Player-Response: On the Nature of Interactive Narratives as Literature

After what was probably the most academically rigorous year of my life, I can officially call myself a Master. And that’s pretty cool.

From start to finish, the focus of my time in graduate school was my thesis, a culmination of all my years of research, composition, passion, and abilities as both a writer and a gamer. It was obvious to me what the topic of my thesis would ultimately be, having spent much time defending the merits of video games to my friends and family. This thesis, where I explore how game narratives, specifically Mass Effect, are the pinnacle of modern storytelling and justify their utilization of active participation and hypertextuality, was both a joy to work on and an immense pressure off my shoulders. I am glad that I can now share it with you all today.

Read Player-Response – On the Nature of Interactive Narratives as Literature

Special thanks to Morgan Read-Davidson, my thesis advisor, and Jana Remy and David Winnick, readers on my thesis committee.

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What Mighty Contests Rise From Trivial Things: The Rape of the Lock and the Mock Epic

A primary characteristic that underscores much of Alexander Pope’s work is humor. Rather than acting as just satirical asides, Pope’s utilization of farce allows him to focus “attention on the discrepancy between the ideal and the actual” (Parkin 1953, 197). By making a comparison between what is and what ought to be (or ought not to be), along with being entertaining, Pope is able to reach his audience and communicate his ideas in a clear and precise way, trivializing what is important and underscoring what is frivolous. Rather than making a scene less serious, humor is used as a device to enhance the content of his work, allowing him to discuss topics in a refreshing way. His narrative poem, The Rape of the Lock, operates along these similar lines. However, rather than solely making the content humorous, Pope’s control of mock-dramatic elements allow him to move beyond creating a sardonic text. His parody of the epic acts as an early model of the deconstruction of the typical narrative format.

The structure of the five-act epic can be found as a basis for the dramatic form of Pope’s narrative poem. Whether he was consciously attempting to do so or otherwise, “The simple actions of the epic fall with surprising accuracy into [his story]. Dramatic theory offered him a handy, tested pattern” from which he could outwardly build his poem (Jackson 1287). Influenced by the work of Elizabethan dramatists, who utilized the classical five-act structure throughout their plays and were, in turn, inspired by Virgil, Horace, Homer, and others, Pope’s The Rape of the Lock follows a similar organizational pattern. The exposition is laid out within Canto I, the initial drive to action begins in Canto II, the epitasis of action occurs in Canto III, the situation is intensified in Canto IV, and reconciliation is made through some divine force outside of the narrative’s events in Canto V. Pope desired to evoke this return-to-form of the classical age, for he “felt the classics as an essential part of the continuity of European culture, and it is this which to a large extent offsets the frequently topical nature of some of his poetic subjects” (Sullivan 235). It is additionally important to note that the original version of The Rape, published in 1712, was only two cantos in length and contained the majority of the narrative’s action. The second version, however, published in 1714, “has been made by spacing out the main actions over five cantos and by the addition of the much admired but unessential machinery … [indicating] a strong parallel with the five-part dramatic structure” (Jackson 1285). Moments like Belinda’s dressing scene and the Cave of the Spleen do not appear in the first draft of the text. While these scenes do not have direct impact on the action, their inclusion is vital to ascertain a complete understanding of the text and its characters. The first Canto establishes Belinda as a physical, artificial beauty, protected by her guardians, the Sylphs, while the fourth Canto presents character reactions to the climactic action of the severing of the lock in the previous act, as well as spurning the supernatural guardians to inspire Belinda to action. These episodes help to build the importance (or lack thereof) of the principle action. These scenes, along with the primary plot of the poem, follow the dramatic arc of the epic.

The poem opens with the invocation: “What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,/What mighty contests rise from trivial things,/I sing—This verse to Caryll, Muse! Is due” (Pope I.1-3). This first couplet and the line following act as the epic proposition, an appeal to the classical Muses of the arts, which occurs in epic poetry. However, even within the opening lines, Pope’s ability to play with diction and syntax comes alive. If an ironic, inquisitive stress is placed upon these lines, “The implication would be, ‘Who says that real offence was (or should have been) taken over this silly quarrel about nothing?’ In other words, the seriousness of the whole affair is undercut at the opening announcement” (Rogers 18). From the outset, Pope recognizes the ridiculousness of the situation about which he writes, observing how the characters will blow something trivial out of proportion. Inversion, especially the inversion of expectations of the epic format, becomes a key motif throughout the poem. Pope’s writing takes on a “chameleon quality which has seldom been matched,” blurring the lines between “the epic, the moral, the pastoral, the satiric, and so on” (Dyson and Lovelock 198). This inversion can be seen in the characters’ embracement of artificial beauty in lieu of the natural. Following the convocation, the chief sylph Ariel, guardian of the female sex, instructs Belinda that she and the other Sylphs will protect her. They go on to deify her and inundate her with “special treatment … such as the head Sylph’s assistance, together with the superhuman value placed on everything connected with her” (Parkin 1954, 31). They become her protectors, obsessed with maintaining her physical state. Belinda becomes their paragon, and as shown later in Canto IV, the consequences for failing her are indeed dire. Belinda, the so-called protagonist, rises from sleep at midday and goes to her dressing toilet. Joined by her custodians, she prepares her appearance for the day:

A heav’nly image in the glass appears,
To that she bends, to that her eyes she rears.
Th’ inferior priestess [her maid], at her altar’s side,
Trembling begins the sacred rite of prides. (Pope I.125-128)

This is comparable to the arming scene of epic poetry. Belinda is “the epic hero, preparing for battle…; she is Aphrodite rising from the sea” (Dyson and Lovelock 199). Her guile takes full form as her servants, both corporeal and ethereal, adorn her. Importance is placed on the artificial, instead of the real, and this self-absorption only leads to her downfall. The young baron, the poem’s antagonist, who is infatuated with Belinda’s locks of hair, vows to add to his altar of love, “Of twelve vast French Romances, neatly gilt./There lay three garters, half a pair of gloves,/And all the trophies of his former loves” (Pope II.38-40). Having erected a monument to memorialize physical representations of his conquests, he prepares himself to seize the grandest prize yet. Belinda herself is an idol to beauty, a physical depiction of divinity and passion. Spurred on by his lust, the Baron prepares himself for the epic battle that is yet to come.

Belinda herself partakes in this grand clash, which beings by taking the form of a game of cards. Having traveled up to Hampton Court to spend the day in pleasure, she “Burns to encounter two adventurous knights/At ombre, singly to decide their doom,/And swells her breast with conquests yet to come” (III.26-28). Throughout the poem, incidents like the card game or Belinda dressing at the toilet are magnified into grand scenes. This game, described over the next seventy-or-so lines, takes the shape of an epic combat, revealing an “ambivalence central to the poem—the attempt at the same time to build up and tear down the importance of the feminine concerns with which the poem deals” (Parkin 1953, 199). Although otherwise an unimportant affair, the card game is turned into an action scene of strategy and battle. These junctures are less about the narrative itself, and more concerned with parodying the narrative format of the epic. Moments like this occur within the Aeneid or Iliad, taking the form of impressive struggles which challenge the hero and help them to grow. “The Rape of the Lock,” however, “proceeds in a series of tableaus, but without the surging energy that informs the epic,” with characters instead subsisting in a “languid world” (Damrosch 197). Beaten and humiliated, the Baron strikes, seizing a pair of scissors handed to him by Clarissa, and rends the prized lock of hair from Belinda, sending her into a state of melancholy and prompting the sylphs to flee and the gnome Umbriel to journey deep into the Cave of the Spleen.

