The Illustration of Vanity Through Art and Words

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

Through much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is clear in the writings and paintings that artists put a strong emphasis on the beauty of a women, when describing her. In poems written by male writers about women, a women’s beauty is described in ways one may consider shallow or vain. By highlighting a woman’s physical characteristics and alluding the viewer’s eyes to distinct features of a woman only further exemplify the vanity of the male gaze. This idea can be noted in writer, Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella. In many of the sonnets from Astrophil and Stella, Sir Phillip points out the beauty of Stella’s eyes; in “Sonnet 9,” he further describes Stella’s physical appearance by comparing her to various minerals and crystals produced by Earth. While Sidney describes his opinion of virtue being represented in a women’s outer beauty in his poem, a unique, but effective comparison, would be that of Georges de la Tour’s painting The Penitent Magdalen. La Tour painted this painting in about 1640, and uses specific symbols and plays with lightness versus darkness to accentuate the idea of vanity. The characteristic of vanity can thus be identified in both “Sonnet 9” and The Penitent Magdalen.

First, taking a closer look at Sidney’s “Sonnet 9,” the reader is introduced to the topic of virtue that directly pertains to a woman. Stella’s face is portrayed as the model of virtue in the first line: “Queen Virtue’s court, which some call Stella’s face” (Sidney 1086). In referencing to virtue, a sense of what virtue is and what it means to be virtuous should be taken into account. In this sense, virtue is purity, chastity and temperance, and faith. Virtue should be associated with one’s soul, but already, Sidney is instead linking virtue to a physical attribute. In addition, court refers to both a place and the people are there, only promoting the notion of the physicality rather than the spiritual.

Digging deeper into the depths of the poem, the physical attributes, or materials, are explored. These attributes are described in an expensive manner, portraying Stella more as a statue or of an unrealistic, lacking both mortality and immortality. She is being objectified in a violent manner by dehumanizing her through the use of blazon, describing the pieces or parts of the body using metaphors. Introducing the physical beauty in Stella’s face, Sidney announces that her face is created from the finest resources that Earth has to offer: “Prepared by Nature’s chiefest furniture” (Sidney 1086). Alas, Sidney describes the physical beauty of Stella:

Hath his front built of alabaster pure;

Gold in the covering of that stately place.

The door, by which sometimes comes forth her grace,

Red porphir is, which lock of pearl makes sure,

Whose porches rich (which name of cheeks endure),

Marble mixed red and white do interlace.

The windows now through which this heavenly guest

Looks o’er the world, and can find nothing such

Which dare claim from those lights the name of best,

Of touch they are that without touch doth touch” (Sidney 1086-1087).

In a quick overview: alabaster represents Stella’s forehead, gold represents Stella’s hair, porphir represents Stella’s red lips, pearl represents Stella’s teeth, marble represents Stella’s cheeks, and windows and touch represent Stella’s eyes. Touch represents the beauty of her eyes and is testing her virtue – her inner soul – compared to her other assets.

magdalenWhile sculpting Stella’s face, the idea of windows allow one to see both in and out. There is something more to Stella than her beauty that lies within her eyes. Although a heavy focus is on the physical beauty of Stella, her eyes are what have Sidney’s distraction. Moving on to la Tour’s painting The Penitent Magdalen, which is also referred to as the Magdalen with Two Flames, is one of several paintings (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). This painting in particular best depicts the idea of vanity.

Aside from the woman sitting, a mirror is highlighted in the light of the candle. Mirrors alone symbolize vanity. A mirror identifies both flaws and perfections physically on someone or something. In the woman’s lap, his a skull, which represents mortality. Skulls remind people that death is real and that the idea of immortality is simply just a spiritual belief, which alludes to the candle. The candle is the only object being reflected in the mirror and its flame is burning high and bright, possibly connecting the viewer to a spiritual enlightenment (The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

It is important to note the woman herself, as well. While vanity rings strong through the center focus of the mirror, the woman is barely identifiable. She is partially hidden in the shadows of the painting and her face his turned so that the audience cannot see her facial features. The woman is clearly of European descent based on her pale skin and her hair color appears to be brown. Lastly, while her clothing suits her for the time period in which she comes from, it also gives notice to her lack of breasts and a bigger build. Rather than a model-sized woman, she appears average and more relatable, in a sense, to one’s own figure.

