An Analysis of The Rain Child And Antigone
Short stories play an important role in literature, being sometimes more expressive than any novel of a more considerable length. Many people prefer them to novels: they are usually not so complex as novels are, there are only a few characters in them, they are easier to follow, and so on. They are popular all over the world. In this paper I would like to deal with short stories written by such great Canadian authors as Margaret Laurence and Sheila Watson. Their works are well-known not only in the English speaking countries, but also in other parts of the world.
Their books and other writings have been translated into several languages and receive attention and praise from many countries. The first short story that I am now going to deal with is my favourite one out of the two that I have chosen to analyse. It is The Rain Child written by Margaret Laurence. It is a sad story about a black teenager, Ruth Quansah, who was born in England and who spent all her childhood there. The main problem of this short-story is how to find one`s identity when one is uprooted – torn out of the place where one belongs.
Although Ruth’s mother died when she was a baby, her father did his best to give her everything she needed. When she was 15, however, Dr. Quansah decided to return to Africa, to his birthplace. I think that it is only natural that Ruth has been deeply affected by England and that she considered herself an English girl, rather than an African one. She grew up in England, she was educated there, all of her friends were English – everything connected her with the UK. So, when she is taken to Eburaso, she gets quite confused.
She can’t speak Twi which is the mother tongue of all the other girls at her school. Her father hasn’t taught it to her, he has always talked to her in English because he didn’t want her to face the same language problems as he had had to. Another difficulty is that she doesn’t understand the Africans, she is not acquainted with their culture and she isn’t even interested in it. Under such conditions it is extremely hard for her to make friends. She does not know how to get along with these children and so she is lonely. Everyone is a stranger in her eyes and she is a stranger to them.
In the class she rushes to answer every question before anyone else had a chance, but it only makes things worse. No one understands her, she has no-one to talk to and no-one to care about her. So when she meets David, an English boy, she feels happy. David is the first one to be kind with Ruth. They talk the same language. David helps Ruth to find herself again. He shows her his animals and they play together happily. This is the first friendship Ruth makes at her new place. David teaches Ruth many things about the island and she gets acquainted with many things typical for her new country.
She starts to learn Twi and gets closer to Kwaale, the girl who teaches it to her. Little by little she accepts that she has to live here. She also seems to find her identification here. Then she decides to take part of the life of her new countrymen actively. She makes her mind up to go with the other girls to celebrate the Odwira. She wants to know the customs of the Africans, but they frighten her and she can’t accept them. When she goes to David to find consolation, he tells them that she is almost like Europeans. In fact, it is this point that she realizes that she neither belongs to England, nor to Africa.
It makes her feel even worse and finally, she runs away. There doesn’t remain anything else for her father than to take her away from the country to the town. But is it really a good solution? I think that it will be much the same for her, she will have to get accustomed to her new environment again. So, I think that the end of the story doesn’t offer a proper solution as things can repeat themselves. But does there exist a real solution to a problem like this one? Ruth is not, however, the only character in this short story who is unable to get used to Africa.
Miss Povey, the headmistress of Ruth`s new school, has a problem similar to the one that our main character has to struggle with. In spite of the long time she has spent in Africa, she still remains English-centred. In her eyes African parents are unenlightened, she simply cannot get used to their culture and habits. Violet Nedden is the exact opposite of her. I think she has really got used to the Africans and she can understand their way of life, as well as their behaviour. She wants to help these people and when reading the short story, I got the impression that she is totally altruistic.
She tries to help everybody who need her advice. When Ruth refuses to adapt to her new environment, she encourages her. She also helps Ayesha and Yindo, who are both miserable in some way. What Miss Nedden does is more than simple missionary work. As she tends to treat children as her own and tries not to segregate them by colour or race, I personally would say she accomplished more than Miss Povey, for Miss Nedden is the one who really put Bible into practice. Unlike Miss Povey, Miss Nedden has no English flowers. It also seems to represent that she identifies with Africa much more than Miss Povey.