Although on an initial reading it may appear to come from nowhere, Umbriel’s catabasis into the Cave of the Spleen parallels a recurring theme within epic poetry. Like Odysseus and Aeneas before him, Umbriel’s trek “has always been hailed as a brilliant parody of the epic voyage into the underworld … [and] a mock-epic device dramatizing Belinda’s sullen psychosomatic condition resulting from her tonsorial rape” (Delasanta 69). A footnote in the Broadview Anthology notes that “The spleen was thought to be the seat of melancholy or morose feelings, and ‘spleen’ became a term used to cover any number of complaints including headaches, depression, irritability, hallucinations, or hypochondria” (564). The previous canto ends with Belinda thrown into a state of deep despondency, mortified over the loss of her lock of hair. Now, Umbriel must journey into the source of her depression in order to find the strength for Belinda to overcome her gloominess. Before he earns his boon, Umbriel notices the Sylphs imprisoned within the Spleen as punishment for being careless in attending Belinda, “all of [their punishments] within Belinda’s Rhadamanthine power” (Parkin 1954, 32). As a representation of a mythic goddess, Belinda has the power to inflict retribution upon the guardians who fail her. Those Sylphs who hinder her beauty and mar it with prudishness are subjugated with reckoning appropriate to a paragon of elegance. They are stuck with pins, stuffed into vials, and drowned in bitter waters. In other words, they are forced to undergo rituals as though they are preparing to go and make an appearance in public; having their skin poked and prodded at in order to make it presentable, being stopped in jars of fragrant perfumes, or having their bodies forcibly washed and cleaned. As the physical depiction of artificial allure, Belinda is able to inflict her “‘Cosmetic Powers’” upon her subjects, underscoring the importance both she and the Sylphs place on physical beauty (Pope qtd. in Parkin 1954, 32). Passing the castigated Sylphs safely, Umbriel finds her way to the unnamed Goddess of the Spleen. Typically, the descent is utilized within the epic as a challenge for the epic hero to undergo and, from the underworld, the protagonist returns with a gift or knowledge of some kind. This epic is no different, and the Goddess provides Umbriel with:

A wondrous bag with both her hands she binds,
Like that where once Ulysses held the winds;
There she collects the force of female lungs:
Sigh, sobs, and passions, and the war of tongues.
A vial next she fills with fainting fears,
Soft sorrows, melting griefs, and flowing tears. (Pope IV.81-86)

The Goddess grants Umbriel an Aeolian gift, with which he can animate Belinda. Unlike Odysseus’s bag, which was to guide him back home to Ithaca, this bag is meant to stimulate Belinda to action so that she may fight back against the shearing of her hair. Along with melancholy, splenetic disorders can also refer to the abrupt discharge of anger. What the Goddess grants Umbriel “was not merely some vague inspiration to epic battle but, more fitting to her own splenetic divinity, the literal means by which Belinda’s own spleen might be vented from a state of melancholic inertia to one of heroic temper” (Delasanta 70). Finding Belinda cradled in the arms of the Amazon Queen Thalestris, a worthy female guardian for an upcoming battle, Umbriel opens the mythic containers and unleashes Belinda’s inner acrimony, motivating her to attack the Baron who tarnished her.

Lines are drawn and teams are chosen. Suspense thickens as the great battle between Belinda and the Baron is about to begin, but before the first strike can be thrown, the poem’s only voice of rationality speaks up. Clarissa speaks over the crowd, commenting, “‘How vain are all these glories, all our pains,/Unless good sense preserve what beauty gains” (Pope V.15-16). Although she first gave the Baron the shears he would need to obtain the lock of hair, she becomes the figure of common sense toward the play’s conclusion. Beauty fades with time, she argues, while prudence and sound judgment should be more coveted. Perhaps this was why Clarissa first gave the scissors to the Baron, for she recognized the temporary nature of physical attractiveness, pleading for the congregation to instead examine “the compelling perspective of life’s brevity” (Dyson and Lovelock 207). Her appeal ends and falls on deaf ears and Thalestris calls for the fight to commence: “‘To arms, to arms!’ the fierce virago cries” (Pope V.37). In Homeric verse, it is common for a speech to end with its audience applauding the orator, but in this mock epic, only silence fills the room before Belinda’s champion calls for battle. Belinda herself immediately charges at the Baron, accosting him for the return of the lock, but it is nowhere to be found. It disappears from the world, and a Muse spies it ascending to the heavens where it becomes “A sudden star …/[that] drew behind it a trail of radiant hair” (V.127-128). It is not the Muse of Satire who watches the lock rise, “pleased though she must have been—but the Muse of transformations [who is] now clearly evoked. The apotheosis of the Lock, which in mock-heroic terms is the poem’s supreme extravagance, is artistically its moment of truth” (Dyson and Lovelock 209). It is this lock of hair, not Belinda, the Baron, Thalestris, or any of the other characters who undergo any meaningful metamorphosis. The lock evolves from beyond the symbol of Belinda’s beauty into something sublime and beyond the bounds of the physical realm. In this final moment of the poem, “Belinda’s beauty is lost and won forever” (209). Lost to the mortals who appreciated it only for how it accentuated Belinda, and won by the celestial sphere and consecrated for eternity.

The effectiveness of The Rape of the Lock stems from its parodic nature. Like modern narrative deconstruction, parody “does not aspire in a straightforward way to be a discourse of truth. It is interested in questions of truth, but does not pursue them in direct, serious, and analytic fashion” (Phiddian 673). The mock epic acts as a form of satire, attempting to display the difference between what is and what should/should not be. Deconstruction “nests in the structure of the texts and ideas it criticizes … It operates from inside the arguments of metaphysical texts and systems such as structuralism and phenomenology, showing how they cannot totalize the visions they proclaim, and precisely where they double over and collapse” (681). By outlining the ridiculous dispositions of his characters, who place high value on qualities linked to physicality and temporality, Pope is able to depict absurdity while also advocating for his readers to place more importance on true, natural beauty, rather than artificial. The moments within, and the very structure of, the poem assists in the message Pope is attempting to tell. The Rape, apart from being a fantastic representation of the epic, dismantles the structures of its genre and reinterprets them, allowing the author to tell a more effective message than purely stating his opinions.


Works Consulted

Damrosch, Leo. “Pope’s Epics: What Happened to Narrative?” The Eighteenth Century, vol. 29, no. 2, 1988, pp. 189–207. JSTOR.

Delasanta, Rodney. “Spleen and Wind in The Rape of the Lock.” College Literature, vol. 10, no. 1, 1983, pp. 69–70. JSTOR.

Dyson, A.E., and Julian Lovelock. “In Spite of All Her Art: Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.” Critical Survey, vol. 5, no. 3, 1971, pp. 197–210. JSTOR.

Jackson, James L. “Pope’s The Rape of the Lock Considered as a Five-Act Epic.” PMLA, vol. 65, no. 6, 1950, pp. 1283–1287. JSTOR.

Parkin, Rebecca Price. “Mythopoeic Activity in The Rape of the Lock.” ELH, vol. 21, no. 1, 1954, pp. 30–38. JSTOR.

Parkin, Rebecca Price. “The Quality of Alexander Pope’s Humor.” College English, vol. 14, no. 4, 1953, pp. 197–202. JSTOR.

Phiddian, Robert. “Are Parody and Deconstruction Secretly the Same Thing?” New Literary History, vol. 28, no. 4, 1997, pp. 673–696. JSTOR.

Pope, Alexander. “The Rape of the Lock: A Heroi-Comical Poem in Five Cantos.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, edited by Joseph Laurence Black, second ed., vol. 3, Broadview Press, 2013, pp. 555–568. Print.

Rogers, Pat. “Wit and Grammar in The Rape of the Lock.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 72, no. 1, 1973, pp. 17–31. JSTOR.

Sullivan, J.P. “Alexander Pope on Classics and Classicists.” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, vol. 5, no. 2, 1966, pp. 235–253. JSTOR.

Laughing in the Face of Fear: The Multi-Genre Form of “The Canterville Ghost”

Abstract

The ghost story genre, though historically well-received, reached a new level of popularity in the Victorian era. Much of the appeal of the genre stemmed from finding some escape from the malaise of the fin de siècle. Oscar Wilde, a critic of and commentator for his time, would take this much beloved genre and adapt it into a unique style consistent with many of his other works. This essay consists of a close reading of Wilde’s 1887 novella, “The Canterville Ghost,” in order to examine his attempts to invert the conventions of the typical horror story. Though the primary focus will be on the comedic elements prevalent within the text, there is a deeper complexity that belies the surface humor. Much like other Wildean works, the story will be shown to be a reconciliation with the genre, not a rejection of it. In the end, “The Canterville Ghost” will be shown to operate as a hybrid, borrowing aspects from comedy, horror, religion, and even romance, creating a completely unique story that has remained influential even until the present.


The genre of the ghost story seemed to reach a sort of revival during the Victorian period. Though the popularity of the genre existed long before the reign of Victoria, historian Jack Sullivan notes that critics consider the period between the decline of the Gothic novel and the start of the First World War to be the “Golden Age of the Ghost Story”. Works like “The Old Nurse’s Story” and “The Open Door” in England, or “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “The Masque of the Red Death” in America, became foundational texts in the canon of the horrific. A possibility is that the typical Victorian was fascinated with the macabre as a sort of escape from their mundane world, a decadent fantasy existing in direct opposition to the ennui they faced in their reality. It is no wonder, then, that Oscar Wilde would take this staple of the era in which he lived and mutate it into something that is both a criticism and reflection of the time. Wilde’s 1887 novella, “The Canterville Ghost,” is his attempt to invert the typical horror story, but, much like other Wildean works, it is not entirely what it seems. Instead, this story operates as a hybrid, borrowing aspects from comedy, horror, religion, and beyond, creating a completely unique kind of tale.

