Taking Refuge in How: On Toni Morrison’s First Three Novels

I love reading writers’ works in chronological order. Especially with great novelists, it’s so satisfying to see the seeds of later masterpieces in early works. What I often notice is that writers experiment widely with different genres, styles, and narrative perspectives as they work to find a unique voice at the start of their career. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s first three novels, for example, include an epistolary social critique, a surrealist nightmare, and a Dickensian bildungsroman.

Reading Toni Morrison’s books, I’m finding a stark contrast. She does not leap from one kind of story to something radically different, like a pendulum trying to find equilibrium. Morrison’s voice shines through from the beginning. Her books contain vastly different plots and characters, but they all bear the marks of her imagination, style, and insight.

In Timothy Greenfields-Sanders’s powerful 2019 documentary about Morrison, The Pieces I Am, the interviewees frequently described Morrison as expanding her canvas with each work. I decided to read through all her novels and, after finishing the first three, I already understand what they meant. These early works do not merely anticipate masterpieces to come; they are masterpieces in their own right. Examining just how each novel expands on what came before is an inspiring and, frankly, humbling experience. And it all begins with The Bluest Eye.

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In the afterword to The Bluest Eye, Morrison traces the novel back to a haunting conversation from her childhood. One of her friends confided that she wanted blue eyes, a wish that disturbed Morrison because, “Implicit in her desire was racial self-loathing.” “Twenty years later.” Morrison reflects, “ I was still wondering about how one learns that.” The Bluest Eye directly responds to the systemic oppression that informed her friend’s desire by “peck[ing] away at the gaze that condemned her.”

Morrison demonstrates a keen understanding of what a novel can accomplish in just the first few pages of The Bluest Eye. In essence, the opening functions as an outline of every major plot point to come. By beginning this way Morrison spoils the ending to her own story, revealing the ultimate fate of the novel’s central character, Pecola Breedlove. But this isn’t a story whose power relies on maintaining suspense. It cannot be spoiled because it is not about what happened. It is not even about why things happened the way they did because, as the unknown narrator of the prologue tells us, “why is difficult to handle.” Instead, we “must take refuge in how.”

This elevation of how over why is a defining feature not only of The Bluest Eye, but of Morrison’s subsequent two novels. She does not make it easy for us by giving us straightforward answers or even straightforward questions. Instead we simply inhabit and perceive Morrison’s richly developed world through the eyes of characters as real as any person you could meet. This is something that can only be accomplished through fiction.

Her ability to effortlessly transport us from one consciousness to another (and often from one time period to another) allows us to simultaneously perceive everything that happens from a variety of viewpoints. This does not mean we always agree or even sympathize with the characters. But Morrison does not give us the comfort of seeing any of them as villains. She is too good a writer for readers to be left not understanding anyone. The true enemies, in any case, resist easy forms or definitions. Like the insidious gaze that filled Morrison’s friend with shame, they pollute the characters’ world through systems of oppression no single person is responsible for creating.

This identification of the true villain as something systemic and pervasive is made explicit at the end of a scene where three Black girls, Celia, Frieda, and Pecola, and a white girl named Maureen Peal get into an argument. Maureen eventually storms off and declares, “I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly…!” Celia is enraged, but admits that, “all the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not the Enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful, and not us.”

This scene exemplifies another one of Morrison’s strengths: her ability to write scenes that could function as powerful short stories entirely separate from the novel. In part this is due to Morrison’s tendency to switch perspectives with each chapter. She switches between time periods as well. The beginning of one chapter might take place decades before or after the last one ended. But The Bluest Eye never feels like a short story collection passing itself off as a novel. The further into the story you get, the more you see how Morrison weaves each episode together into a potent, deeply affecting whole. Morrison achieves this in many subtle ways, but one obvious method is by having each incident shape the life of one particular character, Pecola.

Earlier I called Pecola the central character of The Bluest Eye as opposed to the main one. That is because it’s hard to think of her as a main anything. Pecola is always on the receiving end of other characters’ neglect, abuse, or attempts at love. She is only allowed a chance to speak for herself at the very end, and by this point her psyche is so fractured that we end up with more of a hallucinatory dialogue than a clear perspective. Even the title emphasizes not Pecola herself but something she does not and will never have. The Bluest Eye is not so much about Pecola than about how others’ choices drive her inexorably towards tragedy.

Pecola is frequently a recurring background character while someone else narrates, but she is invariably the one who suffers most. One devastating instance comes when Celia and Frieda visit Pecola at the house where Mrs. Breedlove, her mother, works as a maid. The scene ends with Pecola being beaten by her mother after the girls accidentally knock over a pie Mrs. Breedlove made, dirtying the floor she had just cleaned in the process. What compounds the emotional toll of this moment is the presence of Mrs. Breedlove’s employer’s white daughter. The toddler is horrified when these three girls she has never met before ruin the delicious pie meant for her. Mrs. Breedlove responds by gently comforting the white child right after beating her own. She does not even acknowledge Pecola as her own daughter. The racial dynamics at play here are as complex as they are heartbreaking, illustrating Morrison’s wisdom in thoroughly telling us how and leaving the trickier why for us to contemplate on our own.