Trying to find a relation between la Tour’s painting of The Penitent Magdalen to Sidney’s Sonnet 9, one may not be able to recognize the similarities, but instead only see the differences. As previously addressed, both pieces of art have a central theme of vanity. While Sidney’s depicts vanity through the eyes of a male admirer onto Stella, la Tour portrays vanity through the use of the mirror. The strong emphasis put on Stella’s physical appearance is what characterizes Sidney both as vain and shallow. This is drastically clear in his use of blazon to accentuate the dehumanizing depictions of Stella by comparing her to expensive materials taken from Earth’s natural crystals and minerals. The mirror only highlights a usage. Mirrors are often used to depict flaws and imperfections, highlighting one’s one vanity. In the painting, the woman seems to staring into the depths of the mirror, but it is unclear as to what she sees or is looking for. This form of vanity, although different from that of Sidney’s, tell the same message of physical appearance and beauty.

In addition, the idea of spirituality and mortality and immortality are represented. The spirituality in the painting is seen through the candle. It is the only object in the painting that is also being reflected in the mirror and it is the focal point for light. The “windows” that represent Stella’s eyes in the poem, hint to a deeper meaning that’s internal and spiritual. At the same time, Sidney’s materialistic illustrations of Stella’s beauty give her a statue-like resemblance. By dehumanizing Stella, there is a lack of mortality, as well as immortality. While statues are not mortal, they do deteriorate over time, also making them lack the impression of immortality. On the other hand, la Tour’s painting gives awareness to mortality through the skull. As previously mentioned, the skull acts as a reminder that all living things come to an end in death, and that nothing is forever. In a sense, the skull is a contrast to the mirror. While the skull demonstrates mortality, the mirror hints toward a spiritual immortality. In some aspect, the contrast of both object give rise to the fact that vanity, the physical features, are not as everlasting as one hopes or thinks.

Although la Tour’s painting does not directly correlate to Sidney’s sonnet, the overall message being delivered is what matters. The illustration of vanity through both of these works of art, pinpoints to value women had in their societies during that period of time. While immortality is explored, it is also knocked down with contrasting features, such as the fact that materials deteriorate over time, or symbols, like that of the skull. The subtle indication of a spiritual enlightenment adheres to the spiritual awakening, or prominence, that may have been taking place during that time.

John Donne: A Misogynist?

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

The Renaissance period in Europe brought about much literary art. At the same time, while new writers were being born, so were new ideas. The seventeenth century gave birth to a controversial poet by the name of John Donne. While new literary works and ideas were circling, Donne made his own distinguishable mark on literature. For centuries women have been a subject of debate. Prior to the twentieth century, women were minimized and see as property in society. Even those who attempted to speak up and try to fight for women’s rights, were castaway and shunned from society. Donne’s poetry raises controversy for the simple fact that his diction causes one to question whether or not he is misogynistic.

Before delving into the linguistics of his poetry, it is important to understand the context of the world around John Donne. In other words, what roles did women have in Jon Donne’s life? At an early age, Donne’s father died and his mother later remarried. Donne’s first encounter with a woman, is his own mother. He was obviously closer to her due to the passing of his father when he was four. Although his mother remarried a wealthy widower, he still witnessed her struggles and accomplishments trying to provide for her family after the passing of her husband. Although Donne enters college at the young age of eleven, he is still not mature enough to handle what life has to offer: “during the 1590s, he spent much of his inheritance on women, books, and travel” (Bio.com).

It was during his wild escapades with women, that Donne wrote many of his erotic poems and love lyrics. Perhaps, because of the women whom he encountered he felt inspired to write about the things he wish he could do and the things he did with them. At the same time, there is a hint of resistance from the women. However, over the years, Donne matured and began to gain status. He had a promising career in Parliament. Yet, the love he had for a woman would be his downfall. In his thirties, Donne married Anne More, who was the niece of Sir Egerton. Both uncle and father of Anne More, strongly disapproved of their marriage, but that didn’t stop John Donne. As a result, Donne was fired and even imprisoned for a short period of time (Bio.com).

John Donne appears to have a lot of love and appreciation for women, based on his two strong encounters. His mother raised him first as a single mother before she later remarried. His wife, Anne More, he was willing to sacrifice everything he had for her because he loved her. Although during his mid years, he engaged in sexual escapades with women, that didn’t seem to have a great effect on his opinions of them. In analyzing his literary work, which has a “lack of female speakers and the emphasis seemingly placed upon using women as props to fulfill the male narrator’s sexual desires” (Adney 2), one would quickly jump to the assumption that John Donne was a misogynist. However, as a result of female voices severely lacking in work, readers are still able to “learn a great deal about what he thinks of women due to their implied presence and reaction to the male narrators of Donne’s poetry” (Adney 2). The implied presence and actions of the women in Donne’s poetry is what allows one to stop and consider that Donne may have possibly tried to depict these women as honorable and intelligent. Looking specifically at two of his poems, “The Flea” and “Elegy XIX,” “it is obvious that Donne thought women honorable and intelligent” (Adney 2). The simple notion that none of the women seem to fold quickly to the male narrator, Donne

must believe them honorable since the narrator is forced to use a grand amount of convincing to get the addressed woman to even consider granting his requests; he must consider them intelligent primarily because they play along with and rebuke the male narrator, thus implying they are smart enough to understand the complex wit of the arguments made by the narrator (Adney 2).

