape in this novel is almost a character in its own right.

Kent describes the Icelandic landscape as one that shaped both the body and soul of those who have to fight against it for a living.  It is not a place of much warmth.  Chapter 6 is where Agnes tells the story of one of the most harrowing sequences in the novel.  Agnes’ foster-mother, Inga, dies giving birth, partly because a blizzard is so bad that it is literally impossible to get out of the house, let alone raise the cry for help.  As a result the body of Inga’s stillborn child is put in the storeroom as the remains of Inga herself are likewise stored until the ground thaws enough to allow a burial.  The weather adds further horror to Agnes’ narrative and we read of the terrifying image of a dead Inga lying kept “like butchered meat, drying in the stale air” (p.157).

The Odds are Stacked Against Poor Women

Burial Rites demonstrates that for poor women there were few choices.  Female servants were subject to their master’s will and society’s gender expectations were narrow.  Women were expected to know their place in social hierarchy and poverty made women even more vulnerable.  In Agnes’ case, Kent’s novel doesn’t take the easy way and blame a cruel God.  Human agencies are at work, such as hypocritical treatment of children and single women, and a very flawed criminal justice system.  Hypocrisy is evident in Blondal’s self-serving rationalisation of his selection of Natan’s brother, Gumundur Ketilsson, as the executioner.  Indeed this historical novel shows the odds are stacked heavily against poor women.

Themes, Issues and Ideas in Burial Rites

  1. Truth and Stories = Burial Rites is a fictional recreation of history that is presented by Kent as Agnes Magnusdottir’s story. Kent can only speculate on the truth and her interpretation allows for the possibility of Agnes’ guilt or as we readers obtain a version of the original story, we can make our own minds up.  The novel questions the idea of truth as an absolute.  We obtain the facts as to what Agnes tells us and she shares with us what she chooses to tell us.
  2. Women’s Roles = Women had few opportunities in 19th century Iceland and their roles were confined to the domestic with some status and respectability through marriage. Poverty made women even more vulnerable and created the double standard where women are seen as promiscuous but men are not.  Agnes mother Ingeldur is judged as a ‘loose’ women and had three children to all different fathers from farms around the valley as she tried to find work and a refuge for her family.  Unfortunately the price she had to pay was often another pregnancy and a new mouth to feed.  Agnes later experiences similar exploitation.
  3. Authority and Control = Maintaining law and order in Iceland was dependant on a punitive approach of the ruling Danish authorities. Bjorn Blondal as the District Commission has to keep control of the ‘corruption and ungodliness’ that the murders at Illugastadir represent.  As a convicted prisoner Agnes is clearly disenfranchised by the law but she is also dehumanised by a brutal system that identifies her as being on the bottom rung of a rigid social structure.  Chained like an animal and denied light and air she has been reduced to the status of a beast.  Presented to the world and branded a ‘criminal’ Agnes is a shamed outcast.
  4. Love = Kent presents love as a damaging emotion that inflicts misery and uncertainty and even destroys lives. The epigram “I was worst to the one I loved best” from the Laxdaela Saga at the beginning of the novel sets the tone for what is to follow.  Unfortunately Agnes loves someone who is a notorious womaniser.  Natan lacks a moral compass in his selfish treatment of Agnes and Sigga.  Regrettably Agnes loves Natan and tolerates his appalling treatment of her because she has nowhere else to go and her loneliness makes her vulnerable.  Once Natan feels suffocated by Agnes he ends the relationship.  Looking back Agnes has to admit that the idea of love can be closely allied to hate.  In chapter 11 when Natan throws Agnes out of the house in the snow it underscores his cruel nature but also the power dynamic between them that would never be an equal one.
  5. Loss = Loss in 19th century Iceland is clearly related to the harsh rural life under constant threat by the inhospitable weather. People are conditioned to accept loss as many infants die and women also die in childbirth.  Agnes realises after her foster-mother Inga dies that life brings little certainty.  When she is condemned to death Agnes is threatened with another kind of loss that compounds her dread.  She fears the loss of her personal identity, a loss of self.  Agnes’ final monologue reveals the extent of this terror.  Denied Christian burial rites she feels that death will bring no permanent resting place.  She will be lost and her memory will vanish into oblivion.
  6. Redemption = As a Lutheran Minister Toti’s duty is to help Agnes atone for her sins and save her soul. Blondal’s interest in Agnes is less about the state of her soul than in containing a sensitive political issue.  The execution is really an exercise in propaganda as it is in the law’s interests to be seen as God’s instrument.  In reality Agnes’ salvation comes not from the unforgiving approach of the law but from being treated with fairness and compassion by the family at Kornsa.  Agnes connection to Toti is also central to this process of redemption.  At the end Agnes’ guilt or innocence becomes of less important than the faith that Toti and the family at Kornsa have in her.  Being drawn into the loving circle of those around her is Agnes true redemption.  As Agnes is taken to be executed Margret pressed her fingers tightly to Agnes and said “We’ll remember you, Agnes” (p.324).

