How To Love Lit Podcast
The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien - Episode1 - Meet The Writer That Created The Fantasy Genre!

The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien - Episode1 - Meet The Writer That Created The Fantasy Genre!

June 12, 2021

The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien - Episode1 - Meet The Writer That Created The Fantasy Genre! 



Hi, I’m Christy Shriver- and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 


I’m Garry Shriver and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  This week we begin our adventure into the life and work of one of the greatest fantasy writers of all time- J.R.R Tolkien, the creator of The HOBBIT, the book we are going to read, but also the author of The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion.  Christy, those are his most important works, but they weren’t his only works. 


True- Tolkien was not first and foremost a novelist.  In fact, he really wasn’t first and foremost a writer at all, and he didn’t fit into the mold of the writers of his day.  He was a contemporary of Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and that whole slew of modern writers, but he was nothing like them and not a part of their world at all.  He is the very antithesis of the moto “make it new”.- As Pounds famously stated modern writers should be.  And in many ways, he hasn’t been accepted by the literary establishment either of his day or even afterwards.  Harold Bloom,, who I read a lot and have a lot of his commentaries, found him moralizing (which I don’t see at all).  Many found and find his writing awkward and unprogressive- and in those ways,  they weren’t wrong.  He can be awkward and he’s deliberately REGRESSIVE not progressive.  He was doing a totally different thing- ironically- but an ancient one, not a new one- he was myth making.  You could sa, he was making something new, just not in the same way as Pound and his contemporaries.  He had no interest in doing that. 


It does seem a little ironic that the establishment wanted him to make it NEW in the exact same way as everyone else.  Some might suggest that is the very opposite of new. 


Well, it’s incredibly ironic- and not without adversity.  CS Lewis, Tolkein’s lifelong friend, had a terrible antagonism towards TS Eliot, and they have often been called nemesesTolkein stayed out of that fray, as far as I know.  But he was writing and defining what imagination was so differently than Fitzgerald and Eliot and all those other writers.  I’m not sure- although they both were using words to communicate, their writings should be compared at all.  So, let me compare them… 


Ha! More irony….Are we going down that road again? 


Well, ironically-we are NOT going down that road again.  In the modern world, and by that I mean that post ww1 world, psychology was so important.  It played such an important role in how writers were writing and what they were trying to write about.  Think about Prufrock or  Gatsby- there is this deliberate style of manipulating language with puns and metaphors and synechoche and most importantly irony- but these are all semanticsthey are playing with the words. Tolkien did absolutely NONE of that.  Where as everything is a symbol in Gatsby-  Nothing is a symbol in Lord of the Rings.  Nothing is allegory, which is why I don’t understand why Bloom finds him particularly moralizing.   


Well, the characters do have moral codes and values.  And that is kind of a motif all the way through, especially when we start talking about Elves and things. 


I guess that’s what he means, but for Tolkien that is a function of the historical nature of myths – the expressions of values of a culture, not in creating personal themes tcomment on modern life, modern man, how we should necessarily live our lives.  We are NOT supposed to be reflecting on ourselves when we read the Hobbit or any of his books.  We are supposed to be getting OUT of ourselves- out of “feelings” as my students say.  The stories are sheer fantasy.  In the preface to Lord of the Rings, he asserts very emphatically that the book has no symbolic meaning or message, no purpose other than to “hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times, maybe excite them or deeply move them.”    He goes on to say that he prefers history true or feigned to allegory, the latter implies domination by the author, whereas history bestows freedom on the reader, since it represents accidents, real or imagined, as accidents, things that just happen to happen.”  And of course that is what we are going to have in the Hobbit- starting with an unexpected party.   


From a historical sense, I can see why these books were so immediately successful during the time period Tolkien wrote them.  Despite the celebrations, the parties and parades that we see in all the photographs about the end ofWW1- that war left the world in a dark place.  It was  brutal.  There was a silence that characterized it- a deep quiet loss that fell over much of the world. People’s hearts were brokenconfused and anguished by the most destructive war the world had ever seen. Historian Paul Johnson has called the First World War “the disastrous epoch for mankind.” No one was untouched by death- that is not hyperbole; that is historical fact. 


And that is so hard for people of my generation or younger to understand.  For many of us, not all of course, wars are things that happen far away to other people or people who volunteered to go as a career option with very little expectation of dying.  That was not that reality for Tolkien.  War was personal.  Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien’s son said in a documentary I watched on his father that Tolkien was a jovial young man full of friends who all went to war.  He himself went to war in March of 1916, was involved in the Somme Offensive and came back to find that every single one of his former classmates, with one exception, was dead. 


Well, that was the experience of the entire world.  In that offensive you mentioned the British casualty list was over 600,000 in just four months and here’s another brutal reality- there was no ground gained- so basically- it was pretty much pointless death. 


Of course, Tolkien’s writings are about death- but not like Eliot’s.  For Tolkein, the way out of despair and into delight of what he called the primary world was through the imagination and what he called the secondary world.  Another criticism of Tolkien and fantasy literature in general is that it is “escapist”.  The accusation is that you don’t like your reality so you’re going to live in an altered one- you deny reality by pretending it doesn’t exist- you escape it.  This has always been my criticism of video game world, although I have to be honest and say, my criticism may be unfounded because I don’t know enough about video game world from personal experience.  But Tolkien doesn’t look at fantasy that way.  He says fantasy fiction doesn’t provide escape as in the sense of a deserter of reality- but for the admirer, reader and creator of fantasy, the purpose of the fantasy is to resist domination or definition by one’s current reality.  In other words, it keeps you from being consumed.  It empowers the reader to confront the challenges of the primary world.   


It's an interesting but subtle distinction- escapism in the first sense is unhealthy and negative, but in the sense he is describing, he is creating a positive force of personal empowerment and coping. 


Exactly, and a distinction he was not the first to make.  Lots of people have compared Tolkien to the engraver William Blake who we featured a little while back.  Blake also believed in a specific definition of imagination and tried to create in what Tolkien would call the primary world his visions of what he saw in his own secondary world- these were his engravings.  Blake thought the energy and courage to reinvent the world was the freest form of imagination.   


So, Christy, since it’s new book day, you know I want to get into the life and times of Tolkien himself, but since he basically did create a new sub-genre of fantasy- I think it would be helpful, at least for me, to define fantasy per se because I’m not sure I know if I could. 


Fantasy literature is something we all are familiar with whether we use that term or not because there have been so many good and popular fantasy worlds that have come after Tolkein- not just books, movies too.  So many that we that we all love- Harry Potter, Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean.  These are fantasies.  You might even could say Disney as a whole, really.  In some ways, even against Tolkien’s insistence, lots of these are actually metaphorical, how can they not be.  But what marks them as fantasies is that they all have aspects of a supernatural world that cannot be our world.  They take us out of our world.  They have archetypal heroesa lot of times the heroes are orphans, unlikely heroes.  They do things like go on quests. They encounter elements of the Supernatural- things that don’t exist and could never exist in our world.  They often find wise counselors, they have traveling companions; they build relationships with wonderful people to travel with, they conquer evil foes.  Some of the modern ones DO have social commentary, although  Tolkien frowns on that sort of thing and insisted that was a corruption of the genre.  I want to read another famous Tolkien quote, and here he sounds very much like the stuffy professor I have him pegged as in my head, “I should like to say something here to the many opinions or guesses that I have received or have read concerning the motives and meaning of the tale.  The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of the readers, amuse them, delight them and at times maybe excited them or deeply move them….as for any inner meaning or message it has in the intention of the author none.  It is neither allegorical nor topical…I cordially dislke allegory in all of its manifestations.”   



So, you’re saying it’s not an allegory nor does the story mean anything.  No symbols. 


He is very firm in his continual insistence on that in spite of everyone trying to make something different of his work- it is NOT an allegory.  I think people just assume that since he’s best friends with Lewis and Lewis’ children’s stories ARE allegorical than Tolkein’s were too- he is not happy with that assumption.   


Well, that and the fact that he was a deeply devoted man of faith. 


Yes- that’s true- but so was Eliot and people don’t do that to him.  But anyway, I think that’s a good Segway to get into his life story- at least up until the part where we meet Bilbo Baggins and then we will leave the primary world and enter into the secondary world. 


Great plan- will we get past the title today, Christy, I know sometimes we don’t.   


Yes- the goal is to get through chapter 1, but we’ll see how it goes.  You know we don’t want to go past the metaphorical bell at the end of the period. 


Ha!! And here I thought we weren’t doing metaphors anymore. 


Tolkien does not approve- that’s for sure- and we quite literally are not doing bells anymore either.  If you are listening to this in real time, and if you are listening from the United States, this is the second week of June 2021, and most schools around here have finally gotten to summer break after the most notorious school year in our lifetime- Covid School.  Many students around the world didn’t have real bells at all this year, but hopefully by the fall- or spring- depending on which side of the equator you live- that will be behind us. 


We do sincerely hope and pray that is true.   


John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 in South Africa amazingly, where his father worked for the Bank of Africa.  The climate as well as the spiders really frightened Tolkien’s young mother, Mabel, so they decided to return to England when little Ronald was just three years old.  His father was supposed to come back later on that year, but he contracted rheumatic fever and died in Africa.  So, Tolkien himself knew what it was like to have humble origins.  Mabel lived a little while with her parents but rented little cottages where she raised her two sons.  Probably the most important thing to come out of that time period, as far as we’re concerned today is that Mabel converted to the Roman Catholic faith when JRR was only 8 years old.   


Of course, you have to understand this was an unpopular decision for Mabel to make during this time period.  England was openly and virulently anti-Catholic during those years.  To be Catholic was to be Un-British in the minds of a lot of people 


Well, including her immediate family. They cut her off financially because of her refusal to denounce her Catholic faith.  Later in a letter, Tolkien said this about his mother,  She was a “gifted lady of great beauty and wit, greatly stricken by God with grief and suffering who died in youth (at 34) of a disease hastened by persecution of her faith.”  She died of diabetes, but the financial challenges and the stress of this rejection did not help.  Tolkien was only 12 years old when he and his brother Hilary became orphans.  Father Francis Morgan, their parish priest, became their legal guardian, took responsibility for them and raised them.   


Of course, it’s understandable that part of Tolkien’s absolute commitment to the Catholic faith was in part a tribute to the commitment his mother showed.  It was his identity all of his life.  But more than that, the values instilled by his mother and Father Francis informed how he viewed the world.  The values of Tolkien are also the values of Middle Earth. 


I guess you get to do that when you create your own world.  Changing subjects a little bit, I want to highlight Tolkien’s love life- it’s kind of sweet.  He fell in love with a girl named Edith who was also an orphan.  She was three years older and not a Catholic.  Father Francis did not approve of this relationship and forbade Tolkien to continue it or even communicate with Edith until he turned 21.  Dutiful sweet Tolkien obeyed his guardian and focused on his schooling.  His efforts were rewarded by gaining admission into Exeter College, Oxford.  He studied English language and literature. What we would call his junior year but five days after turning 21 he revisited Edith.  And after she converted to Roman Catholicism, they were formally engaged to be married.  Tolkien graduated in 1915, enlisted in the service, received a commission as a second lieutenant, went to training, and in March of 1916, he used his last military leave before going to France to marry Edith.  The Tolkien’s were to have 4 children.   


Well there you go- finally a happily ever after at least in his personal life. 


He did have a happy personal life.  Although he was by no means a feminist and very much a man of that generation, they seem to have gotten on very well.  He also doted on his children.  He made stories for them, and not just The Hobbit- he wrote Christmas stories every year, letters from Santa and he went to a lot of effort, that we know of, to be a very present father.  It’s nice. 


So moving out of the personal and into the professional, when we see the career choices Tolkien made after the war, it makes sense that so much of his legacy has to do with names, and places, and history of places.  It was the driving focus of his life, but I think it’s worth mentioning that the book that would eventually become The Silmarillion-in some sense- 60 years later after he died, he started during the war, even in the trenches but a big chunk of it while recovering from trench fever, in 1917.  The myths that are the world he created in all of his stories clearly were spinning in his head from early on and developed over the years really- kind of a sped up version of how myths actually develop. 


No doubt- and next week, we will tell a bit of the story of the Silmarillion because it does play a big part in the Hobbit, although indirectly. After the war, Tolkien joined the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary, which I think is pretty cool, did well at that, but eventually became professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University where he stayed for 34 years.  Teaching was his passion, and of course I love that He was dedicated to research and writing and advancing students.  He graded lots of papers- something we know a little about.  


To be sure. 


And the truth be told, he might never have published anything were it not for his friends one being the famous CS Lewis who encouraged him both to write and publish.  In 1936, he allowed himself to be talked into submitting for publication a book he called There and Back Again, or The Hobbit.  It was a children’s book so the publisher, Stanley Unwin, employed his ten year old son, Rayner to read it for. He paid him one shilling.  Garry, I’ve heard that term many times, but I don’t know, to be honest, what a shilling is.   


I know, most Americans don’t, and when we study it, we get totally confused because a British pound is worth 20 shillings,  half a sovereign is worth 10 shillings, a crown is worth 5, a florin is worth two and there are 12 pennies in a shilling. 


Goodness, how did people keep up with it.   


Because it was money and in their best interest to do so.  The British used this system for centuries- it dates to the Roman Occupation.  But just as a reference, for young Rayner, he could buy a pack of gum for 1 penny- so for an entire shilling he could get 12 packs of gum.  Great compensation for his raving review of Tolkien’s work.  I love his one paragraph critique where he said, now remember he’s 10, the book “should appeal to all children between the ages of 5-9”. 


So, in his case, he was too mature for the fantasy? 


Maybe so.  But he was right.  It definitely appealed and more than just that crowd.  It sold well.  Unwin asked Tolkien to write a sequel, and he did.  But it would be another 12 years before we got to the Trilogy that turned him into an icon, The Lord of the Rings.   


He had NO idea it would be a turning point in his life.  The story of how he even had the idea is mythical.  It was the summer of 1930- I watched of Tolkien telling the story.  He had just moved into a new house and he was grading a pile of student exams. 


That sounds like work. 


He did suggest it was terribly dull and mind numbing.  When he got to an exam where there was a blank page he got excited.  These are his words, “I had an enormous pile of exams…I remember picking up a paper and actually finding…there was one page…that was left  blank…So I scribbled on it, I can’t think why. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”  And so it began….later on Tolkien decided he would go back went back and imagine what exactly a hobbit was.  . 


Well, what is it.   


Let’s let Tolkien tell us.  Read for us his description from page 2.   

I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, goodnatured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it). Now you know enough to go on with. As I was saying, the mother of this hobbit  of Bilbo Baggins, that is  was the fabulous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took, head of the hobbits who lived across The Water, the small river that ran at the foot of The Hill. It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. That was, of course, absurd, but certainly there was still something not entirely hobbitlike about them,  and once in a while members of the Tookclan would go and have adventures. They discreetly disappeared, and the family hushed it up; but the fact remained that the Tooks were not as respectable as the Bagginses, though they were undoubtedly richer. Not that Belladonna Took ever had any adventures after she became Mrs. Bungo Baggins. Bungo, that was Bilbo's father, built the most luxurious hobbithole for her (and partly with her money) that was to be found either under The Hill or over The Hill or across The Water, and there they remained to the end of their days. Still it is probable that Bilbo, her only son, although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his makeup from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out. The chance never arrived, until Bilbo Baggins was grown up, being about fifty years old or so, and living in the beautiful hobbithole built by his father, which I have just described for you, until he had in fact apparently settled down immovably.  

By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his woolly toes (neatly brushed)  Gandalf came by.  

And so we have gone in the hole into the ground and entered into Tolkien’s glorious secondary world.  Let me explain a little bit more what that term means, for from what I know, that’s an expression Tolkien made up.  For Tolkien the secondary word is a made up consistent, fictional world.  What he means by that is that the author creates the parameters and then respects those parameters.  There must be internal consistency or it can’t be a real place in our minds. When we suspend our reality and enter into this secondary world, we must understand the rules of this new world and they can have a life of their own.  For example, in Star Wars, we can believe you can fly in an X-Wing Fighter and kill people with light sabers because those are consistent realities in that world.  We can also believe there is a force and it can make you levitate.  It makes sense according to the rules Lucas created when he created that secondary world.  In Tolkein’s case as well as Lucas’, the secondary world has its own geography, languages, timelines, genealogy and everything is interdependent.  It all makes sense in that imagined world.  In my copy of the book, before you even get to page one there are two maps and one of them has words written in Elvish that I can’t even read because the letters aren’t in a real alphabet in the primary world. 


Is it true, because I’ve always heard this, that Tolkien made up his own languages.   


It is absolutely true, and we’ll talk more about this next week when we talk about the Silmarillion and the elves and the first and second ages and all the back story that goes on before the first hobbit, little Bilbo, ever shows up.  But what’s so interesting, is that for Tolkien the languages came before the story. Tolkien LOVED languages and words and the history of words He spoke over 35 languages himself – several of them dead like Latin and Old Norse.  He really understood what languages were about.  So when he wrote Quenya or high elvish, which is just one of the dozens of languages Tolkien dreamed up for the inhabitants of Middle Earth- to be more specific Quenya is part of the Elvish language family which alone has over 15 languages and dialects- he wrote a complete language in the way that a language would be created.  He even invented a sign language for the dwarfs.  One time Tolkein actually said he wished the book wasn’t even in English, he said, this, “I should have preferred to write in Elvish.”  


WhatAnd how is that even possible? 


Because he completely understood how languages evolve.  His languages, I will say, didn’t have a complete vocabulary because they didn’t need one.  There’s no word for pepperoni pizza because he didn’t need that word, but there would be a word for the things that he needed words for.  AND the words would make sense- their etymologies would align with each other.  Their phonetics were consistent.  He didn’t just put any sounds together that he wanted to- they made sense within the language he was inventing.  This is what I mean, I don’t speak Japanese, but I lived there for a year, so I can recognize Japanese when I hear it.  I know the sounds they make, how they fit together, and if someone were to say jibberish and call it Japanese, I would know immediately they were full of garbage.  He created languages that had unique cadences, grammatical patterns and words that were consistently connected to each other.  It’s crazy.   


And he did it for the sport of it?   


It’s incredible.  This is what he said, “The basic pleasure in the phonetic elements of a language and in the style of their patterns, and in then in the higher dimension, pleasure in the association of these word-forms with meanings, is of fundamental importance.  This pleasure is quite distinct from the practical knowlesge of a language, and not the same as an analytic understanding of its structure.  It is simpler, deeper-rooted and yet more immediate than the enjoyment of literature.  


He loved words for their own sake- not for what they could do.   


Exactly, and he learned them not to speak them.  I mentioned he spoke all those languages- that’s probably not totally true.  He could read and write in all those languages- he may not have been a fluent speaker like we think of today.   


I know we need to get back to Hobbits because that was my first question, but let me ask one more question about these languages- why make up so many?  Just because you can. 


Partly maybe, Tolkien understand  language is intimately connected with culture.  He completely dismissed Esperanto- that universal make up language was supposed to facilitate communication between people.  Language has history and mythology and legends.  Names are stories.  Memphis” is actually the Greek adaptation of “Men-nefer,” meaning “enduring and beautiful.” The Egyptian city was capital of ancient lower Egypt around 3000 BC. The Tennessee city was named for its relation to the river.  And so, for him- to create a secondary world, it just had to have all of that or it didn’t exist at all.   


And so where did the inspiration come from the Hobbit? 


Hobbits are US.  They are identical to humans with whom we can identify., Hobbits are specifically Middle class British citizens of the early part of the 20st century who lived in the area.  They are English people coping in a world that is fantastical, challenging, far too big for them.  When we meet Bilbo Baggins he’s doing what English do- drinking tea.  And he’s very English in his tastes and attitudes not so much English of today, but the English of Tolkien’s day.  In chapter one, the dwarfs are not impressed with him at all.  They see no value in him at first.  Gandalf insists they bring him so they won’t have an unlucky traveling number and he claims he’s a burglar, but every reader can tell that’s not who he is.  He’s running around as a good host. Offering to be at everyone’s service.  What Tolkien represents for us in this first chapter is an entry point into the secondary world.  One way he does it is through the language.  Notice how Bilbo speaks.  “Don’t wait to knock! Tea at Four!  What about a little light?”  He’s speaking the way we speak in the real world.  But look how Gandalf speaks, he speaks with these archaic speech patterns that let us know, he’s not from our world.  It’s subtle, but it gives us a place to start.   


We can also see the difference in the two worlds by the values.  Bilbo values respectability, hospitality, his appearance, his garden.  The dwarfs and Gandalf have these lofty values of combat, courage, things of heroes and legends.  


And just like us, when Bilbo listens to them talk he gets caught up in the magic of it, the excitement of it. 


Oh yes, his Took side.   


Yes- because if you are reading a fantasy- you must by definition have a Took side- or you wouldn’t be reading the tale.  But also, if you are reading at all, you likely have a part of you that is a Baggins. 


There is a very famous letter by Tolkien where he said this, ““I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size).  I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats”. 


Exactly, and just like Bilbo, we too are to be taken in- invited into this wonderful secondary world with beautiful landscapes, trolls and orcs, elves and dwarfs and of course- let’s not forget  




Oh no, we definitely cannot forget dragons.   


For over the misty mountains cold to dungeons deep and caverns old 

We must away ere break of day to seek the pale enchanted gold. 


The dwarves of yore….read page 14 


And next week, I guess that’s where we’ll go- into the caves and through the mountains looking for gold and adventure.  We hoped you enjoyed this first discussion of The Hobbit.  Next week, we’ll begin our journey to the Misty Mountain, learn about elves and orcs and all the ages of Middle Earth. 


T.S. Eliot - The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock - Poetry Supplement - Episode2

T.S. Eliot - The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock - Poetry Supplement - Episode2

June 5, 2021

T.S. Eliot - The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock - Poetry Supplement - Episode 2

Hi, This is Christy Shriver, and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 


I’m Garry Shriver, and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  This is week two in our discussion of the trans-Atlantic icon, Thomas Stearns Eliot or as he’s widely referred to, TS Eliot.  As we mentioned last week, TS Eliot was the recipient of the 1948 Nobel Prize in Literature.  When the Swedish Academy presented him this award, Gustaf Helstrom compared Eliot’s contribution to those of Sigmund Freud.  Eliot understood and expressed so much of the heart of humanity during those years.   