“The Flea” incorporates the male narrator’s metaphor of a flea to represent a sexual connection that should be explored. The woman in which whom the male narrator is speaking with, seems adamant about resisting his advances. At the same time, she seems to comprehend what he is trying to say, only further emphasizing he blunt rejection.

Yet, does Donne’s portrayal of an intelligent and honorable woman, negate the fact that he presents the people in his poetry as “sexual transgressors: aggressive or uncontrollable women, a would-be cross-dresser, an effeminate man, men overcome by women, powerless husbands, and an anarchic lover” (Benet 15)? Returning to the world in which Donne was acquainted, there is a possibility that Donne’s poetry reflects the women whom he was exposed to. Women whom he was able to spend his inheritance on, were not necessarily women of upstanding quality. In this sense, Donne was just writing his honest take on the women he encountered. Women such as his mother and his wife, he did not come across frequently, and he didn’t write much when he did finally marry. His wife died after giving birth to their twelfth child, and with Donne already questioning his Catholic faith, he converted. Around this time, Donne stopped writing about love and sex.

Nevertheless, the argument at hand is whether or not Donne is a misogynist or if he truly valued and respected women. In his poem, “Confined Love,” Donne creates the image of sin. Desire seems to try to destroy the “innocent” being:

Donne’s speaker would be defending free love against a reading that linked it with aspects of sexuality most threatening to patriarchy-the power of the most “innocent” to destroy the authority figure by means of desire (Coren 235).

The use of manipulation and destruction of innocence is a constant theme in the poems by Donne. When looking closely, one can see that it the male narrator that is trying to destroy the innocence of the woman. In “The Flea” the male narrator hints toward breaking the implied woman’s “purity” and that losing her virginity, to him, is no big deal. In “Confined Love,” Donne’s last two stanzas “utilize his familiar perversity of argument, moving from absurdity to manipulation” (Coren 235). The male narrators seem to try to manipulate the implied female in order to coerce them into engaging in sexual acts. In some fashion, the male narrator comes across as the “bad guy” and the implied female is just an innocent being trapped in the male’s lustful gaze.

The illustration of Donne’s male narrators being overzealous in their desires of trying to manipulate the implied women to engage in sexual acts, forces the reader to view the women as more upstanding and moral-based people. While many of Donne’s poetry seems to pin women as being sexually uncontrollable, overtime, the shift in attitudes toward women changed:

Donne is perhaps the only metaphysical poet whose depiction of women became more positive over time. In his love poetry, Donne seems to be mostly concerned with the way in which the male is permitted to act due to the female’s responses, and seeks mainly to fulfill his own desires—primarily sexual (Adney 2).

While Donne may have undergone a sense of maturity, his poetry still paints the implied woman persona as a victim of the male narrator. Sexual desire is a continuous melody that only seems to get more and more aggressive on the part of the male narrator. If sex is an immoral thought for a woman to have, is there a difference for men? Donne does well in being “fair” to the female gender. He does not outright paint that as moral beings, for in some poems they are willing to pursue these sexual acts. At the same time, more of Donne’s poetry appears to be a battle between the sexes and the male narrator trying to outwit the female persona. This idea of “outwitting,” again emphasizes a sense of intelligence on behalf of women. During this time, women were not to be heard, but rather seen. Giving women an intellectual mindset is a new revelation for this time period. At the same time, there is some honorability in rejecting or playing hard-to-get. The woman in “The Flea” does not hesitate to reject the advances of the male narrator, showing that she not only understood his wit, but also that she is not interested and values her own purity.

The question at hand, while it may not have a definitive answer, can be predicted. John Donne’s writing in actuality presents a somewhat heroic view of women. Through exploration of “The Flea” and “Elegy XIX,” obvious indications of Donne portraying an intelligent and honorable women are presented. The women show a resistance to the male narrator and their implied actions demonstrate an understanding of the diction the male narrator chooses to use to symbolize a sexual connotation. Analyzing the lifestyle that Donne grew up in, sheds light on the roles women played in his life. With his father dying when he was young, Donne was subjected to view the struggles and accomplishments his mother endured before she later remarried. At the same time, in his early years, Donne splurged on women. The assumption can be made that these women were prostitutes or women who were not cheap to hang out with. Nonetheless, during this time is when Donne wrote many of his love lyrics and erotic poems indicating that these woman inspired his sexual writing. At the same time, this form of writing is what was real for him at the time. Alas, his wife. Donne gave up everything he worked so hard for out of love. He loved Anne More that losing a prestigious job and going to jail was worth it for him. John Donne was not a misogynist. Instead, Donne was a man who valued and respected women, but during his early years, puberty and sex intrigued him. His immature mindset and the women whom he surrounded himself with, led him to write the poems he did that now raise controversy.