The Bluest Eye demonstrates Morrison’s already impressive command over her craft, especially through her use of different styles. She would eventually demonstrate these same strengths with her third novel, Song of Solomon. In between the two lays Sula.

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When considering Sula, Dostoevsky once again provides a useful contrast. In one of his letters, he told a friend that after writing about a guilty man in Crime and Punishment, he wanted to portray a purely innocent man in his next novel, The Idiot. Whether Morrison consciously saw Sula as the “opposite” of The Bluest Eye, the central figures at least are indeed polar opposites. The Bluest Eye, as mentioned earlier, refers to Pecola by way of by emphasizing what she does not have. The title Sula foregrounds the character Sula Peace, who looms over everything and everyone in the novel, even when she isn’t present. If The Bluest Eye is about how others’ choices impact Pecola, Sula is about how Sula’s choices impact others.

This is more than just the story of a different kind of character, however. First, it arguably has two central figures, Sula and her friend, the far less independent Nel Wright. But second, and more importantly, this is a story about a community as much as the people living in it. The first three lines make this clear beyond any doubt:

In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the alley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom.

 Both of Morrison’s first two novels open by looking back at something lost. In The Bluest Eye, it is an innocent time that disappeared after Pecola’s trauma. In Sula, Morrison prioritizes the loss of a place. And while places cannot literally die, there is something funereal about a place with a name being erased for the sake of a golf course and bland suburbs that undoubtedly looks like a thousand others. In both cases, an identity has been destroyed.

The interrelatedness of the Bottom’s inhabitants is made clear again and again. No major event affects just one person. Large crowds are often involved or at least present when such events occur. Generations also influence the lives of old and young alike. By the end of the novel, we have witnessed three generations whose triumphs and tragedies ineluctably shape those around them, even if the full ramifications of one action do not come until decades after. As strange as it may sound, I found myself thinking of Icelandic sagas. The plots of both Sula and these ancient narratives are deeply influenced by communities and the legacies of generations past. The actions of distant ancestors are so great that the titular hero sometimes doesn’t appear until a third of the way through the saga. Notably, Sula is not mentioned until around page 30 and it takes another 30 pages for Sula to take any action of her own in a novel named Sula.

Sula faces isolation more than once, but remains forever tied to her friend Nel. Both actually begin in an isolated state, which is why, “Their meeting was fortunate, for it let them use each other to grow on. Daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers…they found in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for.”

The characters complement each other in a way only opposites could. Nel is far more insecure, lacks the courage to ever leave the Bottom, and eventually surrenders to the kind of life expected of her. This comes as no surprise, since “Her parents had succeeded in rubbing down to a dull glow any sparkle or splutter she had.” She is infected by a trace of racial self-loathing, too, though in this case it appears in the form of language. Nel has family who speak Creole, but when Nel asks about the language, her mother curtly replies, “I don’t talk Creole,” adding, “And neither do you.”\

Sula, on the other hand, is a force of nature her entire life. Unlike Nel, or anyone else in the Bottom, she has the audacity to leave. She passes through over half a dozen cities before returning home to find herself a dreaded larger-than-life figure. She is believed to possess supernatural powers. There are also rumors that she slept with white men, something the people of the Bottom consider unforgivable. But no one is more affected by Sula’s return than Nel, whose ordered world is soon plunged into chaos.

Sula certainly expands on The Bluest Eye. But that expansion is nothing compared to what came next.

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Song of Solomon is a neutron star of a novel. It contains so many riveting characters, so many rich family histories, so any folktales and songs, and so many pieces of U.S. history yet manages to be less than four hundred pages.

The novel begins with an insurance salesman deciding to fly from the top of a North Carolina hospital to Lake Superior. Spoiler: he fails. The birth of the main character of Song of Solomon, Milkman Dead, coincides with the salesman’s suicide. “Milkman” is actually a nickname that derives from an early scene that highlights how his mother clings to her son in the face of a loveless marriage and the absence of her beloved father. His actual name is Macon Dead III. “Macon” and “Dead,” derive from an indifferent white man who misunderstands Macon’s grandfather shortly after slavery ends.

The next two thirds of the novel exhibit all of Morrison’s by now trademark strengths. We move from one time and consciousness to another, which lets us learn about each of Milkman’s family members. Their incongruous perceptions of each other put the reader in the role of a detective. Milkman, however, is undoubtedly the protagonist, and is the first one I worried I would not like. He initially seems to function purely as a way for us to get to know others because there is not much to know about him. He is aimless, lacks any ambition, and has a limited conception of the world, unlike his politically-informed friend, Guitar. The contrast between the two men calls to mind the differences between Nel and Sula.