Island: Collected Stories by Alistair MacLeod Year 12 English 2017

Front Cover

For students studying Year 12 Mainstream English in 2017, Island: Collected Stories by Alistair MacLeod is from the VCAA’s List 1 of Short Stories.  It will be studied under Area of Study 1, Unit 3: Reading and Creating Texts.

Page numbers referenced in my analysis of Island: Collected Stories is from the Vintage publication dated 2002 (picture of the front cover shown above).

Genre and Structure of Island: Collected Stories by Alistair MacLeod

The obvious Genre within which Island fits is that of the short story collection.  Collections generally feature some linking factors.  These may be thematic, cultural, geographical or historical.  With a single-author text such as Island, the obvious shared factor among the stories is their author, but there are stylistic and thematic links too.  However, students should also analyse broader ideas, values and concerns along with recurrent settings, motifs and character types that have differences and similarities across the stories.

The structure of Island contains sixteen stories varying in length but averaging twenty pages.  There are many common themes, values and ideas, recurrent settings, images and relationship types and even commonalities of structure and style.  The stories are ordered chronologically tracing a period of more than thirty years in the author’s life.  Some stories incorporate multiple time frames, moving between past and present (both recent and distant).  Whilst most of the stories’ narrative voices share social and geographical origins and are from a teenager or adult others construct the voice of a young boy.

Cape Breton Setting of Island

Alistair MacLeod’s sixteen short stories, collected in Island, are all set on Cape Breton Island off the coast of Nova Scotia in south-eastern Canada.  Raised in Cape Breton in the 1960’s MacLeod writes primarily about a time and place closely related to his own.  He worked at the occupations he describes – a miner, a logger and a fisherman – before becoming a teacher and professor of English in Ontario.  In this way, his life mirrors the lives of the men who narrate his stories, who labour under great difficulty or who leave their early homes to find a wider world.  MacLeod has an intimate knowledge of the physical landscape he is writing about.  The importance of memory and place is intimately explored in MacLeod’s works.

It is an interesting fact that nearly all the central characters in Island are males, suggesting that MacLeod is comfortable writing from a familiar perspective.

While the stories explore a range of ideas, in each one the landscape of the island features prominently.  As the title of the collection suggests, MacLeod has made the isolated island pivotal to each story.  More than just a setting, Cape Breton features as a character in itself (the landscape and the natural elements are often personified), exerting its influence over the characters who give birth, work and die there.

Cape Breton Communities Founded on Tradition and Families

The communities of Cape Breton are founded on the bedrock of tradition and family.  The people have struggled against poverty, accidents and the elements to hold their lives together and remain constant in their values.  However, MacLeod shows that they cannot keep the modern world from intruding and altering their lives and their landscape.  He presents the tragedy of the inevitable loss of their world.  As traditional work of Cape Breton begins to dry up the men have to go further away to find employment.  As their men leave, the communities feel the strain of separation and the landscape, once bordered by the edges of their little harbour is forced to expand.

Outsiders make their way into the landscape and see the locals as objects of curiosity.  The old culture and music of the fishermen becomes the subject of academic study, like things of novelty.  As progress takes over the old world the beautiful landscape is also seen as a business opportunity for people to cater for the ever increasing number of summer tourists.

The fragility of the old world is shown by MacLeod in the inevitable changes to the landscape that are mourned by the characters.  Even the old Gaelic language spoken by the people on Cape Breton represents the private world they inhabit that seems ‘irrelevant and meaningless’ (p.195) to the new world.  Yet to the miners and others in Cape Breton they try to continue to speak Gaelic with friends and family or sing traditional Gaelic songs as a way of connecting with their own past and culture.