The Importance of Silence as Vocal Expression in Native Son and The Third Life of Grange Copeland

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

Both in literature and in everyday life, vocal expression is essential to the understanding of people and how people choose to communicate their emotions or lack thereof. Vocal expression is the way in which people express their thoughts and feelings through both speech and action. There are many dynamics to vocal expression as well. For example, pitch, tone, speed and articulation. Meaning, with the help of a compilation of voice enhancements, it is easier to decipher what the characters are saying in various works of literature. With that being suggested, the conclusion can be drawn that in literary texts, vocal expression is key to understand. Based off of that understanding, without taking vocal expression under any consideration, it would almost be impossible to understand the complexities of each work of literature and how essential each character is in each within the texts. It is important to understand that vocal expression is not only the acoustic properties associated with emotion that Jo-Anne Bachorowski delves into alone and with Michael Owen.

Focusing on the literature of vocal expression, or rather the lack of vocal expression in the form of silence, one can analyze Richard Wright’s novel Native Son and Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland. Before delving into the in depth modes of expression throughout both novels, the overall shared expression must be identified. Oppression is the main factor that silences the characters in both novels. Racial oppression, although in different locations and forms, silenced Bigger Thomas in Native Son and Grange Copeland in The Third Life of Grange Copeland. While Walker’s novel “recounts…racial oppression in the South” (Cochran 79), Wright’s novel focuses on the “cultural, economic, and ideological practices” (Hoose 46).

Bigger Thomas is a product of his environment. There is an emphasis on the “external environment’s role in shaping Bigger as an individual” (Hoose 46). Segregation and racial and economic oppression is the setting in which Bigger lives, in Chicago. As a result, being a black male in a racist society causes him to lack a voice and therefor express himself in other manners. Bigger’s societal oppression is most clear in his confusion with the way that Mary treats him, “She responded to him as if he were human, as if he lived in the same world as she. And he had never felt that before in a white person” (Wright 65). Whites were still prejudice towards blacks that even though the era of slavery was over, they still treated blacks as though they were not human. Being used to this type of injustice, Bigger did not know how to respond to such “awkward” kindness. This here is the racial oppression that silences Bigger from voicing his truest thoughts and feelings. The racial oppression is also clear in Walker’s comparison to share cropping and slavery.

In the opening chapter of Walker’s novel, a small cabin home is described similar to the way in which many slave cabins and the homes of share croppers:

It was a cabin of two rooms with a brick chimney. The roof was of rotting gray shingles; the sides of the house were gray vertical slabs; the whole aspect of the house was gray. It was lower in the middle than at its ends, and resembled a sway-backed animal put out to pasture (Walker 14-15).

According to Theodore Mason, “Walker uses the sharecropper’s cabin as a charged metaphorical structure indicating the fundamental and irresistible entrapment of its occupants” (297). The term entrapment alludes to the oppression of people. In this case, Grange Copeland is oppressed by the racist society that he lives in, and as a result flees to try to escape such oppression. The racial and economic oppression against Grange is clear during his travels North when he “had worked, begged, stolen his way North, to New York” (Walker 191) and when he “had been begging in Central Park, barely escaping arrest from mounted police” (Walker 192). The police signify society in this case, and Grange being a poor, black man is being oppressed in every sense.

Between Bigger and Grange, the role society plays in their lives, impacts the way each character interacts with others. Ironically both are associated with violent antics as a way to express what they feel as a result of lacking the ability to speak. For Bigger, society has molded him into a seemingly inarticulate individual. However, “Bigger Thomas is far from the inarticulate character many critics claim him to be. Bigger is sullen, brooding, brusque, and sometimes violent in his attitude towards his family and immediate community, but he is definitely not inarticulate” (Miller 502). This notion is true when reviewing his earlier scenes when he and Gus are finished pretending to “be white”:

“You know where the white folks live?”

“Yeah,” Gus said, pointing eastward. “Over across the ‘line’; over there on Cottage Grove Avenue.”

“Naw; they don’t,” Bigger said.

“What you mean?” Gus asked, puzzled. “Then, where do they live?”

Bigger doubled his fist and struck his solar plexus.