Then we reach Part II and everything changes. The story becomes a literal search for buried treasure that in turn expands into a quest for his family’s history. Previously Milkman only experienced his family’s past through memories that may or may not be trusted. Now he goes to the actual places where these stories happened. It is a deeply satisfying twist in three ways. First, it builds on what we learned in Part I in unexpected ways. Second, Milkman does not simply gather up facts about his ancestors. He must piece together stories and folktales and the songs, including the “song of Solomon” to discover a deeply personal truth. And third, Milkman’s quest for a sense of belonging becomes symbolic of an entire people searching for their roots.

History has never been so present in Morrison’s early works. The murder of Emmett Till is directly referenced, as is Malcolm X, and the horrors faced by Black Americans are brought up time and again, including in a particularly fascinating dialogue about the secretive Seven Days organization between Milkman and Guitar. Morrison has never ignored the brutal realities of racism and the terror white people inflict on Black lives. There are multiple scenes in her first two novels that involve white people that are unbearably tense, even in situations that seem relatively safe for the characters. For example, in The Bluest Eye, Pecola’s father is, as a young man, forced to have sex with a girl in front of white men. It’s clear his life is in danger if he does not perform for them. In Sula, Nel and her mother accidentally get onto a white’s only section of a train. They hurry out, but not before they are noticed. This second example seems to have less dramatic stakes, but the depressing fact is that any time a white character appears, we as readers know they can do anything, no matter how vile, with total impunity.

Song of Solomon is different. The first two novels included occasional intrusions into Black worlds (worlds that are, of course, shaped by the United States’ virulent racism). The toxic reality of racism feels more pervasive in this third novel, something that the characters must contend with constantly. It is also addressed more directly and philosophically by characters than before, who consequently take drastically different paths in life. This unfortunately results in divisions among family and friends, the most painful of which occurs between Milkman and Guitar. But the divide between these two men does not come about by betrayal, as with Nel and Sula. Rather, it is a gradual process, accelerated by a misunderstanding with fatal consequences.

Song of Solomon begins with one man falling and ends with another learning to fly. But this spoils nothing. Like The Bluest Eye and Sula, this is a story about how. And that how is beautiful.

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These three novels are a testament to Morrison’s selflessness as a writer. The Bluest Eye alone is proof of this. Not only was it a reckoning with the cruel gaze that made her friend doubt her own inherent beauty. Morrison also explains in The Pieces I Am that she wanted to write specifically for a Black audience. She felt even writers like Frederick Douglass ultimately had a white audience in mind. Her novels would be different so that her readers would know someone was speaking to them. Furthermore, they would take place in worlds that were not defined by the white gaze or any white person’s preconceptions. Her novels’ worlds would be outside the white gaze entirely. The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Song of Solomon show an author with a commanding, distinctive voice, even as Morrison also gives voice to generations of Black Americans who struggle even today to be heard at all.

As a white man, I know I am not the audience Morrison imagined. But I am grateful for all I’ve learned from reading these three novels. They have exposed me to perspectives and ideas I never would have discovered otherwise. Researching them has also led me to other great writers I undoubtedly have just as much to learn from.

And best of all, I still have eight more Morrison novels to read.

Plunging Into the Infinite: How Literature Captures the Essence of Chess

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If stories teach us what it means to be human, then it’s no surprise that chess crops up again and again in literature. After all, people from all over the world have been playing this game for thousands of years. The game has a profound hold on our collective imagination. What about chess commands our respect as “the immortal game” or “the royal game,” whereas most of its peers are seen as harmless time-wasters?

The most obvious explanation why fiction is so replete with chess players is that, at their core, chess and stories are about the same thing—conflict. And it is a particular kind of conflict that is utterly devoid of chance. Whether a king is playing against a beggar or a nuclear physicist against a kindergartener, all that matters are the choices you make.

Chess is somewhat underserved by artistic mediums outside of literature. Often, it is used as a blunt metaphor for a literal conflict, like when Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty discuss the moves they’ve made in the battle on and off the board, or when Professor X and Magneto play chess in at least three X-Men films, all the while discussing the real conflict at hand. It probably doesn’t get more overt than Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, where a man plays a game of chess in which his life is on the line, and his opponent is Death.

Fiction, on the other hand, has the unparalleled ability to grant us insight into a character’s psyche. It is therefore uniquely qualified to explore the nature of chess itself. And while not every story that involves chess does this successfully, there are a select few that triumph in a way that works of another medium never could.

That’s because the greatest chess stories understand that trying to master chess is like trying to master the infinite, and the psychological consequences can be transcendent or terrifying.

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Chess is often associated with reason and, by extension, with intelligence, especially of the mathematical variety.  Flip through any chess book, with symbols like O-O and Qxa1, and it certainly seems that chess has the same sharp, crystalline beauty of mathematical proofs. The standard way of writing out chess moves currently used is even called algebraic notation. On top of all this, machines have been able to play chess since the ’90s, beating world champions along the way. So where does emotion fit in?

