Abuse of Power/ Pluto & Mars/ Virginia Woolf

Every astrological aspect tells a story about the relationship between the two (or more) planets involved. Each planet strives to fulfil its specific need and does this through its interaction with that other planet(s).


  • By far the tightest aspect in the natal chart of Virginia Woolf is Mars (27 Gemini 23’58’’) semi-sextile Pluto (27 Taurus 23’ 28’’).
  • It is 30 seconds of arc.
  • Although the semi-sextile is often considered a ‘minor’ aspect, when it is as tight as this, I would consider it important, very important indeed.

Mars signifies aggression and the survival instinct. We need to set boundaries and protect ourselves from predators. Pluto is about pure power; it is the active agent for cleansing and purification and because it is transpersonal in nature, it is extremely hard for any individual person to control this power. 


Put Mars and Pluto together, and the result is the compulsion to use force to achieve objectives through whatever means; ruthlessness, brutality, and cruelty. Put Mars and Pluto together in a semi-sextile and the two energies work in harmony and so we might expect to find themes of the use of power in Woolf’s writing.

Even more, as I suspect, because of social constraints against power being actively used by women during Woolf’s lifetime (i.e. her ability to set boundaries and protect herself against predators was thwarted), we might expect her writing to contain hints of abuse of power, especially abuse of power by men against women.


Whilst answering a letter received from a (unidentified) gentleman asking for her opinion on how war might be prevented, in her essay, Three Guineas, Woolf launches into a historically rich vindictive questioning not only the sense of asking her such a question, for unlike the gentleman she had been denied access the education that would have allowed her to answer him, but also how such inequality had come about.

Whilst in full flow in answering the latter point, she quotes from Gray’s Ode : ‘what is grandeur, what is power? – what the bright reward we gain?’

Gain indeed; power is what people want and the writing of Woolf not only demonstrates this but she also deals with some of the ways and reasons it occurs.

For example, in her memoirs, Moments of Being, Woolf recalls how when just eighteen years of age and after a long evening of being dragged about London to a series of gala parties and strategically important social events, her step-brother had crept into her bedroom and ‘flung’ himself on her bed, taking her ‘in his arms’ as a ‘lover’. If by power we mean that one person possesses a sense of dominion over another, then certainly with such behaviour her step-brother (older and presumably wiser) had abused his power although what he had wished to gain through it, Woolf does not conjecture. That she thought it an abuse of power is clear enough however for the next few sentences note that his behaviour would not have been acceptable to the ‘old ladies’ of ‘Kensington and Belgravia’.

In her novel, To The Lighthouse, Woolf investigates the power struggle between a married couple, Mr and Mrs Ramsay – which through those memoirs Moments of Being, we learn are created in the likeness of her own parents. Whilst Mr Ramsay wanders about pondering great things like the philosopher David Hume ‘enormously fat’ and ‘stuck in a bog’, his wife sat charitably knitting stockings for needy children. In conjunction with reading Woolf’s memoirs, we can conclude that she believed that in essence Mrs Ramsay had died young feeding her husband’s constantly flagging vanity. Is this an abuse of power in the sense of exercising dominion over another? Perhaps not – but we do know that at least Mrs Ramsay took pleasure in her ‘bright reward’ when exercising her power by refusing to tell Mr Ramsay that he had been right that it would rain tomorrow, she knew she had ‘triumphed again’.

In that same novel, Woolf also touches on wider social issues of use/abuse of power when Mr Ramsay ponders on whether the progress of civilisation depends on ‘great men’. He concludes it does not because the ‘greater good’ does depend on the existence of a ‘slave class’ (like the liftman in the Tube). Whilst he himself finds this idea distasteful, he decides the best way to avoid dealing with it an upcoming lecture he is to present, is to ‘snub’ the ‘predominance’ of the arts – which only decorates human life and does not represent it. The reader cannot help but think such contemplation rather rich given the privilege Mr Ramsay himself enjoys with his summer house in the isles of Scotland complete with a bevy of servants and maids.