Language of Island

The collection uses descriptive language and often more poetic figurative language.  In times when it is needed, concrete language is used to convey pragmatic facts in stories such as descriptions of landscapes or environments that show great detail but little emotion.  On other occasions descriptions do the exact opposite and serve to show the feelings of the narrator or character.  In some instances descriptions of the imagery of the landscape and animals is matter of fact or business like to describe farming and the killing of animals on the farm as in ‘Second Spring’ (p.218-248).  The descriptions are devoid of figurative language and are kept unemotional otherwise it might become too hard to maintain one’s distance and the killing of the animals would become too distressing to the reader.  In other instances figurative language expresses emotions to create mood and feelings about the home Cape Breton represents to many of the characters.

Significance of the Historical Setting of Cape Breton

MacLeod’s stories are populated with miners and fishermen, and their wives and children, whose lives are shaped by the isolated landscape of Cape Breton Island.  For all the inhabitants, the island is intrinsic to their understanding of themselves and their place in the world.  For some characters, the island ties them to their ancestors and their history.  For others, the island is a suffocating prison they seek to escape.

MacLeod shows how strong the historical ties are that bind the inhabitants to the land. Cape Breton is explicitly associated with its link to the ‘old countries’ of Scotland and Ireland – ‘seeming almost hazily visible now in imagination’s mist’ – is reflected by the many characters who sing and speak in Gaelic.

Since the first settlers settled on the island, generations of the same families have lived on and worked their land.  It is mostly the older inhabitants of the island who see themselves as custodians of the land.

Many of the island’s younger inhabitants, conversely, respond to the island in a very different way, seeking to leave the island to escape the insularity and isolated lives of the tiny communities.

Themes and Ideas in Island

Many of the themes and ideas in Island cross over into other stories so that there is a linking of similar story lines.  This becomes apparent when students start to analyse the stories and see the same inter-linking themes and ideas.  For instance in the first story ‘The Boat’ (p.1-25) the themes of Tradition, Education, Literature and Death are inter-linked with the symbolism of the boat representing a journey through life.