Miss Nedden doesn’t refuse African culture, although she clearly knows she is English. When the local festivals, the Odwira take place, she goes along with the girls, while Miss Povey regards it as dangerously heathen. However, there is a line in the story which made me look closer at her nature and to revalue her personality. It is a line which contradicts Miss Nedden’s unselfishness: I am thinking of her answer to Dr. Quansah’s question, when he asked her why she was there, in Africa. She told him that it was not for the Africans but for herself.
At some places in the short story I do feel that even though Miss Nedden identities much with the African culture, sometimes she still shows her needs to feel superior, whether she is conscious of it or not. Her first name, Violet can symbolise her close connection with Africa as this continent is famous for violets. However, she feels it ludicrous to be applied to her and she detests it. Of course, it has something to do with her feeling that her appearance and the way she walked do not fit into the image of the beautiful flower.
But on the other hand it also implies the possibility that deep in her mind and heart she feels that England is superior to Africa and so why should an English woman be named after a typically African flower? The reason of the fact that she always wants to explain her infirmity, her limp is that she got it only after coming to Africa. It is probable that she feels that coming to Africa makes her inferior. Moreover, she imagines that if she mentioned it to Africans, they “tend to become faintly apologetic” thinking her lameness as “the mark of Africa” upon her.
It is simply her own imagination, whereas the truth must be that the Africans would simply pity her. Although Miss Nedden isn’t aware of her imperialistic feelings in the above case, she feels ashamed of her having “enthroned” herself sitting in her garden chair with her “sceptre” by her side when Kwaale appears as a young queen. She believes it “would be the right thing for her to do”, which can stand for the fact that Miss Nedden considers Kwaale inferior not only as her student, but also as an African girl. Sometimes she can’t stop using her Western values.
It is evident when she thinks of what Kwaale’s life would be after marriage, considering it sad to bear “too many children in too short a span of years. ” Her cane imagined as a sceptre is, of course, a symbol of her need to feel superior. However, the cane that is made of the ebony that was grown and carved in Africa also shows her ambiguous and split identities. She needs the cane to assure her superiority, but it is the African cane instead of an English one that gives her the sense of being “better”. Moreover, the cane not only supports her body, but also serves as her companion.
However, it is more than once suggested that the African cane seems to have more power than its user, an English woman. For all that, I still think that her attitude is quite correct and in my opinion, every newcomer to a country should behave in a way similar to that of Miss Nedden, if he wants to succeed. Of course, Miss Nedden is not the only European in Africa who has the sense of superiority over the natives. We can see that David’s mother, Clare Mackie is likely to speak ill of her African boss behind his back as she complains about the inadequacies of local labour.
The reason for which the boss won’t be scolded to his face is only that he has a higher position than Clare Mackie in the field of work. The relationship between Miss Nedden and Ruth’s father seems ambiguous. There is something hidden behind Miss Nedden’s narration about the interaction between her and Dr. Quansah. Being the teacher of Ruth, Miss Nedden has got the chance to talk to Dr. Quansah quite often. Though their conversations are mainly about Ruth, if we look closer, there is still “something” behind the simple lines. As the story proceeds, they reveal more about themselves to each other.
At first they always talk about Ruth, yet later on Dr. Quansah tells his own story to Miss Nedden. “Finally, his need to speak was greater then his reluctance to reveal himself…. ‘Have you any idea of what it is like,’ he cried, ‘to need someone to talk to, and not to have even one person? ‘” Dr. Quansah not only reveals his own story, but also reveals his emotions to Miss Nedden. It suggests that he trusts her and that there is a closer relationship between them. What connects them is that both of them have left their own countries and both had to get adapted to new circumstances, to a different culture.
