Archive for January, 2016

Zadie Smith’s On Beauty Blog by Holly Gray


“‘Right. I look fine. Except I don’t,’ said Zora, tugging sadly at her man’s nightshirt. This was why Kiki had dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn’t be able to protect them from self-disgust. To that end she had tried banning television in the early years, and never had a lipstick or a woman’s magazine crossed the threshold of the Belsey home to Kiki’s knowledge, but these and other precautionary measures had made no difference. It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies—it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it.” P.197

Where the issues of black identity and the issue of appearance meet, On Beauty tackles the matter of white, European beauty standards and how they affect the black female characters.

One example of this is Howard’s affair with Claire Malcolm, and how it enrages Kiki in a somewhat irrational way. She has almost moved past the affair until the subject is revealed to be Claire, at which point she screams at her husband for sleeping with a white woman, or as Kiki repeats – ‘a tiny little white woman’. Kiki goes on to say that she feels she is ‘alone in this… this sea of white’. She also says ‘you married a big black bitch and you run off with a leprechaun?’, referring to herself with derogatory language, trying to exemplify how she feels in comparison with the ‘sea of white’ that surrounds her, including exaggerating that she probably weighs less than Kiki’s leg. This clearly brings to light the deep seated issue Kiki has with the affair; her husband has chosen to betray her trust with the pinnacle of the Eurocentric beauty ideals that she does not fit into.

Another interesting facet of these ideas of white/black beauty in the novel is within the young black women in the novel; particularly Victoria and Zora. Zora is very dismissive of Victoria, and she repeatedly refers to her as ‘pretty’ but also as ‘vain’, and ‘shallow’. As Victoria is black, this recognition of her beauty goes further than the white beauty standards she is conditioned to recognize; yet it is unclear whether this is because Victoria conforms to the standards by being slim and ‘charming’ or because she is objectively pretty.

Eurocentric ideas of beauty have recently become increasingly relevant in modern culture as we recognize the affects that living in a society that praises these features so outwardly has on young black people, and as the younger generation who are affected by these ideals speak out against them. As explained at around 1:30 in the above video, whitewashing and skin bleaching are just some of the ways that people of colour feel as though they have to conform to these narrow ideas of beauty.

Within the novel, Zadie Smith explores the little-discussed long term effects of these issues, such as black women experiencing insecurity. Are there any other examples of white beauty standards limiting the black characters in On Beauty? Also, with the book released ten years ago, has there been any change in response to these problems, or a change in attitudes on beauty?


Murdoch’s Under the Net and Womanhood: Your Real Self? Blog by Eliza Forshaw


Written as it is from the perspective of male protagonist Jake Donaghue, we might consider Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net to be confirmation of Rachel Cusk’s assertion that Murdoch is not a ‘woman’s writer’. We might then be led to the same conclusion as Cusk; that Murdoch chooses to ‘transcend’ the fact of her womanhood in her writing, rather than to ‘engage’ with it. However, Under the Net troubles the idea of a clear and uncomplicated identity at all, female or otherwise, as Murdoch appears to ask the reader directly in Chapter 2, ‘How do you know your real self, anyway?’
This brings to the fore the question of authenticity, and how to be truly authentic, something which Zadie Smith considers in her essay ‘Two Directions for the Novel’. Does Murdoch sacrifice authenticity in her writing due to her ‘sidestepping’ her gender? And furthermore, how important is the factor of gender for women in the construction of the true self?
In Murdoch’s essay ‘Against Dryness’, she argues that, in the aftermath of WWII, ‘we have been left with far too shallow and flimsy an idea of human personality’ and are in need of something new and solid, a ‘hard idea of truth’ rather than ‘a facile idea of sincerity.’ While we could assert that Murdoch’s refusal to engage with her womanhood is a denial of a certain truth, we might also consider that there are many other truths to be considered; that there are many facets of the human personality other than gender to be expressed. Maybe Murdoch does ‘sidestep’ the reality of her gender in Under the Net, however perhaps this is not the only truth, or even the most important truth, to be expressed in her work.