  1. Tradition = Tradition connects family members, both close and distant and members of communities. Tradition in some stories offers continuity and belonging but it can also be a restrictive force on character’s lives that becomes a chain of imprisonment as well as providing strength.  The collection places the value of tradition in opposition to that of individuality so that those who are restricted by tradition are challenged when their individual desires conflict with the paths set for them by tradition.  Stories that cover Tradition are: ‘The Boat’ (p.1), ‘The Vastness of the Dark’ (p.26), ‘The Return’ (p.79), ‘The Road to Rankin’s Point’ (p.143), ‘The Closing Down of Summer’ (p.180), ‘Second Spring’ (p.218), ‘The Tuning of Perfection’ (p.271), ‘As Birds Bring Forth the Sun’ (p.310), ‘Vision’ (p.321), ‘Island’ (p.369), ‘Clearances’ (p.413).
  2. Transition and Change = Change is the opposite of Tradition but MacLeod is interested in Change at multiple levels in the stories. For the whole Cape Breton community change is a turning point as it faces the decline in traditional industry and culture while being exposed to the wider world.  Many of the characters are poised at important points in their lives as they transition from often childhood to adulthood or different stages of their employment on Cape Breton and have to struggle to accept the change.  Some stories embrace change by showing the negative impact on those who cannot accept change in their lives but others are fiercely resistant to change as it takes away their culture and tradition.  Ultimately change is inevitable even though accepting it is a universally difficult task for people to do.  Stories that cover Transition and Change are: ‘The Vastness of the Dark’ (p.26), ‘The Golden Gift of Grey’ (p.59), ‘The Return’ (p.79), ‘In the Fall’ (p.98), ‘The Lost Salt Gift of Blood’ (p.118), ‘The Road to Rankin’s Point’ (p.143), ‘The Closing Down of Summer’ (p.180), ‘To Every Thing There is a Season’ (p.209),Second Spring’ (p.218), ‘As Birds Bring Forth the Sun’ (p.310), ‘Island’ (p.369), ‘Clearances’ (p.413).
  3. Education and Literature = Education in particular Literature is a source of conflict between characters in a number of stories. Some value education and what it can provide and others scorn the opportunity to go to school and learn beyond the traditional needs and practices of their families before them.  Education represents new prospects for those characters who want to learn as it gives them a chance to be employed in jobs far removed from the traditional work such as farmers, fisherman or miners.  However, the education also takes them away from their families which cause conflict between characters.  It is often due to the mother or father being frightened or threatened by a new set of values or belief systems of their children associated with a new world outside of Cape Breton.  Stories that cover Education and Literature are: ‘The Boat’ (p.1), ‘The Golden Gift of Grey’ (p.59).
  4. Outsiders and Belonging = Outsiders are people excluded from groups in the text of Island either from outside a family or a culture and defined by their lack of belonging. Many of the older characters in the stories are threatened by outsiders while the younger characters tend to be more welcoming.  This mixed reception to outsiders supports MacLeod’s argument that older generations struggle more with the transition to new ways and habits, while younger generations tend to embrace change more readily.  Belonging is shown clearly in the relationships between those characters related by blood, as with parents, grandparents and siblings.  It suggests that a sense of belonging to a family or a culture provides safety and support for individuals.  Stories that cover Outsiders and Belonging are: ‘The Vastness of the Dark’ (p.26), ‘The Return’ (p.79), ‘The Lost Salt Gift of Blood’ (p.118), ‘The Road to Rankin’s Point’ (p.143), ‘Island’ (p.369), ‘Clearances’ (p.413).
  5. Death = Death is ever-present in the world of these stories. It could be depressing but MacLeod represents death as part of the remote existence of Cape Breton due to its extreme weather that creates life-threatening occasions for people.  Not only does the weather play a part in many deaths, so do the difficult physical occupations of mining, fishing and agriculture that make death a common event for not just humans but animals as well.  The characters grieve and are touched by death including loneliness and a loss of purpose or direction.  As death is inevitable the stories suggest that life should be valued, protected and celebrated.  Stories that cover Death are:  ‘The Boat’ (p.1), ‘In the Fall’ (p.98), ‘The Road to Rankin’s Point’ (p.143), ‘To Every Thing There is a Season’ (p.209), ‘Winter Dog’ (p.249), ‘As Birds Bring Forth the Sun’ (p.310), ‘Vision’ (p.321), ‘Island’ (p.369), ‘Clearances’ (p.413).

Peter Skrzynecki Old / New World Poetry Year 12 English 2017

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Peter Skrzynecki Old / New World Poetry 

About the Poet Peter Skrzynecki

Peter Skrzynecki (pronounced sher-neski) is an Australian poet and author of Polish-Ukrainian descent.  He was born in Germany in 1945 and migrated to Australia with his Polish parents in 1949.  After a four week sea voyage, Skrzynecki’s family arrived in Sydney on 11th November 1949.  They lived in a migrant camp in Bathurst for two weeks before being moved to the Parkes Migrant Centre, NSW.  In 1951 the family moved to the working class Sydney suburb of Regents Park where a home had been purchased at 10 Mary Street.  Peter’s father, Feliks Skrzynecki, worked as a labourer for the Water Board and his mother Kornelia found work as a domestic in Strathfield.  In 1956 Skrzynecki began school at St Patrick’s College, Strathfield, where he completed his Leaving Certificate in 1963.

After a year at Sydney University in 1964, he completed a Primary Teacher Training Course at Sydney Teachers’ College in 1965-66 and began teaching in small schools in 1967.  In 1968 he recommenced his university studies at the University of New England where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1975.  Post Graduate studies include a Master of Arts from the University of Sydney in 1984 and a Master of Letters from the University of New England in 1986.  From 1987 he started teaching at the University of Western Sydney as a Senior Lecturer.

About the Volume Old/New World: New and Selected Poems

Year 12, VCE Mainstream English students for 2017, Area of Study 1, Unit 3: Reading and Creating Texts, taken from VCAA’s List 1, will study Peter Skrzynecki’s new volume of poetry entitled Old/New World.  This volume contains over 180 poems selected from eight collections published between 1970 and 2000 and the 2006 collection, Blood Plums.  The book’s strength is its bringing together of old and new poems in a single collection, allowing the reader to become immersed in Skrzynecki’s poetry and to gauge his development as a poet over many years of writing practice.