He also spoke and commented on man’s hope for the future, which is something you don’t really think about especially when you think about how dark a lot of his poetry is.   


For Eliot, hope for the future was often found in the study of the past, and as a history and psychology teacher, this is something that resonates strongly with me.  He believed that by looking backwards we could make a better future.  I want to read just the final couple of sentences of Helstrom’ introduction during the ceremony where he received his Nobel Prize.  “For you the salvation of man lies in the preservation of the cultural tradition, which, in our more mature years, lives with greater vigor within us than does primitiveness, and which we must preserve if chaos is to be avoided. Tradition is not a dead load which we drag along with us, and which in our youthful desire for freedom we seek to throw off. It is the soil in which the seeds of coming harvests are to be sown, and from which future harvests will be garnered. As a poet you have, Mr. Eliot, for decades, exercised a greater influence on your contemporaries and younger fellow writers than perhaps anyone else of our time.” 


Of course that resonates with me as well.  There has been so much criticism about studying the writings of the past and many see little value to the thoughts, stories and experiences of those who lived on this planet before us.  But I strongly disagree, and  I love listening to Eliot and Helstrom.  


Ha!  Well, you know what I call that? 


Of course, I do, you call it, “the arrogance of the presence” 


Well, I’m pretty sure I didn’t coin that phrase, but yes- I believe that’s exactly what it is- and creating that continuity between the past and the present seems to be the impetus, at least in part, for all the classical and historical allusions in Eliot’s writing. 


Well, there is no doubt about that.  For sure.  However, I wanted to go back to the psychology side of it for a minute.  When we talking Gatsby, we mentioned we’d get into a little neuroscience about what makes us enjoy all these weird metaphors and ironies.  We mentioned that Eliot would be an interesting place to talk about that because for one thing- his writing is so obviously psychological and weird- two things we don’t associate with beauty necessarily.  Today, our goal is to look at the words, the metaphors, the ironies of this poem.  I promise, it will be interesting although I’m not sure I’ve made it sound so quite yet, so let’s start our discussion thinking about our brains. 


For sure,  of course the unanswerable question is the mysterious connection behind the brain and art.  Art and beauty are so important to being human.  There is no doubt it’s essential for happiness.  The research behind this connection beyond that however,  is complex and there is not total agreement on what all of it means.  Of course we know art raises serotonine levels- and that’s where happiness comes from- if we’re talking biochemistry-  


 can tell you definitely from a scientific standpoint what makes any one particular thing beautiful, why do we call certain things beautiful, and why it even matter?  Of course, we all know it does, even children feel this. 


 We know that it absolutely DOES matter; there is no debate that we must have beauty in our world.  But let’s look specifically at the beauty of words.  That matters too, but a lot of times, we really don’t think of it  as much as we think visual art or music.  We know that neurons get excited when two arbitrary ideas are connected- like in the case of puns or metaphors.  Think of it like we get a hit of brain-happiness.  So, when we read poems like Prufrock, even though the images may not be what we traditionally consider beautiful, like sunsets or roses or things like that, because there is so much that is unexpected and unique, our brain is activated in different ways and we find pleasure in these connections. 


Let me give you an example that is not from this poem, but most people would understand.  Let’s go back to visual art. Have you ever wondered why the Mona Lisa is so famous?  Is it because this woman is just that gorgeous?  This has always confused people.  One scientist, Dr. Maragaret Livingstone, suggests the delight, at least in part is because depending on the angle, Mona Lisa’s expression is different, and we get pleasure from these unexpected changes- they’re unexpected.  Our brain activity is affected- and we get a happiness hit.  


So, when Eliot or Fitzgerald or anyone puts two expressions together that take us by surprise- we are affected neurologically?   


Researchers definitely think that’s a part of it..  When we listen to the words in some of those more poetic parts of Gatsby, we can feel sensations of brain activity that scientists would connect to sensations of pleasure.  We can say it more than once and feel it again.  At the end of the day, there is pleasure in making connections- that is the human experience.  It makes us feel our humanity.  If you’re far away from home and you find someone from your same hometown- you make a connection- even if it’s no more than, funny, we went to the same high school,  bam- there’s a sensation of pleasure.  We’ve made a human connection. 


Having that idea in mind, when you read a poem like TS Eliot, and if you take the time to try to understand or make sense of all the connections, neuroscientists would tell you that the intellectual pursuit towards understanding the patterns in the words, solving the problems in the poem, or seeing the images provoke neural stimulation that is actually positive- especially if you have a natural affinity for word games- and that is true even if the poem itself is dark.    


 Which of course it really is.  It is strange when you think of a poem like Prufrock that can be so frustrating;  you have to wonder, why do people like reading it over and over again?  Why do we like reading any poem over and over again?   


Exactly- Why do we like to read some books or watch some movies over again.  There are many, and I’d say the majority even if we enjoyed them the first time, do not entice us to re-read or re-watch at all?  The answer, from the neuroscience perspective is because things like poems such as Prufrock prevent easy absorption- you will understand one part of the text, but the next reading, you may find something else in a different place. So, it’s a piece of art that re-stimulates your brain differently and that will keep you coming back.  Did that make sense or was that just confusing? 


No, it makes sense- humanities people use words like the connection between body and spirit- science speak might be biology and psychology and our spirit- And it’s easy for me to accept how all these human elements work together in a mysterious way.  I will also say, as a teacher who interacts with hundreds of people every single day, I get a lot of pleasure from all kinds of unexpected connections.  Truth be told, that may be one of my favorite things.  I don’t know.  I’d have to reflect. 


So, after all that intro- Let’s see these connections and stimulate some brain waves.  Read stanza one, and I’ll give you some thoughts on it. .  


Let us go then, you and I, 

When the evening is spread out against the sky 

Like a patient etherized upon a table; 

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, 

The muttering retreats 

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels 

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: 

Streets that follow like a tedious argument 

Of insidious intent 

To lead you to an overwhelming question ... 

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” 

Let us go and make our visit. 


So, the first thing you may ask yourself is who is he talking to?  The poem. is in the second person- who’s YOU? This is never explained.  Eliot never names a second person.   Is the reader being talked to- am I supposed to be the second person, like a letter or a traditional dramatic monologue? Is there an imaginary person that’s this second person; is he talking to himself?  The first rule in reading modern poetry is that modern poets are like powerful women- they never explain themselves.   


Well, there you go-I can almost hear that coming out of Maggie Smith’s mouth in her role as the Dowager in Downton Abbey.  


I know- that’s who I was channeling, to be honest.  But in the case o Modern poets, they deliberately leave these ambiguities in the text for a reason, and the purpose is not to confuse the reader, although that may be how it feels.  What they want you to do, as a reader, is meet them halfway in building meaning- you, as a reader, are to make the work of art more about you as an individual- a personal connection, so to speak.  So, in this case- Who IS the YOU?- And, I’d have to ask, who do you want it to be?  What will help you make the most meaning out of the words.  What helps you make the most sense of the images?   


That sounds like you’re making the reading exhausting. 


Well, there is that risk, so, I’m going to defy the modernists and just give you my opinion or how I interpret this- just to maybe make it easier- but let me just say- I’m not right.  I’m not wrong, but I’m also not right.  This is just ONE way of seeing things.  In fact, I may give you a couple of theories and let you go from there.   


That has always frustrated me about English teachers.  There is never a right or wrong answer. 


Not true, there definitely can be a wrong answer- a wrong answer is one that cannot be supported from the text.  So, it would be wrong to say, that he’s talking about Martians and space aliens here- but then again, maybe- that’s not true either and  you could have a space reading of this poem, I’ve never tried.   


But here’s one way of looking at it- When I look at those lines that you just read- here are my first thoughts- the words are initially decisive- come- you-and I- let us go? Like me saying, come, Garry, let’s go get dessert.  Let’s go to the park.   It’s a nice invitation-  I see it as a guy talking in his own mine- role-playing how he wished he would talk to people in the real world- how he would like to engage other people- but there isn’t anyone there yet, so he’s just saying it to himself- practicing and getting up his nerve to do something he wants to do for real.  However, this spirit of bravery collides immediately with the first image.  Now remember- an image is something you can see or experience in your mind- we can see a sky- we can also feel or at least remember how it feels to be etherized- he puts these to images together-to mix the messages. 


The evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table.   


How do those two things even go together?  Obviously they don’t- 


 If you are etherized- that means you’re under the influence of ether-today we don’t use ether for this- but during WW1, they used it to numb people for medicinal purposes. 


Does it knock people out, make them unconscious? 


Well, just smelling it won’t make you lose consciousness, but it was used as an anesthetic until safer methods were invented.  


And so here’s how this all works- this poem is about how it feels to be a modern man- or modern person- to use more politically correct terminology.  Think of J Alfred as gender- generic- it applies beyond gender-This guy is alone.  so I look at it like he’s talking to himself.  He walks out in the sky- it should be a romantic scene- he wants it to be we will see later- we’re going to see that he’s going to a party with a lot of women (at least maybe he is), but in this stanza, the sky doesn’t invigorate him, it doesn’t give him peace or a sense of fresh air- he feels nothing- it’s a sensation of numbness- like being a patient who has been given strong numbing medication.  And as we keep reading, he takes us- or as I interpret it- the other side of himself- the YOU- he’s talking to- into the streets and look what he sees.  These are not romantic images.  These are sleezy images.  One-night cheap hotels, sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells.  There is nothing here that connotes human connections, intimacy, fellowship. Nothing here that makes you feel happy. 


Eliot creates a simile but he also personifies the streets- the streets are compared to a tedious argument- tiresome, boring, pointless- he says the intent of the streets is insidious- the definition of insidious means gradual, subtle, but with harmful effects.   


The streets are not our friends.   


No, they don’t seem to be.  They pretend to be, but they are insidious- deceitful with harmful effects. And all of this brings us to this next like where he asks what he calls “an overwhelming question”- but he won’t tell us what the question is.  Is it because he doesn’t know the question?  Is it because there is not question?  There is a feeling of pointlessness in this entire stanza- and remember, for modern poetry,  the feeling is the thing.   


Well, I cannot say that I don’t understand this emotion that he’s expressing.  I think every young person does at one point in their life or another.  We all think whatever the streets represent is glamorous at some point- but then we get knocked back by reality…hopefully sooner rather than later. 


Well, that’s true, and especially for modern people.  People who live in urban environments.  People who live in communities without big family or historical connections- and there is nothing in this poem to suggest that that is Prufrock’s case- look at what I’m doing- I’m putting my own meaning in this poem.  I did grow up in a city of 3 million people.  My window as a child faced to the streets with people walking and laughing looking like the night life was where happiness lived.  I grew up in a city with no historical connections and so forth- so I’m meeting  Eliot in this poem and creating the images in my mind not of seedy Boston, but Belo Horizonte (although my neighborhood wasn’t seedy).  It was modern.  Does that make sense at all? 


Sure it does.   


.  Now that I gave one spin on this first stanza- and I promise I won’t do this the entire way through- we’d never finish this episode- but I want to express a framework for how to enjoy a poem like this.  Here’s a second way reading this same stanza, and this may be the majority view.  Lots of people think  he’s talking to a woman- the woman he wants to ask out.  It is a love song, that’s in the title, so, it stands to reason if you look at it that way, that he’s talking to a woman- the woman he’s going to meet.  The overwhelming question in this case would be a proclamation of a love interest of some sorts.  Read the next several stanzas.  


In the room the women come and go 

Talking of Michelangelo. 


The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, 

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes, 

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening, 

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, 

Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys, 

Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap, 

And seeing that it was a soft October night, 

Curled once about the house, and fell asleep. 


And indeed there will be time 

For the yellow smoke that slides along the street, 

Rubbing its back upon the window-panes; 

There will be time, there will be time 

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; 

There will be time to murder and create, 

And time for all the works and days of hands 

That lift and drop a question on your plate; 

Time for you and time for me, 

And time yet for a hundred indecisions, 

And for a hundred visions and revisions, 

Before the taking of a toast and tea. 


In the room the women come and go 

Talking of Michelangelo. 


This business of Michelangelo is funny.  Why do they have to be talking of Michelangelo?   


I know- Eliot does a lot with figurative language in this poem- meaning he isn’t always being literal about everything.  This will sound technical, but not boring, I hope.   As we all know- even today, authors use similes and metaphors to help us understsnd their ideas- that take something we don’t understand, compare it to something we do understand and bam- they make sense- oh my love is a red red rose- you don’t know what your love is like, but you do know what a rose is and a red red rose must be a very very deep and beautiful one so there- the metaphor makes me love you 


Or at least Robert Burns.  Didn’t he say that? 


True, although I think that line has gotten some use over the year.  Elliot’s uses metaphors and similes but really for as much imagining as we have here- not all that much.  There really are only three similes in this entire poem of over 100 lines which is strange.  He uses what we call metonymy and synecdoche-  


Synec-do-what?  Isn’t there a sad movie with Phillip Seymor Hoffman called that. 


Yes- and ironically not too different from Prufrock- it’s Big word- But it means when some part of something is used to represent something bigger than just the one thing.  So, here’s what’s going on- he says the women are talking of Michelangelo- what we are to understand is that the women may or may not literally be talking about Michelangelo.  Michelangelo is a thing that is standing in to represent the kinds of things women like this talk about.  These women are cultured= or at least they pretend to be- they talk about sophisticated things like classical art- likely dull things- I’m not saying that Michelangelo is necessarily dull- but for some people, maybe like a guy like Prufrock it could be- it’s tedious pretentiousness- talking about things you’re supposed to be interested in- things you can snub others about- but not really enjoyable- “The Galleria d’ accademia is such a small museum for such an impressive piece of art like Michelangelo’s David.” Don’t you agree?  But I will say the sunlight there highlight  the craftmanship so characteristic of the high renaissance.  To which someone replies- “oh most definitely”..and there’s a wonderful tea shop just across the street with a marvelous pastry chef name Leonardo, who makes the best biscotti.  


Hahahaha- it sounds like you’ve been talking of Michelangelo, yourself.  Is that true about Leonardo. 


Ha!  Well, it is- but it’s just a bakery I found on Google.  I’m just pretending to have eaten the biscotti- I read that in a Google Review.  But the idea is the  snobbery.  Metonymy is when you use a thing to represent a bunch of things that are associated with a thing- and that’s what Michelangelo is standing in for here.  Synecdoche and metonymy are so close to the same things- don’t bother trying to separate them- it’s something representing a larger group. 


So, is the yellow fog metonymy too? 


The yellow fog is the most confusing part of the whole poem.  Again, you’re supposed to interpret it for yourself- but here’s one idea.  We have this guy, he’s getting his courage to go into a party of sophisticated women and he expects to be snubbed.  This is kind of how he sees himself- like a cat- but a fog cat it’s- licking its tongue, suddenly leaping- rubbing its muzzle- a tom cat could be suave and debonair, but this one is kind of foggy- and definitely unattractive. 


This is really stream of consciousness- psychological- this guy thinking of himself like a tom cat, like a fog, slying going into a party-  on a soft October night, curling up in a corner and falling asleep-  this is the most positive point in the entire poem. 


Exactly- and it really is- even though it feels disconnected and scattered- but is actually highly structured and organized.  Prufrock is definitely not a sly tom cat getting ready to pounce in real life.  And when he thinks about it for half a second more he knows it.   He starting talking about time- which is really an allusion to the Bible passage in Ecclesiastes as well as Andrew Marvelll’s poem To His Coy Mistress.  Marvel’s poem is one of the most famous seize the day poems ever written in English.   In Marvell’s poem, a suave sexy man seduces a woman by telling her they need to seize the day because she might die.  In Marvel’s poem, he basically says, if we had all the time in the world, I wouldn’t mind playing this coy game of you pretending to be prudish, but we don’t have all the time in the world and you aren’t, you’re going to die, worms are going to take your virginity- you’ll be ugly so if you want to maximize what you have we need to consummate this thing right now. 


Ha! Well, if you know that poem, this part is extremely ironic.  Prufrock isn’t bold or brave like Marvel.  Instead of overpowering the women, He makes excuses for himself- he says the exact opposite- there’s plenty of time, life is long, I can put off making my move.   


And the line that people have really enjoyed is that last phrase, “Time for you and time for me and time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions, before the taking of a toast and tea.  


There is a sense that he’s putting things off, but there is another sense where he sees his life as an indistinguishable endless charade of toast and tea and pointlessness.  No end in sight to the mad dreariness of his existence.  Prufrock as we’re going to see as we keep reading is going no where.  He’s going no where in life- and I think you could think that he’s physically going no where-  


like he may not even really be at the party-- even though at the beginning of the poem he definitely says, let us go, 


I think so.  It’s ambiguous.  Maybe he’s no where- this encounter is in his mind, and that’s why he’s in hell.  Hell is a place you never get out of.   


And indeed there will be time 

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?” 

Time to turn back and descend the stair, 

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair — 

(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”) 

My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, 

My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin — 

(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”) 

Do I dare 

Disturb the universe? 

In a minute there is time 

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse. 


For I have known them all already, known them all: 

Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, 

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons; 

I know the voices dying with a dying fall 

Beneath the music from a farther room. 

               So how should I presume? 


And I have known the eyes already, known them all— 

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, 

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, 

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, 

Then how should I begin 

To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? 

               And how should I presume? 


And I have known the arms already, known them all— 

Arms that are braceleted and white and bare 

(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!) 

Is it perfume from a dress 

That makes me so digress? 

Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl. 

               And should I then presume? 

               And how should I begin? 


Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets 

And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes 

Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? 


There are no less than 15 questions in this poem.  The most important ones seem to be centered here with “can I ask a woman out for a date?  Which some how gets connected to “What is the meaning of life?”  Prufrock is a poem about being lonely, isolated, unable to make human connections.  Unable to get out of my head, my physical location- the hell I’ve created for myself. 


Well, in a sense, it’s possible these are two versions of the same questions.  Human intimacy and interaction is what makes us love our life.  What is a life without intimacy, connectivity, courage.  These are the things that a modern man like  J. Alfred Prufrock does not have.  Prufrock clearly wishes he could get beyond himself- to ask out a woman is an expression of that.  It changes reality- one way or another.  But it takes boldness to do that.  You have to, as we used to say, “man up”- and Prufrock has none of that.  The sexual loneliness is a manifestation of a metaphysical problem really.   


Which takes us to another synechoche- these claws  Here the claws represent the crab.  Prufrock thinks he should have been a crab.  


I should have been a pair of ragged claws 

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas. 


And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully! 

Smoothed by long fingers, 

Asleep ... tired ... or it malingers, 

Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me. 

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, 

Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis? 

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed, 

Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter, 

I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter; 

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, 

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, 

And in short, I was afraid. 


And would it have been worth it, after all, 

After the cups, the marmalade, the tea, 

Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me, 

Would it have been worth while, 

To have bitten off the matter with a smile, 

To have squeezed the universe into a ball 

To roll it towards some overwhelming question, 

To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead, 

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”— 

If one, settling a pillow by her head 

               Should say: “That is not what I meant at all; 

               That is not it, at all.” 


And would it have been worth it, after all, 

Would it have been worth while, 

After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets, 

After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor— 

And this, and so much more?— 

It is impossible to say just what I mean! 

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen: 

Would it have been worth while 

If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl, 

And turning toward the window, should say: 

               “That is not it at all, 

               That is not what I meant, at all.” 


And here we see way more of Eliot criticizing modern man.  We are too anxious, likely overeducated in impractical things.  Our anxiety of failure brought on by our culture, our education, urban expectations paralyze us into doing nothing.  We have no courage.  There’s a reference here to John the Baptist which I think is really interesting.  John the Baptist had his head cut off and served to King Herod.  Here, Eliot references that, but in Prufrock’s case, what would bother him about being decapitated in this scenario would be that his dead head that would be served up to King Herod would reveal he’s balding.  He just can’t, to use his phrase,  

“ bite off the matter with a smile, 

and squeeze the universe into a ball”.  He can’t be like Lazarus in the Bible and come back from the dead. And when we see what horrifies him- he’s horrified that he’ll approach a woman, she’ll listen to him then reply that “that is not what I meant at all.  That is not it, at all.” 


Oh my, how could a guy like J. Alfred misinterpret my politiness for interest?  “That is not what I meant t all”. It’s embarrassement, shame, rejection- all of the bad things in life.  Prufrock’s life has so little meaning in any other area thst. Concern about his looks, a rejection from a woman he doesn’t appear he even cares about, is enough to wipe him out.  Let’s finish.  


No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; 

Am an attendant lord, one that will do 

To swell a progress, start a scene or two, 

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool, 

Deferential, glad to be of use, 

Politic, cautious, and meticulous; 

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; 

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— 

Almost, at times, the Fool. 


I grow old ... I grow old ... 

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. 


Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach? 

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. 

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. 


I do not think that they will sing to me. 


I have seen them riding seaward on the waves 

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back 

When the wind blows the water white and black. 

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea 

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown 

Till human voices wake us, and we drown. 


Prince Hamlet, of course, is the most famous slow-mover in the world.  Prince Hamlet’s most famous line is, “To be or not to be, that is the question.”  Prince Hamlet was told by his father, as a ghost, that he was supposed to revenge his father’s death.  Hamlet waffled, went back and forth, debated, worried about if life was even worth- should I kill myself. But the thing about Hamlet, in the final scene of the play he does act. He does actually have a purpose to exist.  He does revenge his father.  He does DO something.   


Prufrock is not Prince Hamlet.  He’s not even a prince at all.  


 And, He will NEVER act, and he knows it.  He is going be a failure, a loser, and not because he tried and failed, but because he doesn’t have any energy, any courage, any desire to even try for anything.  He is just going to do nothing?  He will spend his energy worrying if he should eat a peach.  Not even  fictitious sirens in his imagination will try to seduce him- that’s an allusion to the Odyssey- but you’d think, if you were a person who can live in a made up world- in your made up world the sirens would want you- isn’t that what video game world is about in part.?  For for Prufrock, Not even in his dreams is he seductive.  He just linger by the sea in his imagination until he wakes up and the final lines of the poem, “we drown.” 