Irish Murdoch and Under the Net Blog by Christie Hainsby


In the context of Iris Murdoch’s letters to her literary mentor, Raymond Queneau, Under the Net’s Jake Donaghue seems to mimic Murdoch’s own personal views of her work. The Guardian writes:

In 1946, writing to Queneau about […] Under the Net – which she later dedicated to him – Murdoch said “there is something heavy in what I write … that makes me wonder if I shall ever write something good“, and “I am going to regret that I spoke of my work, because it seems to give an importance to something that is nothing nothing nothing.”


Similar to this, is chapter seventeen of Murdoch’s novel, as Donaghue considers his own work:

Such intellectual work as I have ever accomplished has always left me with a sense of having achieved nothing [….] it may be that if one had any present thoughts that were at all considerable they would not have this quality of emptiness. I wonder if Kant […] said to himself from time to time, ‘But this is nothing, nothing’?

The great similarities between these two passages suggest that Murdoch has used Donaghue to express her own personal beliefs in an impersonal and distanced way. Rachel Cusk’s essay states that ‘the woman artist often treats self as the obstacle to a wider view’, suggesting that Murdoch feared that ideas coming from herself, rather than a male character like Donaghue, would have had a lesser effect upon a reader. Murdoch’s apparent insecurities as an author might therefore stem from insecurities surrounding her sex, and thus she uses ‘brilliant, limited people as her mouthpieces’, rather than allow her own personal knowledge to be seen as the origin of her ideas. However, the ultimate question is whether this method of expressing intellectual ideas was resultant of Murdoch’s insecurities as an author, or was it a necessary, tactful and empowering way for a twentieth century female author to have her voice heard?

Confessional Poetry: Blog by Phoebe Deans

Confessional poetry is often referred to as the poetry of the personal or ‘I’ due to it being typically autobiographical. Forming in the nineteen-fifties, post-industrial society, Charles Molesworth in his essay “With Your Own Face On”: The Origins and Consequences of Confessional Poetry, suggests confessional poetry is a ‘degraded branch of Romanticism’, placing the sensitivity of the poet as its central concern. In this week’s reading we examine both the confessional genre and the female poet, looking particularly at the work of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Sharon Olds.
According to Caroline Hall, Female confessional poets manipulated poetry ‘as an exit from a labyrinth of mundane difficulty, psychological pain and emotional extremes’. In this week’s reading, none of the three poets conform to the social, patriarchal or oppressive practices prevalent at this time of writing. Sharon Olds poems regarded female psychological health and emotional balance. As identified by Laura Ward, Olds’ poems expand on the confessional genre as ‘she branches out with poetry that encompasses an array of emotions […] including the more sombre confessional topics. She moves the style [of writing] forward through her topics and outlook’.

As identified by Donna Ford in ‘Confessional Poetry: To What Extend Does the Work of the “Confessional Poet” Engage with “What Has Been Repressed, Hidden or Falsified?”’, confessional poets often explore previously taboo or shocking subjects in their writing. Such subjects include suicide, mental breakdowns, incest and marriage issues. For example, Plath’s poem ‘Lady Lazarus’ expresses an anger towards patriarchy of the early nineteen-sixties, and its oppression of the female artist, using the analogy of a concentration camp.

If defining the poetry by the term ‘confessional’, meaning a commitment to recording as directly as possible one’s private pain or suffering, then Sexton is arguably the most ‘confessional’ poet due to her disregard of artifice and artistic transcendence. She used her poetry as psychiatric method in order to achieve a form of personal catharsis, attempting to avoid further metal disorders.

The three female confessional poets helped pioneer a type of writing that forever changed the landscape of American poetry. The tradition of confessional poetry has been since been a major influence on generations of writers and continues to this day.