Skrzynecki’s Style of Poetry

Skrzynecki mainly writes three kinds of poems, all in a similarly distinctive, almost prosaic style:

  1. the family poem, in which he often displays a deft ability to portray character through description;
  2. the immigrant experience, which ranges between the new and old worlds and often has a documentary quality; and
  3. the landscape poem, which is often idyllic, with a poetic persona not that dissimilar to a boy wandering and meditating in a garden or countryside.

Surprisingly, the poems that focus on family and the poems that observe people, primarily, stand out in this book, rather than specific accounts of the immigrant experience, although this theme is rarely absent from his work.

Skrzynecki’s Poetry Rhythm & Imagery

Skrzynecki’s poetry has a delicate rhythm, which suits (or emerges from) his frequently plain diction, which often takes the form of naming things, usually in a garden or a landscape. There are few fireworks in his writing and his understated, occasionally beautiful images appear all the more striking as a consequence.

Notable examples include the description of the road in A Year at Kunghur (p.189), which is “like a ribbon of dust mended/ with patches of bitumen”, or the moving Elegy for Roland Robinson (p.193), where the desolate cry of a spur-winged plover leads to the conclusion:

that when the cry of such a bird
is lodged in the heart
that moment is the start
of eternity.

Poems from The Immigrant Chronicle

Poems from Peter’s collection called The Immigrant Chronicle first published in 1975 are some of my favourite poems in his new volume, which I studied and taught in relation to Standard HSC English in NSW under the Concepts of ‘Journeys’ and ‘Belonging’.  In these poems Peter chronicles his own family’s experiences as well as other immigrant’s experiences in 1951.  In Immigrants at Central Station (p.34) Peter reminisces about his family’s immigrant journey and the promise of a new life as immigrants wait with fear and anxiety on Central Station in Sydney to board a train to a new future that they have no control over.  He uses personification in the second stanza as: “Time waited anxiously with us” and a metaphor to describe the choking emotions of the travellers: “The air was crowded with a dampness that slowly sank into our thoughts”.

Belonging in Feliks Skrzynecki

In many poems Peter belongs to his new home in Australia where he has grown up but his father Felik’s bond is still with his past which becomes a barrier to his belonging.  It becomes apparent to Peter that his mother and father find assimilating in their new environment and culture more difficult as they get older.  As such, Feliks never really ‘belongs’ in Australia.  This is evident in the poem Feliks Skrzynecki (p.36).  Feliks recreates his life with his garden, his work and his Polish friends but continues to latch onto the past.  Reminiscing about pre-war Poland reminds him of his youth and happier, uncomplicated times before the trauma of war and the destruction of everything he knew.  As Peter grows, school represents the growing chasm between Feliks and himself.  It is another area where he and Feliks are divided by experience and adds depth of meaning to the battle that ends up occurring between Peter and his father.

Themes in the New Collection

The poems in this new and selected edition represent lived experiences from an often-nostalgic perspective, as demonstrated in The Wind in the Pines (p.228).  Past and present, old and new are embedded structures in the majority of these poems, as the poet revisits landscapes (predominantly Australian) remembering significant places and phases of his life. Birds are often the subject of Skrzynecki’s poems and this collection is alive with ravaging lorikeets, fearless seabirds, mythological bellbirds, sparrows, swans, apostlebirds, finches and black cockatoos. Animals, fish and reptiles also feature.

Skrzynecki’s character portraits capture and express the little details of everyday life that make his subjects live on the page.  Feliks Skrzynecki, the poet’s father, later revealed not to be his biological father, ‘loved his garden like an only child’; we see him sweeping paths, holding the broom with his cement-darkened hands and cracked fingers, smoking on the back steps, watching the stars.

The theme of old and new worlds encompasses the poems of migration, the elegies, the character poems and is used in the poem Leukaemia (p.199) to signify hope:

[waiting] for a new world
to take over your body
so the old can be defeated,
left behind

Old/New World is peopled with a lifetime of poems, chronicling the forging of new lives in new countries and the adjustments to be made when old familiar worlds are changed forever by trauma or grief.  The journey is not merely one of physical travel, but of spiritual quest and emotional travail punctuated by moments of joy and nostalgic remembering.

 

Analysis of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness Ebook

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, Year 12 English Text for 2017

For those Year 12 students studying Mainstream English, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin is from the VCAA’s List 1.  The novel forms one of the texts in Area of Study 1, Unit 3: Reading and Creating Texts.