“Right down here in my stomach,” he said.

Gus looked at Bigger searchingly, then away, as though ashamed.

“Yeah; I know what you mean,” he whispered.

“Every time I think of ‘em, I feel ‘em,” Bigger said.

“Yeah; and in your chest and throat, too,” Gus said.

“It’s like fire.”

“And sometimes you can’t hardly breathe….”

Bigger’s eyes were wide and placid, gazing into space.

“That’s when I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me . . .” Bigger paused, narrowed his eyes. “Naw; it ain’t like something going to happen to me. It’s…It’s like I was going to do something I can’t help….”

“Yeah!” Gus said with uneasy eagerness. His eyes were full of a look compounded of fear and admiration for Bigger. “Yeah; I know what you mean. It’s like you going to fall and don’t know where you going to land . . . .” (Wright 21-22)

This exemplifies Bigger’s ability to articulate his understanding of white culture and the dominant role it has on his black, urban male upbringing. In this dialogue, Bigger has more understanding than perhaps Gus does of the fear associated with white hegemony. In this sense, Bigger has power over his friends for he has more knowledge about the society in which they are living. Yet, at the same time, Bigger entraps his understanding and intelligence about the world he lives in when faced with those outside of his comfort zone. He is quiet and keeps to himself, especially when he is in the company of white people. In his view of society he is not an equal to white people, and as a result he is “locked in the narrow world of self that society has shaped for him” (Larsen 107). Bigger’s inarticulateness is ever so high when confronted with Jan and Mary who refuse to allow him to call them “Yessuh” and “Yessum” and even allow Bigger to sit up front with them while Jan drives. This confusion inhibits Bigger to speak and instead continues to keep him ever more silenced, enabling him to bottle up his feelings of alienation and stifled hatred toward Jan Mary. As a result, Bigger accidentally murders Mary, to some extent in response to his built up animosity towards her, but in actuality, he was only trying to keep her silent so her blind mother, Mrs. Dalton wouldn’t suspect anything.  In contrary, Grange commits his murder as a result of the ignorance of society and is more or less a bystander in the death of a pregnant woman.

While in the park, Grange spots a pregnant woman sitting on the bench. At first she is alone, and then she greeted by a man. It appears as though they get into an argument and he storms off. Out of kindness, Grange goes over to the envelope of money that was left behind and, although he keeps some of it, he tries to return the rest to the woman who has begun walking away. Despite her own situation and his kindness, the woman reveals no empathy for Grange and instead insults him calling him “Nigger” continuously. When she leaps at Grange she misses and falls into the pond. She is drowning, but still bigger attempts to help: “[Grange] stretched out his arm and nearly touched her. She reached up and out with a small white hand that grabbed his hand but let go when she felt his hand” (Walker 201). Grange, having had enough with the woman disrespecting him, left the woman there to die. Although Grange did not quite murder the woman, he believed he did. He “murdered” the woman after he “exacts stillness, and compliance, from his wife” (Hellenbrand 114) when he was living with them in the South, prior to his move North. Bigger, on the other hand, murdered Mary and then as result of how society would perceive him, tried to hide the murder, but then turned on his lover, suppressing her into compliance and silence.

As Hellenbrand mentioned, Grange oppresses his family. This oppression could stem from his suppressed expressions as a result of sharecropping and the thick smog of racism. Due to his lack of voice because of its forced oppression, Grange expresses himself the only other way he knows how, through violence and dominating his power and control over others. With his wife, Grange instills a sense of fear and submission: “[Brownfield’s] mother agreed with his father whenever possible…[Brownfield] thought his mother was like their dog in some ways. She didn’t have a thing to say that did not in some way show her submission to [Grange]” (Walker 5). Margaret, in this sense, is another a key signifier in The Third Life of Grange Copeland for lacking vocal expression through her submission to Grange. Conversely, Margaret is not alone in her alienation. In Native Son, Bessie is forced into submission by Bigger. As Miller hinted towards, Bigger is unable to transpire his good morality to those whom he cares most about. In direct reference to his lack of empathy for his sister, Vera, Bigger decides to taunt her with his cruel humor: “Bigger laughed and approached the bed with the dangling rat, swinging it to and fro like a pendulum, enjoying his sister’s fear” (Wright 7). He feels some sort of entitlement because he is a man: black male privilege over black female submission. During this time, women still had no true voice and Bigger being a black male still had some power over his black female counterparts. With Bessie, Bigger forces her into a suppressed state when he involves her in his plans, making her an accomplice: “‘You already in it,’ he said. ‘You got part of the money’” (Wright 184). Bigger continues to want to include her in his plans, for fear that she may sell him out to the police and his desire to not be alone, wanting to “let her know it in a way that would bind her to him, at least a little longer. He did not want to be alone now” (Wright 225). Bessie is just an innocent victim being victimized by manipulation and coercion. As a result of her submission, she is officially silenced by Bigger who fears to bring to her and to leave her:

He could not leave here and he could not take her with him. If he took her along she would be crying all the time; she would be blaming him for all that had happened; she would be wanting whiskey to help her forget and there would be times when he could not get it for her” (Wright 235).