Unlike with her essays, in her fiction Woolf oddly refrains from abuse/abuse of narratorial/authorial power by pushing one view at the expense of another (as do many writers). Instead she maintains a gentle neutrality – presenting a story and letting it speak for itself – and at least in To The Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway the narratorial/authorial voice never intrudes has it does in, for example, EM Forster’s Howards End.

Even where we do hear the narratorial/authorial voice as for example in her novel, Orlando, both sides of the power struggles are evenly presented – not only does Orlando’s lover ‘Sasha the lost, Sasha the memory’ jilt him when he is a man (instead of the other way around), but as a woman Orlando sees both plusses and minuses of her new gender-based situation – although her new skirts are ‘plaguey’ around her heels, the stuff of which they are made is the ‘loveliest in the world’ as it shows off her skin to such ‘advantage’.


In both her essays and fiction Woolf demonstrates that she is more than aware that power is what people want – Three Guineas deals extensively with this point in regards to how for so many generations men and the church have used the power of their money to deny women equal access to education. She deals with the sexual abuse perpetrated by step-brother in her memoirs and also the inevitable power battles inherent in a marriage. Interestingly unlike in her essays, in her fiction Woolf does not use her authorial voice to push an agenda, instead simply letting the story speak for itself.


Narrative Coaching

When it comes to coaching models, it is certainly not the case that one size fits all.

So far, the one that I like most is called Narrative Coaching. It’s described as a ‘mindful, experiential and holistic approach’ to shift my client’s stories thereby generating new options for desired change.

The idea is that stories are not only central to life but they are essential to our sense of ‘self’. Indeed, if you’re inclined to the post-modern viewpoint, we are literally narrated into existence. For example, when little Johnnie hears his parents and teachers tell him he’s a good boy when he studies hard, he might well form a narrative or story about himself that he’s good only when he studies hard.

4VPC7ZCiPxtMoVb8uyrhKMqm.pngNot only that, but little Johnnie must also make sense of recurring cultural themes or motifs like the hero’s journey (this is classic Star Wars stuff). Johnnie becomes the ‘hero’ of his story when he accepts his own ‘call to adventure’ and leaves his known world behind to face the challenges of the unknown. Perhaps little Johnnie considers his adventure of going off to University in this way? If so, then all is on track until he somehow gets derailed. Maybe his mother dies or girlfriend dumps him? Maybe his student funding falls through? Maybe he parties too much? Doesn’t really matter. The point is that because of some challenge or temptation he fails to conquer, Johnnie is not able to study hard anymore. This in turn leads to him dropping out of university and taking a job he doesn’t like. It isn’t long before both he and others interpret this as arising because  in his hero’s journey, Johnnie failed to complete the socially acceptable story arc. When Johnnie leaves (or is pushed from) that job he doesn’t like, he’s not sure what to do next. Worse, he’s not entirely clear why he ended up in this situation. Yet somewhere in the back of his head, however, is that story of a ‘good’ boy turned ‘bad’ because he didn’t study hard enough.

When I invite Johnnie, now my coaching client, to tell me his story, I need to listen carefully. Which character does he choose as his narrator (i.e. does he tell the story through his own eyes or through the eyes of the mother or girlfriend or the administrator who cut his funding)?  Does he sound enthusiastic about his partying? Which tense does he use? Is he the subject of the story (‘I did XYZ to him, her, them’) or is he the object (‘he, she, they did XYZ to me’)? What themes or motifs recur (or are missing) – illness, relationships, failure, temptation, bad luck? What labels recur (i.e. ‘good’ or ‘bad’)? To whom or what do they attach? If listening to all these variables  isn’t hard enough, I need to a remain aware that I’m always interpreting them through my own point of view.  Am I making judgements on his story? Do I understand how telling it is making him feel? If it’s a sad story, does it make me sad? If so, am I sad because my client’s story touches some sadness (mother dying) already in me?

5355330_orig.pngThrough careful questioning, can I get Johnnie to rejig his story, throw it in a more positive (or less negative) light? Maybe he tries another point of view character (first person or third person) or verb tense (past, present, future) or even imagine a completely different crucial scene? How about rewriting a whole new story any way that he’d like? What or who might be different?