Did you Love The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin or Hate it?

Science Fiction as a Genre is sometimes defined as being an analytical and foretelling narrative at which a type of prediction is made.  Quite often Science Fiction is so bizarre that you read it and become so confused you put it down and never pick it up again.

For those Year 12 students who have read The Left Hand of Darkness did you get the story the first time?  Or did it take you repeated readings to understand it?  Once you read the novel a couple of times so many layers become obvious that you can understand why Le Guin won many prestigious literary awards for her writing.

I must admit the first time I started to read The Left Hand of Darkness I had to ‘get my head around’ the structure of the narrative, the names of the characters, the countries, the Hainnish calendar and Ursula K. Le Guin’s terminology for her fictional Hainnish Universe all set in the year 4870.  While The Left Hand of Darkness is definitely part of the Science Fiction Genre, the narrative does also cover other Genres such as Fantasy, Mythology, Legend, Folklore and Feminism.

This Analysis Uses Shortened Versions of the Names of Characters

In this analysis of The Left Hand of Darkness, I have used a shortened version of the names of the two main characters rather than use their much longer versions that Le Guin has in the novel.  So Therem Harth rem ir Estraven is just ‘Estraven’ and Genly Ai is just ‘Genly’.  All my page number references are for the 1992 Orbit Edition of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (as pictured above).

Le Guin’s Purpose of Meaning

Le Guin’s purpose in this novel was not, in her own words, “[to predict] that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or [to announce] that… we damned well ought to be androgynous.”  Rather, she is observing that, in some ways, “we already are.”  Le Guin’s purpose is not to convince us to move in a certain direction towards the future; rather, she is enabling us to examine ourselves from a different perspective and embrace alternate forms of identity and reality.

Two Halves of the Whole – Yin and Yang

Once I began to understand that The Left Hand of Darkness is not simply a science fiction novel; I could see how Le Guin’s described the novel in her own words as ‘a thought-experiment’.  It forces us to examine ourselves and the nature of our existence.  It provides a deep, scholarly, metaphorical analysis on gender, patriotism, and the concept of opposites.

The more I delved into the story I began to appreciate the characters of Genly and Estraven and how Le Guin developed the concept of “self and other”.  Then I discovered the clever contrasts Le Guin explored of the binaries and the juxtapositions that exist on almost every level of the novel.

What fascinated me the most was the Daoist philosophy of yin and yang, opposites and reversals, which is shaped so beautifully by Le Guin.  In true Daoist fashion, The Left Hand of Darkness not only highlights opposites for the sake of contrast, but stresses the necessity of accepting both extremes to realise the whole.  The entire story is one of integration, on the personal, international and cosmic level, from existing divisions towards reconciliation and balance.

Le Guin asks us to question the very nature of binaries [dualism] themselves as Estraven said in the lines of the Handdara to Genly (p.190):

Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light
Two are one, life and death
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.

The Bond between Genly and Estraven

The central bond between Genly and Estraven is explored by Le Guin with immense subtlety.  Le Guin cleverly describes the changes in a relationship that almost founders on misapprehensions and mistakes.  Estraven is Genly’s surest and most selfless ally, and yet is the person Genly most distrusts.  In his innocence and ignorance it seems that Genly will not survive the power struggles of which he has become the living symbol.

As Genly comes to accept Estraven as he is, he becomes less absorbed, more aware of his actions on his companion and in the end a wiser and more appreciative person.  Genly’s companionship (is it really love?) with Estraven profoundly changes him and how he perceives the alien world that is now his home.  Genly’s growth highlights the notion that one’s own wholeness of being can arise from a relationship in which both parties strive to accept one another.  Estraven admits to Genly that they were “… equals at last, equal, alien, alone” on the Gobrin Ice (p.189).

However, in a heart-breaking reversal of expectation it is Estraven who finally pays the price in chapter 19 ‘The Homecoming’.

The Inhospitable Landscape of Gethen

What I did love was Le Guin’s wonderful creation of the inhospitable landscape of Gethen. The journey that Estraven and Genly make together on foot across the Gobrin Ice is described in all its frozen spendour.  I was awestruck by the bleak beauty of this fictional planet and the prose and imagery of Le Guin as Estraven and Genly trekked through a “deep cold porridge of rain-sodden snow” (p.176), past a volcano with “worms of fire crawl down its black sides” (p.184).  Le Guin took not only Genly and Estraven on a bitter winter journey, but us as readers, as we too saw the raw fury of nature on display in Gethen.

