15 Feb 2010

Essays on Les Misérables

Les Misérables stands as a shining example of how an incredible novel, when converted to popular media such as a movie or play, can lose so much of its significance that the true messages of the original novel are in danger of permanent loss.  Set in the 18th century, the story centers on experiences and social conditions that the author, Victor Hugo, knew well.  Hugo was witness to the effects of oppressive French laws and society in which ex-offenders were never allowed to redeem themselves, whether the offense was criminal (theft, etc) or social (promiscuity, etc).  Hugo attempted to show how this oppression kindled the flames of social revolution, but also offers a spark of hope in overcoming such oppression through virtuous living.

As a play, Les Misérables seems to center around Jean Valjean (a redeemed ex-convict) who finds himself perpetually pursued by Javert (an over-zealous police inspector) over a stolen loaf of bread.  Along the way, he ends up responsible for the care and upbringing of a young girl, Cossette, who is the daughter of Fantine (a French peasant woman).  The events are further disrupted by the outbreak of the French Revolution with barricades and battles in the streets of Paris, forcing everyone to act for their personal best interested, but in the end love and honorable redemption win-out.  This reflects a preservation of the central plot effectively, yet also represents the major failing of playing to populist media.

When one digs into the novel instead, it is quickly evident that much was lost in its populist media transition.  Interwoven into the midst of the central plot are dozens of social commentaries and exposés on the effects of social injustice and oppression.  This difference begins when we consider the character of Fantine, a single mother who was abandoned by her daughter’s father.  In the play, we know only this point, but not the reasons her daughter is in the custody of the innkeepers.  In the novel, the point is stressed prior to the fight at the factory that this was done due to the unlikelihood of the towns members being able to over look the fact Fantine has an illegitimate (i.e. born out of wedlock) child.  Another point of error in the transition occurs during the attempted robbery of Valjean by the innkeepers when they are encountered in Paris.  In the play, it is the innkeepers own daughter, Eponine, who betrays their intentions while in the novel, it is Marius Pontmercy, the son of a French military officer, who alerts Javert to the plot.

Such discrepancies, though to some seeming minor, reveal many of the lost subplots of the novel that are critical to a proper understanding of the novel’s significance.  Eponine and Marius, for example, both reflect the theme that the background of one’s parentage does not necessarily dictate one’s future.  Eponine’s parents are unethical thieves and scoundrels, but her giving Marius information later on Cossette’s whereabouts (particularly when Cossette is her paramour rival for Marius) shows a counter-intuitive honor about her as an individual.  Marius’ participation in the revolutionist movement when his father is a military officer similarly speaks of his uniqueness in following his sense of right and wrong, rather than following his father’s loyalty to the government, even though he too recognizes its corruption.

The essay potentials of Les Misérables are as dynamic as the novel itself.  From analysis of what societal stereotype each character represents (and yes each of them represent a different one) to how the issues underlying the story (such as poverty and social injustice for those who break social norms) reflect on our modern society, each potential essay, when effectively pursued, can offer the student the opportunity to show their instructors the knowledge and skill they have acquired during the course of their education.  The problem is, not everyone is effectively skilled at writing.

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17 Oct 2009

Essays on White Fang

While many authors focus on human nature and survival, White Fang is a story about another type of survivor, a wolf pup.  White Fang’s mother, in order to survive, is required to kill for food in the harsh wilderness of North America.  During a major famine, the she-wolf is required to kill for food, ultimately including the members of the pack she runs with.  With his mother dying not long after she has White Fang, he becomes the lone survivor.  The bulk of the novel is the tale of White Fang and his struggles from childhood to maturity.

White Fang was written by Jack London.  Jack London is a well known writer who not only wrote White Fang but also the legendary The Call of the Wild.  The main conflict in all of his stories is that of survival and natural conflict.  Born in Southern California in 1875, Jack London was primarily a self-educated man, having spent much of his youth in the Oakland public library.  Before beginning his writing career in the late-1890s, London spent much time on the wrong side of the law, including a month-long stint in a prison in Buffalo, New York on a charge of vagrancy, and a period of time in Alaska, attempting to gain wealth by participating in the Klondike Gold Rush.

Like many writers, London struggled at first, receiving very little pay for his literary efforts.  London had, however, timed his entry into literary work well.  The late 1890s saw the beginning of inexpensive magazine publishing.  London’s career blossomed in this environment, combined with his treatment of writing as a serious, professional business.  Many consider London’s business approach to writing as marking the birth of the first, true “professional” writer.

Today’s students are in a struggle of their own, between their natural desire for freedom and success and the traditionalistic, structured environment of the academic institutions.  As such, students must learn to survive in this seemingly unnatural environment in their quest for academic and professional recognition.  A major challenge in this environment is the many written research papers each student is required to produce as they advance through to their goal.  With colleges using the power of computers to detect potential plagiarism, the dangers of this environment have only increased.  With close to one million students worldwide each year producing tens of millions of essays, the chance of false-positives has increased dramatically.  Only those with advance writing skills really have a change of excelling.

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Essays on Typee

In Typee, two shipmates who are both tired of life at sea decide that they will not return to the ship they were on and choose instead to stay on an island that is inhabited by two tribes, the Typee and the Happars.  When the two shipmen, Toby and Tommo, find a valley and begin to descend into the valley, they are greeted by two natives that they hope are Happars.  In a moment of sudden inspiration, they answer Typee when challenged, which is acknowledged by the natives as a proper response.  They have fallen into the cannibalistic tribe of the Typee.  Throughout the book, Toby and Tommo’s desperation to escape from the Typee and return to civilization grows as they become increasingly concerned for their personal well-being.

Typee was written by Herman Melville in 1819.  Herman started his work life at the age of 18, trying many different professions with little success until he began writing.  After signing up to be a shipman on a whaler, Melville used this experience as the basis for Typee, which he wrote due to his family’s need for money.  With the warm welcome of the market, Melville was encouraged to continue writing.  He subsequently wrote many other famous and significant novels including the best seller Moby Dick.

The character interactions in Typee are mainly between the main character Toby and Tommo.  Toby and Tommo are shipmates who have relied upon each other for their very lives aboard ship.  Throughout the story, their interaction is mainly the idea of staying together to try and escape from the Typee tribe without incurring their wrath.  Tommo falls in love with a Typee girl named Fayaway.  Her essence is what originally keeps him from trying to leave the island itself, but with events making it clear their safety may not be ensured, this reluctance is short lived.

Typee has many underlying messages.  Though it is easy to dismiss it as a simple tale of adventure, it also examines many aspects of human nature.  The effect of the relationship between Tommo and Fayaway is a significant example.  Though the situation with the Typee is obviously dangerous, Tommo is strongly tempted to risk everything to be with her.  Human nature is such that we, too, are willing to endure harsh conditions to obtain or maintain something we believe desirable, often to our own detriment.

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