Interestingly, there’s lots of leeway here because although storyline (plot) must move forward (cause and effect) in time, narrative does not. My client can start at the end of his story (or how he’d like it to end) and work backwards. Happens all the time in murder mysteries. We start out knowing who got killed and maybe even who did it – but we don’t know that all essential ‘why’ and ‘how’ until we refollow the crucial events from beginning to end! My goal here is for my client to open up space for a different or new story to develop – an opportunity to fill in gaps and ambiguities or flesh out and develop certain characters and/or motives. We may all know that little Johnnie did drop out of university (the facts are on the table) but we really don’t know why until we explore it. We also don’t know where the story progresses from here – maybe Johnnie finds another unrewarding job (for whatever reason) or may he returns to university and wins a Noble Peace Prize.

Sound fun but not for everyone?

OK, I’ll accept that.

I also have to accept that purely by the nature and focus of my questions, I’ve influenced my client’s newly crafted story. Is it really still his story or has it now become mine?


Magazine launch – for Ms T

Electional astrology is ‘the art of the possible’ – i.e. choosing the perfect moment to launch a particular project or event so as to give it the best chance of success. The idea is that the chart of the launch moment should symbolically reflect the nature and goals of the project as well as those of the person(s) responsible for it.

The following chart has been elected by Ms T for the launch of her new magazine, the remit of which is to provide effective and practical advice to authors of children’s fiction.

9 August 2017T launch

07:25 BST

Oxford, UK

  1. Of prime significance is the placement of the Moon, which plays a dominant role in electional astrology not the least because it the fastest moving planet in the chart and hence, key to timing. In this chart, the Moon is in Pisces, conjunct Neptune – giving a ‘double dose’ of creativity – as Liz Greene reminds us (The Astrological Neptune) – Neptune is closely associated with artists because it is the ‘stuff of the imagination’ – it is the ‘ability to make something out of nothing’ – something that is fanciful and magical – something that is divinely inspired. Sounds good for children’s fiction, doesn’t it?
  2. Beware, however – Neptune also is also associated with loss, delay, and deceit – so Ms T must take care with any small print and not lose heart if/when the going gets tough – the point is to use this Neptunian/Piscean energy as positively as possible – i.e. artistic endeavour and not get caught out with the negative stuff. In this respect, it’s a good thing that Ms T has a goodly dose of Piscean energy (Sun, Venus, and Saturn in Pisces trine Neptune) in her own natal chart. Hence Ms T is no stranger to the illusive energy of Neptune/Pisces– she definitely has what it takes to use this energy to her advantage!
  3. The Moon is strong in the 7th house (angular and ‘other’ people’). This gives it power to manifest its goals in the material world. That the Moon also makes an aspect to the chart’s Ascendant (4 Virgo 02), is good. The Ascendant gives the overall flavour and with Virgo rising, this means attention to detail and practicality/usefulness).  Add the Moon in Pisces, and enhanced creativity also becomes an essential part of this magazine. It would have been nice for a new venture like this one to commence on a New Moon – or at least a waxing moon – however, for a variety of reasons this was not possible – so, fingers crossed & hope for the best.9h6euWuIRKqJUi6lcWKA_wfc
  4. Because the 3rd house would naturally govern magazines (communications/circulars), we would normally want the ruler of that house (in this case, Mars) to make an easy (trine or sextile) aspect to the Moon.  This also was not possible for a number of reasons. The good news, however, is that any hard aspects (i.e. square or opposition) from the Moon – to a ‘malefic’ like Mars would be harmful – so must be avoided at all costs – and this we have managed to do.
  5. But note that Mars does make a close conjunction with the Sun – whether or not this works out OK remains to be seen. Many planets do not do at all well ‘under the beams’ (i.e. too close) of the Sun. Fingers crossed that Mars can manage! I think that it can do. Both Mars and the Sun function best in fire signs and, after all, Leo is ruled by the Sun. Mars/Sun in Leo lend an assertive, highly motivated air to the project (and its leader) although hopefully, such assertiveness will not be abrasive – as both Mars and Moon are ‘hidden’ from view in the 12th house.
  6. If this were primarily a money-making venture, we’d want the ruler of the 2nd house (in this case Mercury) to be as strong as possible. Ms T has said that while she’d like to make a profit, her goal is not to ‘get rich quick’. This is good because although Mercury is strong in Virgo and effective re: manifesting goals, it does make an opposition to Neptune – and so again – CAUTION – unreality and illusion (Neptune) as to finances of the project are a possibility. Here the problem would be more of a slow but steady drain (Neptune) rather than a big blow-up – so Ms T must  keep a constant eye on finances re: cost/benefit analysis.
Book reviews