Dr. Quansah confronted racial discrimination when he was in Europe, but after he comes back to his native country, he still has problems communicating with the young generation. He is lonely. Being a foreigner in Africa, Miss Nedden has a sense of loneliness too. That’s why she can understand Dr. Quansah’s solitude and this brings them even closer. “He broke off. ‘I really should not bother you with all this. ‘ ‘Oh, but you’re not. ‘ The words came out with an unthinking swiftness which mortified me later when I recalled it. ‘I haven’t so many people I can talk with, either, you know. ‘You told me as much, once,’ Dr. Quansah said gently. ‘I had not forgotten. ‘” This paragraph shows that their relationship has become more than just one of “a teacher and a student’s father. ” Why would Miss Nedden recall their conversation even later? People usually recall things because the things mean something to them. As for Dr. Quansah, isn’t it because Miss Nedden also means something to him that he can’t forget what she’s said? There seems to be a particular feeling, a sense of “tenderness” in their conversation. Their last conversation suggests even more of that. …. Even for a father like myself, who relies so much on schools, it is still not such an easy thing to bring up a child without a mother. ” Hearing this, Miss Nedden probably thinks that Dr. Quansah might be about to propose to her and thus she feels nervous. “I leaned back in my scarlet chair. The old rattan received my head, and my absurdly jagged breath eased…. We were silent for a moment. ” The silence suggests the unspoken affections between them. However, Dr. Quansah probably thinks that at his age, he can only risk one change – to come back to this country. ” …
I think that is the last new thing I shall be able to do in my life. ” Dr. Quansah must have thought about marrying Miss Nedden, but he doesn’t think that he’s able to take a second marriage. And Miss Nedden’s reaction reveals her disappointment. “My hands fumbled for my cane (this suggests her need for a comfort)… I found and held it, and it both reassured and mocked me. ” What’s interesting is that Miss Nedden’s sorrow about Ruth and Dr. Quansah’s departure seems to have more to do with Dr. Quansah than with Ruth. So, although Miss Nedden narrates their interactions plainly, there is this unspoken ambiguity behind the lines.
The other short story that I would like to write about is Sheila Watson’s Antigone. It is a modern version of the classic Greek tragedy, the original author of which was Sophocles. Watson’s Antigone differs from it not only in genre, but also in the way it is presented and it has a contemporary setting. This modern Antigone is in fact a highly poetic and mysterious short story. When reading it for the first time, I got the impression that it’s a chaotic, nonsense story almost without form or meaning, but after having read it a couple of times I think I have understood the gist of it.
However, it would be very hard to explain in detail what the author wanted to tell by this piece of writing, as I think it’s really difficult to grasp the real meaning of it. What I managed to make out is that the story is set in the recent past, in British Columbia, Canada, but its links to a much older past are presented as well. The first-person narrator’s name is not revealed to the reader, but those who are acquainted with the original story of Antigone, can easily guess that it can’t be else than Haemon. He narrates the story from a totally different point of view, when compared to the original.
In the opening paragraph he compares his father to the Biblical Moses, “simply trying to bring a stubborn and moody people under God’s yoke. ” The father in the story is trying to rule “men who thought they were gods or, at very least, god-afflicted and god-pursued. ” Both the gods and the god-afflicted people he tries to rule are inmates of an insane asylum and they are all having the names of Greek gods. The narrator’s father does not really rule the inmates. He watches over them so that they will not trouble their society, doing his best to “maintain an atmosphere of sober common sense” in his institution. Antigone, his efiant niece lives in the asylum with her sister, Ismene, and her cousin, the story’s narrator. We are invited to see the ruler of the asylum as Creon, although he isn’t actually named ( just like Haemon). Watson presents her version with the assumption that readers know the classic story of Antigone and her defiance of the King of Thebes. On its very simplest level, this is a story a young man tells of being in love with his exasperating cousin and of watching her defy the authority of his father, the keeper of the insane asylum, by digging up the “public ground” of the asylum to hold a funeral for a dead bird.