As the story opens, the audience is, like the American Otis family, introduced to the English manor of Canterville Chase, a house that “there was no doubt at all that [it] was haunted” (Wilde 184). All of the surrounding townsfolk, and even descendants of the Cantervilles, are frightened of the old mansion. There is a sense of fascination within the locals that surrounds the legend of the cruel Sir Simon de Canterville. This kind of awe, whether reverential or frightened, is completely lost upon the Otis family. According to patriarch Hiram, it would be chiefly anti-American to believe in ghosts. “’I reckon that if there were such a thing as a ghost in Europe, we’d have it in a very short time in one of our public museums, or on the road as a show,’” he tells Lord Canterville as the two finalize the sale of the property (184). Not only does this quote raise the role capitalism plays in this story, it also highlights Hiram’s credo that believing in ghosts is absurd. This is ironic, considering that he is a minister; faith, like superstition, requires belief. Once the Otises purchase the manor, the stage is set for a terrifying tale, but, knowing Wilde, it’s most likely not going to remain that way for long. When touring the manner, the Otises notice a stain on the floor of the library, a stain described by the housekeeper, Mrs. Umney, as “the blood of Lady Elanore de Canterville, who was murdered […] by her very own husband, Sir Simon de Canterville. [… It] has been much admired by tourists and others, and cannot be removed’” (186). Eldest son Washington is then prompted to procure a bottle of “’Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent’ [… and] In a few moments no trace of the blood-stain could be seen” (186). Like Hiram, the other members of the Otis family have no time for the nonsense of ghosts. Washington’s act once again inspires the capitalistic spirit suggested by his father. While the bloodstain will return, its initial scouring demonstrates the mythic power of the American materialistic economy, an attitude that anything can be fixed for the right price, additionally rooting “The Canterville Ghost” within the genre of social satire. The superstitious nature of ghosts is extremely weakened if they can be defeated with money. This instance, however, is only a foreshadowing of the effect the Americans have over the ghost.

These scenes have the added benefit of highlighting what is suspenseful in order to make the humor even sharper. When Lord Canterville or Mrs. Umney invoke Simon, they often refer to the cruel and gruesome acts he performed on others, like attacking Lady Stutfield or startling the family butler so badly that he ended up shooting himself. As “the moments of suspense are only a few with respect to the comic elements and the humoristic devices used by the author in the book, […] they are profoundly effective and respond to what can be expected from the most traditional Gothic novel”, creating a juxtaposition that underscores the comedic (Balakrishnan 205). The fear experienced by others does not translate to the Otis family and, almost in mockery, they debase the frightening power of Simon. Their irreverence to the legacy of the Cantervilles eventually inspires the ire of the aforementioned phantasm.

As the expatriates settle into their new home, Hiram eventually comes face to face with the specter himself, Sir Simon de Canterville. He is described as having “eyes […] as red as burning coals; long grey hair [falling] over his shoulders in matted coils; his garments, which were of antique cut, were soiled and ragged, and from his wrists and ankles hung heavy manacles and rusty gyres”; a most petrifying sight, indeed (Wilde 187). One would expect Hiram Otis to flee in fear, but the American minister simply tells the ghost, “’I really must insist in you oiling those chains, and have brought you for that purpose a small bottle of the Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator’”, offering Simon the bottle and leaving him in stunned silence (187). Hiram’s attempted good act not only reveals, yet again, that American ingenuity can outwit superstition, it makes the once-abhorrent ghost impotent. The Otis family have no reason to fear Simon because they can directly influence him.

This brings into play the subtitle of the novella, as the full title reads “The Canterville Ghost: A Hylo-Idealistic Romance.” Considering “Hylo-idealism is the philosophical position that reality exists by virtue of our belief in it”, it is entirely possible that “the Cantervilles all must have believed the ghost could hurt them, thereby allowing him to do so” (Dierkes-Thrun). Because the Otises doubt the power of the ghost, they are able to undermine it without fear of repercussion. Simon, taken aback by this lapse of weakness, returns to his hidden chamber and reflects upon the terrors he inflicted on the Canterville family, reinforcing how after all his effort, a meager family of Americans got the best of him.

It is here Wilde yet again inverts one’s expectations, as the narrative’s point-of-view shifts to focus on Simon, solidifying that “This ghost story is told not from the point of view of the castle occupants, as in traditional tales, but from the perspective of the ghost” (Balakrishnan 209). The story becomes less about how the Otis family deals with the ghost in their house and more about how Simon deals with the Americans in his home. What would normally be frightening in a ghost story becomes amusing because of this inversion: “Picture to yourself certain characters in a certain situation: if you reverse the situation and invert the roles, you obtain a comic scene” (Bergson). This simple inversion turns the story into one where the ghost must find a way to regain his terrible power. Simon resolves to increase his assault tenfold, and what started as the basis for a classic ghost story has been entirely vitiated.

Simon is ultimately humiliated by this futility because he is so very proud of himself. He spends many nights gleefully recalling many of the innumerable, horrible deeds he inflicted on others during his afterlife, thinking “of the Dowager Duchess, whom he had frightened into a fit as she stood before the glass in her lace and diamonds; of the four housemaids, who had gone into hysterics when he merely grinned at them through the curtains on one of the spare bedroom” and many others over the centuries (Wilde 188). With nothing but time and disdain, he settles into his ghastly role. Something about the sadist archetype allows the reader a sort of cathartic release; seeing someone who takes such joy in committing these atrocities is both unsettling and amusing. One of his recurring attempts to scare the Otises comes in the form of the bloodstain. Though the spot would be cleaned and cleaned again, it kept on reappearing, sometimes “a dull (almost Indian) red, then it would be vermillion, then a rich purple, and once […] they found it a bright emerald-green.” (189). Simon is a bit of a cliché, all things considered. Even though the Otis family may not appreciate the lengths to which he goes to in order to keep up his appearance as a frightening ghoul, he nonetheless resorts to his basic tricks. After hundreds of years of haunting, all he knows are the routines he has become familiar with. Along with his acts, Simon takes great delight in the many wardrobes he uses. In order to not become bored of the same routine over and over again, he invents many characters he assumes the mantles of during his fright-runs, such as “’Black Isaac, or the Huntsman of Hogley Woods’” or “’Reckless Rupert, or the Headless Earl’” (193). His many costumes are extremely elaborate, some requiring hours of preparation. Simon’s obsession with appearances is a pervasive motif across his hauntings. He does not solely desire to be a vengeful specter; rather, he wants to appear as one, too. This attention to detail makes Simon somewhat of a dandy, as his “stress on the clothes […] gives the Ghost an element of puerility which augments the contrast and reinforces the parody” (Balakrishnan 207). Much like his aesthete author, Simon desires to make a strong visual impact so that he may be remembered. His legacy has been preserved among the Canterville family for generations and desires to continue his eternal torment. He is a sucker for “the classics” and his use of the many spectral banalites over the years has been successful. Until the arrival of the Otis family.

Not only are the Otises completely unafraid of Simon, the ghost is, in actuality, haunted by the living. As Simon attempts to intimidate the family, the Stars and Stripes, the young Otis twins, set themselves upon him. At every turn, they toss their pillows at him, drop buckets upon him, or set up a butter-slide for him to fall down. Their biggest prank, however, comes one night when, as Simon traverses the hallways in search of someone to haunt, he comes face to face with a terrible sight:

“Right in front of him was standing a horrible spectre, motionless as a carven image, and monstrous as a madman’s dream! Its head was bald and burnished; its face round, and fat, and white; and hideous laughter seemed to have writhed its features into an eternal grin. From the eyes streamed rays of scarlet light, the mouth was a wide well of fire, and a hideous garment, like to his own, swathed with its silent snows the Titan form” (Wilde 191).

In fear, Simon flees, returning later only to find that he had been outwitted and scared by Ye Otis Ghoste. It is ironic that the thing which would most scare a ghost is another ghost, but after all, Simon has never seen another ghost before now. Whether there are even other spirits, or if Simon is the only the ghost in existence, is never mentioned in the novella. This scene introduces the fact that that Simon is unique and ultimately alone, estranged from the humans and ghosts alike, while also demonstrating how the Otises are able to torment Simon to no end. After enough of these kinds of incidents, “The terrible excitement […] was beginning to have its effect. His nerves were completely shattered, and he started at the slightest noise”, and eventually ceased his attacks on the Otis family (193). It is amusing to imagine a ghost undergoing an anxiety attack, considering that it is usually them who could cause anxiety in humans. This is yet another inversion which serves to make the text a parody of its genre.

