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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

House and Home

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Edmund Wilson heralded Edith Wharton (1862-1937) as "Not only one of the great pioneers, but also the poet, of interior decoration". In great detail, Wharton's fiction describes the habitats of that breed of middle-class, urban Americans at the end of the nineteenth century. Here is an extract from The House of Mirth (1905):

He ushered her into a slip of a hall hung with old prints. She noticed the letters and notes heaped on the table among his gloves and sticks; then she found herself in a small library, dark but cheerful, with its walls of books, a pleasantly faded Turkey rug, a littered desk and, as he had foretold, a tea-tray on a low table near the window. A breeze had sprung up, swaying inward the muslin curtains, and bringing a fresh scent of mignonette and petunias from the flower-box on the balcony.

Wharton's creation of the details of domesticity is more than simply an exercise in description and design. One of Wharton's consistent themes is the way in which physical space is a powerful metaphor for psychological freedom. In Ethan Frome, a remarkable novella, the tragic Ethan sees "in the diminished dwelling the image of his own shrunken body"; Lily Bart, the heroine of The House of Mirth is either shut-in or shut-out of the houses of aristocratic America, and is forced to become a chameleon-like figure, constantly adapting (most famously in the novel's tableau vivant scene) to her surroundings without ever feeling firmly located; for Lydia in the short story "Soul's Belated," marriage is a physical convention, designed "to keep people away from each other."

If Wharton was the poet of the interior, then her contemporary Willa Cather (1873 - 1947) must make a strong claim to be the literary artist of the outdoors. As Cather wrote, "When I strike the open plains, something happens. I'm home. I breathe differently. That love of great spaces, of rolling open country like the sea - it's the grand passion of her life." Whereas Wharton's characters shuttle between the elaborately showy sets of classy America, Cather's fictions dramatise the experience of the pioneers on the frontier, in their struggle to lay down roots, secure ownership of a plot of land on which they may sustain themselves and their inheritors, build their own domestic space. Yet her immigrants never feel a sense of utter homelessness, even though many of them (Russian, German, Irish) are a thousand miles displaced. The current of the oral tradition, of stories of people in their homeland, of circling myths, rebinds them continually back to the land of their ancestors, even as in this new space they lo new space they look forward to their new future.

So, the comparison between Cather and Wharton serves very well to emphasise the truth of the old adage: that one may have a comfortable domestic environment, without ever feeling a sense of secure settlement, or be a nomad living a hesitant existence on the fringes of comfort, yet feel the indelible attachment to that invisible place miles away, which still anchors one to a sense of home.

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Posted by Alistair at 3:11 pm


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