Chess itself might be nothing but logic and order, but it can invite a kind of madness. The painter Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp grew obsessed with the game, writing in a 1919 letter that, “I play day and night, and nothing interests me more than finding the right move…I like painting less and less.” During his honeymoon, he spent almost all his time playing chess (shockingly, the marriage didn’t last). Later, he called himself a “victim of chess.” He also said that “it has all the beauty of art—and much more,” and that chess was not only a sport, but “a violent” one. In a similar vein, Albert Einstein famously said, “chess holds its master in its own bonds, shackling the mind and brain so that the inner freedom of the very strongest must suffer.” Vladimir Nabokov was deeply intrigued by the game, publishing his own chess problems in the aptly named Poems and Problems. He also wrote his famous The Luzhin Defense. And given that the story meticulously details how chess drives his protagonist insane, Nabokov clearly understood that chess could have its…downsides.

The mental strain, of these and so many other players, professional and amateur alike, is a direct consequence of the infinite aspect of chess. Consider, for a moment, what it takes for someone to become a great chess player, how he or she must memorize and master a stupendous number of strategies and learn to recognize innumerable patterns, all while knowing that it’s impossible to ever learn every possibility. Perfection is forever out of reach.

Stefan Zweig understood the vast spectrum of effects chess could have on players, from the ennobling to the destructive. Nowhere is the full range of chess’s impact on individual minds better explored than in his final work, Chess Story.

One of the reasons Chess Story can be enjoyed by any reader, regardless of whether they love chess or have never played a single game, is that the story itself sees the game through three distinct perspectives—that of an outsider, a genius, and an amateur. The outsider is the narrator, who knows how to play and is intrigued by the game, but doesn’t play often and only for fun when he does. The real heart of the novella is the conflict between the genius and the amateur, the world champion Mirko Czentovic and the mysterious Dr. B.

Czentovic is unstoppable, easily dispatching all opponents. Yet he is also, bluntly, an idiot. He has little education and behaves in a childish, even boorish way around others. There is something supernatural, even magical about how Czentovic absorbs the game as a child after simply watching others play.

In contrast, Dr. B.’s skill is won through nearly a year of studying and playing the game every single day. This is only possible because Dr. B. is one of the many victims of the Nazis who, rather than being condemned to a concentration camp, was instead condemned to total isolation. As a number of real people were under the Third Reich, he is locked in a hotel room and kept there with nothing to do and no one to talk to. He is totally alone, unable to even tell whether it is night or day. He is kept alive through food and drinks provided by a guard, but the guard never communicates with him. Now and then Nazi soldiers drag him out of his room to interrogate him with the questions to which he has no answers.

Then, just when this inhuman isolation is starting to destroy him, Dr. B manages to steal a book from a soldier’s coat. He is initially disappointed when he sees it’s a book of chess games, but with nothing else to do, he quickly throws himself into studying the game purely as a way of escaping his small, unchanging, torturous world. But the world inside his mind grows torturous as well, as he succumbs to what he calls “chess poisoning.” Like an intellectual virus, chess eats away at him. He’s driven to a mental breakdown after, having mastered all the games notated in his book, he begins to play against himself. The effort it takes to divide his consciousness as he plays games purely in his mind is too much, and it almost drives him into permanent madness.

Almost. Luckily, Dr. B is released from the hotel thanks to the efforts of a compassionate doctor. He wisely stays away from the game until he feels compelled to help the narrator, who is playing against Czentovic on a cruise. The unbearably tense climax occurs when Dr. B plays against Czentovic one-on-one, the amateur who studied the game purely as a way of keeping sane—although eventually it drove him mad—and the genius whose ability seems otherworldly, a result of intuition or instinct.

Zweig makes chess absolutely absorbing and thrilling for any reader. But it is undeniable that Chess Story doesn’t paint an altogether positive view of the game, considering that one character is essentially a victim of the game, to again borrow Duchamp’s words.

While there are multiple novels in the vein of Zweig’s novella, one story provides an opposite view. In Ah Cheng’s The Chess Master, a player’s experience with the infinite doesn’t plunge him into madness; rather, it raises him to the sublime.

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In the introduction to the bilingual edition, Professor Ngai Ling-tun of the East Asian Languages and Literature Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison relates the story of how The Chess Master supposedly came to be. Apparently, Cheng—a painter and autodidact—loved to tell stories and people loved to listen to them. One of those stories so enthralled them that they urged him to write it down. Cheng didn’t think the written version was as good as the oral one, but it was good enough to earn it a prominent and beloved place in the canon of Chinese literature.