It is important to keep in mind that “The Canterville Ghost” is not a pure comedy, though so far it may seem to be the case. This novella is based on the foundations of the horror genre and, although it parodies many of the conventions of horror, it also embraces them: “the Gothic recurs as its own doppelganger, a double whose uncanny likeness satire attempts to disavow, but the spectre proves resistant to parody” (O’Connor 330). Through his many bumbling failures, it’s easy to forget the kind of monster Simon de Canterville is. As mentioned earlier, Simon takes delight in the deeds he has committed upon the descendants of his family, but some of them are particularly horrid, like choking “the wicked Lord Canterville […] in his dressing-room with the knave of diamonds half-way down his throat” or forcing “Lady Barbara Modish [… to break] off her engagement with the present Lord Canterville’s grandfather, and [run] away to Gretna Green with handsome Jack Castleton,” ending with Lady Barbara dying of a broken heart after Jack is killed in a duel (Wilde 188-193). Simon’s most terrible act, however, took form in the death of his wife, Lady Elanore, presumably his first victim, who he admits to killing for “’being very plain, never [having his] ruffs properly starched, and [knowing] nothing about cookery’” (196). Between his love of outfits and his petty reasoning for his wife’s murder, it’s apparent that Simon’s hubris and fascination with dandyism is also what drove him to his gruesome nature. His ire for the living ultimately culminates in his own death: being chained to a wall by his late wife’s brothers and starving, “trying to grasp […] an old-fashioned trencher and ewer, that were placed just out of [his] reach” (201). It is equally easy to paint Simon as an inept ghost as it is to paint him as some frightful revenant, but the truth that Wilde conceivably could have attempted to convey is far more complex. Simon is both amusing and horrifying, and he is also a man tormented by his past, unable to escape the hell that he has created for himself. At first glance, this novella seems to hide its comedic presence behind horror undertones, but the genre of fear is not entirely concealed.

This dichotomy between humor and horror becomes most prevalent at the start of the fifth chapter, when the tone of the story yet again shifts as a background character comes to prominence. Virginia Otis, once relegated to be an observer of the events at Canterville Chase, comes face to face with Simon one day, after his retirement from haunting. Entering the Tapestry Chamber, she finds Simon in a deep melancholy and beseeches him to behave himself if he does not want to be tormented, to which the spirit replies, “’I must rattle my chains, and groan through keyholes, and walk about at night, if that is what you mean. It is my only reason for existing’” (196). It is rather peculiar to muse on the existential intent of ghosts. Death could have been potentially liberating for the cruel-natured Simon. Whereas in life he may not have been sure of his reason to live, in death he has found a morbid purpose to justify his continued existence. It may not be the most pleasant task nor is it one he necessarily enjoys, but he has nevertheless come to identify himself with his role. He calls the Otis family a group of “’horrid, rude, vulgar, dishonest’” people and Virginia contests this, bringing up the fact that Simon “’stole the paints out of [her] box to try and furbish up that ridiculous blood-stain in the library’”(196). The truth of the reappearing blood-stain has been revealed, and rather than coming from some supernatural realm, the multicolored spot ‘s nature is far more mundane. What was once terrifying has become commonplace. Simon’s many acts have been “deprived from their awe and reduced to the daily level”, performing his functions in order to continue his centuries-long traditions (Balakrishnan 211). This quote is made additionally humorous by the fact that Virginia is angry at Simon for using up all of her colors and leaving her with “’indigo and Chinese white, and [now she] could only do moonlight scenes, which are always depressing to look at, and not at all easy to paint’” (Wilde 197). It is completely absurd to imagine a scene where a young lady yells at a ghost for not being able to paint, but that is exactly the scene Wilde has constructed for his readers. By highlighting Simon’s need to keep up the appearances of a haunting spirit, Wilde yet again shows the weakness that underscores his performances. Simon has been utterly defeated by prankster children, by American capitalism, and finally by the wrath of a young woman.

Succumbing to his own misery, Simon reveals the true nature of his sorrow to Virginia, the one member of the Otis family to actually show some level of concern for him. He acknowledges his loneliness, unhappiness, and restlessness to her, admitting that “’for three hundred years [he has] not slept and [he is] so tired’” (197). Though he has long pretended to enjoy the schadenfreude he has inflicted upon others, in actuality he is tormented by his crimes. The pain he has caused weighs heavily on his soul and now, more than anything, he desires some respite from his role. He tells Virginia of the Garden of Death, the one place where he will be able to sleep:

‘Far away beyond the pine-woods,’ he answered, in a low dreamy voice, “there is a little garden. There the grass grows long and deep, there are the great white stars of the hemlock flower, there the nightingale sings all night long. All night long he sings, and the cold, crystal moon looks down, and the yew-tree spreads out its giant arms over the sleepers” (197).

Images of the poisonous hemlock plant and the yew tree, often aligned as symbols of death, depict the immense beauty and solemnity of the Garden. The landscape Wilde describes, no matter how beautiful, is also chilling, as the land is permeated by the presence of other “sleepers”, the vast and countless dead. Not only will Simon be able to finally rest there, he will also no longer be alone, joined by an infinite number of those like him. It is this desire, “’To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grass waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace,” which he confides in Virginia, exposing the terrors of the universe to the unspoiled maiden (198).

From the novella’s opening, Virginia is portrayed as a symbol of naivety and innocence. Her introduction in the first chapter describes her as “a little girl of fifteen, lithe and lovely as a fawn, and with a fine freedom in her large blue eyes” (185). Though this description initially implies a delicate nature, the independence reflected in her eyes is underscored by her rejection of the Duke of Cheshire’s marriage proposal, who was “sent back to Eton that very night by his guardians, in a flood of tears” (185). Her repudiation of the Duke keeps her chaste, untouched, and, above all, pure. She is not bound to another and, in many respects, is able to take care of herself. It is very much like Wilde to write a capable, independent female character. The Duke’s proposal, however, additionally complicate matters for Virginia. It is never explicitly stated in the text, but what “would have been understood by its contemporary audience, is the reason the Otises have relocated to England in the first place: to marry Virginia into the aristocracy” (O’Connor 335). It was commonplace in Wilde’s time for rich American families to marry into British royalty, trading wealth for title. Yet another instance of the power commerce holds in Wilde’s world. Even her name, which honors the commonwealth located in America, reflects her immaculate nature and underlines the story’s subtextual conflict between America and England. Virginia, among the oldest colonial territories and a birthplace of the United States, was named “in honor of ‘The Virgin Queen,’” Elizabeth I (State Symbols USA). The innocence in Virginia Otis’ name is reflected her actions; for instance, in the moment she first encounters Simon in the Tapestry Chamber.

Facing this supernatural phenomenon for the first time, although she is nearly overcome with fear, she “was filled with pity, and determined to try to comfort him” (Wilde 196). There is no maliciousness in her intent, unlike her younger brothers. Instead, her instinct is to reach out and attempt to comfort him, emphasizing the benevolence within her. Simon, at first surprised by this kindness, engages in conversation with her. Although this is a rare reaction for Simon, it is equally as rare for a human to approach him without repulsion. He informs her of his ghastly existential purpose, admits his motivation for murdering his wife, reveals his death by starvation, and confides in her his longing for eternal rest. These sorts of macabre revelations would be a lot for anyone to handle, especially an unexposed, fifteen year old young woman. Virginia’s response is both humorous and depicts her kind, albeit naive, nature. She offers Simon the “’sandwich in [her] case” if he is hungry and tells him that if he wants to go to sleep, “’You have merely to go to bed and blow out the candles. […] Why, even babies know how to do that, and they are not very clever’” (197). It’s ridiculous to imagine a teenager instructing a ghost on how to sleep, but the audience has so-far accepted a ghost that is scared of the humans he intended to haunt. Wilde has constructed an environment where the ludicrous becomes logical. Yet, there is a kind of innocence that belies her reactions. She does not know how she can help Simon but offers herself anyways. Realizing the purity in her heart, he recalls to Virginia the old prophecy written in the library and informs her of its meaning:

“’They mean,’ he said sadly, ‘that you must weep for me for my sins, because I have no tears, and pray for me for my soul, because I have no faith, and then, if you have always been good, and gentle, and sweet, the Angel of Death will have mercy. You will see fearful shapes in darkness, and wicked voices will whisper in your ear, but they will not harm you, for against the purity of a little child the powers of Hell cannot prevail’” (198).

He sees her sympathy and pristine love as the source of his salvation, and the steadfast Virginia, the strong-willed young lady that she is, agrees to enter harm’s way in order to help him. Risking her virginal purity and her very existence, she follows Simon to the land of the dead, spurred on by the strength of her ardor. This self-sacrifice augments the complexity of the story, adding to the comedic and horrific elements already presented, and continues into the novella’s conclusion.