That IS dark.  So nihilistic.   


Well, it’s modernism for- not the most positive take on the modern world- those guys knew how to see the dark side of life.  But you know what, unlike Fitzgerald who chose to sink in a sea of poor choices, Eliot did not.  The man who wrote Prufrock as a young man, wrote The Waste Land slightly older, and then wrote the “Four Quartets” later in life.  These last meditations are about time, divinity, and humility among other things and are considered his finest works.  All the things that confuse Prufrock and defeat Prufrock really don’t defeat the real T.S. Eliot.  And I guess that’s where I find the redemption.  Eliot’s work takes us through the modern world but he navigates himself to a place of peace. I like that about him. We’ve all been Prufrock at one time or another.  The virtual world of today is way worse than anything Eliot experienced, and  Especially now because of the pandemic, many of us have felt a lot of the stream of conscious judgement poor Prufrock feels- but we don’t have to drown or be him- we can be Lazarus- and come out of it.  And that’s the thought I want to take away from this. 


Well, there you have it, the positive spin on nihilism.  We hope you have been able to understand just a little bit of this very confusing poem.  Maybe it’s inspired you, maybe it hasn’t.  Thanks for being with us this week.  Next week, we are going to change directions and get into a little fantasy literaeture with J.R.R. Tolkein and The Hobbit.  That will be a welcome change of pace.   


HA!1. It will be good though.  He’s a great writer, and although also a devoted Catholic, and from Oxford, England has a very different take on things.  I look forward to it. 




T.S. Eliot - The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock - Poetry Supplement - Episode 1

T.S. Eliot - The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock - Poetry Supplement - Episode 1

May 29, 2021

T.S. Eliot - The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock - Poetry Supplement - Episode 1


I’m Christy Shriver, and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 


I’m Garry Shriver and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  This week’s poetry supplement comes after my favorite series to date- our series on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby- what a tour de force as we talked nihilism, symbolism, murder, jazz, gangsters, wealth and ironically- no love story- which was what I thought we were getting at first- the whole book was a study in irony…which is my favorite.  It was a lot of fun…this week we are going back to that era, and we’ll still have fun, but it will be of a much darker nature- I don’t know what to think of ole’ TS Eliot- he is a very cryptic guy. 


Well, that’s true- but…if you like Irony- TS Eliot doesn’t disappoint- he, like everyone else in his age- really uses it quite a bit.  And you’re right about his work, TS Eliot is a complicated  person as well as writer..  That’s why we are actually going to extend this poetry supplement to TWO episodes.  I tried to get it into one, but it’s not possible.  So, hopefully, we can entice everyone to spend two weeks with us talking about this = as you described him- “ cryptic guy”.   


I stand by that description- even his citizenship is unusual.  He is a notable American writer, born in the US, but America really can’t claim him, and not just because he spent his adult life in Europe, lots of Americans did that.  He naturalized to become a British citizen, but not even just that- he became British among British- an authority on English, not American literature.  He appears in American literature anthologies, but often only this early piece.  His most notable works belong in the British Canon. That’s expertise in two very crowded fields.   


- and that is something I can’t imagine even attempting to do or be.  I know, I’m no TS Eliot, but I’m way more comfortable reading and lecturing on things from this side of the pond; I know the culture better; I better understand the thinking- and even though I have lived a large part of my life in Brazil, I don’t dare presume to be an expert on Brazilian literature or culture.  There is just a difference in living in a place and being of the place- at least for me- but TS Eliot became an expert in two cultures and was able to redirect the entire discussion of British literature- elevating writers that had been less appreciated like John Donne and dismissing commonly held icons like Tennyson.  He asserted himself  to be and wasin fact, a definitive expert of experts on the English canon- besides being a poet- he was an editor and publisher.  That was his day job. His influence cannot really be understated, but for our purposes for the next two weeks,  we want to focus on one poem.  Now let me just say up front, his writings are complex- and not in the Gatsby way where you can read them on one level and enjoy them even if you don’t get all the layers.  With Eliot, you’ll likely just be confused. The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock is one of the easier onesat least from my perspective- but even it is so difficult that when it was discovered by notable poet and co-founder really of the modernism poem, Ezra Pound said something to the gist of a- I’m not sure what it means, but I can tell it’s genius.   


Let me interrupt you right there, because as a non-literature person, I don’t get that?  Why do people want to write like that and why do people like it?  Why make something difficult to read and why is that considered good?  In other areas of study, if the writer is confusing, isn’t that considered poor communication, not better? 


Excellent question and something that specifically relates to modern poetry and worth stopping a minute to think about.  We could spend more than one podcast talking about modern poetryand the more modern stuff you read the more sense it makes, honestly- but for starters think about a famous modern piece of art- my favorite is Guernica by Pablo Picasso, I’ve talked about it before because seeing it in Madrid really made an impression on me.  When I saw that painting, I had no idea what I was seeing.  I could no more explain the pictures than anything- but as I stood in silence with a room crammed for of other silent people, I felt the awe, the emotion, the pain of the Spanish Civil War.  That’s what modern poetry is supposed to do- it’s supposed to make you feel the emotions of modern life-  the thingd we have done to ourselves through technology, progress, urban living- and lots of it is kind of dark-but another thing it tries to do is be psychological- Freud influenced this movement- what is going on in your head?  That also can be quite dark, but more than that- our minds are fragmented- lots of thoughts about a lot of different things all criss-crossing at the same time- your mind doesn’t tell a linear story- it bombards you with images- so when you try to write like that- we call it stream of conscious writing- it’s confusing..   


Just for clarification, I want to point out that when you say modern you’re not talking about today- because- ironically- the modern movement has come and gone- we’ve even gone past post-modern.  You’re referencing a specific period that went from about 1900-1950- give or take a few years.  And of course, what stands out as the overwhelming events that overshadowed everything else on planet earth during that time period were the two World Wars- WW1- WW2- that ended with an atomic bomb and of course- and if you made it through that- unfortunately depending on where you lived you were hit with the genocides that came with communism, fascism, military coups, and ultimately totalitarianism around the globe- this was directly affecting every continent except North America.   


True and when you put it like that, it’s not surprising that the poetry of that period is pretty dark, but actually the darkness we see in literature and even in this poem- comes even before the war years.  There is a lot of disillusionment and loneliness that people were struggling with regardless.  If you listened to our Kafka series you know what I mean.  Well, TS Eliot comes out of that- and the way he writes IS difficult because he’s not trying to clearly communicate a story- he’s trying to clearly communicate complicated emotion, a fragmented sense of the world- in the case of the poem we’re going to read today- feelings of isolation, under-confidence, loneliness, cowardice, pointlessness, tremendous anxiety.  And the truth of the matter is- he really doesn’t care if you understand what he’s saying as long as you understand what he’s feeling.   


And I see he focuses on all the fun feelings of the human experience 


Hahaha- Exactly…it ain’t romanticism in that way- although they do connect- I’ll show you.  As an addition- one reason I think this poem or really a lot of modern poetry is especially relevant today- is because all the things they found wrong in the world we’ve decided to revv up on.  Think about Covid- and we can get a little personal here for a minute- we’ve watched over the last 15 monthsan entire generation of students suffer the extreme isolation imposed by all the Covid protocols and the insidious aggressiveness and social pressure of social media- the way a lot of kids and even adults are living in their heads are more like poor J. Alfred than even Eliot.   


When Eliot writes this poem, he’s 26 years old- very young for a poet, but he takes on the persona of a middle-aged man.  Later on in life when talking about the poem, he says the poem is partly a dramatic creation but also partly an expression of his own feelings.  So, in a sense, young Eliot may be worried he’s going to grow up to be middle-aged Prufrock- if he isn’t already. Prufrock is too much in his own head, and unfortunately he thinks of himself as a loser – he is too self-conscious about his physical appearance, he is bored with his circle of acquaintances = and because of his underconfidence he finds himself stuck- Prufrock has no energy, no courage, no confidence, no imagination and he’s paralyzed by all these things to not do a single thing about his own misery!!!  He just does the roll over and die move- which we know through the beginning allusion to hell. 


Ugh- that does sound like we can relate to every bit of that.  So much of the Covid epidemic especially has left people too much in their own virtual infernos, to use the Dante allusion that  Eliot selects. And Eliot didn’t even know about the paranoia we created with Instagram filters, Snap chat videos, the ability to smear anyone at anytime to millions of people for any reason real and imagined for anything you have ever done or said to anyone, even a close family member, for as long as you have ever been on earth.  What would Eliot have said about that? 


Exactly- it makes me wonder what he’d write now- what a great sequel- J Alfred Prufrock the Third would make.   


Of course, we know the end of Eliot’s love story or even his life in general- Eliot himself, although this may have been his fear at 26, was absolutely NOT paralzyed into permanent life paralysis-  


maybe he was writing his own cautionary tale 


maybe so- 


those emotions he expresses are not abnormal- in fact they are natural, we all feel paralyzed with indecision at times- and we fear those  emotions.  


Of course- that’s what Eliot does- he speaks for modern man-But before we lert him, let’s get a little biographical and by that I mean a little gossipy (as you know I always enjoy doing)because the austere looking TS Eliot had quite the little love drama going on over the course of his life. 


Well, this should be good- for starters- interestingly enough, Eliot and I have something in common- we’re both from the great state of Missouri- we’re Midwesterners by birth.  As I’ve said many times before, I’m originally from Kansas City, but TS Eliot is from the second best city in Missouri- St. Louis.   


Do most people agree, St. Louis is the second best city in Missouri? 


Well, most in Kansas City would, although some would rank it lower than the number 2 spot, but not higher.   


Oh- I see- Sorry St. Louis- he’s incorrigible and I’m pretty sure- this comes down to sports rivalries.. 


True, Go CHIEFS, Go ROYALS- but getting back to Eliot, his grandfather actually moved to St. Louis from Boston and Harvard Divinity School to establish the first Unitarian church in St. Louis and to found Washington University- which today, if you’re from this area we affectionately call WASH U- it’s an extremely prestigious university.  So, to use Fitzgerald’s terms- The Eliot’s are one of those East Egg type families- except from Boston, not New York.  His dad was president of a huge brick company.  Lots of money, lots of community prestige, and always very proud of their New England roots, again way more prestigious than flyover country roots- Thomas Stearns Eliot was born on September 26, 1888. 


 (two days after Anna and F Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday  


True- but Thomas Stearns, sounds like a bank name doesn’t it- is 8 years older than Fitzgerald and 110 years older than Anna.   He’s the seventh child in his family, attended all private schools and unsurprisingly went to Harvard. 


Wow- nothing to complain about there. 


You might think that, except apparently not entirely blissful- ironically- when I read J Alfred Prufrock, and see all the angst and self-inflicted misery- it’s interesting to think he wrote it in college, especially since the wierdo character J Alfred Prufrock is clearly middle-aged- I just assumed the author was as well.   


Yeah- he does claim that he wrote it in college, but I’m not sure he finished it during the Harvard years- in fact, I know he didn’t.   It wasn’t published until 1915 so- somehow- there is a lot that went on in his life in those five years and the poem itself had several big edits. 


And one of them being the start of a world war.   


True- so during the years from the time he wrote the poem and when it got published Eliot finished his undergrad degree in three years, started graduate school, took a year to go to the Sorbonne, in Paris, came back to Harvard to finish his phd, but changed courses right before the end and instead deciding to go back to Europe in 1914 to study in Germany. 


Well, that’s not exactly the best time or place to be in Europe if you are in the mood for touring.  Since July 1914 is when WW1 or the Great War as they called it, began.   


I’d say not the best time to do the summer abroad thing in Germany, either- which was literally his plan...oops   


True-  so he went for plan B, he went to Oxford,  


Well, that certainly sounds like landing on ones feet.   


True, he attended school and that went well, but he did make a misstep-  


Yes- I think he does. 


 He got married to a girl he didn’t love- an English girl, Miss Vivienne Haighwood in 1915 and apparently that could not have been more disastrous.  Here’s how he described it- his words, ““To her the marriage brought no happiness . . . To me it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.”) 


 Which, if you don’t know that poem- it describes the entire devastation of world war- so no great marriage endorsement.  It was miserable for both of them, but- I want to go off topic sort of here for a minute- and and maybe it’s girl literature podcaster- if we want to go with gender-roles – usually when we get to the place in the author’s life where he writes the work- we quit talking about his bio- but in his case I want to make an exception. 


Of course you do- it’s too juicy not to! 


It is very ususual and  I’m very interested in people’s love lives in general, but I think it’s especially appropriate, especially if the person in question has a breakout poem  titled a  “Love Song” 


Especially when said love song is about a guy who has no love- which clearly he did not at the time he wrote this poem. 


Ewell, it’s not so clear actually. His perspective on love might be a little skewed by this bad marriage as well as WW1 it made people jaded, I get that- 


Well, you think WW1 might have left people disillusioned- it was only  8.5 million combatant deaths as well as another 13 million civilian deaths on top of that- a complete expression of revenge and violence fully developed in the most technologically mechanized, inhuman and destructive form.   


Agreed- and I will say that Eliot speaks to that issue particulay with such power and emotion in works like the WasteLand It’s not a small part of why he won a Nobel prize.  But Prufrock isn’t about war.  Prurfrock is earlier.  It is a dramatic monologue- what that means is that it’s one person talking almost like a speech, but not really.  And  he calls it a love songbut it’s not a love song.  It certainly wouldn’t land you a kiss at the end of a date.  It’s strange, as is Eliot’s love drama.  So, I want to tell it to you.  


Okay.  Let’s do it.  


You mentioned TS Eliot went to France for a year and then came back to the US to Harvard to work on his phd.  Well, while at Harvard he reacquainted himself with  family friend, Emily Hale. Her dad  was a Unitarian minister, and he taught in the divinity school there at Harvard..  Anyway, here’s the strangeness of it all, it seems Eliot fell in love with Emily- let me quote Eliot here, ““I wish the statement by myself to be made public as soon as the letters to Miss Hale are made public … I fell in love with Emily Hale in 1912, when I was in the Harvard Graduate School. Before I left for Germany and England in 1914 I told her that I was in love with her.” That’s right before he married Vivienne.  It’s also around the time he was working on Prufrock. 


Can we assume she didn’t love him back?  When was this public love statement made or released?   


Again- so strange.  First of all to answer your first question, We have to assume something happened- but who knows what- we know he confessed his love to her, but we also know he didn’t propose to her.  Maybe he was just like Prufrock and never had the nerve to make a move- maybe he was going to but she gave him the vibe that she would flat out reject him-  I’m not sure.  What we know is what he did; he moved to Europe and  impulsively married someone he didn’t love and knew he didn’t for reasons that clearly fail the say out loud test.  And even after they got married, they knew it was all wrong.  She almost immediately had an affair with Bertrand Russell, but beyond that- in his words Vivienne was “nervous”- which sounds harmless enough, but it wasn’t harmless.   What we know today is that she likely suffered tremendously from mental illness.  She was bipolar as well as paranoid schizophrenic- and he condition was severe and worsens  until she dies in her fifties.  They do separate, although she believes he’s been kidnapped, but they never divorce.  So, that’s all sad, but here’s the crazy gossipy part that I want to tell you, then we can get into Prufrock’s love story-  


So, in 1930, 15 years into his marriage with Vivienne- Eliot begins to correspond with Emily again- she had been in London, they’d had tea and things rekindled.   


That sounds like a British romance in the making. 


Indeed- love over tea.  Over the course of the next 30 years he would write her over 1131 letters- very very personal and Emily kept all of them.  He claimed to be in love.  He said things like, “You have made me perfectly happy: that is, happier than I have ever been in my life; the only kind of happiness now possible for the rest of my life is now with me; and though it is the kind of happiness which is identical with my deepest lost and sorrow, it is a kind of supernatural ecstasy.”  He said this, “I tried to pretend that my love for you was dead, though I could only do so by pretending myself that my heart was dead; at any rate, I resigned myself to celibate old age.”   He goes on like this for years-  Did I mention it was 30 to be exact- no small amount of time.  In his mind, he built her up into this Daisy-like ideal of perfection.  She was in love with him too, believing all these confessions.  He confessed  intimate things that he wasn’t telling anyone but now we can look back it was surfacing in his work.  She was giving him feedback.  She was an idolin some sense it looks to me that he wa dependent emotionally on her- in some ways.  This went on All the way until his wife died.   Finally hey could finally be together, and Emily very much expected this would be this case.  This was in 1947.  After the year Vivienne died, Eliot would write Hale very little (only 180 letters during that last decade).  Then- to everyone’s shock- On January 10, 1957, he married his secretary Valerie Fletcher, who was 38 years younger.   This was a HUGE blow to Emily.  She never saw or met Valerie.  His last letter to her was written in February a month after the wedding.  Emily was crushed. 


So, no one in England saw it coming either? 


Not even in their office.  But that isn’t even the end of the craziness-Emily’s letters to Eliot have all been destroyed by Eliot, but Emily kept hers- they actually had a disagreement about that.  But he finally said and I quote, “As for my letters, they are your property, and their fate must be decided by you.”  So she donated all of them to the Princeton Library with the understanding that they were only to be opened fifty years after her death- which was in 1969.   


And this is the irony to me- the long-awaited opening of the letters happened on January 2, 2020. Which was last year.  So this drama is still not over.  What did we find out?  Did he confess to be Prufrock? 


Well, that’s the thing- apparently they’re awesome and reveal all kinds of good stuff.  HOWEVER, two months after the letters were opened, Covid hit and the library closed.  Hardly anybody got to read them and no one got to study them.  Those secrets are yet to be revealed!!!! 


The drama that never dies!!!  Well, before we get to Prufrock, the poemlet’s tell the end of the romantic drama?  Does the marriage with Valerie work out? 


Well, it seems it really does.  Apparently he wrote her a love poem every single week, and they were extraordinarily compatible and happy.  She managed his estate and managed it brilliantly during his life and after his death.   


What about Emily?   


Well, she was very gracious about the whole thing.  This is what she said, “The memory of the years when we were most together and so happy are mine always and I am grateful that this period brought some of his best writing, and an assured charming personality which perhaps I helped to stabilize.” 


Does he ever explain why he never married her? 


Well, not to my satisfaction, he gives her some strange explanation about how he wants to remain single and how some men want “a surrogate Virgin Mary” which he has had in her. 


Not exactly what most women want to hear. 


I’d say no.  Anyway, now to the poem.  Obviously we don’t have time to explicate it sentence by sentence- although that would be the right way to do it if you really want to get the whole sense of it, but that’s more than a single podcast of the length we try to do.  What I want to do, is give you a little set up so you can understand, admire and maybe enjoy the poem because I really do, and think it’s possible even without the line by line analysis.  So, let’s give it a read.  I’ll interrupt you from time to time as I watch your eyes glaze over in utter confusion. 


Well, you’ve made the reading process sound glamorous. 


I know- just be warned- it could get confusing fast- starting with the preface that isn’t even in English.  - -The poem begins with a quote from Dante’s The Divine Comedy  and it’s in Italian.  The speaker in the quote is a poor chap by the name of Guido de Montefeltro who is stuck in the deepest bottomless part of hell partly for dispensing terrible advice.  Guido speaks with a flame that quivers when he talks and he says he would never tell anyone anything about himself if he ever thought anyone would find out about it because it’s too embarrassing, but since no one ever gets out of hell, he’ll be honest with him.   


So, the parallel is that Prufrock is also speaking from his own personal hell and doesn’t think anybody will know his story because they can’t see his hell- except that Dantes does.  I can see the irony already. 


That’s it indeed.  This is a poem about a man who has created a personal hell he can’t get out of.  It’s about his isolation, his embarrassment, his lack of personal agency.  Notice also that we’re not even into the poem and there have been two allusions- one Classical and one Biblical- the flame of fire is to connect us to the Holy Spirit of God who gives voice to the Apostles in the New Testament to proclaim God’s words.  Eliot loves allusions.  There are many- he alludes to more than one Shakespeare play, to passages of the Bible, to likes like Andrew Marvell and Robert Browning-the more you know about the different things he alludes to- the more sense he makes, so I’ll pull out a few of them- but you really don’t need to to get the gist.   


I was going to bring up at some point the famous declaration Eliot made about himself- this was later in life after he’d naturalized as a British citizen.  He said of himself, I am “"classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion."  


Exactly, so you can see right there that he respects longevity- all of those classics, the monarchy and the Catholic church are examples of things that have deep roots.  I will also say, that at the time Eliot wrote Prufrock he wasn’t a Christian really.  He’d been raised a Unitarian, but in a sense, he didn’t have an active faith.  As he went through the wars, read through lots of philosophy, specifically Eastern philosophy- Buddhism and Hinduism, he came around to the Catholic faith tradition.  These ideas come out in later works and also in a lot of his  literary criticism which I actually like better than I like his poetry- partly because I can actually understand it without getting a headache. Eliot really sees literature as a conversation- a back and forth discussion through time- and he’s talking to these ancient authors and talking to us about the ideas of these ancient writers in these text.  At least that’s how I see it.  The people of the past talk to us, and we can talk back.  So, with that allusion in our minds, let’s think about the title? 



Shall we start with that historical allusion that takes us back to Missouri? 


Might as well.  That is one reference, I wouldn’t have ever known. 


Well, most people wouldn’t.  The Prufrocks are not historical icons- in fact, today they  are completely unknown unless you walking around the Bellefountain Cemetery in St. Louis where Eliot grew up.  During Eliot’s growing up years, there was a local furniture store called William Prufrock Furniture Store.  The Harry Prufrock, the son who ran the store during  Eliot’s life was a master marketer and brander back before the internet blew up that field.  He would publish this giant full page ads in the local paper of the Prufrock family eating. Meal at a kitchen table or a working on a Prufrock desk.  They were local celebrities in that they personified middle-class life in St. Louis- and were always in the paper. 


Well, Eliot lifted the Prufrock name and memoriz 

Well, Eliot lifted the Prufrock name and memorialized in the most ironic way.  J Alfred Prufrock is definitely middle class- - the way he writes the name is designed to sound like he’s trying to be sophisticated, his first name is an initial.  He goes by TWO names- no nick names here. 