Power and Promise – Utopian Propaganda & Orwell’s Animal Farm

imagesIn the preface to his Ukrainian Edition of Animal Farm, George Orwell says that his reason for writing the novel was to reveal what he believed to be the Soviet myth underlying Socialism – the political and economic model that he wholeheartedly embraced. According to Orwell, nothing had caused greater harm to the Socialist movement in England than that the majority of English people so blithely accepted the ‘lies of totalitarian propaganda’, apparently incapable of assessing the true nature of either the Nazi or Soviet regimes (Orwell, 112).

Propaganda, defined for this essay as ‘opinion management’ (Welch, 3), is oft associated with falsehood and lies, even though in reality, propaganda is ethically neutral (Welch, 17). Much of the ‘bad’ propaganda, like we have come to associate with the likes of Hitler and Stalin, is down to marketing of the utopian dream (Roemer, 103). Perhaps the reason that this type of propaganda gets such bad press is that, etymologically, utopia is both a ‘good place’ that is ‘no place’ (Vieira, 4)? After all, if the utopian dream carries with it both the affirmation of possibility as well as the negation of its fulfilment, then it ought to come as no surprise that attempts to put utopian ideals into practice will fail. But, as Orwell laments, such failure often does come as a surprise, not the least because people did not wish to see coming (Orwell, 111). So if ‘bad’ propaganda aims to sell us the impossible dream then what might we do to get a better grip on it? David Welch (17) suggests that to make more informed decisions about propaganda, we must gain a better understanding of its nature and process. I suggest that in achieving this worthy goal, Orwell’s novel may offer us valuable assistance.

Animal Farm recounts the rise of Soviet communism in the form of an animal fable wherein a democratic coalition of animals urged by Old Major, a prize-winning boar, over-throw their human oppressor, Mr Jones. Old Major kicks off the revolution by singing a catchy song entitled Beasts of England – bringing ‘joyful tidings’ of a ‘golden future time’ when the ‘fruitful fields of England’ shall be ‘trod by beasts alone’. Propaganda works best by reducing shared cultural ideologies and cosmologies – especially in regards to a lost Golden Age – to its lowest common denominator, that which is marketable for mass consumption (Welch, 10). Old Major knew this; he markets his vision of an English Arcadia, a lost utopian pastoral dream, to a mass of animals all too willing to consume this ‘new outlook on life’ (Orwell, 9).

The takeaway point is that propaganda works best when it sharpens and focuses existing trends and beliefs (Welch, 11). It is no accident that Old Major chooses a night when Mr Jones is too drunk to feed the animals to suggest his glorious alternative. By appealing to the animal’s dissatisfaction with their ‘miserable, laborious, and short’ lives when their stomachs are empty (Orwell,3- 5), Old Major not only focuses their generalised complaints on a specific cause but also encourages them to embrace an apparent solution. Old Major also knows that propaganda works best when it focuses on simple, strong, easily identifiable (black and white) emotions such as love/hate (Welch, 8). He directs the animal’s now heightened sense of injustice to its ‘single’ root cause – ‘Man’ – ‘the only really enemy we have’ (Orwell, 4). After this, Old Major has little more to say except to warn the animals that they must never become like Man (Orwell, 6).