Virginia’s acceptance of Simon’s request and her traversal to the Garden of Death introduces yet another genre into the already bursting story, that of the religious text. Christianity and his many opposing views on it are a key function of Wilde’s works. Like most everything dealing with Wilde, his relationship with religion is paradoxical: “He and his brother were baptised as infants into the Church of Ireland. […] Lady Wilde, however, […] just to be sure of their salvation […] may have had her boys baptised [sic] as Catholics when Wilde was about four” (Cavill 337). From a young age, he was torn between the two sects, grappling with determining his own thoughts and feelings on religion. This additional facet of his personality with which he struggled is reflected in many of his stories’ characters, who often act in contradiction to traditional Christian doctrines. It is far more rare for Wilde to express his unadulterated philosophy in a character, but it is possible to see a reflection of Wilde in Virginia Otis. Wilde did not consider Christianity in a traditional sense, but instead “he viewed Christ and Christianity as capable of transforming human beings into sentient people who demonstrate sympathy as well as self-reliance” (Quintus 515). Virginia, spurred on by her purity and her faith, follows Simon into potential self-obliteration in order to give him a chance at salvation. She does not fear for herself, caring more about helping the specter achieve peace. Her religion gives her the strength to pursue this arduous task, a shining example of Wilde’s credo. She takes Simon by his ephemeral hand, enters the realm of the dead, and disappears from Canterville Chase without a trace; for all intents and purposes, she is now lost to the living. Her family, joined by the Duke of Cheshire, police officers, and a band of gypsies, scour the land, but “Not the slightest trace of Virginia had been discovered” (Wilde 200). She remains missing for the rest of the day, leaving her family nearly in mourning, until, at midnight, from “out on the landing, looking very pale and white, with a little casket in her hand, stepped Virginia” (200). The parallel created between Virginia and Jesus in this scene is almost too perfect. Technically, while Virginia never died, she finds herself amidst death, separated from her reality, and, after a period of time, returns to the land of the living. Wilde’s fascination with the theology becomes extremely overt in this scene. Virginia’s holiness and resurrection, shown when she prays to Simon and “a beautiful light seemed to illumine her face”, is a testament to the strength and fidelity of her character, as augmented by the purity of her faith (201). However, she does not return from the realm beyond unscathed.

While her family is delighted at her return, Virginia was obviously affected in her attempt to save Simon. Mrs. Otis, upon finding her daughter, “kissed the trembling child, and smoothed the tangled gold of her hair” (201). This description is the barest indication of the horrors she conceivably could have experienced, but Virginia does not otherwise appear to be visually distressed. The greatest signal of her internal disquiet comes as she leads her family through the house and reveals to them Simon’s skeleton, chained to the wall. She kneels down beside him, praying, and after a moment, rises and speaks: “’God has forgiven him,’ Virginia said gravely” (201). Years later, when her husband asks what happened to her when she confronted the ghost, Virginia merely replies, “’I have never told anyone, Cecil,’ said Virginia gravely” (204). Though her life continues on and she and her family achieve status and happiness, the adverb “gravely” is used whenever she mentions the topic of Simon and the Garden of Death. Something terrible and unspeakable, something befitting a horror story, must have happened to her while she was praying for Simon’s soul, and her refusal to acknowledge the specifics indicates how horrific it must have been. It does not seem like such a sacrifice would ultimately be worthwhile, but the ghost of Simon, the Otis family, and Virginia each manage to benefit from the episode.

The subtitle of “The Canterville Ghost” emphasizes that the story is not just a comedy or horror tale. Above all, Wilde determined this text to be a romance and, the romantic that he is, ensures a merry ending and that the characters are justly rewarded for their trials. After three hundred years, Simon’s remains are finally laid to rest, lowered into a grave “in the corner of the churchyard, just under the old yew-tree […] And […] the moon came out from behind a cloud, and flooded with its silent silver light the little churchyard, and from a distant copse a nightingale began to sing” (202). This description immediately evokes the imagery of the Garden of Death; the cemetery was the land he long yearned to enter. Though he pretended to take pride in his ghastly role, the guilt of centuries’ worth of horrors weighed heavily on him, and thanks to Virginia’s sacrifice, the Canterville ghost is at peace. On Virginia’s return from rescuing Simon’s spirit, she is gifted with a box of “perfectly magnificent [jewels], especially a certain ruby necklace with old Venetian setting, which was really a superb specimen, and their value was so great that Mr. Otis felt considerable scruples about allowing his daughter to accept them” (202). This is an unexpected change in personality for Hiram Otis, who, like many others in his family, reveled in the strength of capitalism and commerce. However, as reminded by Lord Canterville, when Mr. Otis “’took the furniture and the ghost at a valuation [… he] acquired [Simon’s] property by purchase” (203). Even attempting to reject capitalism’s brute strength as an economic force is futile. The system that the Otises so readily accepted ensure the family’s continued prosperity. As for Virginia, she marries the Duke of Cheshire:

“in the spring of 1890, the young Duchess of Cheshire was presented at the Queen’s first drawing-room on the occasion of her marriage, [and] her jewels were the universal theme of admiration. For Virginia received the coronet, which is the reward of all good little American girls, and was married to her boy-lover as soon as he came of age” (203).

For her virtue and her kindness, Virginia is granted the greatest reward of all. She fulfilled her family’s wishes and is wed into aristocracy, she is gifted with a wondrous array of gemstones, and perhaps most importantly, she is taught an important sentiment by Simon de Canterville. When the Duke asks her to explain what happened the night she disappeared, Virginia confides in him, “’He made me see what Life is, and what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both’” (204). Simon committed a rare act of kindness for Virginia, granting her vital knowledge and perspective on existence. She incorporates that lesson into her life, cherishing her marriage to the Duke of Cheshire and burying the scars of the past with Simon’s bones in Canterville Chase.

The influence “The Canterville Ghost” has had on modern texts and media is almost too vast to describe. Horror-comedy hybrid stories are a much beloved form of entertainment in today’s society. The lasting popularity of films like Ghostbusters, Young Frankenstein, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, all comedies with their roots firmly entrenched in horror, will be impossible to track. They have become major cultural icons integrated into our daily lives. In general, hybrid genre fiction has the ability to touch a wider range of audiences and point out the strengths and weaknesses of its individual genre components. Though not the first, “The Canterville Ghost,” Wilde’s “attack [on] a literary form, usually considered of low quality, which was quite popular among readers” elevates the genre to a new form, making it among the best examples of hybrid genre fiction (Balakrishnan 212). Not only does it blend comedic, satirical, horrific, religious, and romantic elements, Wilde develops a new kind of genre unique to his own style. Part decadent revelation, part cultural rejection, and part paradox, Wilde’s stories contain this quality of hitting just close enough to the truth to be meta-reflective, sharp, and poignant, giving them a universal appeal.


Works Consulted

Balakrishnan, Manjula. “Humor and Fear: A Study of the Humoristic Resources in Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost.” EPOS, no. 27, 2011, pp. 203–212. Institutional Repository of the National University of Distance Education.

Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Translated by Cloudseley Brereton and Fred Rothwell. Project Gutenberg, 2009.

Cavill, Paul, and Heather Ward. “Oscar Wilde.” The Christian Tradition in English Literature: Poetry, Plays, and Shorter Prose. First ed., Zondervan, 2007. 337-340. Print.

Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. “Pragmatism & Hylo-Idealism.” Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents, Stanford University, 3 Oct. 2012.

“Horror on the Wilde Side.” iClassics, iClassics Productions, 6 Apr. 2017. Malcom, David.

“Oscar Wilde, ‘The Canterville Ghost: A Hylo-Idealistic Romance’ (1887).” The British and Irish Short Story Handbook. John Wiley and Sons, 2012.

O’Connor, Maureen. “The Spectre of Genre in ‘The Canterville Ghost’.” Irish Studies, vol. 12, no. 3, 2004, pp. 329–338. ResearchGate.

“Origin of ‘Virginia’.” State Symbols USA.

Quintus, John Allen. “Christ, Christianity, and Oscar Wilde.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 33, no. 4, 1991, pp. 514–527. JSTOR.

Sullivan, Jack. “Golden Age of the Ghost Story.” The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, edited by Jack Sullivan, Viking Press, 1986.

Wilde, Oscar. “The Canterville Ghost: A Hylo-Idealistic Romance.” The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, edited by Merlin Holland, Fifth ed., HarperCollins, 2003, pp. 184–204. Print.

Composition Processes of First-Year Students

As part of my graduate studies, I was tasked with overseeing and completing a research project on a topic related to the field of composition. I knew I wanted to look at how writers write, how the changes one will make from a first draft to a second affect the reading of the final product, how a piece of writing evolves from a concept to a publication. Starting only with a basic proposal, I received approval from my university’s Institutional Review Board, acquired writing samples from the test subjects, and began my investigation into how first-year writing students modify and adapt their compositions, in order to create an improvement.

If that wasn’t enough, this project was also presented at the 2018 College English Association Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, as part of the Attitude, Access, Advocacy: Overcoming Obstacles in First-Year Writing panel. This was my first time presenting at an academic conference and, as nervous as I was, I hope to return one day with more pertinent research.

Read Composition Processes of First-Year Students

Please keep in mind this was a project meant to be small in scale and completed within a period of three months. As such, this research project is limited to a case study of three individuals.