The last thing we’re going to talk about is the fact that this is called love song.  In real love songs like the kind Tim McGraw sings  Faith Hill talk about true love and we play them at weddings.  By calling this a love song  we’re supposed to  expect is rose, chocolate, romantic beaches, serenades and vows of life together in blissful harmony.  But that is NOT what is in the cards for poor J Alfred.  A love song for a middle-aged balding guy with a name like J Alfred Prufrock consists of  one-night cheap hotels and restaurants with saw dust on the floor.  It’s seedy, lonely maybe sexual, but NOT intimate or happy.  This is what we can expect from our love song! 


Is that an exciting promo for next week’s sequel to this poetry supplement? 


I can’t wait!!!!   



The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald - Episode 4 - The End Of All Kinds Of Dreams!

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald - Episode 4 - The End Of All Kinds Of Dreams!

May 22, 2021

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald - Episode 4 - TheEnd Of All Kinds Of Dreams!


Hi, I’m Christy Shriver, and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 


I’m Garry Shriver, and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  This is our fourth and final episode on this little book of constant surprises.  We have talked about turns of phrases, irony, the colors, more irony, motifs of the eyes, water and baptism, dust, cars, references to time- and did I mention irony-  


Are you trying to say that Fitzgerald sees a lot of irony in the world?  That things just aren’t what they are pretend or appear to be? 


I think I want to point out he uses a lot of irony- it just goes on and on.  Last week, we also talked about how tightly constructed and deliberate everything is- someone even used the word- geometric- everything fits together.  I also can see why you call it poetry- the phrases are often strange, but enjoyable to read.  And you’ll love this, Christy, I’m not sure how it all went down- but a lot of Fitzgerald’s metaphors were lifted right out of Zelda’s letters.  She was the metaphor master-maker of the family it seems!!! 


I knowI’ve read that stuff too, although It seems she wasn’t salty about him using her lines- she thought of it as collaboration more than plagiarismwho knows- at this point, I don’t guess it matters.  But the metaphors- and there is an endless number of them- really are delightful- and make me smile- they really do – like what we’re going to read today when he says, “Then he kissed her. At his lips’touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.  What does that even mean? So strange-  you have to really visualize something impossible to even begin to get the idea, but even then you’re  a little confused- this godlike event of creating Gatsby- became vulnerable man when Gatsby fell for Daisy- or maybe when Fitzgerald fell for Zelda- however far you want to take the metaphor but why do people like hearing it like that?   


Actually-There is neuroscience about that, and next week when we talk about T.S. Eliot we should talk a little about the neuroscience about why some words are just fun to listen to- that’s worth geeking out a little bit on- and Eliot is kind of like that too. 


He is, and I’ll look forward to hearing about that- I have to admit, I know next to nothing about neuroscience.  This week, though, we are going to have to wrecklessly fly with Daisy and watch her turn Gatsby’s cream colored circus wagon’s into a death car.  There is still so much to say, and I know we don’t have time to talk about everything- we’ve skipped so much already- but you will be happy to know- Garry that we will end where we began with a bit of history and yet another reference to the American Dream- but this time- I’ll not complain about it for one thing it is not the dream according to Thomas Jefferson, but according to Benjamin Franklin. 


Well, that explains your change of attitude- you have a crush on him! 


I do- he’s my favorite founding father, and one of these days, we’ll do a series on his autobiography- but until then we will just reference him- like we will here.  Last episode we delved into the life and times of the young Daisy Fay who I affectionately called the Ice Queen- and then her relationship to Gatsby- I made the case that there is one sense in that Daisy and Gatsby are almost dopplegangers- one is the male- the other female of kind of the same person-.  We talked about their connection in Louisville- their dreams but how the different circumstances of their lives, as well as they choices they made develop separately over the last five years and take them to very different places- 


 even if they physically are just across the bay from each other 


Even so,  today, I want to start with a focus on Gatsby’s origin story- but before we do, let’s remember that this is a book about two men- we started episode 1 with that idea and I want to come back to it- even though it’s called The Great Gatsby- it’s not just Gatsbysome argue- not even mostly -and while we compared Gatsby to Daisy last week- we can also compare Gatsby to Nick- both are searchers-both are from the Middle West.  One achieves awareness- the other…well….does not.  This is a story about Nick- he’s the character we are supposed to see ourselves in.  However, Nick’s role in the story is kind of interesting in that he really has two personas =- Persona 1 or Nick 1 tells the story- as a detached historian talking to us about events that happened to him in the summer two years agohe recalls his New York summer from a place of understanding- it’s reflective- and all from the safety of the Middle West- but then there’s Nick 2 -the participant in the storyhe’s a star struck 29 year old who’s bored with life back home, who’s enchanted with the Eastwith the possibilities that New York offers- he wants a part of the fast life- he’s ready for the the modern world- and the non-olfactory money they hand out in Manhattan- he just doesn’t know it will soon be what he calls an El Greco painting life. 


You know- both of those references at the end are very strange.  I remember the first time I really thought anything about El Greco’s art, although I’m pretty sure I’d heard of it before, was when I was taking a group of students through Toledo Spain and our tour guide showed us some of his work.  It is really freaky stuff.  It’s dark and disturbing.  


Exactly- I think that’s how Nick feels about everything we’re getting ready to talk about today.  The same goes for the Non-olfactory money- another great metaphor- 


non-smelling money- does money smell? 


Interestingly enough, I think Nick found out that it indeed does smell, and This is his story of his freaky experience in New York city with the smelly money.  The way this summer concludes will lead him to the believe he’s the only honest person he knows and there is something worth valuing in a world where there are returning trains, holly wreaths on doors and family members in the area.  Nick decides he finds a world like that is just more honest- when he says he is the only honest person he knows that’s the sense where- that is actually true- today we might say- it’s just more real.  

It’s certainly not true that Nick claims lives a life without ever lyinghe’s always talking about two-timing these girls in the most non-chalant way  


The Nick that goes East doesn’t see the value in the social contract you’re always talking about Garry.  He wants to jump into a world where you are ABOVE the rules – you get to live outside of a social contract that involves submission to community standards- if you’re rich you don’t have to wait your turn or play by commonly agreed upon rules- and that’s the thrill- you get to waive a white card at the cop!!! However, What Nick finds in his experiences in the East changes his perspective on himself- and on the world he wants to inhabit- 


And that is a very common experience for many young adults- you don’t have to be Nick from the Middle West.  If you’re young- there is something seductive about leaving the interior and going to the coast- East or West- I guess- depending on where you live-  thousands of students  dream of the NBA, Hollywood, the rap music scene, a  youtube contracta million Tik Tok followers as a beauty influence-  just to mention a few- but in all of these cases the job may be fun- the appeal isn’t in the sport- there is this vision of limitless money, the buying of privilege…never being told no…- absolute freedom from any control.   


Many of us have waited for a train, a bus or plane and have watched the first class get on first firstor stood in line to get into a concert while the important people walked through the VIP entrance and into in a glass boxisn’t that what money buys?  Can’t money buy everything?  What’s that famous phrase- money can’t buy happiness but it can buy the boat… 


Quote the phrase 


And that is a big difference between Nick and Gatsby- Nick’s highest motivation isn’t really money or loveand maybe that’s what saves him from some of the toxicity that affects Gatsby.  When Nick returns home at the end of the book- he is not recreating a past childhood that he loved so much because he’s homesick- he is also not returning because he failed at life or can’t hack ithe’s returning because he’s a different person- he’s grown up- at the end of the book during the climactic scene where Daisy tells Gatsby that she loves Tom- and Tom exposes Gatsby’s mob connectionsNick makes a very strange comment- he says he just remembered that its his birthday- he was turning 30.   


Are we saying that is the age we grow up- written by a man who wasn’t 30 when he wrote it- although he almost was- is growing up what happens when we turn 30? 


 I think it’s something like that- the book actually came out the year Fitzgerald turned 30.  Some people may find Fitzgerald’s making a statement about not being naïve anymore more irony for you. 


But he sees the East with all its glamorous trappings shallow maybe- or at least artificial; Nick realizes that the person he admires more than anyone else he met- including his cousin- was indisputably- fraud, a hoodlum, a murderer, basically thug whose values are openly morally bankrupt At one point when Nick looks at Gatsby, he absolutely could believe he had killed people and says so.  But even that person- istill the best one of the lot of them.   


Well, it turns out that Gatsby isn’t the only murderer either. 


No- he isn’t.  At the wise old age of 32, after two years of reflecting on the strange neighbor who lived in a re-created French hotel, Nick has made some real judgements- and this book is a declaration of those judgement- although it’ definitely not didactic or moralistic-  Jay Gatsby was all those bad things I just said, no question- and Nick definitely disdains him for those things- HOWEVER- Nick’s had time to think about the world that created that person- and the kind of person that world rewards.  Who wins? Who’s destroyed?  And what destroyed them?  This book has three victims:- Gatsby, Myrtle and Wilson.  Only one of them was great.   


There’s one way to look at the book and say those three were not a part of the system or privileged class- that’s what killed them? It was the establishment.  The system was always riggedTom was never going to sell his car, never marry Myrtle nor was Gatsby ever going to get a “good girl”.  They were never going to win.   


You could see it that way.  Lots of people have, and that’s an easy answer, but it is unusual that great literature gives out simplistic answers.  The obvious problem with that answer is the number of counter-examples of real life rags to riches stories- and Nick’s family kind of challenges it since they built wealth the old-fashioned way of business building. 


Fitzgerald’s more nuanced argument is going to claim that the dream of success, wealth, love and happiness is not as easy as just accumulating cash- although, I’d like to test that theory personally. 


One thing to notice in Nick, especially in the final scenes of this story is a recognition to some degree that success- if it’s going to be worth having- must have a moral and or Civic component, if not both, and when you take that out what’s left is a fraudulent shallow value system that replaces Benjamin Franklin’s American Dream of success as defined by hard work and civic responsibility with something toxic, and devoid of loyalty - harmful not just to others but even yourself.  James Gatz traded in finishing his degree at the Lutheran University of St. Olaf while working as a janitor for something easier and likely way more fun a path to success that doesn’t penalize the corrupta non-olfactory path 


...Daisy really kind of did the same thing when she married Tom- but- how does that happen? 


Well, in the case of James Gatz of rural North Dakota- the success happens by sheer force of will.  What we know about Gatsby is interesting- and comes in parts- in chapter 6- future Nick the historian breaks the chronology of the summer to give us Gatsby’s personal history. We get the rest of what we know about him in chapter 9 when we meet his dad.   


I’d like to put the whole story together because Christy, I think you will be interested in this historical angle. 


Please do! 


At the end of the book, when Mr. Gatz talks about James’ growing up years he references a book he found called Hop-along Cassidy and inside the cover James had handwritten a schedule for himself.  Now, what’s so historically interesting about this schedule is that it’s recognizableAmerican history teachers will tell you- what he writes is a list that is recognizably modeled after Benjamin Franklin guide to moral perfection as recorded in his autobiography Benjamin Franklin- btw-is one of America’s original American Dream stories- although there are thousands possibly millions that have followed in his footsteps all over this country.  Franklin was the fifteenth child in a Boston family of 17 children – no money- no East Egg- so much so that Franklin became a legally bound apprentice to his brother as a printer.  He worked his butt off to learn his trade and he was great at his job.  His brother was making lots of money off of Franklin’s work, and Franklin  believed his brother was exploiting him- so he ran away- which at that time was actually criminal- he had legally bound himself to his brother kind of like an indentured servant.  The minute Franklin ran he literally became an outlaw.  He could have been arrested by any person who wanted to collect the ransom and been sent back to Boston to work for his brother.  He fled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvaia, an up and coming town lots happen but eventually, he started a business and created a very successful periodical called Poor Richard’s Almanac and sold tens of thousands- which is impressive in a town with only 12,000 people- obviously it went viral across not just Philadelphia.  Almanacs were the second read book in the United States- after the Bible, and apparently his was really funny- all of a sudden, he was a celebrity AND he was rich- he would be rich for the rest of his life.  He printed a new one every year for 25 years- it was full of quotes that are famous to this day, things like “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”  Franklin by the end of his life had met the kings and Queens of Europe, owned property, started businesses, established public institutions like the post office and the library- he did all kinds of things- lots of them still around Anyway, where’s the connection with Gatsby?  Well,  Franklin had this plan for moral perfectionit’s famous- lots of people are familiar with it and try to follow it and have since he first wrote itJames Gatz’s plan for perfection is obviously a modification of Franklin’s famous list.  For example- Franklin’s original list says, “Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes or habitation” Gatz’s list says, “Bath every other day”; Franklin’s list says, “”Lose no time.  Be always employed in something useful.  Cut off all unnecessary actions” Gatz’s is “No wasting time at Shafter’s or ______a name undecipheral”.  What becomes obvious as you go down the list Franklin’s list and compare it to Gatz’s list is that Gatz deletes everything that has to do with morality or civic responsibility- an obvious omission.  What Fitzgerald is suggesting is that by the time we get to the 20th century- we still pursue dreams in America, we still wish upon stars- like Disney tells us, but there is a large number of people that have disconnected  success with our personal morality and/or community responsibility- loyalty of any kind except to oneself.  So, what does that get you? 


Well, it gets you an opportunity to ride a yacht.  James Gatz sees his opportunity and crosses the water.  A man named Dan Cody floats by on a yacht on Lake Superior.  He’d been loafing on the beach all day (so much for waste no time)- but he borrows a rowboat and crosses the water.  Fitzgerald puts it like this “The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.  He was a son of God- a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that- and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.  So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a 17 year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”…Listen to this language …read “But his heart- page 99- “a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a wing’s fairy.”  


Well, let’s not discount this idea of remaking your identity into whatever you want- that also is totally American- and so often a great thing for lot of reasons How many immigrants come to this country with nothing but the shirt on their backs, and one generation later own businesses, have built wealth, their children are college graduatesand they invested in their communities- it quite literally has what made this country great! There are a lot of great countries, but America is unique in that money comes easier here compared to other parts of the world- That is uncontested.  It’s not a guarantee and there certainly are barriers- but it’s been the story of many people from every corner of the globe.  I will never forget my first teaching job, a young student by the name of ____________ was the valedictorian of _____________.  He had literally come here on a boat.  Throw in a couple of details here.  But that’s not Gatsby’s story-  


No, I think that’s the plot of the cartoon the American Tale about the Fievel Mousekewitz, the mouse from Russia. 


Gatsby’s model is- Dan Cody- Christy, I’m doing a little name symbolism myself –  


Well, aren’t you getting literary… 


Well, not really- it comes from two American heroes- Daniel Boone and Buffalo Bill Cody- Daniel Boone-  


Good ole Daniel Boone- the famous frontiersman- my mama graduated from Boones Creek High School- you know he “killed a bar on a tree in 1760” and carved those words in a tree near where she grew up in Washington County, Tennessee. 


Well, honestly I didn’t know you had such a close brush with frontier fame- he was famous but there is also a lot of folk lore about him that who knows if is even true- he was kind of a showman as was Buffalo Bill- who traveled the world literally with his Buffalo Bill Wild West Show pretending to be a cowboy- they both were kind of mythical creations 


Well- that’s true- plus I want to add to that, the language is obviously biblical- Gatsby is on the fishing shore- like Jesus.  He founds his life on the rock- like St. Peter- but it’s all deliberately sacrilegious.  What Gatsby learns from Dan Cody is that the rules are not fair.  That the show is what is important.  The legend is more important that the substance.  They spend five years on that yacht together.  He learns about wealth.  He builds his myth.   Ella Kaye apparently murders Dan Cody, and through legalized corruption steals the $25,000 Cody had left Gatsby in his will.  Gatsby gets nothing; he’s bested by the establishment girl who knew had to manipulate the rules.  The next thing we know about Gatsby is that he’s a soldier meeting Daisy, the first nice girl he had ever known, the text says, “he took her”- there’s your polite euphemism for you- but he took her under false pretenses and afterwards she “vanished into her rich house, into her rich full life, leaving Gatsby nothing.  After that he goes to Europe, fights in the war, studies a little at Oxford, gets a medal from the small country of Montenegro, comes back to Louisville while tom and Daisy are still on their wedding trip.  He was penniless.  and from there he starts working for the mob.  In chapter 6 there is a second party at Gatsby’s- this one Tom and Daisy both go to.  Daisy, as much as she pretends to like it finds it vulgar.  At the end of the night Nick says this, “He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: I never loved you.”  After she had obliterated three years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken.  One of them was that, after she was free, they were to go back to Louisville and be married from her house- just as if it were five years ago.  “And she doesn’t understand, “ he said despairingly.  “She used to understand.  We’d sit for hours- He broke off and began to walk up and down a desolate path of fruit finds and discarded favors and crushed flowers”. 


Take a mental note that the flowers are now crushed- when he meets Daisy at Nick’s house there were lots of blooming non-broken flowers.” 


“I wouldn’t ask too much of her, “I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”   

“Can’t repeat the past?” He cried incredulously.  “Why of course you can!”  He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking …….read til the incarnation was complete. 


Well, there you think that if Gatsby had not attached his vision of himself to Daisy he would have lived? 


I totally do- that would have been the far more sensible thing to do, but then he wouldn’t be Gatsby- the man who won’t let the childhood dream die.  Gatsby at this point in his life had already had an opportunity to be disillusioned.  He’d gone through the rottenness of the Dan Cody death, he’d survived the rottenness of WW1- his young love crush married the rich boy- and yet he persists in this dream of whatever Daisy represents for him- for five long years he’s amassing money at any cost and building a love and a lover in his mind that is totally separate from the actual person of DaisyThis is not the common love story- the traditional route is for someone to marry for money- or marry for love and give up money- Gatsby accumulates money to purchase love- a vision of himself and who he believes Daisy represents- which we can clearly see is very unlike the actual Daisy.  But Gatsby never questions his quest- it’s fantastic and absurd and wild – I really don’t know what is fueling this passion- 


  That IS the greatness of Gatsby from which we get the title.  


 It Is.  And I know I’m getting ahead of myself, but not by much, when Daisy- the real Daisy absolutely betrays him in the worst way humanly possible- she will literally murder someone then leave him to take the blame- he still won’t let go of the dream- and he just stands under her window and then by the phone.  It’s sad and obviously pathetic- such a contrast to the moment he falls in love with daisy in a scene  listen to this….page 110- it’s beauty, it’s divinity,…. 


It’s impossible. 


There’s a buzz-kill! 


 I think it’s important consider that if a real relationship were ever going to exist between Daisy and Gatsby- she was going to have to become a real person- and that is not a small thing.  Gatsby enters in to Daisy’s real house, she kisses him, tells him she loves him then the nurse brings in her daughter, Pammy, the one she has with Tom.  I found this detail interesting. Life doesn’t get more real than a child, but  Nick points out that Gatsby looks at the child with surprise never believing before that she had existed.  In other words, how is he going to obliterate the existence of Pammy who is half Tom/half Daisy. 


Yes- and things are really going to go downhill from here- but before they do- we can’t skip what is probably the most famous line in all the book.  Gatsby and Nick are talking about Daisy, and Gatsby makes that famous observation, “Her voice is full of money.”   


It’s a very interesting thing to say- Daisy’s charm is connected to the attraction of wealth, money and love all three of which hold similar attractions.  And this is where Daisy and Gatsby are in fact very similar- Gatsby has a large capacity it seems to love, but the pursuit of money is a substitute for that or at least meshed with that.   


What do you mean by that? 


Well, we can see it in how Tom and Gatsby look at money- maybe it’s the difference between the way you and I look at money and how people who just have endless loads of it look at it- when Tom buys a car or a house or a horse- he’s buying just the material possession itself- the abstract benefits of having money he already has- the power, the position, the connections and opportunity- he doesn’t know a world without those things.  But that’s not Gatsby and it’s not most of us.  When Gatsby amasses wealth, he’s not just buying a house, a car or a hydroplane- he’s buying a dream, a purpose, a ticket to inside a world he can’t access.  Gatsby, like all of us really, doesn’t know what money can and can’t buy- he doesn’t know the limits of money- he doesn’t know that there are different kinds of money- that money earned peddling liquor out of pharmacies won’t buy the same things that Tom’s money buys- like a “nice” girl like Daisy.   


You know there’s that famous line that Earnest Hemmingway said that Fitzgerald said that Fitzgerald didn’t say- Hemingway claims that Fitzgerald said to him once, “You know the rich are different than you and me?’ to which Hemingway claims he said back, “They have more money.” 


That conversation- although something Hemingway made up to make fun of Fitzgerald for being so ennamored with money- is still interesting.  Fitzgerald’s criticism of America does seem to rest on the irresponsibility of those people with money and the power to shape the world Fitzgerald sees corruption- and its symbolized with whatever he seems to be describing when he talks about Manhattan.  In this book Manhattan is amoralit’s non-olfactory money- money with no morality at all attached to it- not good- not bad- just money- and maybe that’s true for Manhattan- maybe it isn’t –Manhattan is just the big city in this story-  but removing from money a moral position- what does that do?  And in a world of amorality- who wins?  In this case, there is no doubt that Tom wins and Gatsby loses.  If Gatsby hadn’t gotten involved emotionally with Daisy that would not have been the case. 


So, let’s get in the cars and go into amoral Manhattan with these five 


I do want to point out a couple of things about cars- cars are HUGE in the 1920s- buying cars had just been made possible ten years before by Henry Ford and the assembly line.  Because of this- buying used cars had just started to become a thing- notice that Daisy had a car as a teenager- that would have been extremely uncommon- but noticing people’s car would have been more important than it even is today- it’s a sign of your status- especially if they were new.  I also want to point out that this car that is described as being Gatsby’s car absolutely does NOT exist as Fitzgerald describes it-  rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns. There is no such car that actually looks like that- we have to make it up in our heads.  But anyway, something to think about… 


We hit on this a couple of episodes ago, when we mentioned that the cars symbolically represented the drivers who drove them as well as the WAY they drive represents how they are living their lives.  This scene is all about the cars, so it’s important to revisit this idea- when Tom figures out that Daisy and Gatsby are having an affair- he very hypocritically, by the way- loses his mind- “the transformation from libertine to prig was soon to be complete”- to borrow a phrase- but his reaction is to swap cars.  He’s going to let Gatsby drive his car to down- in a way- okay- you want to live my life, here’s your five minute opportunity- he stops at Wilson’s only for Wilson to tell him, basically that he’s discovered his wife is having an affair- and all the while Dr. TJ Eckelberg and Myrtle are watching the exchange.   