At first, The Chess Master seems similar to Zweig’s Chess Story. Both are concise stories that begin with a traveling narrator who is only mildly interested in chess and who meets a character who is uneducated yet highly skilled at the game. In Zweig’s story, that person is Czentovic. In Cheng’s story, it is Wang Yisheng, a young orphan who is able to temporarily escape the poverty and desperation of his life through chess. In Cheng’s novel, the backdrop is Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution—the narrator and Yisheng meet because they are both high school students compelled to go to work at a state farm in the countryside.

The differences end there. Chinese chess—called Xiangqi—is actually played differently than the chess familiar to most Americans and Europeans, with different pieces, different rules, and a different board. Second, while chess in Zweig’s novella is isolating, chess in Cheng’s novella allows the lonely Yisheng to form deep friendships.

At the end of Cheng’s novella, Yisheng plays nine players simultaneously. He has no board in front of him. He doesn’t even look at the players. They merely tell him their moves and he tells them his. One by one he defeats his opponents until the only person left is the winner of an important chess tournament. Yisheng is certainly strained mentally by the games, but he does not careen toward a breakdown like Dr. B. Instead, chess raises him to a higher spiritual plane (Taoism is brought up a number of times; Cheng frequently injects his stories with Taoist elements). In the end, the game does not conclude with a winner or loser; Yisheng graciously agrees to a draw so that his elderly opponent—who says he has renewed hope for the future of chess in China because of Yisheng—can save face.

Aside from the story being more uplifting—basically an underdog story—the fact that it ends in a draw is crucial. It illustrates that Cheng does not see chess as a metaphor for war. Far from it—chess is presented as a harmonious collaboration composed of moves and pieces, reason and imagination. The game is a work of art, not of conflict.

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It’s useful to see Zweig’s and Cheng’s stories at opposite ends of a spectrum of chess literature, with madness at one extreme, and serenity on the other. Perhaps the rewards of chess mirror those of literature, with infinite possibilities, and infinite rewards.

Image Credit: Pexels/sk.

The Mathematical Poet: Exploring Edgar Allan Poe’s Logical Imagination

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What if I told you there almost wasn’t a raven in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”? What if I told you that, instead of having his nameless narrator drive himself mad beneath the shadow of a grim and stately raven of the saintly days of yore, Poe almost went with a parrot?

I agree with your derisive scoff. But the truth is this ridiculous hypothetical isn’t quite as ridiculous or hypothetical as you might think. It’s absolutely true — for a split second, Poe was going to write “The Parrot.”

The reason this seems so instinctually wrong has a great deal to do with our collective idea of Poe. While even people uninterested in literature were probably forced to read a couple of his short stories or poems in school, that alone can’t account for his iconic status in pop culture. To give just one example, his face appears on countless t-shirts, which are usually jet-black and adorned with dead-eyed ravens, chalk-white skulls (sometimes his own, poking through his flesh), and other equally chipper images, along with the occasional quote about insanity or despair. Not that such merchandise needs to add much to get across a macabre vibe — with his sunken eyes, bulging forehead, and perpetual grimace he apparently thought counted as a smile, Poe’s face alone conveys the dark tone of the dark world with which we associate him.

The problem is that this idea of Poe marketed to people through shirts and mugs and so much more is an unfair caricature of a profound and multifaceted artist. I’ll admit that there are more than enough heartbroken men sleeping alongside dead lovers in crypts and mass murders at masque balls — and that’s without going into the weird stories — to justify seeing Poe strictly as a horror writer. But he wrote far more than simply horror. For instance, those who are familiar with more than just his most famous works likely know about his character C. Augustin Dupin, a coldly logical detective so similar to Sherlock Holmes it’s easy to forget that Holmes was influenced by Dupin, not the other way around. As much as he had a permanent impact on horror, Poe was just as important in the development of detective fiction.

But what truly makes Poe so unique among authors is the mathematical philosophy underpinning his work, and there is no better way to appreciate the strange synthesis between art and science Poe achieved than by examining his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition.” This essay offers invaluable insight into how Poe created “The Raven,” and offers hope to any of us who have ever picked up a pen and tried to translate the hurricane of nameless emotions within us into words so that we might better understand ourselves.

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Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” could almost have been titled, “The Anti-Poetic Manifesto.” That’s because before he gets to explaining precisely how “The Raven” came to be, he spends the first few paragraphs launching a savage attack against the idea of poets he believes most people possess. Specifically, he loathes the idea that poets are some kind of elevated species, far more insightful and wise than the rest of the slobbering masses. But he doesn’t blame us for this misleading impression; he blames writers. Early on, Poe claims, “Most writers — poets in especial – prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy — and ecstatic intuition — and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes.” This charge brings to mind a letter John Keats wrote to John Taylor on February 27, 1818, in which he said, “…if Poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” Keats might not have claimed to be inspired by a “fine frenzy” or “ecstatic intuition,” but there is still a sense that great poetry either bursts out of us perfectly polished from the start or…not, with no in-between. Poe, in contrast, not only disagrees, but believes great poetry can only exist by working through that in-between. Put another way, Poe does not treat poetry as a gift someone must be born with to possess at all, but a craft that can be honed through practice. And if it really is a craft, well, then why couldn’t any of us write “The Raven”?