Special thanks to Ian Barnard, the professor and principal investigator overseeing the project, and Meghan Kemp-Gee, the professor who lent me her students as subjects.

Sympathy for the Devil: The Appeal of Satan as a Hero in Paradise Lost

When one considers the idea of a hero in the classical sense, images of Odysseus or Aeneas immediately come to mind. These heroes are considered such because of their bravery in the face of adversity, their will for self-sacrifice, and willingness to work for a greater good. However, one would not normally consider Satan to be a hero; on the contrary, in religious theology, Satan is “a personification of the force of evil itself” (Russell 23). How could one even possibly conceive Satan as a heroic character? John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, however, displays Satan in a heroic light, depicting the Biblical story of the Fall of Man from the perspective of Satan as a protagonist. Though evil, Satan possesses many heroic qualities and it is primarily due to his own fatal flaw that he ultimately becomes the twisted, malevolent figure he is understood to be today, suggesting that everyone is susceptible to corruption even when one believes one is doing the right thing.

First, the definition of “hero” must be explained in order to reconcile and conflate Satan with characters like Heracles. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a hero as “a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability” and “the principal male character in a literary or dramatic work”. A hero is not necessarily good, but heroes are often depicted as good. It is far easier to empathize and connect with a protagonist who has similar moral values to one’s own beliefs, than a protagonist who is far different; selfishness and pride are qualities one does not prefer to see in one’s self. Why should we, then, consider evil characters as heroes? It is because a subjective perspective decides who is a hero. One concept must be considered when contemplating the idea of a hero: sonder. Sonder is “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness” (Rouviere). Everyone is the hero of their own story; no one would consider him or herself a villain. One believes that one is doing the right thing, according to their own belief system and moral philosophy. To say who is, objectively, a hero or a villain, good or evil, is difficult to say. A hero to one is a villain to another. A hero may also have certain qualities which elevate him above the common man. Some of these aspects include, “Learn about the world around you…Become a leader at sharing ideas and dreams…[and] A strong commitment often requires deep personal sacrifice” (Kile). These are upstanding qualities, which, as will be demonstrated, are possessed by Satan in Paradise Lost.

After the invocation of the muse, Paradise Lost opens with Satan talking before the legions of Hell. Satan had been cast out from Heaven for being “an arrogant angel who defied his commander in Heaven” (Feldkamp 6). Believing that he should not be controlled by the Son, as God had commanded that the Son shall reign over the angels, “Satan refuses to surrender his personal freedom or to submit to what he regards as the illegitimate reign of the Son, and he appeals to the other angels to do the same” (Hoyt). Satan fails in his rebellion, and he and the angels who joined him are cast out from Heaven. Satan’s pride, which later manifests itself as hubris, is at first a strong and good quality. Satan believes that his rights are going to be taken over by a strong-armed dictator of sorts and believes that he can do a better job of ruling. It’s a common story, that of a man refusing to bow to tyranny and defeating it to become a free person. However, because the tyranny he is rebelling against is that of God, the omnibenevolent ruler of Heaven, Satan is instantly characterized as opposing the good nature of God, thus making Satan evil. God is not, however, truly heroic. Because God is also omnipotent, He can accomplish anything easily and without risking anything. Without that risk of self-sacrifice, God cannot be a hero. Satan risks his station in Heaven as one of God’s trusted angels in order to fight for personal freedom. This makes him appealing as a hero; he will do anything to fight for what he believes in.

Satan is not alone in his imprisonment in Hell. In his rebellion against God, Satan led a legion of angels against the armies of Heaven. When Satan was cast down to Hell, the rebel angels joined him and became the demons who serve him. His council consists of great evils like Beelzebub, Moloch, Belial, and Mammon, who call Satan “Our envied Sovran”, their lord and leader (Milton I.244). The demons speak of Satan with great reverence and respect, as they believe in his cause. His ideals are the ideals of his followers, allowing him to command great legions to fulfill his orders. Satan not only embodies the heroic quality of self-sacrifice, but his ability to command the armies of Hell shows his aspects of leadership.

Satan makes a commitment to attaining vengeance on God for the punishment of his rebellion, by deciding to corrupt the newest, and potentially greatest, creation of God: Man. Along with Heaven and Hell, God created a third world for his new creations, the world we know as Earth. After counsel with his inner circle, Satan concludes that the first step that must be taken is an exploration of this new world. But a new kerfuffle begins among the great evils: who shall explore this new world? Satan takes it upon himself to investigate the world, telling his fellow demons “…intermit no watch/Against a wakeful foe, while I abroad/Through all the coasts of dark destruction seek/Deliverance for us all: this enterprise/None shall partake with me” (II.462-6). Satan undergoes this risky and dangerous mission alone. He is the lone hero who risks himself for his compatriots in order to ultimately free them from their imprisonment. Not only does this encapsulate his determination to sacrifice for the greater good, it also shows his willingness to learn and expand his own knowledge, an aspect he eventually passes onto the newly-created Man. Despite working from an evil perspective against the goodness of God, Satan’s willingness to learn and explore, his leadership of the legions of Hell, and his willingness to risk himself for his people (well, demons) demonstrate his nature as a hero in the classical sense.

After having previously scouted the exterior of the land and choosing a new form, Satan chooses to become a snake and skulk through Eden in order to corrupt it, all the while noting its immense beauty. He cries out, “O Earth, how like to Heaven, if not preferred/More justly, seat worthier of Gods, as built/With second thought, reforming what was old!/For what God, after better, worse would build?” (IX.99-102). Satan finds himself in a land which he cannot enjoy, a paradise more wondrous than Heaven ever was. Had Satan never experienced such previous greatness in Heaven or new greatness in Eden, he would not feel the jealous passion that bursts from inside him. Knowing how terrible his station in Hell is, when compared to the beauty of Eden, fills him with torment because he cannot experience the land for himself, as well as the arrogant notion that he will destroy it and “make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n” (I.253-5). He will make his own land all the better by destroying Eden and defeating God’s plans. Only vengeance will slake his thirst for a better situation for himself and his followers. Satan eventually finds Eve alone, tending to the Garden while Adam works elsewhere. He talks with Eve, who is shocked that an animal of the Garden can speak the language of man, and Satan tells her “I was at first as other beasts that graze/The trodden herb, of abject thoughts” but after eating from fruit from a certain tree, “to speculations high or deep/I turned my thoughts, and with capacious mind/Considered all things visible in Heaven,/Or Earth, or middle, all things fair and good” (IX.571-2, 602-5). The thought of such power intrigues Eve. As a servant of God, like the angels of Heaven, she never questioned her place nor her actions, but Satan plants a seed of doubt within her, much like the seed within himself when he first rebelled against God. Leading Eve to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she explains to Satan that God forbade her and Adam from eating the fruit, but Satan replies, “Why then was this forbid? Why but to awe,/Why but to keep ye low and ignorant,/His worshipers?…And wherein lies/Th’ offense, that man should thus attain to know?/What can your knowledge hurt him” (IX.703-5, 725-7). Because of Satan’s claims that he ate from the Tree and survived, he convinces Eve that God does not want her to eat from the Tree because it will make her powerful. Satan turns Eve into an apprentice of sorts, following along the same path as him and rebelling against God’s word. The temptation becomes too great for Eve and, desiring the knowledge hidden in its sweet flesh, bites into the fruit of the Tree, as the world weeps in woe. While seemingly malevolent in his actions, Satan causing the Fall is not solely centered around a quest for vengeance. He is attempting to give mankind the chance he never had, to allow them to question the world around them: “Satan dares to challenge God, articulating the doubts and questions that he has because he thinks that doing so is the only way to find answers” (Smith). Satan is the first skeptic, questioning authority rather than purely submitting to it, and his attempt to consider new outlooks beyond the will of God forces his fall from Heaven. Now, seeing creatures in Eden in a similar situation to his own in Heaven, he gives Eve and Adam the opportunity to free themselves and become their own personal leaders.