When they get to the hotel- in the heat of the afternoon- there is a confrontation- and Gatsby finds out what money can and cannot buy.  When Daisy is confronted with the reality that Gatsby is a common gangster, it’s over.  When Tom realizes that Daisy is NOT going to leave him and that he has successfully Alpha-maled- Gatsby- so to speak he tells Daisy to get in Gatsby’s car and as a way to dominate Gatsby- has Gatsby symbolically return Daisy to Tom’s house- return the golden girl to its rightful shelf.   


But of course,  we never see Daisy get behind the wheel of Gatsby’s car What we know is what Gatsby tells Nick, he says that she was very nervous and she thought it would steady her to drive 


Let’s read that, 


and this woman rushed out at us just as we were passing a car coming the other way.  It all happened in a minute but it seemed to me that she wanted to speak to us, thought we were somebody she knew.  We,, first Daisy turned away from the woman toward the other car, and then she lost her nerve and turned back.  The second my hand reached the wheel I felt the shock- it must have killed her instantly.” “It ripped her open”. “Don’t tell me, old sport.”  He winced. “Anyway- Daisy stepped on it.  I tried to make her stop but she couldn’t so I pulled the emergency brake.  Then she fell over into my lap and I drove on.”  “She’ll be alright tomorrow, I’m just going to wait here and see if he tries to bother her about that unpleasantness this afternoon.” 


Well, you can see that the Ice Queen is not careless, but deliberately destructive.  She absolutely hits Myrtle intentionally and doesn’t even stop to see if she is dead This will lead to two other deaths.  For the rest of the book, Gatsby’s car is not referred to as the cream colored car- the one that combines white  and gold- innocence and wealth, but the death car.  And another point to make – when they all get back to the house- Jordan wants to go out with Nick claiming it’s just 9:30 while Tom and Daisy plot while eating cold chicken. – they are callous and cold- plotting or indifferent.  


The final time Nick sees Gatsby he has decided that Gatsby is better than everyone else in the story and he tells him so.  On the day of Gatsby’s death Gatsy puts on his swimsuit and gets on an air mattress in the swimming pool- the final baptism.  He still believes Daisy will call.  Let’s read the passage of what happened after the chauffeur hears the shots.  “page 169-170”. 


Remember, he’s using that word holocaust BEFORE the holocaust in Europe, so that word doesn’t have the emotional content it does for us.  That’s also true for the reference to the swastika-that has nothing to do with Hitler  A holocaust is a slaughter on a mass scale caused by fire.  


Well, two of the people who died already lived in the valley of ashes-  but we’ve already gone down that symbolism- you can think about this stuff forever and just make your head spin.  I want to jump to the funeral and really let get to a couple of final thoughts- no one shows up at the funeral.  Meyer Wolfsheim and his crew don’t, Daisy and her crew don’t- although Nick will eventually confront Tom for basically telling Wilson Myrtle was having an affair with Gatsby and causing the murder- it’s literally months later and Tom is self-righteous about it.  Gatsby’s dad shows up; he’d found out about his son’s death from the newspaper.  When He and Nick talk  Mr. Gatz says this about his son “If he’d of lived he’d of been a great man.  A man like James J. Hill.  He’d of helped build up the country.” 


And of course, Nick, uncomfortably lies in response and says, “That’s true.”   


Klipspringer calls, Nick invites him to the funeral, but Klipspringer only wants a pair of shoes he’d left there- now remember, this is the guy who had moved in with Gatsby.   


The only person who attends the funeral is owl-eyes and the only thing he says is, “the poor son-of-a bitch”.  Now that’s a vulgarity- obviously- but why say that?  It’s a vulgar almost religious reference to a person with no father- a corruption of the phrase “a son of god”.  What does old owl eyes- see?  He sees a man with no roots- nothing to ground him- to keep his perspective in place- and it is in the shallow soil of the rootless amoral money- that Gatsby gets lost.  He wanted a past, a different past, he wanted to rewrite the past, he wanted to inject fake roots and make his life something it wasn’t- and that was something all the money in the world could not buy for him. 


And so, Fitzgerald ends his book with this meditation about America- it’s again some of those famous lines in the book that people just quote wondering what they mean. 


One bit of trivia about the end paragraph is that it was actually the conclusion of chapter 1 when Nick goes back to West Egg about being with Tom and Daisy on that first night- but Fitzgerald repositions it after the story was over- it’s very poetic- Garry will you read the final page of the book. 


What are we supposed to think? 


Well, I guess we beat on- boats against the current- it is what builds nations- we run faster, stretch out our arms, we may run up against currents that beat us back- dreams that die- the establishment, the corruption in the system will often win- but in the way rootless Americans seek to build a past, build a future- build a dream= so we go on towards the green light- however you want to define that in your life. 


Dang- I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be encouraged or depressed!!!   


HA!! It’s why it’s the GREAT AMERICAN Novel- who even knows.  But it’s beautiful, we see ourselves in it and we love it.  

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald - Episode 3 - Find Out Why Chapter 5 Is Fitzgerald’s Favorite Chapter!

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald - Episode 3 - Find Out Why Chapter 5 Is Fitzgerald’s Favorite Chapter!

May 15, 2021

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald - Episode 3 - Find Out Why Chapter 5 Is Fitzgerald's Favorite Chapter!

Hi, I’m Christy Shriver, and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 


And I’m Garry Shriver and this is the How to love lit podcast.  This is our third episode featuring what some people consider to be THE Great American Novel, and after two weeks of symbolism and irony and politics and layers and layers of imagery and meaning, I am starting to see why people are so fascinated with this book.  It’s so dense.  There are so many ways to read it, and I guess that’s what’s kind of fun about it.  I liked reading it for the story, and I loved the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, although I know there are so many hard core Robert Redford fans out there that have taken me to task for that.  But, as I’ve read it this time, I’ve really enjoyed reading it for the political commentary.  I loved the discussion of the values of Thomas Jefferson and all the distortions or really perversions of the American Dream. 


An idea that we mentioned and will come back to- although like I said, I don’t really like the term- American Dream because it seems to me to imply the notion of possibility or  self- improvement on the basis hard work, personal sacrifice and merit as uniquely American, which is most definitely is NOT.   


Well, I won’t disagree with that.  Of course, that’s the dream of all the world.  We can look at the life of Paulo Neruda and his hope for Chile for an example we’ve featured on the podcast as well as Julia de Borges although very differently expressed.  But from a political standpoint, 

what Fitzgerald criticizes is less the idea itself, as I told you, he’s a Thomas Jefferson fan as well, buthe challenges this myth that there is a place on earth that is free from the corruption innate in the human heart- that the United States of America is such a placeRegardless of the system of checks and balances inherent in any system, it is an illusion to believe that those who make it to the top of the social, economic and political worlds escape the damaging mercenary temptations inherent in those positions- whether they are born there or whether they build their wealth themselves- and, as I see it, as we read through this book- we see very clearly the lines blurring between right and wrong- legitimate and illegitimate- reality versus illusion and ultimately even good vs evil, if you want to see it in those terms. 


And he does it so artfully.  He uses colors, and cars and geography and symbols of all sorts and throws all of these into a glamorous setting of his day.  The original readers saw this book as being modeled after their own modern moment.  This story, if it were set today, would include characters modeled after Kanye West, Tom Brady, Beyonce, and Bill DiBlasio, the music would likely be rap music- the technology would likely include tik tokiphones, and Zoom.  In fact, if you really want to make a good comparison, F. Scott Fitzgerald was sort of the Shonda Rhimes of his day.  


 If you don’t know who that is, Shonda Rhimes, may be the most accomplished television producer and author of our day.  She is the head writer, creator and executive producer of shows everyone knows: Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, How to Get away with Murder and Scandal.  She wrote Crossroads the debut film of Britney Spears , her most recent being Bridgerton. 


And Fitzgerald was like that.  Between 1919 and 1934 he made $400,000 mostly from short stories- think of that like tv episodes.  His work was fun, popular and glamorous, like Shonda Rhimes, so when the Great Gatsby came out- it wasn’t taken as the serious work of literature he meant it to me- and if you don’t get the meaning, the story in many ways falls flat.  One newspaper called it, “Fitzgerald’s latest a dud” Ruth Hale of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle said, “Find me one chemical trace of magic, life, irony romance or mysticism in all of The Great Gatsby, and I will bind myself to read one Scott Fitzgerald book a week for the rest of my life.” 


Ouch, that sounds like one of those Edgar Allen Poe Reviews.   


Well, it does, and the money speaks for itself.  He only made $7000 from the two printings of the book combined.  He himself knew it was a masterpiece and believed that all the way til his death.  He set out to write, using his own words, ‘something new, something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.”  And he absolutely did every bit of that.  In fact that was one of the things the critics didn’t like about it- it was too geometric to be a great novel- in their estimation. 


What does that mean?  How can you be geometric? 


Well, things in this book are just too tight- there is even one theory that he modeled the entire thing after a vaudeville show (which normally has 9 acts- and he has 9 chapters)- but in each act there’s a theme modeled after what the corresponding Act would be if it were a vaudeville show.   


Do you think there is any validity to that? For those of you who are unfamiliar with that term- during the early part of the 20th century, America had these variety shows called Vaudveille that were really popular.  They basically were little circus like shows- with crazy characters and lots of music.  In a way, I can see it.  We’ve seen crazy characters for sure as well as lots of music. 


I really don’t know.  Vaudeville was extremely popular at the time, and if you read the literature they make that case, but honestly, I have no idea, but it woldn’t surprise me.  Everything in this book is just so deliberate.  If you follow the vaudeville patternthis week we’re going to look at chapters 4-5 which in Vaudeville world should include the act with absurd characters and chapter 4 does fit that bill.  Act 5’s by the way are characterizized by near misses and that works too, as we’ll see. But another remarkable thing about the structure of this book is that the moment when Gatsby and Daisy meet is exactly the smack dab middle of the book.   


Are we ready to jump into the weeds of chapters 4-5? 


Absolutely, the beginning of chapter  really introduces a long cast of characters, in fact the first two pages are nothing but names.  The most interesting to the story is Klipspringer who stayed at Gatsby’s so long he was nicknamed “the boarder”.  But the really interesting characters are not the guests or even the gangsters although meeting anyone who’s jewelry is made from human molars would generally draw my attention- but in this case, the mafioso is displaced by the deputant. 


No doubt, and I know we don’t have time to get into the real colorful men of history who inspired these hilarious descriptions but if anyone is interested, look into the life of Herbert Bayard Swope who’s parties inspired Gatsby’s parties and the bootlegger Max Gerlach who is the model for Gatsby and George Remus who Fitzgerald actually met in Louisville- any Google search is just  fun  if you enjoy those kinds of things. 


 And Louisville is where we’re landing today- and it is in chapter 4 that we go back in time to meet  Daisy Fay of Louisville, Kentucky- a place where you’ve actually visited many times because it was also the location the College Board selected for many years for AP readers to congregate and grade the hundreds of thousands of essays from around the world every year. 


So true, Louisville, Kentucky the fictional hometown of Daisy Fay, is a Southern City, today famous for the Churchill Downs, Kentucky Derby, and Kentucky bourbon.  Louisville is charming, historical and mythological and right in the middle is the Seelbach hotel-  The hotel Tom Buchanan descended upon from Chicago with an entourage 400 people on the weekend of his wedding. 


Fitzgerald, and this is where you’re going to see a LOT of overlap between fiction and non-fiction, like Gatsby, was a soldier during WW1 and stationed, albeit only for a month near Louisville.  On the weekends, he, like a lot of soldiers, would escape Camp Zachary Taylor in his impeccable uniform he had tailor made from Brooks Brothers, enter into the Seelbach hotel as the handsomest man in the room and seek to charm and seduce.  Zelda, his wife, is not from Louisville, she’s from Alabama, another city, so you can see how he plays around with his past.  But she, like Daisy, refuses to marry him because “rich girls don’t marry poor boys.”  To quote Tom Buchanan.  Fitzgerald was stationed near Louisville in 1918, prohibition didn’t start until 1920 so he made good use of the opulent Seelbach bar so much so that he was thrown out of the Seelbach bar at least three times in the four weeks he was there. 


Good Lord- well – Fitzgerald in his sober state, sets Jordan Baker’s retelling of Daisy’s past in October of 1917.  I want to point out a couple of things here which I find very interesting and things to think about.  So far, we’ve talked about Fitzgerald’s criticism of corruption and the American dream, we’ve talked about colors and irony, and dust and existential atheism- and all that is in this book- but now I want to change directions and talk about time and personal history, nostalgia and all those things that are beyond politics.  There is a lot of emotional content in this story, this bittersweet feeling of lost opportunity that everyone experiences as they get older in some way or another.  This is set up in the first four chapters with a lot that is happy and exciting- happy nostalgia so to speak- it really peaks in the famous fifth chapter, which was Fitzgerald’s personal favorite and the one he rewrote the most- and kind of turns to negative feelings for the rest of the book- I heard it described as a nostalgia hangover one time and that’s a funny but appropriate metaphor.  It also becomes extremely evident, if it hasn’t been before, that there is no attempt to be chronological – this chapter is very cinematic as it creates these montages of the past and present- New York and then Louisville. 


I also want to point out that Fitzgerald, very progressively, changes narrarators and when we hear Daisy’s story, it’s not from the perspective of Nick- a female, Jordan, tells what some would call the female version of the Gatsby story.  Garry read how Jordan first meets Gatsby,  


The largest of the banners and the largest of the lawns belonged to Daisy Fay’s house.  She was just 18, two years older than me, and by far the most popular of all the young girls in Louisville.  She dressed in white, and had a little white roadster, and all day long the telephone rang in her house and excited young officers from Camp Taylor demanded the privilege of monopolizing her that night.  “Anyways, for an hour!”  When I came opposite her house that morning her white roadster was beside the curb, and she was sitting in it with a lieutenant I had never seen before.  They were so engrossed in each other that she didn’t see me until I was five feet away.  “Hello, Jordan,” she called unexpectedly. “Please come here.”  I was flattered that she wanted to speak to me, because of all the other girls I admired her most.  She asked me if I was going to the Red Cross and make bandages.  I was.  Well, then, would I tell them that she couldn’t come that day?  The officer looked at Daisy while she was speaking, in a way that every young girl wants to be looked at  some time, and because it seemed romantic to me I remembered the incident ever since.  His name was Jay Gatsby, and I didn’t lay eyes on him again for over four years- even after I’d met him on Long Island I didn’t realize it was the same man.” 


It’s so easy to reduce Daisy to the materialstic skank that stays with an awful man for the money because Nick looks at her like that by the end of the book, but I want to suggest, Fitzgerald is doing something so much more interesting than that.  She has a white childhood- nothing the color- but Daisy is Fitzgerald’s doppelganger.  I want to point out something many people have observed- neither Daisy nor Gatsby are every described physically.  Gatsby is described by his dress- Daisy is described by her voice- everything else we have to create in our imaginations.  They aren’t real- they are both dreams.  But while Gatsby goes away and keeps the dream alive for five years- Daisy’s dream of Gatsby dies early.  Notice that as she sits in that car, Jordan remembers it becaue of the way Gatsby looks at her- in a way that every young girl wants to be looked at some time.” What’s more dreamy than that- but the very next paragraph Daisy’s dream is over.  Read what Fitzgerald says,  


“Wild rumors were circulating about her- how her mother had found her packing her bag one winter night to go to New York and say good-by to a soldier who was going overseas.  She was effectually prevented, but she wasn’t on speaking terms with her family for several weeks.  After that she didn’t play around with soldiers anymore, but only with a few flat-footed short-sighted young men in town, who couldn't get into the army at all.  By the next autumn she was gay again, as gay as ever.  She had a debut after the Armistice, and in February she was presumably engaged to a man from New Orleans.  In June she married Tom Buchanan of Chicago, with more pomp and circumstance than Louisville ever knew before.  He came down with a hundred people in four private cars, and hired a whole floor of the Seelbach Hotel, and the day before the wedding he gave her a string of pearls valued at three-hundred and fifty thousand dollars.” 


BTW- I looked up how much that would be today- and the estimates started around 4 million. 


True- but the next part is what I want to highlight.  Let me read what Jordan says, “I wa a bridesmaid.  I came into her room half an hour before the b ridal dinner, and found her lying on her bad as lovely as the June night in her flowered dress- and as drunk as a monkey.  She had a bottle of Sauterne in one hand and a letter in the other. “Gradulate me,” she muttered.  “Never had a drink before, but oh how I do enjoy it.”  What’s the matter, Daisy” I was scared, I can tell you; I’d never seen a girl like that before.  “Here, deares”She groped around in a waste-based she had with her on the bed and pulled out the string of pearls. “Take ‘em down-stairs and give ‘em back to whoever they belong to. Tell ‘em Daisy’s change her mine. Say “Daisy’s change her mind. “ 

She began to cry- she cried and cried.  I rushed out and found her mother’s maid, and we locked the door and got her back into a cold bath. She wouldn’t let go of the letter.  She took it into the tub with her and squeezed it up with a wet ball, and only let me leave it in the soap-dish when she saw that it was coming to pieces like snow.  But she didn’t say another word.  We gave her spirits of ammonia and put ice on her forehead and hooked her back into her dress, and half an hour later, when we walked out of the room, the pearls were around her neck and the incident was over.  Next at five o’clock she married Tom Buchanan without so much as a shiver, and started off on a three months trip to the South Beach.  I saw them in Santa Barbar when they came back, and I thought I’d never seen a girl so mad about her husband.  If he left the room for a minute she’d look around uneasily, and say, “Where’s tom gone…….let me skip down to the end of the paragraph…skipping over the part where Daisy spends hours rubbing fingers over his eyes…after I left Santa Barbara Tom ran into a wagon on the Ventura road one night and ripped a front wheel off his car.  The girl who was with him got into the papers, too, becaue her arm was broken- she was one of the chambermaids in the Santa Barbara Hotel. 


Wow- well, there are eyes, cars and a lot of the stuff we’ve talked about before. 


True- but there’s another really important thing to notice- WATER.  Water plays a huge role in the book- it’s between the eggs, in chapter 5 we’ll talk about the rain, but what does it mean- well- we’ve talked about this in several books- but water is the most primal of archtypes- it’s important in every religion as a sign of rebirth and renewal- which is what’s going on here.  Daisy got baptized the night before her wedding- she went under that icey water and let her letter from Gatsby disintegrate and she came up the ice princess- a woman so devoid of feeling that she exist in a world where she knows she’s nothing both an ornament,  a statue or a collector’s item- the golden girl.  Gatsy founded his vision on Daisy Fay- the fairy- the girl he described as “gleaming like silver safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor”. We’re going to see in chapter 5 that he literally glows in her presence.  But that girl came down to reality well before Gatsby every did.  You’re going to see next week that Gatsby has two baptisms himself, and one is in his backyard in the swimming pool.   


Yikes- well after Fitzgerald destroys Daisy’s dream- he goes after Gatsby- at the end of chapter 4, Fitzgerald gives the narrator role back to Nick.  Jordan finishes her story by talking about how Gatsby’s house is across the water from Daisy’s house.  “But it wasn’t a coincidence at all. “Why not.” “Gatsby bought that house so that Daisy would be just across the bay.”  Then it had not been merely the stars to which he had aspired on that June night.  He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor.  “He wants to know , “continued Jordan” if you’ll invite Daisy to your house some afternoon and then let him come over.”  The modesty of the demand shook me.  He had waited five years and bought a mansion where he dispensed starlight to casual moths- so that he could “come over” some afternoon to a stranger’s garden.”  …Jordan ends her chat with Nick telling him he’s supposed to set it up but Daisy isn’t supposed to know about it…then Nick and Jordan make out in the car in quite possibly the most unromantic love scene I’ve ever read, “Unlike Gatsby and Tom Buchanan, I had no girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs, and so I drew up the girl beside me, tightening my arms.  Her wan, scornful mouth smiled, and so I drew her up again closer, this time to my face. 

Isn’t there a cliché- if you can’t be with the one you love- love the one you’re with. 


This is even worse than that- if you can’t find someone to love- be with a disembodied face. 


Chapter 5 is the big meeting- the middle of the chapter- the chapter Fitzgerald told Max Perkins his editor, he loved the most.  


It’s also where, from my perspective, this is where we see a lot of the mythical qualities stand out which makes me think Greek- as you know because Shakespeare did a lot with this- Empedocles, the Greek philosopher came up with the famous four-part theory kind of saying everything comes from air, water, earth and fire- and as we see Fitzgerald play around with all the traditional colors, I can’t help but see him play around with the traditional basic elements that the ancients thought created the world.   


Great point- there everywhere- Daisy floats around, the valley of ashes is the earth, Manhattan is fire hot, and then there is all this emphasis on water- which we’re going to see water play such an important role in the most important parts of the in chapter 5, after Gatsby tries unsuccessfully to recruit Nick to work for the mob- which was a kind of funny exchange- we arrive at the famous moment where Gatsby and Daisy meet- and it is “POURING RAIN”- and rain means rebirth, regeneration- Gatsby- it’s also blistering hotthere are references t “pink clouds” after Daisy visits the mansion.  It’s all there all the elements that make for recreating the world- except as we know- this is all an illusion.   It’s all fake.  But let’s walk it back and go through this scene- with the archetypes in the back of our mind with the colors and the Greek elements- but they are the supporting details- the real focus of this chapter is on Gatsby’s absolute determination to walk back time.  Matthew Bruccoli wasTHE premiere American expert on F. Scott Fitzgerald, he died in 2008, but he wrote the preface which is in the authorized version of the book that most students at least in this country use- it has the blue face with eyes in the middle of the cover and red lipstick with the fire of the city below.  Anyway, in his preface, he says that Fitzgerald references time 450 – 87 direct references to the word itself- never mind the constant use of time symbolism.  That is really what I want us to focus on for the rest of this discussion because at the end of the day- what Gatsby wants to do is stop time.  He wants to walk back time.  When he walks in with his white suit and gold tie- he wants to recreate the moment Jordan told us about when he met Daisy this first time- except this time he’s an version of himself that would have been competitive with Tom or whatever image he has made up in his nmind.  Daisy with her “clear artificial note” says, “I certainly am awfully glad to see you again.”  And what does he do, he leans his head so far back that it rest against the face of a defunct mantlepiece clock.  As Gatsby talks the clock tilts dangerously at the pressure of his head and he has to turn and catch it before it crashes and breaks.   When Gatsby says, “I’m sorry about the clock.”  He IS sorry about the clock.  He’s sorry about the lost five years 


For Gatsby, his body is in the present but his mind is five years in the past.  I don’t really want to get Freudian but this does remind me of a Freud quote, Freud says, ““We call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfilment is a prominent factor in its motivation” (Freud, 1962, p. 28) 

 Yes, and for Gatsby this is something money can buy- time is something you can create; something you can buy- like everything else that is for sale in this world.  If you’re rich enough you can buy everything- even time- even Daisy.   