You might be derisively scoffing for the second time, but why not? If nothing else, “The Philosophy of Composition” argues forcefully and repeatedly that good writing is the result of good choices. The key is to know what questions to ask, something Poe teaches us through an examination of every choice he made to produce “The Raven,” going so far as to say that his essay will “render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition — that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.”

Poe isn’t kidding. He goes into such meticulous detail that it would be impossible to discuss every choice. To give a taste of the essay, however, it’s worth examining how some of the most famous elements of “The Raven” came to be.

To begin with, how did he come up with the subject of the poem? First, Poe considered “Beauty…the sole legitimate province of the poem,” or, more specifically, “the contemplation of the beautiful.”  Poe also believed “Melancholy is…the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.” Put these two ideas together, and Poe concluded that “the death, then, of a beautiful woman is…the most poetical topic in the world — equally is beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such a topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

Moving onto more mechanical elements, how did Poe come up with the haunting, “Nevermore”? Well, first he decided using a refrain at all would be a good idea because so many great artists have used it before, and, “The universality of its employment sufficed to assure me of its intrinsic value, and spared me the necessity of submitting it to analysis.” Then, he decided the refrain should be brief and determined on the “character” of the word by noting that “o” is “the most sonorous vowel, with r as the most producible consonant.”

But how to naturally insert the refrain? This question puzzles Poe at first. After all, if he was going to have a dialogue with two characters, it would be hard to imagine how one could always appropriately respond with the same word to the other’s, presumably varied, questions. Unless, that is, one person in this dialogue was not a person, but an animal. This leads to my favorite line in the essay, where Poe explains “very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.” So while Poe only considered using a parrot for a moment, the fact he considered it at all once again demonstrates the open, dispassionate, and logical approach he used (plus it makes for a fun story).

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“The Philosophy of Composition” is worth reflecting on for three reasons, regardless of whether you are a Poe expert or neophyte. First, it thoroughly traces the writing process. There have been plenty of critical essays on the writing process at least as far back as Aristotle’s Poetics, where he argues for the three unities (time, place, and action), contrasts the strengths and weaknesses of epics versus tragedies, etc. But Aristotle was critiquing the works of others, primarily Homer and Sophocles. Here, Poe is critiquing Poe with the objectivity of a scientist studying a specimen under a microscope.

The essay also shatters the facsimile of Poe peddled by popular culture. As soon as you step outside his most famous stories and poems, you will see Poe’s intimidatingly vast knowledge all sorts of subjects, including Greek, Latin, mythology, philosophy, and science, with references to Apollo, Charles Babbage, Seneca, and Francis Bacon, to name only a few. You will also see how frequently mathematics are evoked, whether in stories as disparate as “The Purloined Letter” or “Ligea” or in his other technical works, such as “The Rationale of Verse,” where he declares that, “[Verse] is exceedingly simple; one tenth of it, possibly, may be called ethical; nine tenths, however, appertain to mathematics.”

But the third, and most important, reason this essay should be read more is the way it democratizes writing. It’s easy to fall into the misconception Poe tries so hard to dispel in his essay about poetry being the result of a “fine frenzy.” I certainly find it hard to believe that the eeriness of the line, “And its eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming” or the mysterious beauty of the opening lines of “Annabel Lee” – “It was many and many a year ago, in a kingdom by the sea” – are the result of logic. Yet for Poe they were precisely that, the results of deciding on the right answers after asking the right questions.

“The Philosophy of Composition” proves you don’t need to wait for, let alone be born possessing, poetic inspiration to write well. And that is an inspiring idea.

Image Credit: Flickr/Kevin Dooley.

At the Firing Squad: The Radical Works of a Young Dostoevsky

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1.
At 28, Fyodor Dostoevsky was about to die.

The nightmare started when the police burst into his apartment and dragged him away in the middle of the night, along with the rest of the Petrashevsky Circle. This was a group made up of artists and thinkers who discussed radical ideas together, such as equality and justice, and occasionally read books. Madmen, clearly. To be fair, the tsar, Nicholas I, had a right to be worried about revolution. The Decembrist Revolt of 1825 was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and it was obvious throughout the world that something was happening. In addition to earlier revolutions in America and France, revolutionary ideas were spreading like a virus around the world through art, literature, philosophy, science, and more. To the younger generation and Russians who suffered most under the current regime, it was exhilarating. For those like Nicholas I, whose power depended on the established order, it was terrifying.

So these revolutionaries, most barely in their 20s, were hauled off to the Peter and Paul Fortress, a prison that contained some of Russia’s most vicious criminals. After months of isolation broken up by the occasional interrogation, Dostoevsky and the rest were condemned to death by firing squad.

