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William Blake’s “Little Black Boy,” Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” James Joyce’s “The Dead” and Sarah Kane’s Blasted each demonstrate how a writer’s use of language can give us intimate access to the time period that in turn informs the writer’s choices.
Emerging out of a period where writers were creating anti-slavery literature, Blake’s “Little Black Boy” moves beyond a critique of physical abuse to examine the subtle ways in which people normalize racist attitudes. The malleable mind of a child provides the perfect breeding ground for these attitudes.
In the poem, the boy’s mother explains his skin color by telling him “and we are put on earth a little space/ that we may learn to bear these beams of love/ and these black bodies and this sunburnt face/ is but a cloud, and like a shady grove” (Blake 14-16). The narrator uses the references to the sun and clouds to naturalize racial differences. The word choices—“learn,” “beams of love,” “a little space”—take on the patient, instructive tone of a mother teaching a lesson to her child in a form that is both simple and comforting. The narrator demonstrates how language is deployed not only to promote but to internalize oppression.
Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” uses lilting, beautiful language to buffer the provocative content. While stylistically the poem adheres to Victorian literary conventions, it radically challenges cultural conventions. The poem uses the fairy tale genre to image a female-centered utopia. During a time when women in reality had to negotiate their lifestyles through men, Rossetti demonstrates the power of language to bring social criticism into the mainstream.
The sisters in the poem resist patriarchal culture through their intense intimacy that renders marriage unnecessary, an intimacy demonstrated in lines such as “golden head by golden head, like two pigeons in one nest, folded in each other’s wings, they lay down, in their curtained bed” (Rossetti 84-88). The pigeon metaphor naturalizes what could be labeled a “deviant” act, therefore reducing the likelihood that the casual reader would interpret the women’s relationship as either incestuous or homosexual. Lines like “cheek to cheek and breast to breast, locked together in one nest,” coupled with the nature imagery, lend a purity and innocence to their interactions. The pleasant, rhythmic language, ornate imagery and repetition resemble that of a bedtime story, lulling the reader into the poem. In this way, Rossetti “sanitizes” the poem’s eroticism so that readers do not see these acts as dirty and shameful but rather as something beautiful to be embraced. “Goblin Market” uses the fairy-tale-like language to detach the acts of love from the stigma associated with such labels as “homosexual” and “incestuous,” labels that the hegemony relies on in order to assert its authority.
During the Modernist period, the “culture wars” in England revolved around what books were being taught in school and promoted the use of “proper English” over the type of English spoken by working class people. In “The Dead” the characters embrace this homogenization of language by carefully modulating their words in order to meet certain social expectations. By centering the story on Gabriel’s extreme self-consciousness concerning his verbal utterances, Joyce reveals how language can imprison our minds.
The opening paragraph of “The Dead,” through its careful delineation of social rituals, reveals just how important appearance is in Gabriel’s world. By focusing on the precision with which the women successfully organize this large social gathering year after year, Joyce sets the stage for Gabriel’s internal conflict. Language, like routine, is vital in maintaining social order. Gabriel spends much of the story agonizing over word choices, experiencing great trepidation when a woman appears to be offended by a remark he made. Because propriety maintains order in Gabriel’s culture, any out-of-place remark or off-color statement could introduce chaos to the social order.
“The Dead’ shows how self-presentation can be detrimental to personal development. Gabriel’s interior monologues are fueled by a ridiculous paranoia concerning whether or not he has misused language in a noticeable way. Yet our close access to Gabriel evokes familiarity in us so that we recognize our own tendencies to value rhetoric over content. His mechanical responses, his contrived sincerity and his desire to read others’ responses to his statements without actually understanding anyone outside of himself all demonstrate how linguistic codes-of-conduct can alienate us.
Gabriel only realizes how limited and colorless his existence is when his wife tells him of her long-lost love. Although her story lacks the sophistication of Gabriel’s dinner speech, it reveals a deep passion that Gabriel has spent his whole life fruitlessly searching for. It is her lack of polish that reveals her humanity. Therefore, “The Dead” attacks the soulless rhetorical devices that people cling to in order to maintain a sense of self-worth.
Post-modernism abandons linguistic structure in favor of an amorphous heap of slang, profanity and pop-culture references. Sarah Kane’s Blasted places language at the opposite extreme of “The Dead.” While still deeply problematic, language is no longer limited by over-determination but instead by its carelessness. The blunt, vulgar dialogue shows how an intellectually undernourished culture can cripple language, preventing it from reaching its full expressive capability. The characters live in a self-contained universe with no form of artistic stimulation; the only reading material they reference is newspaper. The colorless language resembles newspaper writing with clipped phrases, expositional details and unemotional descriptions. The tediousness of the exchanges evokes a sense of claustrophobia so that we as readers feel that we are chained to this impoverished language.
The violence in Blasted is at once shockingly repulsive and mind-numbingly banal. The outlandish external happenings never diminish the believability of the dialogue. Kane uses the type of loose, familiar language that readers would recognize from everyday discourse but not in the pages of a text: “You a nigger lover/ Ian, don’t/ You like our coloured brethren/ Don’t mind them/ Grow up/ There’s Indians at the day centre where my brother goes, they’re really polite/ So they should be/ He’s friends with some of them/ Retard, isn’t he/ No, he’s got learning difficulties/ Aye. Spaz” (Kane 5). The quick pace of this exchange suggests the ease with Ian can fling around such charged words as “nigger” and “spaz” while Cate attempts to deflect Ian’s words with empty euphemisms. Kane eliminates the flourishes of literary mechanisms by refusing to artistically enhance the dialogue. While conventional literature uses language to make meaning out of life, Blasted uses language to expose the ugliness of an existence that values neither literature nor meaning.
All four of these texts recognize the instructive potential of language as a means of cultural analysis. Kane and Blake stay close to their source material, allowing the narrative voice to account for itself rather than attempting to deconstruct the language. “Goblin Market” and “The Dead” distinguish themselves from the other two in that they both favor recuperative models over grim diagnoses. While Rossetti uses the dominant mode of language to challenge ideology, Joyce proposes an alternative to the linguistic model valued by his culture.
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