The scene where Gatsby takes Daisy over to his house in the movie version with Leonardo DiCaprio is so memorable.  And now that you mentioned colors- I tend to notice them.  There is a gold odor- whatever that could be- and a lot of purple which is made from blue and red- this scene is about the illusion of love. 


Yep- now you’re tracking with Fitzgerald.  Here’s a good line, they are in Gatsby’s bedroom and he is evaluating everything in his house according to the measure of Daisy’s response to it.  Then it says this, “After his embarrassment and his unreasoning joy he was consumed with wonder at her presence.  He had been full of the idea so long, dreamed it right through to the end, waited with his teeth set, so to speak, at an inconceivable pitch of intensity.  Now, in the reaction, he was running down like an overwound clock.” Now that is poetic language if you have ever read it!!!  


The funniest scene to me is the one with the shirts. 


I know.  It’s funny and I think we should keep reading.   


Recovering himself in a minute he opened for us two hulking patent cabinets which help his massed suits and dressing gowns and ties, and his shrits, piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high. 

“I’ve got a man in England who buys me clothes.  He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each seasons, spring and fall.” 


He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray.  While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher- shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange,with monograms of Indian blue.  Suddenly with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shrts and began to cry stormily. 

“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such- such beautiful shirts before.” 


Why do you think she cries?  I have always found this strange.   


Well, of course, I don’t know.  But it could be a couple of things- you know, like you mentioned about Daisy, the ice queen from the previous chapter- Daisy may be understanding what Gatsby doesn’t- that this is an illusion their relationship isn’t real.   It could be that Daisy is regretting marrying Tom and thinking about having a life with Gatsby.  But honestly, when I put on- my historical lens, I remember that this is the 1920s, WW1 destroyed for the people, and not just American people, but people in England, Germany, France and Spain- it destroyed for so many the values on which they had created their whole culture and identity. if I look at this book the way you’ve been wanting us to look at it- full of symbolism, mythology and meaning- I land on the idea that for many people up to that point, and even today, we believe that love and materialism are not connected.  People won’t love you because of your money, not really, and you can have love even if you don’t have money.  I mean, we can subscribe to those ideas- but what we see in Daisy is someone who, in her own words, is cynical- that’s the first thing she told us about herself.  This is the woman who literally wants her daughter to be a beautiful fool- and here’s she’s crying.  In general, cynical people don’t cry.  So why is she crying, one idea is because Daisy, like so many of her generation, finds the shirts and the materialism they represent the substitute for the innocent fulfilling love of her white past- the one she doesn’t believe in anymore- the one that doesn’t exist- it’s a beautiful moment that she shares with Gatsby- but she believes the shirts are safe real thing in the room- and that would make me cry too.   


Well, it’s certainly possible that this encounter with the real Daisy instead of the one Gatsby had made up in his head is having a similar effect on Gatsby himself.  He says this, “If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay.” “You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.”  Remember Green is the color of growth but also the color of money.   

Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said.  Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever.  Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemd very near to her, almost touching her.  It had seemed as close as a star to the moon.  Now it was again a green light on a dock.  His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.   


Daisy calls then to the window just a little while later and we see that the rain is still falling, but the darkness had parted in the west, and there was a pink and golden billow of foamy clouds above the sea.  “Look at that” she whispered and then after a moment, “I’d like to just get one of those pink could and put you in it and push you around.” 


And this chapter which at face value is absolutely as romantic as this book will ever get ends with such cynicism, such irony- it’s very much the nihilism and post modernism so often seen in the 1920s.  Klipsinger is playing two songs that were super popular in the 1920s, you can listen to them on youtube.  The love nest was a very popular song about a house.  It literally says that the love nest is a small house on a farm but filled with warmth and love inside and is better than a palace with a gilded dome- yikes- this house is the gilded one.  The second song, the one actually quoted in the text is from a song called “Aint’ we Got Fun”.  The lines in the book read this, “One thing’s sure and nothing’s surer the rich get richer and the poor get- children”.   


Both Daisy had Gatsby pursued love in their youth-  but they aren’t those people any more.  Daisy is the ice queen, and Gatsby created his own Daisy something he can literally purchaseand  that’s not love either, not really.  Fitzgerald’s sarcasm is in the song choice.  The chapter ends like this, “As I went over to say good-by I saw that the expression of Bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness.  Almost five year!  There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams- not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusions.  It had gone beyond her, beyond everything.  He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way.  No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.  As I watched him he adjust himself a little, visibly.  His hand took hers, and as she said something low in his ear he turned toward her with a rush of emotion.  I think that voice help him most, with it fluctuating, feverish warmth because it oculdn’t be over-dreamed- that voice was a deathless song. 


And of course Nick leaves them to go walk in the rain. 


What do you think?   You don’t have the Jane Austen happy ending feeling do you? 


No.  You really don’t.   

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald - Episode 2 - Colors, Symbolism And Irony!

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald - Episode 2 - Colors, Symbolism And Irony!

May 8, 2021

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald - Episode 2 - Colors, Symbolism And Irony!

The Great Gatsby-F. Scott Fitzgerald - Espisode 1 - Meet The Author Of The Most Iconic American Piece Of  Literature!

The Great Gatsby-F. Scott Fitzgerald - Espisode 1 - Meet The Author Of The Most Iconic American Piece Of Literature!

May 1, 2021

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald - Episode 1 - Meet The Author Of One Of The Most Iconic Books Ever!

Night - Elie Wiesel - Episode #4 - The End Of All Things And The Beginning

Night - Elie Wiesel - Episode #4 - The End Of All Things And The Beginning

April 27, 2021

Night - Elie Wiesel - Episode #4 - The End Of All Things And The Beginning


Hi, I’m Christy Shriver and we are here to .  We are here to look at books that have changed the world and can even change us.


I’m Garry Shriver and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast. Today we conclude one of the most important memoirs to be written in the 20th century- Elie Wiesel’s short narrative, Night.  In our first episode, we focused on Wiesel’s life and career, after the holocaust, as a survivor.  In episode 2, we talked about chapters 1-2, we discussed the Hungarian holocaust in particular and focused on the role of the railways as they enabled the industrialization of death.  Last week we focused on Auschwitz itself.  We talked about Birkenau, the killing centers, and we focused on the events, many evil but also many good that Wiesel highlighted- the way love  and kindness surfaced in  those that survived, and how that actually enabled him to survive.  We highlighted the role of God in the camps, the small acts of kindness perhaps that reflected divinity and literally saved lives- we saw men and women who expressed the power  individuals have within themselves to resist being reduced to a spiritual nothing.  Wiesel highlighted the evil, but also the resistance and humanity or divinity, if you will, in the heart of the inmates.



Today, we are going to look at the rest of this book, looking at it in a different way- because as bad as it has been so far- it takes an even darker turn.  As we discuss the death marches, Gleiwitz, Buchewald and its liberation, we cannot avoid Wiesel’s emphasis on the malevalence that also resides or hides in all human hearts and is capable of coming out of anyone.  No one can claim any moral superiority in being incapable of great evil- and this seems to be what Wiesel seems to see even in himself at the very end.   I’ve heard the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson say that that’s what PTSD is all about, that it’s about life forcing you to stare into evil, often even in your own heart- and when you see what others but even you yourself are capable of, you are simply knocked off your center of being.  Lots of war poetry shows us this same thing, (we even talked about this a little bit when we did discussed. Dulce and Decorum Est,  because obviously many soldiers look at evil- things they had done or others had done that they just didn’t believe humans could do to each other and it is deconstructing. 



World War Two- was certainly deconstructing and really WW2 was just the start of decades of systematic murders all over that the world that deconstructed not just the Western world, but China, Russia, Africa, and other parts of Asia as well.  Truly it’s impossible for us today to understand it.  The numbers are simply too great.  Of course, we can’t talk about all of the 20th century, because just focusing on the events of WW2 is too much for our brains to really comprehend.  More than seventy million people died in that war and, most of them civilians- that means, they weren’t even officially involved in war. 


I know this is an aside- but for us non-msth people- numbers like that don’t mean anything- they are too abstract.  There’s a wonderful book by David Schwartz designed to help kids conceptualize how large large numbers are.  And in his book, he makes the point that if you wanted to count to one million, it would take you 23 days to do it.  So think about how many 70 million is. 



It’s more than we can understand.  And, Of course we know about the assembly lines of death constructed in Nazi killing centers as the Nazi’s systematically sought to annihilate a race of people, but there were more. Millions died in combat. Many were burned alive by incendiary bombs and, of course we can never forget, nuclear weapons. All of this begs the obvious question of how in the world was such a sophisticated world able to create the kind of dehumanization which enabled or really empowered this much carnage.


I’ve heard several lectures from Elie Wiesel, obviously from later on in his life, and one of the observations that he made fairly often, as a way of warning us about how we could do something like is, was to point out characteristics of German behavior during the Nazi era- not to suggest that Nazis were somehow different than the rest of us- but to point out just the opposite.  They are not different, and they certainly were not worse.  He points out how advanced their scientific and technological research actually was.  He points out they had a high understanding and appreciation of literature, art and music.  They were, in many ways, better than many of this- but—none of these things were sufficient to restrain them from behaving inhumanly.  What we see at Auschwitz is strange and counter-intuitive in almost every way.  We see that the Nazis did operate on some level based on values.  They kept everything worth keeping: clothes, suitcases, gold teeth, even hair.  They just didn’t operate on MORAL  values.  They kept everything except human life…and when you listen to Wiesel talk- the word morality comes up over and over again.  The idea of preserving morality in art, preserving morality in politics, preserving it speech matters greatly.  And somehow in Nazi, Germany, this was lost.  And what the end of this book shows- perhaps- among other things- is how this lack of morality has a coldness that increases in the face of its destruction- although you’d think the opposite would occur.  But what we know from this story as well as many many others is that as at the war seemed to be turning against the Germans, their commitment to death did not decrease, in fact it hastened to levels even they had not practiced up to that point. 



True- and as we know from other accounts, as the war got closer and closer to its conclusion- things in concentration camps all over Poland and Germany got very very chaotic and very deadly. This brings us to Elie.  In January of 1945 the Russian Army began approaching Auschwitz-Birkenau complex.  Of course, in the book we see what was going on inside the camps as the Russians got closer.  What Elie expresses is a strange and ironic excitement when bombs would drop. 



I’ve thought about that- how strange is the world when you are excited because bombs,which could kill you if they hit you, are your source of hope because they are also your source of liberation.



True, but look at how the German mindset was even stranger.  We now know that this is literally the last months of the Third Reich.  Hitler will kill himself on April 30, 1945. But even at this late date in January of 45, many Germans still believed that the tide of the war would turn in their favor, and when it did they would need all these prisoners as slave laborers to rebuild all that was being destroyed through these battles.  So, the strategy at Auschwitz as well as other camps across Poland and Germany was to evacuate the prisoners deep into central Germany.  And that’s what they did- this is what Elie and his father were a part of.  The SS evacuated a total of 250,000 prisoners, except they didn’t have the resources to actually do this.  So, they made these prisoners, both men and women, march, and although the Weisel’s march started in Auschwitz, many others started way way before that and by the time they got to Auschwitz to take a break they were almost dead on arrival.



There is such great irony at this part of the book for me- and of course, I have stopped pointed it out at every point because it would just sound redundant all the time- but at this point it’s worth bringing up again.  Elie had gotten hurt at work totting stones back and forth.



Let me interrupt here- because it’s worth mentioning- remember how we talked about how evil is often characterized by being pointless- this is a great example of this.  The Nazis were notorious about giving their prisoners tasks that were absolutely grueling as well as pointless.  They would have them literally kill themselves to lift rocks and haul them from one place to another, just to turn around and have them move them back.



Ugh- well, we’re not were told what exactly the nature of Elie’s work rock hauling work was, although he does allude to his work at Buna as being pretty pointless, anyway, he hurts his foot- and when that happens he has to go to the infirmary- a place that understandably horrified him.  Why would you want to go to a hospital in a place that was completely designed to end human life?  But ironically, it was a good place; the doctor was Jewish, the doctor got his dad in as an orderly, they got good food, he had an operation, his foot was going to heal and while it was healing, he is told he can lay in bed for two weeks.  Heck, he mentions he even had sheets!  However, two days after this happens, came the German evacuation.   He recounts that the patients in the hospital are given a choice- they could stay in the hospital and wait on the Russians or they could be evacuated with all the other innmates and march in the snow to whatever undetermined location they were going. 



Well, at first pass, that would seem like an obvious choice- stay.  You can be free.  But, after the first thought, you have to have the second thought – and that one would be terrifying- what are SS going to do on the way out the door?  They were already blowing up crematoriums.  Getting rid of evidence of their crimes. It’s clear they didn’t want witnesses- how easy would it be to just shoot everyone in a hospital bed right before walking out?  It’s a gamble, one way or the other.



And that is clearly what the inmates thought.  There was nothing in the behavior of the SS up to that point to indicate they would spare anyone’s life.   How terrified would Elie have to be at this point>. Because otherwise what else would motivate someone who had just operated on his leg to walk the 55km or 30 miles to Gleiwitz (although I’m sure they weren’t told their destination)- but they knew it was going to be bad. 



And of course, what Elie was to find out many years later, tragically really, is that had they stayed back they would have lived.  When the Soviets walked into that camp the 6000 sick inmates were still alive and were immediately liberated.



And so Elie and his father joined the 60,000 plus inmates that were evacuated just from Auschwitz- again the numbers are so big they are larger than we can imagine.  The suburb were our house is here in Memphis, has 58,000 inhabitants- that would mean all of Bartlett was marched out on foot in the snow in the middle of winter- with no adequate coats, Elie didn’t really even have a shoe.  And it is at the end of this chapter on Elie’s last day at Auswhtiz where I see one more passage that illustrates the great power of man’s ability to resist dehumanization- that I want to point out before we start talking about man’s great power to be overcome by evil- but their block leader made them mop the floor of their block before they left it which I find amaxing.  They are about to march in the snow endlessly and instead of preserving their strength they mop, and when asked why he says this and I quote, “For the liberating army.  Let them know that here lived men and not pigs.”  Wow!  Such a testimony.



Incredible, well the evacuation was unbearably tedious as well as chaotic. They made the half-starved inmates run for their lives and to the incredibly capacity of the human spirit, they did.  They ran, even though the German soldiers couldn’t keep up and switched out- they continued running.  If they saw someone drop off or fall back, the orders were just to kill them.  They ran until they got to Glei Weitz, and from their they were locked in rooms awaiting to be loaded on open cattle cars to the interior of Germany. 



As I read this part of the book where they run, stop in evacuated barns to sleep and then get up to run more,  I can’t help but have this question in my head- especially as I read about them runnin into the dark of night,  I think why don’t any of them just triy to hide in the grass and let the SS just run pass?  Weren’t the Russians coming?  Wasn’t it dark. 



That’s a great question, that I think a lot of people have- and actually that did happen some, but not as much as you would think.   John Ranz, another survivor, of the death marches, when he tells his story kind of answers that question.  Because of his place at the camp, he had the unique privilege of reading newspapers that the Nazis were using as toilet paper.  Anyway, (I know that’s gross) but because he read the strips of paper he had access to when he tells his story he talks a little bit about the propaganda that the Nazi media was putting out.  The Media of Germany was not calling the German retreat “death marches” like we’re calling them.   They were calling them “Siegreicher Ruczug” or the “victorious withdrawal”.  The Germans were supposed to believe that the Germans were deliberately luring the Russians deeper into the Reich in order to encircle and completely destroy them.  He states  that he heard Germans shouting to bystanders as they marched by that “All those with machine guns or Panzer Faust units” were to report to the front.  The Panzer-Fausts were regarded as Germany’s great hope to stop the Russian tanks.  And the newspapers were full of stories of soldiers who single-handedly knocked out dozens of tanks.  It wasn’t an accepted fact that this war was over.  You also have to remember, these prisoners saw all the Germans as potential assailants- they understood that most of the people in the area would be hostile towards them- any peasant could kill one of them and likely would.  The prisoners, and you can see this from the way Elie tells his story, felt safer within the confines of the marching prisoners than lost and alone in German territory.  They saw that there was no place to hide even if they escaped the SS.  Plus, and don’t forget this, the German people had great faith in what they called the “Wunder Waffe” or miracle weapon.  It was their belief because Hitler kept talking about it, that any day this weapon would be unleashed and protect them from collapse.



Can I assume you are talking about the nuclear bomb?



Yes, Hitler had many physicists working competitively all over the Reich trying to enrich uranium, but obviously they failed.  Of course, if they had gotten that weapon instead of the United States, they may have been right. 



Well, for the rest of the book, most of the stories that Wiesel recounts are not stories of kindness, but instead illustrations of great and intense evil- beyond even what had happened at Auschwitz.    And not all of them were done by Germans.  Many were done by Jewish prisoners to each other.  He highlights an incident about a young man abandoning his father, the Rabbi Eliahu.  He highlights the SS stuffing the prisoners in cars without covers, over 100 in each one, where they stood for days in the falling snow eating snow off of each other to have liquid in their bodies.  He highlights an account where they would stop at a village and people in the village would throw bread into the car just to watch the inmates kill each other to get a few crumbs of bread.  And kill each other they did.

All of these stories take us to one common theme- and you haven’t even mentioned the one where a man literally kills his own father for a piece of bread- the theme is not  to show us how horrible the train ride was- although that is clearly evident, he has a greater point to make and we know this because It is in the middle of his description of the horrific train ride from Gleiwitz to Buchenwald that he again flash-forwards into the post war are and tells a story of a Parisian woman on a cruise ship.  It seems they are on a cruise in the Middle East, and it stops for one of those excusions  that cruise ships do- this one in  the port city of Aden, Yemen- a very poor country. Grown up Weisel watches this woman throw coins at these poor children who in turn strangle each other to get the coins.  Wiesel is super upset by this, but the woman keeps doing it.  When Wiesel admonishes her- she remarks that she and I quote “enjoys giving to charity”- so you have to ask- what does this story have in common with the wretched cattle car story of Germans throwing bread in the cattle cars to watch the Jews kill each other.



He doesn’t really tell you in the memoir.  He makes you work for the answer- but, of course, any student of Wiesel knows what he thinks.  Wiesel argues that evil expresses itself first and foremost in indifference.  WE talked about it being voluntary and unnecessary- it’s also indifferent- and it seems to be something that can be in all of us anywhere at any level.  The woman in the story got some sort of pleasure from watching the degradation of the children and she was able to justify it because she was throwing money.



I agree- it’s a theme we read about , and I have heard not just from Wiesel and even not just from holocaust survivors, but many survivors of 20th century genocides talk about this very deep and disturbing question.  Many raise the question and talk about the challenge of answering it? Why are people so evil?  Where does it come from? 



Well, we can’t answer that question today.  But lots of great minds have.  It’s at the heart of the book of Genesis in the Bible.  Plato talked about it in the Greek tradition.  St. Augustine the Christian philosopher in his important work Confessions had a lot to say about this- and all of these writers predate the 20th century.  But the 20th century was full of expressions of absolute evil that challenged what we thought we were- what we thought we were becoming.  We had learned how to fly, how to make light, how to communicate across space- but look what we’d done with our advancements. And of course that begs the question- Are we on the verge of destroying ourselves? 



We have to bring in Alexandr Solzhenitzen here- , he’s another nobel prize winner that I want us to cover in greater depth in a later episode- but one of his most famous quotes that I know about, comes out of the Gulag Arquipelago and to me speaks to what Elie is illustrating here and all over this train ride to Buchenwald.



Well, before you read his quote, I think it’s worth mentioning that Solzhenitzen was a distinguished and celebrated solider in the Red Army- this very Red Army that we are talking about marching through Poland. And as a soldier he was a murderer himself, he’d done horrible things- all in the name of the war effort- but what happened to him was that Stalin found out he had said disparaging things about Stalin- so Solzhenitzen was sent to the Russian Gulags or the Russian concentration camps.  So, he had the unique experience of being both the perpetrator of evil as well as a victim of it.



And this is what he has to say:

In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.

Solzhenitsyn goes on to say:

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

It’s very similar language to what we are going to hear from Wiesel as he talks against ideologies later on in life.  Wiesel was absolutely against and spoke against all ideologies- be it whatever -ism you wanted to give it- and for the reason you just read.  They are great excuses for man to allow that evil to live unrestrained inside his heart. 

The final chapters of this book are about the death of Shlomo Wiesel.  Elie’s father just cannot survive the death marches.  Once they get to Buchenwald it’s just a matter of time before  dynsentery takes his life.  Garry, give us the history and context of Buchenwald, and then we’ll end with the story of Elie’s father’s death and Elie’s liberation.