They were marched into the cold. A priest allowed each man to kiss a cross. Then shrouds were draped over their heads, which did nothing to drown out the soul-crushing sound of soldiers raising their rifles as their commander cried out ONE!…TWO!…

WAIT! someone cried. The tsar had changed his mind — the prisoners would be spared!

Dostoevsky and the rest had been victims of a hilarious prank Nicholas I sometimes played on prisoners, staging mock-executions before sending them off to Siberia. When the condemned men heard they had been “saved” by their benevolent tsar, some immediately lost their minds. But not Dostoevsky. He held on and endured two brutal years in a Siberian prison, before enduring another two brutal years in the army. His life wasn’t exactly easy after that. But in large part because of all that suffering, he would grow into the author of such classics as Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and more.

Plenty of readers know about the later, mature Dostoevsky, but far fewer know about the young man he once was, the one who thought he was moments away from execution. His presence in front of a firing squad may come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Dostoevsky’s later writing, in which he was a ferocious opponent of the young generation’s revolutionary ideas, and an equally ferocious defender of the tsar’s authority and the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s no exaggeration to say that Dostoevsky felt the very soul of Russia was at stake. Ivan Turgenev, in his short novel Fathers and Sons, coined the word “nihilists” for these young radicals, who seemed hell bent on smashing the existing society and replacing it with one founded on values inimical to people like Dostoevsky. They were an existential threat to the nation and they are presented as such throughout all of Dostoevsky’s later works. Sometimes their ideas are the focus of his attacks, like in Notes from Underground, which is essentially a rebuttal to the socialist arguments made in What Is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, (a book that, more than any other, inspired those who would later instigate the Russian Revolution). Other times, the youth of Russia are the explicit enemy. The plot of Demons was directly inspired by the murder of a Russian at the hands of a group not all that different from the Petrashevsky Circle. In fact, Dostoevsky later acknowledged in his Diary of a Writer that, as a young man, he himself might have been swayed to commit such a horrible act.

Clearly, the post-Siberia Dostoevsky was a different man than the one who faced down that firing squad, to put it mildly. So how do we understand this abrupt transformation? Perhaps the best way is by exploring Dostoevsky’s early major works — Poor Folk, The Double, and Netochka Nezvanova — which offer invaluable insights into just how Dostoevsky became Dostoevsky.

2.
Poor Folk, Dostoevsky’s first novel, is in some ways the most atypical novel of his career. First, it is his only epistolary novel, composed of letters between a poor old man, Makar Devushkin, and Varvara Dobroselova, a poor young woman he helps support financially (to the extent that he can). They live humble lives, and struggle with daily life rather than colossal questions about existence or morality. Compared with a book like Crime and Punishment, Poor Folk feels small. The author’s focus is on meticulously outlining the dreary existence that those on the outskirts of society quietly endure every single day. When Varvara receives a flower Makar has bought her, she is overwhelmed with gratitude, and when a father is able to help pay for a birthday gift for his son, he is equally ecstatic. A flower and a birthday gift — these are important not as symbols but for what they are, tiny tokens of the love that make life bearable. Of course, there are tragedies, too. Friends and family are lost, and the devastation is all the more profound because Dostoevsky’s poor folk have so little to lose.

The persistent need for money is always on characters’ minds. Given the extraordinary sympathy Dostoevsky shows his characters and the sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle, criticism of society throughout, it’s easy to see why Vissarion Belinsky, the most important Russian critic at the time, deemed it the first “social novel.” It was emblematic of the kind of literature many involved in revolutionary circles thought was the way of the future — the novel as a cry for social justice, a working-class weapon.

Poor Folk is a fine novel, and Dostoevsky demonstrates the kind of negative capability, to use John Keats’s phrase, that would allow him to create characters like Raskolnikov and Ivan Karamazov, who are discussed by scholars to this day as if they were real people. But it’s absurd to think Poor Folk would have become the national sensation it did and launch the 23-year-old Dostoevsky to literary superstardom had it not been the right kind of book at the right time. Dostoevsky likely didn’t set out to upend the capitalist system with Poor Folk, but it certainly fit in well with a growing trend in literature that focused on the downtrodden and weak, along with the shameful indifference of a society that allowed such suffering to persist. Nikolai Gogol’s short story, “The Overcoat,” also caused a sensation in Russia (and is actually read and written about by Makar in Poor Folk). It also highlighted the indignities that the poor had to endure every day, but like many of Gogol’s stories, there is a supernatural element, in this case involving a ghost. Poor Folk has no such supernatural element. It is painfully, unflinchingly realistic. Consequently, Belinsky and others praised it and predicted nothing but great things for the newly-arrived genius.

3.
You’re in your early 20s, your first book is a major national success, and the most influential literary critic in the country has literally declared you are a genius. How would you react?