Satan exits Eden and meets Sin and Death, who congratulate him and cross over to the world of mankind, instilling within Satan the pride that he has attained his goal at last. However, upon returning to Hell, Satan’s punishment has just begun. Satan tells his legions of Hell how he had tempted Man and brought about their fall, and “So having said, a while he stood, expecting/Thir universal shout and high applause/To fill his eare, when contrary he hears/On all sides, from innumerable tongues/A dismal universal hiss, the sound/Of public scorn” (Milton X.504-9). Satan then writhes in pain, ironically turning into a serpent, and gazes out from Pandemonium to see that all of his demonic legions have also turned into snakes. He then notices a newly-sprung grove of trees growing in Hell, “laden with Fruit like that/Which grew in Paradise…thinking to allay/Thir appetite with gust, instead of Fruit/Chewd bitter Ashes” (X.550-1, 64-6). Rather than being able to take joy from outsmarting God, Satan and his followers are instead punished to a worse fate than they had experienced previously. The legions of Hell now scorn the being they once considered their sovereign. Satan, who had risked everything to uplift his people, failed them in the end. Satan’s ultimate failure stems from him “trying to bootstrap himself…to deity…His failure is [the failure] to understand [that] deity is an order of being that is fundamentally different from, and infinitely superior to, one’s own — a source not a rival” (Fish 99). It is his hubris towards God which leads to Satan’s fall. Satan believes that he and God are equal, which causes the initial rebellion and the fall from heaven. This arrogant notion festers inside of him until it boils over and takes control of his intentions to improve the quality of his and his followers’ lives. His misguided attempts to secure personal freedom fail, along with his envy of Eden’s beauty, cause a physical degradation that reflects his own internal degradation: “The once beautiful archangel, who flew out of the burning lake, has become a crawling creature slithering to his prey and eternal damnation. Heaven’s feathered wings have been replaced by the scales of deception” (Feldkamp 21).

Ultimately, Satan’s defeat came not from evil intentions; on the contrary, he shows himself to be, in a traditional sense, quite heroic. It is Satan’s fatal flaw that leads to his downfall. Tenacious and driven, he attempts to bring about a good welfare for his followers in Hell, but his jealousy and pride lead to their undoing. Satan’s pursuits towards universal understanding and freedom are defeated by the omniscient and omnipotent nature of God. The most well-intended actions can be considered evil when darker thoughts take hold of one’s heart. Instead of helping his people, as Satan initially intended to accomplish, his overwhelming pride turned him to try and prove himself to be God’s equal. His weakness got the best of him, in the end, and Satan is now eternally damned for fighting for knowledge and freedom. One must weep for him.


 Works Consulted

Dent, Shirley. “Sympathy for Milton’s Devil.” Books Blog. The Guardian, 10 Sept. 2010. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

Feldkamp, John K. “Giving the Devil His Due: The Emergence of the Fallen Hero in English   Literature.” Thesis. Eastern Michigan University, 2008. DigitalCommons@EMU. Eastern Michigan University, 30 Apr. 2008. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

Fish, Stanley. How Milton Works. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001. Print.

“Hero.” Def. 1-2. Merriam-Webster. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

Hoyt, Randy. “The Rebellion of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost.” Journey to the Sea. N.p., 1 Aug. 2008. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

Kile, J. “5 Traits of a Hero.” MoralHeroes. MoralHeroes, 1 Dec. 2012. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

Russell, Jeffery B. Satan: The Early Christian Tradition. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987. Print. G – Reference,Information and Interdisciplinary Subjects Ser.

Milton, John. “Book 10.” The John Milton Reading Room. Dartmouth College, 2014. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Ed. Martin Puchner et al. Third ed. Vol. C. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 774-853. Print.

Nighan, Raymond, Ph.D., and Donna Freitas, Ph.D. “Romantic Comments on Milton’s Satan.” Romantic and Gothic Horror. St. John’s College High School, 7 Apr. 2010. Web. 2 Dec.      2014.

Rouviere, Niel D. “The Curious Case of the Word ‘Sonder'” Niel De La Rouviere. N.p., 5 June 2013. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

Smith, Nicole. ““Paradise Lost” by Milton : Satan, Heroism and Classical Definitions of the Epic Hero.” Article Myriad. N.p., 7 Dec. 2011. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

Interactions with the End of the World: An Examination of The Last of Us Through Reader-Response

Video games are a form of art. Like film, music, and literature before it, video games not only provide a form of entertainment, but also provide forms of cultural enrichment. Games have evolved beyond defeating multitudes of faceless enemies in order to obtain the highest possible score. Many games are now narrative experiences, bringing entertainment to the masses while also discussing themes such as life and death, finding love in a difficult world, acts of courage in desperate times, and doing what is right even if the methods are wrong. Better yet, these narrative experiences are able to present these themes in a highly active setting. Unlike films and literature, which have the audience passively observing as the events of their stories undergo, video games require the player to act in order to progress the story, creating an active relationship between the player and the content of the game. These games, which act as narrative experiences, are taken in by the players and fans and it is up to them to engage with the story and create meaning from it. There has been no other game in recent years that has accomplished better than The Last of Us.

Released in 2013 by Naughty Dog, The Last of Us is a heart-breaking story of survival in which the protagonist is pitted against the world in order to protect the one thing he holds dear. Twenty years after a lethal fungal infection decimates sixty percent of the human population, leaving many as shambling zombies, Joel, a hardened smuggler who lost his daughter at the start of the outbreak, is tasked with escorting Ellie, a teenager who is somehow immune to the Cordyceps Brain Infection, to a facility on the opposite end of the country controlled by the Fireflies, an organization dedicated to restoring humanity to its former state. The game forces players to stealthily scour through various environments, gathering scraps and resources, all the while fighting off the Infected and bandits. A recurring theme throughout the game is how far the characters are willing to go in order to do what is necessary to survive. While attempting to get Ellie to a group of Fireflies in Boston, Tess, Joel’s smuggling partner, exclaims, “Guess what, we’re shitty people, Joel. It’s been that way for a long time.” Joel responds, “No, we are survivors!” (Druckmann et. al 2013). During the twenty years before the events of the game, humanity has descended into a shade of its former self. The various governments have collapsed, hundreds of cities are evacuated and filled with Infected, and many of those who are not Infected and live outside of the quarantine zones are forced to commit cannibalism to survive. Joel does not see the violence he perpetrates as a smuggler to be either good or evil; rather, he is doing what he must in order to survive. The morals and ideals of the old world cannot survive in this new and decaying world. Another core concept of the game is to seamlessly create a bond between the player and the protagonist, so much so that the player ceases to be a part of the world around him or her and become immersed within the world of the narrative. Creative Director Neil Druckmann, when designing the concept of The Last of Us, wanted to “’build a whole game around this concept…where two people have to work together, to save each other…You can build that bond over time…and the player can see that bond grow’” (The Digital Fix). The game’s conflict centers not only around fighting enemies and scavenging supplies, but also in the relationship between Joel and Ellie. These two characters play along related cliches: the gruff and hardened, but secretly sensitive, protector, and the rebellious and free-spirited youngster. However, it is in the way that this relationship is presented to the character, amidst fending off hordes of Infected and along a cross-country trek, that really defines how the player connects with the characters. Such a story, populated with and characterized by the relationships between the various characters, is ripe with reader response analysis, filled with various instances in which player/audience interaction and interpretation is vital to the story. The Last of Us utilizes storytelling gaps, empathy, and immersion in order to effectively indoctrinate players into its world and create a one-to-one relationship between the player and the characters.

Before Joel is shown to be a hardened smuggler, he is presented to the player as a loving single-father whose world is pulled out from under him. At the start of the outbreak, Joel and his daughter Sara attempt to evacuate from Texas, when a soldier confronts them and, under orders from his commander, fires upon them (Druckmann et. al 2013). Sara is killed but Joel survives, breeding his initial contempt towards the governmental system. We, as players, instantly feel sorrow towards the event and sympathize with Joel; losing a loved one is among the worst pain one can ever experience. Twenty years after this event, though, we see Joel has changed, and not just physically. He is surly and acts as an enforcer to Tess’s more intelligent approach. Desiring to get stolen merchandise back from the Fireflies, the head of the organization, Marlene, an acquaintance of Joel’s, offers to trade him and Tess back twice the weapons that were stolen from them on one condition: take Ellie, a teenage girl, to “a crew of Fireflies that’ll meet you at the Capitol building…You hand her off, come back, and the weapons are yours” (Druckmann et. al 2013). The first time we meet Ellie is as a business interaction, not as being introduced to one of the primary characters of the story. The player is tasked with taking Ellie to this group of Fireflies, but when the Fireflies turn up dead and Joel has to take Ellie to where the group was supposed to take her, we begin to more fully interact with her. The player learns about how Ellie was raised in the post-apocalyptic, militaristic world, how she’s a fan of literature and comic books, and how all she’s looking for is a friend. Knowing the loss that Joel had with Sara, the player can begin to draw connections between Ellie and Sara’s sassy and sweet nature; Ellie becomes a daughter figure not only in the mind of Joel, but in the mind of the player. The player starts by protecting Ellie simply to get paid, but after saving her from Infected multiple times, the player’s investment in protecting her becomes an emotional investment, as she shows herself to be caring and vulnerable within a world where those emotions can be weaknesses, which often result in death. The game is effective in its ability to create empathy with Joel and have the player care for Ellie because of its immersion; it is not Joel taking care of her, but the player: “Games are particularly well-suited to supporting educational or activist programs in which the fostering of empathy is a key method or goal. This is because they allow players to inhabit the roles and perspectives of other people or groups in a uniquely immersive way” (Belman et. al). Empathetical connections are not the only ways in which the player’s investment matters in the story, however.