Sure, Buchenwald is located in Eastern Germany about 150 miles south of Berlin. If you google maps that today, we’re talking about 453 miles if you are driving directly and on highways- even today it would take you 12 hours of solid driving under the best of circumstances to get from Auswhtiz to Buchenwald- and of course we know it took the Wiesels days of being outside in the exposed winter snow.  Technically, Buchenwald was never a killing center- it’s primary function was forced labor.  It was the first and largest of the German concentration camps.  It had no gas chambers, although that’s not to say, lots of inmates didn’t die there- we know that at least 56,545 were documented as dying there.  But let me highlight because I don’t know if we have really, the Nazis established over 44,000 labor camps of one kind or another during the war.  Again these numbers are hard to imagine. And the reason that we even know this is because in order to be so incredibly efficient and create such an intricate system, the Germans, by necessity, had to keep meticulous and enormous amounts of records.  Therefore- as a natural result, even though we see here at the end as they blew up camps, destroyed records and so forth, they were never able to succeed in hiding all the evidence. The German genocide is by far the most documented genocide in human history. Also, and we see this in Wiesel’s book, but also in other accounts, beyond the German records, there was the testimony of many witnesses- and beyond just the tragedy of the death involved- we learned the procedures and organization of these camps- and so we know a lot about these camps.  I know this is an aside, but it’s an aside worth mentioning there was a man by the name of David Boder, a Russian immigrant to the United States and a professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, who traveled in 1946 to Europe for the express purpose of making a permanent record of the witnesses.  He collected over a hundred interviews totaling 120 hours of interviews on a wire recorder .  And this was just after it all had happened. This is an extremely important document of history. His work was never really famous at the time.  His book I did not interview the dead was not famous, but he accurately recorded what actually happened.  I recommend anyone interested in holocaust research to Google his name and listen to the work he did.


But back to Buchenwald.   If you remember, Elie and his father were evacuated in January of 1945.  The Americans marched into a pretty much SS-free camp on April 11.  When Patton’s army got a few miles outside of the camp, almost all of the 5000 plus SS soldiers ran for their lives.  Once they did that, the inmates themselves liberated the camp.   Elie records how he saw this from the inside.  It’s incredible how close Elie’s father came to surviving the war.  But again, As the Americans approached Buchenwald, the Nazis did at Buchenwald what they had done at Auschwitz when the Russians got close- they tried to evacuate the camp.  Except this time, Elie didn’t participate. 

And the reason that he didn’t is that he has no feeling of humanity left in him- as we see in the narrative.  The death of his father destroyed him.  His father had become delirious.  He had diarreha and couldn’t stop the dehydration.  His screaming couldn’t stop.  Where at Auschwitz, Wiesel tells us stories of human compassion, here at Buchenwald- we see none of that.  The Block Leader at their block here also gives Elie advice on how to survive at Buchenwald but listen to how opposite it is to the advice he had recived at Auschwitz….and listen to how Elie responds to the death of his father


Read page 110


Of course we feel nothing but sympathy for little Elie Wiesel.  The circumstances of his father’s death is beyond anything anyone I know could ever even sympathize with.  But what Wiesel highlights is that he found in his own heart darkness as well.  He felt apathy- and it seems this felt like evil.  His first emotion was not sadness but relief.  He was not sad at the death of his own father- he was in fact dehumanized,  later he came to feel guilty about that.  It seems to perhaps even frighten him.


I think it did frighten him, although he surely didn’t have words to voice it then in the camp.  But later in life, as Wiesel has had years to consider and reflect on all that he witnessed, he has this to say- “I have always thought that the opposite of culture is not ignorance, but indifference. That the opposite of morality is not immorality, but again indifference.”  I think that must have been what he felt- perhaps it was the feeling of indifference that felt like the evil and the darkness that he had seen all over the camps.  The Nazis were the absolutely expression of evil; the absolute expression of indifference.


Well, as we know, Elie Wiesel was to spend the rest of his life advocating for peace.  He never advocated for revenge- not even for the children of Nazis- as you would expect.  He advocated that the way to fight indifference was to care- to be kind- to express empathy- and this not as a matter of state policy- although it does involve that too- but as a matter of personal choice.


Another point to make, and he says this way later in his life- almost at the end.   He said he did not really believe we would achieve it really- he didn’t think we learned much from the 20th century.  David Axelrod interviewed him at the University of Chicago and he acknowledged this He admits, and to use his words, “the world learns nothing”.  However, in spite of all that- he still believed in humanity- he was a teacher who loved his students and believed in the future- he believed that we can combat indifference, we should and we must- knowing- like Solzehenzen that it will never be eradicted but it can be constrained. 


He famously said that “hope is the memory of the future.”  I really like that line. It’s a paradox, but  beautifully hopeful.  And I believe in that hope too- the legacy of of Elie Wiesel is the legacy of kindness, and compassion- lived out- not judging others or condemning them in the name of an -ism- but in fighting indifference through our actions.  And so in that spirit, it is fitting that we end our discussion of Night reading the speech Wiesel made the night he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize because  although he died in 2016, his words, do live on- as does his witness- as does his hope. Garry will you read it for us. 




Night - Elie Wiesel - Episode #3 - Auschwitz, Birkenau and Buna.

Night - Elie Wiesel - Episode #3 - Auschwitz, Birkenau and Buna.

April 26, 2021

Night - Elie Wiesel - Episode #3 - Auschwitz, Birkenau and Buna.


Hi, I’m Christy Shriver.  We are here to look at books that have changed the world and can even change us.


And I’m Garry Shriver; this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  This is our third episode featuring the great Dr. Elie Wiesel and his holocaust memoir Night. In episode one, we discussed Wiesel’s life story spanning the many years of his life before but then after the holocaust. We highlighted the impact this man has had on planet earth as an advocate for peace.  He stands out among the greatest advocates for peace in the 20th century, the most genocidal evil century in the history of our planet,  and he spoke of the necessity of man as a matter of survival to forgive: to seek Morality and ethical values, to honor the sanctity of human life, and to pursue the wisdom to distinguish between evil, revenge and justice.


Last week, we went back in time to Sighet and listened to little Elie as he introduced to us his friend Moshe the Beadle, his family and his world.  We watched his world shrink smaller and smaller until he and his family were confined into a cattle car- where they ironically LONGED to reach their final destination- the ultimate situational irony, a place they had never heard of, a place the world must never forget, Auschwitz.  But, Garry, the story is so so sad.



Well, it’s incredibly sad.  And there is a part of me that rejects wanting to even know about this.  It’s horrible and is a reminder of evil.  Yet, Wiesel, as a writer was absolutely obsessed with memory.  His greatest fear was that one day humanity would forget about the holocaust.  We would white wash it, pretend it didn’t happen, or change the way it happened in our collective memory to make it something it wasn’t.  He wanted the make a mark through the written word to fight that.  But that leads us to an incredibly important question historians who study the holocaust discuss and that is what should we take away from the study of the holocaust. 


Well, for starters, memory of any kind- be it personal or collective- is an incredibly powerful part of being human.  There are so many reasons why we treasure memory.  You and I love to travel and a lot of that has to do with the culmination of memories it creates in my head and heart.  Some of my favorite memories of my children’s lives are from trips we’ve taken together.  I think about remembering my mother who died many years ago, when I hear certain songs or even eat certain foods, I remember her, her love, the lessons she taught me. 


Yes- and there you are getting closer to its greater purpose.  Memory serves to help us extract lessons for the present and help project  us into the future, and THIS clearly is Wiesel’s purpose for recording the personally painful events of his life- the most painful of these will be in the chapters we read this week and next.  He isn’t the only one Saul Friedlander says that the memory of extreme events carry them an ethical imperative. – meaning survivors MUST.


 Another thing, as far as writers and survivors go, these witnesses, such as Wiesel and Friedlander among others who have recorded horrific events seem to agree that the memory, the recording of it, is their tool for combating an apathy towards human history that can naturally develop in a comfortable existence when things like that may feel like encyclopedia entries. It’s one thing to say that Kubla Khan or Julius Caesar were ruthless.  It’s another thing for a witness to tell his/her story of what that means.


You are exactly right.  And here we see why public memory or especially collective memory matters.  Memory gives people a tool to resist destructive things sometimes ones that are even natural at the present moment. And this can be practical, helpful.


That seems all good for historians, but for non-history people, sometimes I have to wonder-  What is the point?  Why not forget?  Wouldn’t Wiesel have been better off to, as they “put all this behind him”?  Wouldn’t we, as a culture- to just let it go?  Auschwitz is so horrific- such a symbol of the capacity for evil living in man.   Do you think stories such as these should be remembered- or is it glorifying it- giving it a place when it doesn’t deserve one.  I know there’s the cliché- those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it?- to not be guilty of this sort of thing ever again?  Is there validity to that.


Yes- I think there is.  Although, honestly that’s only one part of it.  And I will also concede this, historians are not in agreement if that cliche is even true all the time.  Sometimes memory creates things like feuds that go back, tribal conflicts that last generations- and things of that nature.  It’s so difficult to understand what to do with our memories. 


How should we let them orient our future is not so simplistic .


  We don’t understand what it means.   Again back to the great holocaust historian Saul Friedlander, he points out that the Nazi regime was unique among all genocides because they took it upon themselves to envision and technologically construct a world through killing so as to determine a set of criteria by which they should determine which group should be allowed to live on Earth- and they industrialized this process.  It is incredible when you think about it.  They pursued this goal with such commitment that this goal became more important than winning world domination.  In fact, they actually reversed the normal order of affairs.  World domination was the tool to annihilate, not the other way around.  How can we ever decide to make sense of this?


So, what we have is to hear the story.  In Wiesel’s case, I think it is clear that he, through his story, wants to prolong the memory of the tragedy- give it voice beyond his lifetime, that not just his, but all of the victims experiences can be known.  He writes to make future generations the storytellers of his story. Grown up Wiesel found this so incredibly important it was worth his own reliving of it again and again- through the retelling.  And what I found so fascinating about this little narrative, the book night, is that it is purposeful at every point.  He writes in a style that is understated, but his message is powerful.  He is very selective in the different episodes he chooses to include in his retelling of his experiences at Auschwitz. There were so many things that happen.  All of them awful- remember his first book had over 800 pages.  Yet, in Night he chooses only a few. There are so many people he watched die; yet he highlights really less than a handful.  There are many survivors, people he encountered, yet he tells us of one or two.  And even more noticeable, his perpetrators are not honored.  He mentions Mengele by name as well as one Kapo, but the rest are anonymous. 



True- and this stands out because the events he relays are incredibly gut-wrenching, if he wanted to, he could have gotten a lot more gruesome.  What we know  about the atrocities of Dr. Mengele alone has filled volumes of history.  But he doesn’t do this.  He mentions that he was there.



This story, and I really think this is important, does not glorify or even magnify the tragic way innocent people died in killing centers- this is not the story through the eyes of the perpetrators of evil- Night is not about evil- although evil pervades every page of this book   This is about resistance to evil.  This is about the idea that no one, no matter how evil they are, no matter what atrocity they create, and there is no greater atrocity than the holocaust- but no one can take your humanity- which to me is an amazing thought after having just discussed the metamorphosis and kafka’s idea about how you can take away your own.  What we learn in this story, is that, in their way, the inmates at Auschwitz- even in their worst hour, expressed incredible agency.  They fought back in their hearts, in their minds and Wiesel is careful to point this truth out.  It’s important to see this.  Look especially at his discussion of religion.  Incredibly, God dwells in Auswchitz.  It’s absolutely incredibly how deeply spiritual this book is at times.  The theologian Rabbi Sacks, speaks about his experiences talking to holocaust survivors.  He says there were people who lost their faith at Auschweitz, there were people who kept their faith, there were people who found faith in God at Auiswhcwitz.  Wiesel introduces us to all three of these groups in this story, yet he doesn’t tell us what we should think of it.  He expresses divinity through humanity as he shows us what love is through the relationship with his father, what strength is through Juliek, what courage is through the French girl at Buna, and what kindness is by the strange men who come out to the train and tell Elie and his father to lie about their age.  And he juxtaposes this with evil.  From the minute the Wiesel’s  arrive we see humanity- we clearly see evil and inhumanity inhumanity- but the spotlight is on humanity.  Holocaust survivor George Pick says this, “I am here because some people who were taking chances with their lives, but also others who were doing seeming small things, gestures. Opening a door, letting us out….I want to put this into your minds that you don’t have to be heroic necessarily to be life-savers or to help others.  You can do small things and you would ever even know what the consequendes of those small things are.”



Chapter 3 starts with utter confusion, darkness and sadness.  The saddest line in the whole book is at the beginning of chapter 3.  “I walked on with my father, with the men.  I didn’t know this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever.” 



It’s incredibly quick- it’s overwhelming -and yet, it’s immediately dismissed as they were dismissed and of course, it is at this moment we see an instance of incredible human compassion and agency of those there- inmates telling then to lie about their ages.  Say you’re 18; say you’re 40.  The wiesel’s had no idea, and it’s hard to imagine how they even viewed this enormous place known as Auschwitz.



The size of Auschwitz is much bigger than we can envision by simply reading this book. There are 44 parallel railway tracks that convene- probably why it was chosen.  Well, let me even back a little before that.  First of all, we need to know that Auschwitz was not the only place where Nazis were exterminating Jews.  There were six death camps- all of them in Poland.  These places weren’t camps- they were killing centers- the business of the camps was to manufacture death.  It is set up exclusively to create mass murder of human beings like an assembly line.  In these places, those who are selected out for survival are only selected out in order to support this industry.  Jews were a minority in the concentration camps but more than half of the Jews killed during the holocaust were killed in killing centers, not concentration camps.  I make this distinction because there were other slave labor camps or concentration camps besides the death camps.  Auschwitz was actually originally a slave labor camp that was retrofitted to become a death camp.  What we have at Auschwitz is a massive operation beyond what any person could ever conceive.  At its peak in the summer of 1944, Auschwitz I (ONE) covered about 40 sq. km. in the core area, and more than 40 branch camps dispersed within a radius of several hundred kilometers. In 1944, there were about 135 thousand people (105 thousand registered prisoners and about 30 thousand unregistered) in the Auschwitz complex, which accounted for 25% of all the people in the entire concentration camp system.


Elie arrives in what we know now is Auschwitz 2 or Birkenau.  Later we see after he’s selected he is moved to Auschwitz 1 and then on to Buna. 


 Auschwitz 2 or Birkenau was the largest of the more than 40 camps and sub-camps that made up the entire Auschwitz complex. Auschwitz stands out because the scale of what went on here is beyond anything that happened at the other killing centers.   It only existed really for three years.  In October  of 1941, it was supposed to be a camp for 125 thousand prisoners of war. It opened as a branch of Auschwitz in March 1942.  Ultimately, what we know now, is that in its final phase, from 1944, it also became a place where some prisoners were concentrated before being transferred to slave labor camp, if that was going to happen at all, but The majority—probably about 90%—of the victims of Auschwitz Concentration Camp died in Birkenau- the total is around 1 to 1.2 million people. And of course, we know now that The majority, more than nine out of every ten, were Jews. 


This is one of the few places where Wiesel highlights a perpetrator, the infamous Dr. Mengele the one in charger of what they called “selection.”Menele held a conductor’s baton telling some to go to the right; others to the left.  No one knowing what it meant.  In Elie’s and his father’s case, they were sent to the right which meant they were spared.  But as they walked to the bunker they were given a good look at what Birkenau was about in 1944.  They passed a ditch while a truck was unloading children and babies and thowing them into a bonfire.  Elie comments that he didn’t think of it as being real.  His father was in disbelief as well.  They were looking at evil. And notice that at this moment, Elie references the response of the victims. They life their voices in prayer, “Ysgadal, Veyiskadah, shmey raba….May His name be celebrated and sancrified.”  There is this very gripping line, “Someone began to recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead.  I don’t know whether, during the history of the Jewish people, men have ever before recited Kaddish for themselves.”   An incredible moment- men taking hold of their own sacrament of death- transcending death in a sense.  Elie’s father was praying as well.  Of course, Elie didn’t want to pray.  He was angry at God- how colud God be silent?  How could you pray to God in the face of evil.  It’s not an easy question to ask, especially for religious people.  Maybe for Non-religious people, maybe one could say, it means nothing, but for many theists, and for Jews- this answer is not enough.  It can’t explain evil and it can’t provide an answer for it.  Wiesel and his father than remember Mrs. Shaechter on the train, she seemed to have known. 


Evil is really characterized by two things- first for something to be evil there is this idea that it lacks necessity- there is no reason for it- and we feel this.  What is the point of a killing center?  Secondly, it is voluntary.  These perpetrators were not being forced- they were voluntarily digging ditches, processing inmates, industrializing death.  Modern materialistic thought doesn’t really like to think that there is such a thing- that this could be possible.  Many of us want to say that people aren’t really evil, they just do bad things out of necessity.  We can wrap our brain around that.  Just like it’s not evil when a lion eats a deer.  It’s sad, but not evil.  We’d like to argue that humans work like this- that if someone steals they nust have a good reason for it.  Maybe they were hungry; maybe they had some reason.  But what we see here is not that.  They go to the barber, the SS arbitrarily hit them randomly at all times for no reason.  They are forced to run everywhere although there is no hurry.


Well, of course we would like to believe that there could be an explanation, in some sense because it gives us hope that if we could just cure the inequalities of the world, we wouldn’t have to be afraid of evil.  We could perhaps cure evil.  And it seems that Wiesel and his father look around we see they are stunned by the fact that there is no reason for this.  There is no necessity.  And yet, so many people are volunteering to participate- from the train conductors, to the SS, to the doctors, even to the Kapos- who were prisoners themselves chosen mostly because they too were evil.  And then there is that iconic infamous sign “Albeit Macht Frei.”


Elie like Thousands of prisoners passed the Auschwitz Gate twice every day. First time, early in the morning, when they were going to work and the second time, when they were coming back, often carried by friends because of extreme fatigue. Every morning they glanced at the “Arbeit Macht Frei” – it was an insidious Nazi joke.  Everyone was aware every time they went under  it could be there last time to pass this gate. Work which was said to liberate them, was in fact bringing a premature death. The Auschwitz gate never led to freedom – only to pain.  The words were actually a pun.  The words “Arbeit Macht Frei”, “Work Will Free You”, is taken from the Bible which says “Wahrheit macht frei” (Truth will make you free). In early 30s the slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” was very popular because of high unemployment level in Germany. It became a  motto of Nazi officers who forced prisoners to work in inhuman conditions. Eventually the slogan appeared over the gates of many extermination camps, not just Auschwitz.


And it is here after going through this sign that Wiesel records another instance of humanity.  They had arrived at their Block, Block 17, and their block leader gives them this admonition.  He says this, “Comrades…read page 41.  


Elie is one of the lucky ones, or so he’s led to understand.  He gets taken out of Birkenau, sent to Auschwitz where he just hangs out for three weeks doing pretty much nothing but sleeping.  After which he’s sent to what we now call Auschwitz 3 or Monowitz- Elie knew it as Buna. 


Ironically, and I quote, “All the inmates agreed Buna is a very good camp. One can hold one’s own here.”  And this seems to be somewhat true.  Elie makes friends: Juliek, Yossi and Tibi (brothers). They would hum melodies about Jerusalem together, if you can imagine it.  They were given a blanket, a washbowl, a bar of soap.  Their Block leader, named Alphonse, was kind and sometimes smuggled in extra soup if he could manage it.  It is at Buna where Elie meets a French girl who gave him a crust of bread after he’d been severely beaten by one of the few perpetrators Elie gives a name, Idek the Kapo. 

And what is even more incredible about that incident is that he flashes forward to a metro in Paris where he runs in to her again.  They recognize each other, get off the train and talk about what happened that day.  She had risked her life to give him that bread.  The Germans didn’t know she was Jewish, she was blond and was passing herself off as Aryan, but if they had heard her talking to him, she would have been busted.  As George Pick said, and it stays with me- heroism is in small things.  We just never know. 


For Wiesel it was both shocking and troubling  that the Germans, of all people, should have been the ones who implemented the most savage national crime in recorded history. They were rich, educated, sophisticated, artistic, cultured, arguably the most cultured the most literate  in the Western World.  The way they created this industry of death was done in such an organized and sophisticated way.  They stood in court yards and were counted- death was carried on with such ceremony.  This is highlighted by the two hangings Wiesel recalls (of course there were many hangings- he says no one ever weeped to watch people get hanged.  They had all but gotten completely comfortable with the presence of evil and death, but he selects these two to discuss.  There was one Oberkapo (or overseer) who they had caught hiding a significant amount of weapons.  He was fighting back.  He was hanged along with his assistant, a child who helped him, but when the child went to hang, he was so light, he wouldn’t die.  As was the ceremony, all the inmates had to pass by the dead person hanging to remind themselves what happened to traitors, when Elie walked passed this Pipel he was still alive. 


He agonized over this issue of culture and evil and raises again and again. It seems natural to assume that education and culture would make people more humane and kind.  But Wiesel learned in the camp that there is no correlation between education, culture and good and evil.  We’re going to see that even in his Nobel address he can’t resolve this troubling issue- as he said “all of those doctors in law or in medicine or in theology [the German officials in the camps], all of those lovers of art and poetry, all of those admirers of Bach and Goethe who, coldly, intelligently had ordered the massacre and had participated in it: what was the meaning of their metamorphosis? How does one explain their loss of ethical, cultural, religious memory?”  He further remarks in another piece that “many Germans cried when listening to Mozart, when playing Haydn, when quoting Goethe and Schiller—but remained quite unemotional when torturing and shooting children.” Even he was unemotional at this point in the camp. 

The last part I want to discuss today, as we finish up our discussion of Elie’s time at Auschwitz before he is moved to another camp has to do with his treatment of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  The two most sacred days in the Jewish calendar.  Rosh Hashanah is the first of the high holy days. It’s the Jewish New Years and is celebrated in what in the Northern Hemisphere is in the fall.  It commemorates the creation of the world and starts, a 10-day period of introspection and repentance that culminates in the Yom Kippur holiday, also known as the Day of Atonement. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the two “High Holy Days” in the Jewish religion.


Elie expresses rage really as he hears everyone discuss the Event of Rosh Hashanah- the end of the year.  The others were praying.  Elie is angry.  Elie narrates that and I quote, “some ten thousand men had come to participate in a solemn service, including the blockalteste, the kapos, all bureaucrats in service of death.”  There is an officiating inmate who leads them “Blessed be God’s name.”  Elie says that “thousands of lips repeated the benediction, bent over like trees in a storm.”  It’s just incredible. 