Maybe you’d take the fame and flattery in stride and stay level-headed. But Dostoevsky didn’t, and by all accounts, he became an insufferable jerk. Worse, he was an incredibly sensitive insufferable jerk, unable to handle any criticism. And that was all he got after Poor Folk. Everything he wrote was one commercial disappointment after another. At first people like Belinsky thought it was a temporary slump, and Dostoevsky would bounce back with another great social novel. But Dostoevsky continued to experiment with different kinds of stories, none of which suited the political climate of Russia at the time or the taste of the very critics who had made Dostoevsky a star. In the eyes of most literary circles, Dostoevsky was just a one-hit wonder.

One of these “disappointments” was his second major work, The Double. From the very first page, it’s clear that this is not another Poor Folk. It feels like a different species of literature altogether. For one thing, whereas his first book focused on two characters and a community of other people in their lives, The Double is all about Goliadkin, a nobody who finds merely existing a difficult task. He is nervous, jumpy, paranoid, awkward, and incapable of a sane conversation. At multiple points, people interrupt his jumbled, meandering monologues to confess they have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. And this is before his exact double, also named Goliadkin, gets hired at his office. But the similarities are only skin-deep. This Goliadkin is a success in every way that the first Goliadkin is a miserable failure, and the new version gradually begins displacing the original from his own life. The story becomes increasingly bizarre until it ends the only way the life of someone like Goliadkin ever could — total insanity.

There are many things to admire about the hallucinatory world of this novella. The surreal nature of Goliadkin’s double anticipates the dialogue between Ivan Karamazov and the Devil in The Brothers Karamazov. Second, the inner monologue of Goliadkin shows Dostoevsky already toying with the idea of excessive-consciousness as sickness that will become a hallmark of his greatest novels. The plot is almost secondary to the maze-without-an-exit that is Goliadkin’s mind. And third, just writing this novella was brave. Dostoevsky could have stuck with what worked and cranked out another Poor Folk, but he chose to stretch himself beyond the social novel, to not write in the service of any ideology.

Belinsky and others didn’t see it this way, and the flops kept on coming right up to the point when Dostoevsky was arrested in the middle of the night. However, he was at work just then on his first full-length novel, which he believed would redeem his literary reputation. We’ll never know what the public’s reaction would have been to the full novel because it was never finished. Only the beginning chapters were completed and, by the time he got back to writing many years later, he had moved on to other projects.

However, fragment or not, the parts of Netochka Nezvanoza that do exist are worth our attention because, compared to Poor Folk and The Double, this is the closet the young Dostoevsky gets to becoming the Dostoevsky we all know today.

4.
This story is also another outlier in terms of structure — while Poor Folk was an epistolary novel, Netochka Nezvanova was meant to be a kind of Dickensian story that would cover the life of its protagonist from childhood to adulthood. Think of it as David Copperfield, only with more mental breakdowns and sadomasochistic relationships.

Dostoevsky can’t help injecting the story with the kind of increasingly-acute psychological realism he does so well. This is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the fact that, for nearly half of the existing text, Netochka, the little Dickensian soon-to-be orphan, is completely overshadowed by her explosive stepfather, Efimov. Efimov is a clear precursor to the Underground Man, whose life is a stark warning that we need to live our lives, not dream our way through them. Efimov’s dream is to be a great violinist, but alcoholism and his petty nature drive him to poverty, along with Netochka and her poor mother, who sadly fell for Efimov’s self-narrative that he was a genius destined for glory.

If Efimov’s story ended there, his degradation would just be a compelling portrait of a man’s gradual ruination. But this is Dostoevsky, so it’s only the beginning. Although Efimov knows on some level he will never be an internationally famous violinist, he clings to the idea that he is the best violinist in the world. It doesn’t matter if no one else knows it — he knows it, and that self-delusion becomes the foundation for his life. His whole psyche becomes nothing but a jumble of rationalizations he comes to define himself by. If he isn’t the world’s greatest violinist, he’s nothing. And when he hears a violinist who is undeniably greater than he ever was or could be, we see what happens when a man wakes up from a dream he’s been living for far, far too long.

There are other shades of the later, great Dostoevsky to be found in this unfinished novel, but Efimov alone testifies to his development as a writer whose understanding of the human condition would become infinitely richer than anything that could have been explored within the predetermined confines of a social novel.

5.
Each of these works hints at the kind of writer Dostoevsky could have become. Had he followed Poor Folk with another social novel, stuck with the surrealism of The Double, or written more Dickensian bildungsromans like Netochka Nezvanova, we would be talking about a very different Dostoevsky today, if we talked about him at all. But instead he synthesized the best elements of all these works and enhanced them with the profound understanding of human nature he began to develop in Siberia.

Of course, it’s not necessary to read any of these early works to appreciate Dostoevsky, one of the few writers who can scream in print. But the arc of his literary life becomes all the more fascinating when we consider Dostoevsky’s early career, when he was still figuring out what to scream about, and had his hardest days, and greatest works, still ahead of him.

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