The game also utilizes gaps, in order to make the player feel more involved and allow for new interpretations of the story. Gaps, according to Wolfgang Iser, are defined as the missing parts of dialogue which “stimulates the reader into filling the blanks with projections. [The reader] is drawn into the events and made to supply what is meant from what is not said. What is said only appears to take on significance as a reference to what is not said” (Iser). The audience gains a greater role within the story, filling in the purposely-missing information with their own thoughts and ideas based on context clues. At that moment, the audience bridges the relationship with the text and becomes fully immersed within its world, being a part of it and supplying their own information and interpretations to the events. This technique is present in The Last of Us, specifically in the scene where Tess resigns herself to die after being bitten by an Infected. Cornered by the military in the abandoned Boston Capitol building and without an idea of where to go, Tess begs Joel to take Ellie out west to find where the Fireflies wanted to bring Ellie. She implores him, saying, “’Look, there’s enough here that you have to feel some sort of obligation to me,’” getting close to Joel’s face and speaking softly (Druckmann et. al 2013). The relationship between Joel and Tess is never completely defined; we’re introduced to Tess having completed a trade which she and Joel were both supposed to be present at, and come to know her as a smuggler who, like Joel, isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty to complete the business. This moment she shares with Joel, before she buys him and Ellie time to escape by sacrificing herself, is one of the only moments of vulnerability the player ever sees from her, and so it’s up to the reader to interpret how this interaction changes the dynamic of their relationship. Though they act as business partners when the player first meets them and later as friends as the player sees their interactions, Tess, in this moment, reveals that the relationship between her and Joel may be more intimate than initially considered. The softness of her voice and the choice of her words suggest that she and Joel were engaged in a sexual relationship, too, if not a romantic one; most likely the first and only Joel had experienced since the death of his daughter. However, the game doesn’t try to beat the information into the heads of the players, allowing it to flow naturally throughout the story instead and give the player the ability to fill in the gaps for himself or herself. A different player may interpret the interactions between Tess and Joel differently, due to a difference in interpretive communities and subjectivity, but that is the point of such a moment: to leave the interaction open enough for the player to fill in the gaps with their own information, giving the player the power of interpretation and allowing them to be fully immersed within the story.

Over the course of an in-game year, Joel and Ellie travel across the country searching for the Fireflies, interacting with eccentric characters and surviving dangers together. The player sees the two take care of one another and grow affectionate towards each other. Nearing the story’s conclusion, Joel begins to see Ellie as a replacement to his deceased daughter, Sara. In Ellie, Joel sees a second chance to raise a daughter and take care of her,; he blames himself for Sara’s death and sees a redemption of-sorts in Ellie. So one could imagine Joel’s shock when he learns of what is to happen to Ellie when the two finally reach the Fireflies. Talking with Marlene, the head of the Fireflies, after reaching the organization’s research base in Utah, Joel learns that in order to study Ellie’s immunity to the fungal infection, the Fireflies have to kill her and perform tests via autopsy. Joel then goes on a rampage throughout the facility, killing the Firefly soldiers and making his way to the surgery room (Druckmann et. al 2013). Upon entering the room, the head surgeon tries to attack Joel with a scalpel, but the player defends himself or herself by shooting the doctor. The player, still in full control of Joel, can choose to kill the other surgeons, even though they do not attack Joel. They cower in the corner, begging for their lives, but the player can choose to walk over to them, pull out a gun, and shoot them for being implicit in the surgery that would kill Ellie. There is nothing stopping the player from doing this, or from just taking Ellie and leaving without further violence, but it is completely up to the player to do so; the game is not making a choice for them or showing a cut-scene to watch, but gives the player complete control of the situation. At this point, the player has seen Joel commit acts of violence all in the name of protecting Ellie, the acts becoming arguably more and more unjustified. Whereas at first Joel kills the bodyguards of people attempting to kill him, Joel now kills soldiers and doctors who are attempting to create a vaccine to the fungus infection that has plagued the planet. The player does not questions such questionable morals, however, because the player has been slowly drawn into Joel’s mindset and sense of morality throughout the story: “By combining individual experience with the symbols on the page, the reader can then begin to have a transaction with the text resulting in an emotional response. The same type of emotional response can result when a gamer has a transaction while gaming…the characters [are] a true part of them” (Sanders 123-124). The player, when playing a game, becomes a part of the character, ceasing to see the separation of the real and digital worlds and instead becoming immersed within the world of the game. The game developer can, then, manipulate the player in any number of ways through this relationship, even going so far as to make Joel, a rather villainous character, the protagonist and giving players the choice to protect a young girl by killing defenseless doctors. It is this type of interaction between the character on-screen and the player which bridges the gap between the player and character; the player ceases to recognize his or her own morality and instead follows the morality of the character. All of this emotional interaction and filling-in-the-gaps culminates in the game’s conclusion.

Taking Ellie from the Firefly facility, Joel drives the two to the compound where his brother has set up a functioning town, with a garden, stables, and even electricity. In order to get this far, Joel had to kill his former friend Marlene and convince Ellie that the Fireflies were unable to create a vaccine. Before entering the town, Ellie tells Joel that she wasn’t alone when she became infected; she was with her best friend, Riley, and the two believed that they would “’wait it out…and just lose our minds together. I’m still waiting for my turn’” and Ellie makes Joel “’Swear to me that everything you said about the Fireflies is true’” (Druckmann et. al 2013). Joel lies to her and swears that he is telling the truth, to which Ellie simply responds with, “Okay,” as the credits begin to roll (Druckmann et. al 2013). There isn’t much room for interpretation at this point: it is easily assumed by the player that Ellie knows that Joel is lying and the sacrifice which she was willing to make didn’t matter. But, as shown throughout the game, the truth is much more complicated than that. Months after the game’s release, Naughty Dog made a piece of side-content called The Last of Us: Left Behind, which tells the story of how Ellie and Riley got bit. When the duo realizes that they have a few hours until they are supposed to turn, Riley presents her best friend with two options: either they commit suicide and prevent themselves from turning into Infected or “’we fight for every second we get to spend with each other. Whether its two minutes or two days, we don’t give that up’” (Druckmann et. al 2014). This sentiment is repeated by Joel upon the game’s conclusion: “’No matter what, you keep finding something to fight for’” (Druckmann et. al 2013). This interaction with Riley completely changes the interpretation of Ellie’s acceptance of Joel’s actions. Instead of resenting Joel for what he did, it can be interpreted that Ellie understands why he did it and, though it’s difficult to accept, she has found another reason to keep fighting for another day. Joel found that reason in Ellie, and now, Ellie finds it in Joel. Of course, other interpretations are now opened up through the clarification of the downloadable content, but what’s important in this is that the player’s interaction with the game can change and the complexities of the game’s themes are what the player must wrestle with, in order to create meaning.

Video games are a transactional form of entertainment and “Meaning is created during the transaction and is an organic process occurring as the reader and text connect in a specific moment in time” (Sanders 113). Not only does the game obviously impress upon and influence the player, but as shown within The Last of Us, the player influences the game. The game may create the emotional investment the player feels between Joel and Ellie, but it is up to the player himself/herself to create meaning within the story’s gaps or to interpret the emotionally difficult ending of the game. It is these complex moments, where a character dies or someone lies to protect someone else, which the player comes to terms with and creates meaning from. Unlike other forms of literature or entertainment, the player is able to interpret meaning from the story of the game because the game requires direct interaction in order to progress. Like a Möbius strip, the relationship between the player and the game flows into one another; meaning cannot exist without one. The Last of Us tells a tale of the apocalypse without relying heavily on action and cliches, but on emotional investment and character-driven conflicts, as well as asking important questions of the player, such as “For what reason do you keep fighting, when all hope is lost?” and “Is this world beyond redemption?” It is these aspects which make it a paragon of reader-response in video games.


Works Cited

Belman, Jonathan, and Mary Flanagan. “Designing Games to Foster Empathy.” Cognitive Technology 14.2 (2009): 5-15. Mary Flanagan. Web.

Druckmann, Neil, and Bruce Straley. The Last of Us. 14 June 2013. Video Game. Sony Computer Entertainment.

Druckmann, Neil, and Bruce Straley. The Last of Us: Left Behind. 14 February 2014. Video Game. Sony Computer Entertainment.

Iser, Wolfgang. Interaction between Text and Reader. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York City: W.W. Norton, n.d. N. pag. Print.

Sanders, April. Parallels Between the Gaming Experience and Rosenblatt’s Reader Response Theory. Thesis. University of North Texas, 2013. Denton: U of North Texas, 2013. UNT Digital Library. University of North Texas, May 2013. Web. 19 May 2014.

“The Last of Us: An Interview With Naughty Dog.” The Digital Fix. Poisonous Monkey Limited, 2013.