What is the Significance of the Title?

The title comes from the Handdara religion recited in a poem by Estraven on page 190 (shown in detail above).  It refers to dualism and the importance of unity of opposites.

Le Guin’s Style of Writing

Le Guin’s writing style is descriptive with finer details of life on Gethen from architecture to weather patterns, diets to travelling habits.  The novel is a blend of nature writing with anthropology and an understanding of a people’s connection to that place.  Her treatment of Gethen as both a setting and a character infuses her world with vivid descriptions of landscape, character stories, adventures and traditional mythology.

Le Guin’s Narrative and Tone

Some stories are in 1st person narrative when Genly is reporting or from Estraven’s journal but when myths, legends or tales are told the narrative is in 3rd person omniscient.  The myths form a backdrop for the story and explain specific features about Gethenian culture as well as larger philosophical aspects of society.

Le Guin presents the novel as Genly’s field report to the Ekumen so his tone is exact.  As Genly develops understanding of the Gethenians he evolves with more awareness and he becomes descriptive.

Estraven’s chapters take on a journalistic tone since they are journal entries.  The mythological stories have a folk tale tone.

The narrative can also be seen as a Bildungsroman or coming of age story of Genly as his journey of transformation.

The Plot in a Nutshell

The plot consists of 3 major sections and a brief conclusion.  The first section is set in Karhide, the second in Orgoreyn, the third on the Gobrin Ice and the conclusion is set in Karhide.

In a nutshell it is the story of an icy snowbound planet called Gethen (Winter) where a solitary envoy from the Ekumen, Genly Ai is sent to try and persuade the inhabitants of Gethen to join a federation of nations for the purpose of expanding trade and an interplanetary alliance.  Gethen is an isolated and harsh world of ice and snow whose inhabitants are unique in their physiology as they are androgynous beings; neither male nor female.  Unfortunately Genly discovers two hostile nations, Karhide and Orgoreyn gearing up for war and his arrival feeds the rivalries between the two states.

In Karhide, King Argaven is reluctant to accept Genly’s diplomatic mission.  In Orgoreyn, Genly is seemingly accepted more easily by the political leaders, yet he is arrested, stripped of his clothes, drugged, and sent to a work camp.

Rescued by Estraven, the deposed Prime Minister of Karhide, Genly realizes that cultural differences, specifically shifgrethor, gender roles and Gethenian sexuality, had kept him from understanding their relationship previously.

During their 80-day journey across the frozen land of the Gobrin Ice to return to Karhide, Genly learns to understand and love Estraven and is able to fulfill his mission to join Karhide and Orgoreyn within the federation of the Ekumen.

 Major Themes/Issues/Ideas

Language / communication / storytelling / gender / politics/ religion / fear of difference & fear of change / the ‘other’ / acceptance / duty / man & the natural world / warfare / love / human relationships / dualism / yin & yang / unity / loyalty / betrayal / honour / ethnic differences /respecting differences / sexuality/ androgyny

 Symbols and Motifs

Shadows / light / darkness / the ansible [communication device] / religious teachings / keystone / yin & yang / shifgrethor [equality or honour]

Characters – Major

Genly Ai = the first Envoy of the Ekumen on Gethen.  He is the protagonist of the novel, a native of Terra (Earth).

Estraven, Therem Harth rem ir = is a Gethenian from the Domain of Estre in Kerm Land in the southern part of the Kardish continent.  He is Prime Minister of Karhide at the beginning of the novel.

Argaven, Harge XV = is the King of Karhide during the events of the novel.

Tibe, Pemmer Harge rem ir = is Argaven’s cousin and later becomes Prime Minister of Karhide when Estraven is exiled.

Obsle, Yegey, Shusgis = are Commensals that rule Orgoreyn.

Faxe, The Weaver = is a Foreteller of Otherhord

Ashe = is Estraven’s former kemmering

Characters – Minor

Goss = helps Genly find his way to the Fastnesses

Mavriva = is a fur trader who helps Estraven

Thessicher = is a old friend of Estraven but later betrays him

Arek = is Estraven’s dead brother

Sorth = is Estraven’s son

Esvans = is Estraven’s father