With his mind basically already made up, he smashes a brick into her; “How many times he had lifted the brick and brought it down he did not know. All he knew was that the room was quiet and cold and that the job was done” (Wright 237). Although Margaret was not murdered by her oppressor as Bessie was, in some ways, her son, Brownfield, died because of the repression he received from his father.

Grange also lacked emotional value toward his son, Brownfield: “To Grange his son was as dead as his son’s murdered wife” (Walker185). Growing up, Brownfield was neglected by his father. As a young boy, a typical desire he would seek would be acceptance and approval from his father. Unfortunately for Brownfield, he never receives that. Instead, his “father almost never spoke to him unless they had company. Even then [Grange] acted as if talking to [Brownfield] was a strain, a burdensome requirement” (Walker 5). Experiencing such abandonment from his father, Brownfield’s childhood innocent and understanding of morality died. He promoted himself from being a victim of his father’s oppression to being just what his father was to him and what society was to his father – a persecutor. Unlike Grange, though, Brownfield engages in physical violence against his family, to self-express himself. This violence is included in anger towards his children, and he is usually more violent based on his job. Nonetheless, Brownfield disregarded his children just as his father had done to him: “To his three daughters Brownfield gave the dregs of his attention only when he was half drunk. To him they were not really human children” (Walker 96). His vision of his own children not being really human, enables him to act out his violence towards them as a way to communicate: “[Daphne] had bad sickness once a month ad would cry and cry, and one time, when she was holding her stomach and crying, with sweat popping out like grease bubbles on her face, Brownfield had kicked her” (Walker 157). However, even worse, is Brownfield’s resentment towards his wife, Mem, which is seen in his dialogue with her telling her to call him “Mister”:

He reached out an arm and grabbed her quickly around one wrist.

“Ow, Brownfield,” she said, dropping her shoes.

“I ought to make you call me Mister,” he said, slowly twisting the wrist he held and bringing her to her knees beside his feet. “A woman as black and as ugly as you ought to call a man Mister.”

“I didn’t find no house today,” she whimpered dryly, because she was so tired and her feet hurt. “And I didn’t see nobody but people that was renting.”

He shoved her and she knocked over her flower boxes spilling flowers and dirt. She scrambled to her knees, then to her blistered and callused feet, sniffling and putting a wrinkled hand to her head. Her daughters stood at the battered screen watching, their baby sister in their arms (Walker 101-102).

For Brownfield his oppressed childhood inhibited his ability to love and thus be loved. He didn’t care to show his violence to his children or in front of them. Inevitably, Mem becomes Bessie. She is continuously victimized by her husband until one day he’s just had enough of her. Mem is not always silent, and as an advocator for herself and her children, her mouth, like the pregnant woman, gets her into trouble. Brownfield kills her with no hesitation: “Brownfield began to curse and came and stood on the steps until Mem got within the circle of light. Then he aimed the gun with drunken accuracy right into her face and fired” (Walker 161). Remembering the setting in which the Copeland family lives and the setting in which Bigger Thomas lives, a revisit to the society that dictates their lives must be reviewed.

Returning to Bigger Thomas, there is a voice within Native Son that is worth mentioning for the context of voice and silence and the art of vocal expression. The narrator acts as a “mouth piece” for Bigger. In other words, the narrator “becomes a sort of translator, or refiner” (Larsen 106) for Bigger’s unspeakable thoughts and actions. This is especially true during Bigger’s self-examination, typically before and after his murders, when he contemplating his next moves. These inner thoughts that Bigger does not vocalize, for there is “very little that Bigger actually verbalizes” (Larsen 107), are almost like a second voice to show other ways in which Bigger chooses to express himself. Scholar Laura Tanner points out the same element about the role of the narrator. Tanner more closely links the narrator to Bigger’s violent act, noting that

Throughout the novel, the narrative voice makes de- liberate links between Bigger’s acts of violence and his desire to communicate…If we accept the narrator as Bigger’s spokesperson, we come to see Mary’s murder as an assault against an enslaving system of value rather than a fearful reflex response to a potentially dangerous situation (413).