This reminds us of the Antigone who defied her uncle to bury her brother, whom her uncle had left to lie dead in the sun as punishment for his act of rebellion. The classical Antigone was banished for her defiance and hanged herself in the cave to which she was exiled. Her lover, Haemon, killed himself to be with her. Our modern Antigone, however, doesn’t seem to be punished by her uncle, he simply turns away from her. But in fact, in his dismissal of her, he pronounces Antigone dead, as Sophocles’ Creon tried to pronounce Antigone dead when she defied him.
In addition to the immediately obvious Greek connections are references, all through the story, to the Old and New Testaments. Watson’s story is full of ideas but they are not explained, they are just presented and left to have their own effects. Interesting images are offered by the two banks of the river. On the right bank is the ordered world where the asylum, convent, churches, cemetery, market, and penitentiary make up the “habitable world. ” On the left bank is the wilderness “of Alaska tea and bulrushes”.
Between the two, runs the river, crossed by two bridges, one old and full of knotholes through which the narrator is afraid of falling, and one new, safe and foolproof. Ismene is suited to the world of the right bank, but Antigone is fascinated by stories of crossing the river, of escape to the world of the left bank. On the new bridge, the narrator can stand and observe both banks. There, he thinks about the differences between Antigone and her sister Ismene. The narrator says more than once of Ismene that she sees the world in an ordered way. Antigone, on the other hand, sees the world flat as I do and feels it tip beneath her feet. ” When the scene of the story changes from the bridge to the lawn of the asylum, the narrator describes how Antigone and Ismene relate to flowers. “Ismene sits in the monkey puzzle tree and slits daisies to make a chain for her neck and a crown for her hair. . . . Antigone reaches for a branch of the magnolia. It is almost beyond her grip. Buds flame above her. She stands on a small fire of daisies which smoulder in the roots of grass. “
The narrator drops a handful of loose daisies on the dead bird. He also takes a bruised magnolia blossom from Antigone’s hand and puts it into the box with the bird. So the three characters are defined for us by their differing connections to the setting of the story. Ismene, typically, shapes the daisies to a chain, to order; Antigone, as always, reaches for splendour almost beyond her reach; and the narrator, between the two, picks up the daisies which Ismene leaves out of her chain and rescues the magnolia which Antigone bruises. Greek myth supplies images as well as names.
In this story, the “gods” are the inmates of the insane asylum, who are “watched over” like “the dethroned Titans”: Atlas forgets the sky “while he sat eating the dirt which held him up”; Pan, the gardener, shifts “sprinklers with a hooked stick”; Kallisto, the bear, cries for the dead bird because it “has a bride’s flower in its hand”. Beside images from the Greek mythology, there are biblical ones in the text as well. The trumpets of Corinthians and of Revelations, which the narrator remembers while he watches Antigone bury the dead bird, carry associations of challenge and of judgement.
The title heroine, Antigone is, presumably, without discipline. She is isolated from the world of the right bank and condemned by its disciplinarian, who simply refuses to recognise her existence. The difference between the two women in the story is that while Ismene thinks and conforms; Antigone dreams and challenges. She challenges the narrator as she defies his father, whom he fears. Neither of the men can withstand her. Antigone is messing up the neat order of the right bank, letting in a little chaos, a little disorder . . . she defies what she sees with a defiance which is almost denial”. I feel a kind of sympathy for Antigone in her struggle to free herself from a tyrannical uncle in order to get to the on the other side of the river, beyond the conventions of the right bank. The narrator is a young man, just like the other young men, but his conflict is the conflict between the safe choice and the dangerous, one: “I should have loved Ismene, but I didn’t. It was Antigone I loved” . In choosing Antigone, he chooses rebellion over order, challenge over piece.
Thus he also becomes a sympathetic character, at least for me. Be it short story, or allegory, Watson’s Antigone surely is quite mysterious and unexplainable, although I am sure that it is not incomprehensible. Both the short stories I have tried to analyse in this paper are in some way unique. I do hope that I have managed to point out the most interesting thoughts and ideas that the authors intended to express. I am sure that there do exist many interpretations of them, but how can anybody be sure that his is the correct one?