And Elie angry.  He says this, “And I, the former mystic, was thinking, “yes man is stronger, greater than God.  When Adam and Eve deceived you, You chased then from paradise.  When you were displeased by znoah’s generation, you brought down the …read page 68. 


The evil Elie saw at every moment through the billowing clouds of smoke, felt with the blows, heard from the kapos and SS, and smelled in the burning carcasses wasn’t about need, evolutionary competing interests.  It wasn’t about ignorance or lack of sophistication.  Evil couldn’t be explained nor combated through education or money.

And although Elie couldn’t understand it or even see it- what he was witnessing were people fighting the evil.  Resisting the evil- not being consumed by it.  And it is truly remarkable that many survivors from the holocaust bring out this truth of resistance through love, forgiveness, redemption, this connection to the divinity.  But what are we to make of it?  Elie is just telling us what he saw.  He can make nothing of it, it seems. 


  Clearly.  And there is more tragedy and pain yet to come.  Next week, we’re going to talk about his last days at Buna, the evacuation in what history has called the “Death marchs” as well as Elie’s liberation from Buchenwald.  But, I want to end this episode with some of the most famous words he probably ever writes. He writes these back in chapter 3 right after they arrive at Birkenau.  Garry will you read these for us?


Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.

Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.1


It’s what we call an anaphora- when you start every sentence with the same word or group of words.  Repetition always means emphasis- when you repeat something- it’s always because that’s the most important thing- obviously.  We repeat the things we want to memorize.   In this case there are seen repeated uses of the phrase “Never shall I forget..”  This is the main idea.  Never forget.  He will never forget.  We must never forget.  He is entrusting us with these images.  The number seven is s sacred number.  It’s the number of the divinity.  This passage is in reference to God, but it’s defihitely negative.  He’s not praising God like his father had done.  He’s not cursing Ggod either.  It ends with a paradox- Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself, never.  He doesn’t want to live as long as God- in one night a boy full of life and hope is destroyed.  But yet we know, that really Wiesel doesn’t end his life with despair.  He doesn’t forget, but God is not murdered.  His soul is not murdered.  The power of evil can go only so far and no further.  And there is hope in that. 

Night - Elie Wiesel - Episode #2 - Irony And The Journey To The Camps

Night - Elie Wiesel - Episode #2 - Irony And The Journey To The Camps

April 25, 2021

Night - Elie Wiesel - Episode #2 - Irony And The Journey To The Camps


Hi, I’m Christy Shriver.


I’m Garry Shriver, and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  This month, we are learning from one of planet earth’s greatest advocates for peace, the holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.  Last week, we spent the entire episode discussing his life and really his calling which is a bit unusual for us.  Because, even though we always discuss historical context of any author and piece of literature, Wiesel’s story deserves a closer and more developed look.


True, and in some sense we didn’t even scratch the surface.  There is a lot to unpack and a lot that we, as humans, truly NEED to absorb from this great man.  So, today, we are going to begin the process of unpacking this very short but powerful account of one of the modern world’s most inhumane moments.  And there is a lot to process.  Beware that there is a lot of historical context, so these episodes really do lean towards a historical discussion agaom more so perhaps than a literary one, but in this case, I think it’s worth it.  So, I truly don’t want to dawdle or take away another minute because we have a lot of ground to cover.  It starts with young 13 year old Elie.  He starts his story by telling us about a gentle wonderful homeless  devoutly religious Jewish man who was known as Moishe the Beadle, a hack of all trades in a Hasidic house of prayer in a small town in Translylvania.   Garry, how to we  understand what that means?


Well, there are a lot of different things going on in the world that require us to understand a little bit of context.  First let’s start with Judaism.  Judaism is the world’s oldest monotheist religion.  It’s older than Christianity and Islam which are also monotheist religions.  Judaism is over 4000 years old.  It is also very different from Christianity because it’s more than an accepted system of beliefs- although it definitely involves what you believe about the nature of the world.  But Judaism  is an ethnic religion- which for many Western people is a foreign concept.  For most in the West, one’s religion is one thing and one’s ethnicity although often may be the same as those in your church- are not intertwined.  For this reason it’s not dangerous or even unusual for Western people to change religions- Justin Bieber has recently done that; Brittany Spears has done that, Kanye West has done that- and that’s just on the North American continent- we just don’t think of religion as a cultural identity.  Of course Judaism isn’t the only religion that is deeply connected with a national or historical heritage. Islam or even to some degree Buddhism has a strong ethnic component.  With Judaism this ethnic heritage is even deeper because the Jewish community for so many hundreds of years didn’t have its own homeland or a physical space- so to be Jewish in many ways, meant to be genetically connected, historically connected, culturally connected and religiously connected.  The heritage is rich, it is old and it is traditionally complex which takes us to the case in Hungary- which if you remember from last week is in Eastern Europe. The Jewish community, although they were definitely Hungarian they were never going to be Magyars- which is the larger Hungarian ethnic group.  And when it came to the Nazis and the squeeze they put on the country, the loyalty to protect everyone created a conflict with one’s own need to survive.  The story of the Jews in Hungary is strange even compared to other holocaust stories as we will see- and this was studied for five decades by the Holocaust historian Randolph Braham if you want to really get into the historical details.-


Well, jumping back to little Elie and Moishe- one thing that many don’t understand is that just like in Christianity which has an enormous number of different groups with the religion- the Catholics, the Baptists, the Presbyterians (which is our group, btw), the Pentecoastals, the Orthodox churches-  There are many different sects within Judaism- and although they share the same Sacred Text and have many common beliefs, how they practice their faith is very different and we see this in this first sentence.  Moishe was a Hasidic Jew, but Elie is an Orthodox Jew.  And although for non-Jews that doesn’t mean much, for Elie it was important.  Hasidism was a mystical movement.  It was a smaller group.  It’s connected to Kabbalah and seeks to understand the essence of God.  It talks about the connection between sacred text and experience.  It talks about intimacy with God- the mystery of the ways of God.


And it’s especially important that Wiesel starts his book introducing us to this idea because this is one of the looming questions of the book.  It was at the forefront of Wiesel’s mind.  It’s one of the most important motifs which goes through the narrative- and if you remember what that means- it means he keeps coming back to religion in every chapter.  It haunted him for years after it was all over.  What about the essence of God could possibly co-exist with a place such as Aushwitz.  How could an omniscient, omnipotent Diety ever exist in the face of such evil?  Can Judaism explain this?  Can the Torah or the Bible? Maybe Diety itself was just a human construct like people like Kafka were inclined to believe. But at the same time- big or Grown up author Wiesel is reminding us in the first paragraph of his book about death that this connection between flesh and spirit is essential to living well on Earth. Wiesel wants to present this to us in the form of a man.  In the form of this beautiful man, Moishe.


Well, Wiesel didn’t really use that word to describe him.  He calls him “awkward as a clown”, He’s absurdly skinny or “waiflike” and socially awkward. 


That’s true- physically- beautiful probably  isn’t an inaccurate description.  But he’s so endearing and brave and selfless.  Elie sees this intuitively and is drawn to him.  In chapter 1, Elie is a 13 year old teenager and defines his identity first and foremost as an observant practicing Jew.  He studies the Talmud all day (which is the an extremely important source of Jewish religious and at the heart of the Jewish community).


Exactly, Elie is a practicing Orthodox Jew which we need to contrast for a modern audience with reform Judaism.  If you are a non-religious person or a Christian, these terms may sound foreign- and we don’t have time to really get into the details.  If you are reading this book as a class, understanding these elements would be a great research assignment.  But to generalize, as with all religions, some groups are more traditional, others are more liberal.  Just to keep it simple and generalized, a reformed Jew would be  more liberal than a conservative Jew who would be more liberal than an Orthodox Jews who would be conservative but there is even a range there, but a Hasidic Jew would be an even smaller group within the Orthodox side.  In the United States only about 10% of Jews consider themselves Orthodox.  This number is twice as high in Israel, which makes sense. 


The takeaway here is that at age 13, Elie is very serious about his faith- and in fact, as we saw last week, really wanted to go to Israel and eventually did so.  He comes from a conservative and observant family and he wants to go even more observant than that.  So much so that his father tries to hold him back some from getting too much into it. 


And the book starts with Elie’s relationship with this homeless man  who is clearly very very intelligent.  And he’s willing to talk to him about the mystical door to knowing God even more.  The word “Shekinah” means the present of God.  Ellie wants to feel God’s presence and he seeks that.  He pursues that.  But Moishe the Beadle has a problem.  He is poor, he’s weird, he’s homeless, and he’s also a foreigner and because of this was crammed into a cattle car and taken away- and incredibly everyone just discounted it.  That sort of thing happens- at least that is the thinking that Elie expresses as the common view of the community- which makes total sense.  There is one quote that Elie specifically remembers and records, “What do you expect?…that’s war….”  There is such irony in that remark which we’re getting ready to talk about. 


Well of course- the irony is that knowing the end of the story does nothing to relieve the tension.  It actually increases it.  In this case, Moishe the Beadle survives and returns to Sighet to recount the most absurd and horrific story imaginable.  He vividly describes what today we all know is documented fact recorded by the perpetrators themselves.  Jews being forced to dig large holes in the ground and the Gestapo shooting their victims one at a time, tossing infants into the air as target practice for machine guns, all being dropped into the freshly dug trenches.  It’s 1942.  It’s a story so unimaginable that it is completely ignored- but we as readers know it’s all true.  And it’s ignored for two solid years.


For me that is the power of chapter 1- the slow passing of time, 1941, 1942, 1943 and then 1944.  Although, Wiesel never says this one tnme, the message is undeniable- we should have and could have left.  Even as late as 1944 Sighet is thriving.  There is discussion in the Wiesel household of immigrating to Palestine, but his father isn’t interested.  Ellie calls it being ruled by delusion. 


Of course there are reasons for this- that are well beyond the understanding of a child living it, but now we know.  If you look at a map of Eastern Europe, you will see that Hungary is in kind of a bad spot.  It borders Germany directly.  And of course, we can look back and judge decisions that were made, but that is the arrogance of the present inserting itself, so we don’t want to do that.  And the details of what happened in Hungary are definitely complicated, but the bottom line is this- Hungary, as early as 1938 was a full-fledged ally with Germany and had already established many anti-Jewish laws.  And this is an over-simplication- but because of this- Germany really wasn’t in a super-hurry to annihilate Hungarian Jews.


Kind of like, we can do that anytime- we’ll do the other more difficult countries first. 


Something like that.  And the results were good- where in other places in Eastern Europe, like Poland, the Jews were being systematically annihilated. Hungary was able to protect most of its 825,000 Jewish citizens- the exception being the foreign Jews and this is what we see here with Moishe.  That’s what makes it possible to understand why by 1944, the Hungarian Jews haven’t left yet when they’ve had five years to do so.  It was delusion.  And unfortunately, when things begin to happen, all the elements are there to make things happen quickly. 


Wiesel is quick to point this out even through this childlike narrarator, little Elie.  Budapest radio announces that the Fascist party had seized power.  The next day German troops penetrate Hungarian territory.  Three days after that, German soldiers were in the streets of little Sighet and quartered in homes of Jewish families who ironically fed and hosted them.


And what Elie doesn’t know, or even any Jewish adult, is that their fate had already been decided.  In March of 1944 there were 750,000 Jews in Hungary.  By July 440,000 had been deported to Auschwitz.  By the end of the war, that number goes to 570,000.  And this doesn’t even start to happen until the very end of the war- remember DD is June 6th  1944.  The surrender of the German army is May 8th, the next year.  So, by this point, the German defeat was obvious, the secret about the genocide was mostly exposed in many corners of the world, even many Jewish leaders in Budapest knew exactly what was going on, but as we see through Elie’s eyes, the understanding of regular people living regular lives was so very different. 


Incredibly different, Wiesel even points out that they actually liked some of the soldiers.  One soldier bought a box of chocolates for his “host” family, if you want to call them that since he forced his way into their home.  And here is where I want to talk about the most powerful literary technique in this entire book- Wiesel’s use of irony.  When you hear the word irony- you immediately think of the word “opposite”. Irony means opposite- and of course- we know there are three kids of irony.   The most easily recognizeable form of irony is verbal irony- when I say one thing but I mant he opposite- of which sarcasm is a subset- so if you do something really tacky- and you mom says, “oh that’s cute”- you know probably by her tone that she doesn’t think it’s cute at all- she’s annoyed and it’s the opposite of cute.  So, that’s verbal irony.  There’s another kind of irony that is harder to see and that’s situational irony- that is when a situation is the exact opposite of what it should be- which is what we’re seeing with the chocolate boxes.  Wiesel is pointing out not that the soldiers are nice by giving their host a box of chocolates- they are there to do the opposite of nice- they are literally there to put them in a car, take them to an oven and put them in it- and here we’re talking aobut cholocate boxes- that situation is the opposite of what we should be seeing and that’s irony.


Well, and then there’s that third kind of irony which to me is the prominent one in the entire book.


For sure.  The entire narrative is built on Dramatic irony- and dramatic irony is when the reader knows something the characters in the story don’t know- and it’s the power of of the dramatic irony that really nmakes this first chapter feel so sad.  We know that Hilda will never find an appropriate match in Sighet.  We know that Moishe is the one telling the truth, we know the German soldiers are not nice, we know they should be doing anything and everything they can to get out of there, and yet they don’t.  And Wiesel’s very understated writing style underscores this delusion by referencing the 8 days of Passover- the last Passover they would spend together as a family.  His mother busily cooking in traditional feast.  The singing that was happening in every Rabbi’s house.  And then on the seventh day of the Passover, they edicts began to come forth- and Moishe leaves forever.


The story of Sighet is the story of every Jewish town.  The Germans were systematic.  First they took all their valuables, next they required all Jews to wear the yellow star of David and then they created the ghettos.  In Brahman’s historical record, we find that there were all these deals and deceptions going on between the SS and the Jewish community.  The Jewish leadership was trying to bribe their way to stalling til the end of the war, and the SS were happy to take their money, but the deals that were being made were all lies.  They were moving forward and getting everyone to self-identify, self-isolate in areas that were easy to identify and easy to systematically take out.  It’s incredible how efficient the Nazi system had gotten.  In Poland, where the death camps were actually located, it had taken five years for the Nazis to annihilate the Jews and there had been resistance, most famous in the Warsaw Ghetto.  This was not the case in Hungary. 


That’s a good point to make, and if you go to our website, I’ve posted a Powerpoint with pictures that I’ve used to show my classes what this looked like.  But all Jews had to self-identify by sewing a yellow star on their outfits and according to Wiesel, there was a bit of discussion by his parents as to whether this was a good idea.  His father made one of the most terribly ironic statements in the entire book.  He says this, “The yellow star? So what? It’s not lethal…”

And of course, as we read that, we know that’s completely the opposite of the truth.  It’s the most lethal thing imaginable because that’s how the Nazi’s knew you were a Jew and if you were a Jew you were to be loaded up and taken away. 


And so we are going to see Elie’s world contract.  First he lives in a small town.  Then they are separated and forced to live into two ghettos. All by German design to facilitate the deportation.  And the irony is- the Germans didn’t have to do anything.  The Jews did all the leg work.  They identified themselves, they moved themselves, they even boarded the trains voluntarily. 


Now, again let me interrupt, I think it’s worth defining the term “ghetto”, as with all language, this is a term who’s meaning has evolved since 1944.    A ghetto, like what Wiesel is talking about is a part of the city, a neighborhood where Jews are legally forced to live.  It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s crime ridden- in fact, I would say most of the time they weren’t.  Jews traditionally, even those that are very poor, took great pride in their living quarters and keep them nice.  It’s just that they are forced to live in certain sections.  The Germans didn’t even invent this concept, there have been ghettos where Jews are forced to live for thousands of years.  There’s one that even dates to 1280 in Morocco.  So, when Ellie says they were forced to live in the ghetto- that means that everyone who lived in that neighborhood who wasn’t a Jew had to get out- and everyone who was Jew just had to move in- no matter if they had a house of not.  So, it appears to be pretty chaotic.  The good news for Elie is that he already lived in the ghetto so he didn’t even have to move.  But since he had family members who did not, they had to have family members move in with them.


True, and this is where this first person narrator through the eyes of a child enables us as readers to understand that as a kid, this was all strange, overwhelming, scary  but not particularly terrifying- just annoying.  Since they lived on the edge of the ghetto, the Germans made them board up the window that faced the part of town that wasn’t the ghetto, and the relatives were living there- but it’s not really all that scary.  In fact, it was 1944, the Germans were obviously losing, so most people thought this was just a temporary thing.  Kids are still playing in the streets.  They are still celebrating religious holidays..Elie makes this comment, “WE were in Ezra Malik’s garden studying a Talmudic treatise…” it’s like life is just moving on..until his father is called into a Jewish Council meeting and the news is delivered by the Gestapo that the Ghettos are to be liquidated.


Of course, we’ve all seen the photos, and if you haven’t, go to Christy’s Powerpoint or google pictures of this, but it’s one of those things that scars the memory of common humanity.  Men and women pack up their own satchels, put their belongings in suitcases and voluntarily board trains where they will be taking to be murdered.  There is no greater irony.


And Wiesel highlights two more opportunites to escape that they choose not to. take  Their housekeeper comes and begs to take the children with her to her home (she’s a Hungarian national)- Ellie’s father says no.  Also, a friend of Elie’s father, a police man who was also Hungarian pounded on that boarded window.  He had promised Elie’s dad that he would warn then if it was bad.  He knocked and knocked but they didn’t answer the knock, so they didn’t get to hear whatever warning he had to offer.  Ellie writes these memories as they must have haunted him.  There were so many missed opportunities if you look back them and he highlights them. 


Wiesel illustrates through his description of the. Liquidation of the the ghettos in Sighet what history now understands to have been going on all over Hungary.  The Jewish masses absolutely had no idea about the death camps.  The actual deportations to take place in Hungary implementing Hitler’s Final Solution took only 54 days to complete.  Let that sink in- the SS annialiated 570,000 humans in 54 days.  The majority were going to be murdered shortly after their arrival at Auschwitz- Birkenau.  You want to talk about irony- By the end of these 54 days Hungary will rank third in their genocide of Jews- the only two countries  where Jews experienced greater death were Poland and the Soviet Union- not even Germany itself anniliated as many Jews – I think the number of German Jews to be executed is slightly under 200,000.


At the end of chapter 1, Wiesel has this to say, “Two Gestapo officers strolled down the length of the platform.  They were all smiles: all things considered, it had gone very smoothly.”


And this transitions us to the transports.  Chapter 2 is Elie’s experience with the transports.  The cattle cars- those awful symbols that have given the world a physical symbol outside of visiting Auschwitz a touch of what they are about.  If you are ever blessed to visit Washington DC and the Holocaust museum, they have one you can walk inside.  There’s another one in Dallas, in St. Petersburg, Florida- for those of us in the United States.  And of course there is famed World Holocaust Rememberance center, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.  There may be other museums that have them, I just don’t know about them.



When I have live classes with students, I read this chapter outloud.  The whole thing only takes ten minutes.  In my room we have drawn the dimensions of the cattle car out of masking tape on the floor, reduced to reflect the number of students in my class (in other words, how it would have felt).  I ask my kids to get all their belongings and get in the car.  I then turn of the lights and the air-conditioner.  And, if you do that, there are a few things you will immediately notice that Elie points out immediately.  First, you can’t sit down.  There is no place to go to the bathroom.  And what we find out when we do this is in class, is that it is almost impossible to resist bothering people around you.  And let me remind you that we are only in the car for ten minutes.  Of course, we can’t pretend to try to replicate the feelings or the experience, but it is through Elie’s simple words, and perhaps through personal inconvenience for a brief moment, our minds can try if not understand to accept what this experience was.


Historically, it has all been impossible to understand and even recreate what the German railways or the Reich Bahn was really about.  It remains one of the great mysteries of WW2.  When the Allies entered Germany they discovered millions of files that explained how the Nazis were running this incredible war machine as well as the “Final Solution” to the Jewish Problem, as they called it.  But what happended in regard to the railways was conscipulously absent.  It’s really quite shocking.  The Reichsbahn was one of the largest organizations of the 3rd reich.  In 1942 it employed 1.4 million people- and that doesn’t count the 400,000 workers in Russia or Poland.  Yet, there are no Reichsbahn documents anywhere.  And not a single railway man was ever one of the defendants or even witnesses in any Nuremberg trial, and yet there is no doubt- the holocaust would not have happened without the complete participation of the Reichsbahn.   Year after year they transported millions of Jews to the “East”, as they called it. 


I noticed in one article that I read that in one of few memorandas that did survive that a secretary mentioned that Auswchitz must be quite a “metropolis”- that was her word by just looking at the numbers.  And of course, I saw another horrible one that said and I quote, “today there is going to be a new soap allocation.”  So- there is no doubt people knew what was going on and the employees knew what they were doing. 


There is absolutely NO doubt whatsoever, the Reischsbahn was a technical structure which insulated it after the war from the responsibility of what happened- but many have rightfully questioned the morality of giving the railway men a pass on their part in the holocaust.  The numbers are staggering, but let’s just think about what happened just in Hungary, there were four Jewish transports dispatched each night.  Each one had about 45 freight cars.  Each train carried about 3000 victims as well as their possessions.  Between the May 14 and July 8 according to Hungarian reports there were 147 transports.  And these were incredibly heavy.    The trains were longer than usual and heavier than usual.  Just that fact alone made them slower than usual.  Plus in order to avoid congestions since the railroads were also being used to carry on war, the trips to the death camps often took out of the way routes that would make the main thoroughfares well congested- there was no need to rush- they were just going to kill them once they got there anyway. 


I guess one of the things, I didn’t think about when I first read this book, is that every transport cost money.  The railway, was a business- and the SS were literally their clients. These were business transactions and pricing had to be negotiated and paid.  The price, in case you were wondering, negotiated by the SS was a group fare of half of the third-class rate provided that at least 400 were being shipped.  And how was the SS going to get the money for this?  And this we see in Wiesel’s account.  They paid for the transports out of the money they confiscated from the Jews themselves.  In other words, the Jews paid for their own death train. 


With that in mind, I would like to read outloud to you chapter 2.  Even if you’ve already read this chapter, listen to the inside view now having understood the bigger picture.


“Lying down was not an option…”

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