Tanner’s reference to Mary’s murder thus segues to Bigger’s trial and the societal view that he is up against. For Bigger, news acts as the “‘official’ voice of society” (Larsen 107). The majority opinion is the “attitude that Bigger is up against now and has always been against” (Larsen 107). While scanning through the paper, Tribune, Bigger sees an article about himself entitled, “NEGRO RAPIST FAINTS AT INQUEST” (Wright 279). Taking a closer look into the article, it becomes clear that Bigger, whether innocent or not, stood no chance:

Overwhelmed by the sight of his accuser, Bigger Thomas, Negro sex-slayer, fainted dramatically this morning at the inquest of Mary Dalton, millionaire Chicago heiress.

Emerging from a stupor for the first time since his capture last Monday night, the black killer sat cowed and fearful as hundreds sought to get a glimpse of him.

“He looks exactly like an ape!” exclaimed a terrified young white girl who watched the black slayer being loaded onto a stretcher after he had fainted.

Though the Negro killer’s body does not seem compactly built, he gives the impression of possessing abnormal physical strength. He is about five feet, nine inches tall and his skin is exceedingly black. His lower jaw protrudes obnoxiously, reminding one of a jungle beast.

His arms are long, hanging in a dangling fashion to his knees. It is easy to imagine how this man, in the grip of a brain-numbing sex passion, overpowered little Mary Dalton, raped her, murdered her, beheaded her, then stuffed her body into a roaring furnace to destroy the evidence of his crime.

His shoulders are huge, muscular, and he keeps them hunched, as if about to spring upon you at any moment. He looks at the world with a strange, sullen, fixed-from-under stare, as though defying all efforts of compassion.

All in all, he seems a beast utterly untouched by the softening influences of modern civilization. In speech and manner he lacks the charm of the average, harmless, genial, grinning southern darky so beloved by the American people (Wright 279-280).

Bigger is described in ways that portray him as animalistic and less than human. In this light, Bigger instantly appears guilty. Just because he is a black man, Bigger is automatically the “black devil.” The voice of the news, in Bigger’s case, circles back to the racial oppression Bigger is silenced with by his society. In truth, Bigger is then found guilty, and therefore assumed that he will die later on as a punishment for his crime.

Where the narrator does not act a particular voice for any of the characters, Ruth, the granddaughter of Grange, is the product of her environment. She is the pawn used to pin Grange up, officially, against society. Ruth, although a baby when her mother died, is a product of her father’s, Brownfield, abuse. She is aware of Brownfield’s neglect and cruelty towards his family. She admits this knowledge to him when he approaches her along her walk home:

“You never cared for us,” said Ruth. “You never cared for mama or Daphne or Ornette, or for me.” I don’t want any of your damn changes now, she thought, and hated and liked herself for this lack of charity. She glimpsed for the first time what Grange had known, the nature of unforgiveness and the finality of a misdeed done. She saw herself as one both with her father and with Grange, with Josie thrown in to boot (Walker 276).

For Ruth, she is tired of the abuse she remembers from her father and to some extent, fears him. She is comfortable with the lifestyle she lives, with her grandfather. He has provided her with education and love, which she cherishes and is not willing to lose this “good life.” Unfortunately, Brownfield is not satisfied and feels as though he has to have what’s his or else he is not a man. Yet again, Brownfield is returning to this method of oppressing others. He putting a property claim on his daughter, alluding to the notion that he owns her regardless if he truly cares or even loves her. Just Bigger is brought to court, Grange is summoned to court. Ruth is now entrapped in a custody battle.

Silenced yet again by society, Grange is at a stalemate. Brownfield’s cowardly notion in going to Judge Harry to seek assistance in acquiring full custody of Ruth, can be viewed as “white hegemony” and how it “corners blacks into internecine conflict” (Hellenbrand 125). Brownfield’s tension with his father hinders his ability to see what is truly best for Ruth. Instead Ruth is like the prize to be won. Grange, on the other hand, is embracing the compassion within him. He wants what’s best for Ruth, but appears as though he cannot escape the past he tried so hard to leave behind. While preparing for the inevitable appearance in court, Grange and Ruth “Both found it difficult to speak” (Walker 305). This lack of communication shows the full power behind white hegemony with its immobilizing control over the black body. Unlike the negative portrayals that Bigger faced, Grange was up against the unjust legal system brought about by his own son, Brownfield. The betrayal of white society and the disloyalty of family, is evident inside the court and forces Grange to be vulnerable in the way he expresses himself:

Grange started to speak of his son’s criminal record, of his neglect of his children, of his threats.

“This man killed his wife, your Honor!” said Grange, out of order.

“Now, I didn’t ask you nothing yet,” the judge said pleasantly, hurt. “You don’t have no right to go making unsolicited speeches in my chambers.” He looked at Brownfield and winked. Ruth knew it was over for her and Grange; she held tightly to her grandfather’s hand. She could not look up into his face for she could feel the tremors running through his body and knew he was crying.

“Hush,” she whispered under her breath, “hush, old baby.” Hus breath caught in a sob; she knew it was from helplessness. Ruth was so angry she couldn’t cry (Walker 308).

Grange, no matter how right he was and fit to be the guardian of Ruth, had no chance at winning. In this sense he is Bigger. No matter what, both were destined to lose as victims of their society. Just as Bigger was going to pay the price of his crimes through punishment of death, Grange Copeland was bound to die of his fate as well. In attempting to protect Ruth and reclaim his wrongful doings of his past, he stood no chance at life: “Grange leading the police away from her. Suddenly the air rang with the rush of bullets and a few minutes later, just as suddenly, everything was still” (Walker 310). The police that had followed Grange and Ruth from the courthouse were set to kill. Grange, defenseless, became an instant victim of his own oppression. In his final words, he speaks to Ruth:

“Oh, you poor thing, you poor thing,” he murmured finally, desolate, but also for the sound of a human voice, bending over to the ground and then rearing back, rocking himself in his own arms to a final sleep (Walker 311).

In a society where blacks stand no chance at justice, and black men are always in the wrong regardless of the offense, death seems to be the only fait for them.

The overarching theme of silence dictated throughout both Alice Walker’s novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, salutes to the vocal expression, or lack of vocal expression, demonstrated within works of literature. Walker and Wright both use the racial oppression of society to set forth the inevitable destinies of their black male characters and the enforcement that this racial oppression has on how they in turn choose to express their own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Bigger Thomas’s upbringing in Chicago causes him to experience the segregation and inhumane treatment toward black people, especially black men. As a result, he uses this forced silence to enable his violent and cruel antics to force those around him into submission. Grange Copeland’s sharecropping experience in Georgia and his desire to be free of his jailed society, enables his neglect and harsh treatment against his own family, perpetuating a cycle of inner-family submission.

While Bigger’s persecution is not passed on to others, his dominant attitude causes many deaths around him. When he murders Mary Dalton, although by accident in order to avoid a difficult situation, Bigger is expressing the fear he has for the white man. Whether caught trying to help Mary and even when he is caught for her murder, “They would say he raped her and there would be no way to prove that he had not” (Wright 227). To further save himself, he is willing to sacrifice his love, Bessie, and purposely murders her. Bigger was stuck in a bad situation because no matter what, he did what he felt he had to in order to survive. Survival of the fittest. A black male in America, during this time, was not a safe. Grange’s oppression causes this oppressive nature to be passed on to Brownfield. This inevitably causes a rift in the Copeland family dynamics. Brownfield expresses himself through the art of violence. He not only abuses his wife, but also neglects and abuses his children, eventually murdering his wife, Mem, in front of them.

Between Bigger, Grange, and Brownfield, their oppressive nature is a form of yet another form communication expressed by their oppressed victims. Bessie, Margaret, and Mem are the silenced victims and their silence is an expression all on its own. The silence represents the fear these women have towards their oppressors. For two of these women, their repressed vocal expression lands them in the hands of death. Meanwhile, Bigger and Grange are on the opposing fields of society in the sense that no matter where they turn society has them pinned up against the wall. With Bigger, his confusion with the way Mary and Jan treat him causes him to appear inarticulate to the white world. However, in conversation with his friends, it is clear that bigger is far from being inarticulate, and is more just bottling up the emotions he feels as though is not permitted to express. Grange is forced to slave himself in society in order to progress. This slaving, causes him the need to run and hide from the police and abandon a struggling, pregnant white woman who had no respect for his generosity. Grange’s animosity toward this pregnant woman, resembles that same animosity Bigger allows to build up against Mary.

In the end, the social system that each of these black men live in, proves to be unjust. For Bigger, his end is death. He is caught for his murders and framed as an animalistic rapist-killer. Despite his partial innocence, Bigger was doomed the moment he was caught. The oppressed voice he had, fearful of white supremacy, is reminded again in his final scenes at court and his last “goodbye.” Grange is doomed the moment he stepped foot in court. Ruth was going to be handed over to an ungrateful, Brownfield, and in his willingness to protect her, Grange is shot and killed. Brownfield cheats the system, but at the same time, that is doing him an injustice. The system is enabling Brownfield to continue committing violent acts only causing more harm. Although vocal expression is often identified with vocal sounds, sometimes silence, as exemplified through these works of literature, is a form of vocal expression, or repressed vocal expression, all on its own.