The takeaway point here that there must be a meaningful correlation between the inspirational hopes generated by utopian propaganda and the citizens’ everyday reality; get the mix wrong and reader/listener disconnects (Vieira, 8 and Welch, 17). But get the mix right – pitch to a hungry animal that his life is one of ‘misery’ and ‘slavery’, then he will not only connect but connect strongly; the ‘soil of England is fertile’ and the ‘climate is good’, right? Then it only makes sense that such a place is ‘capable of affording food in abundance’, if only the animals put their backs into it. The principal energy of utopia is hope – a reaction to an undesirable present combined with an ardent desire to tackle all impediments to achieve that imagined alternative (Vieira, 6). Yet when, as is inevitable, the alternative itself carries impediments – i.e. there would be no sugar after the Rebellion (Orwell, 10) – then it is imperative to let no one (not even the pigs, who are undeniably ‘brilliant talkers’) brush aside these concerns. Elsewise, a dangerous precedent is set, one that will be difficult if not impossible to reverse, as the animals discover to their dismay. The question of whether or not they would continue to have sugar may not have been key to the future success of Animal Farm but when they later raise more important concerns – i.e. why the pigs should be the only ones to enjoy the best food, apples and milk – they are ever more easily brushed aside. Even though it may not be justifiable the pigs get all the good food – especially when this violates a basic tenet of Animalism – i.e. all animals are equal – these hapless animals quickly find that they have ‘no more to say’ (Orwell, 23).

With any utopia comes issues of power (Pohl, 51). Hence it should come as no surprise that propaganda is often used as an instrument by those wishing to secure or retain power in times of stress and turmoil (Welch, 4). This is most certainly the case in Animal Farm. After Old Major dies, the initial democratic coalition quickly gives way to consolidation of power in the pigs. After all, not only are they more clever than the other animals (they are ‘brilliant talkers’), but they also know how to read. Later, rivalry between Trotsky and Stalin after the death of Lenin is symbolised by the struggle for pre-eminence between two pigs, Snowball (Trotsky) and Napoleon (Stalin). In both cases, historical and fictional, utopian idealism falls by the wayside when the thirst for power rears its ugly head. Yet even though the animals were ‘silent’ and ‘terrified’ when Snowball is viciously expelled from the farm by Napoleon’s dogs (Orwell, 35) for no good reason, they were not yet finished with power plays.

Inherent in most utopias is the need for strict state/government regulation of every aspect of life (Pohl, 51). If each cloud has a silver lining, then each bright, shiny utopia has a ‘dark side’ – flying too high must, eventually, lead to a fall (Vieira, 14). Not only that, but if the citizens themselves are to fly high – maintain those impossible utopian standards, then a rigid set of laws are a must to keep them in line. How else will their ‘unreliable and unstable’ natures be repressed – the most pernicious not which is pride (Pohl, 57). Although forewarned that they might need to sacrifice some of their eggs for the common good, when the hens learn this will mean all of their eggs, they cry ‘murder’ (Orwell, 49); luckily only nine hens die as the result their ‘determined effort to thwart Napoleon’s wishes’. But still, this is not the end. The cruel methods by which Stalin eliminates the rest of his‘enemies’, is parodied by the fallacious confessions and cruel executions of all those whom Napoleon has come to distrust.

Years pass.

Life for everyone but the pigs, deteriorates.

Disillusionment sets in.

Finally, Napoleon invites a human farmer named Mr Pilkington to dinner and declares his intention to ally himself with his human neighbours against the working classes in both the human and animal communities. Worse, Animal Farm must revert back to its original name, Manor Farm. Watching this meeting through the farmhouse window, the common animals are no longer able to tell which are the pigs and which are the human beings – the only warning given to the animals by Old Major having been (sadly) ignored.

The End.

Undoubtedly, the promise of a Paradise on Earth is appealing; all the more because the masses to whom it is being marketed are generally ‘politically apathetic’ yet prone to ‘ideological fanaticism’ (Welch, 10). Undoubtedly, this is the case in Animal Farm. Even after all that has happened, at the end of the day the animals never give up hope – not for ‘even an instant’ do they lose their ‘sense of honour and privilege’ in being members of Animal Farm (Orwell, 85). Yet if they had realised that ideology is only a system of ideas and ideals (OED, n, 1), that ideals exist only in the imagination (OED, adj. 2), and that ideas are only thoughts and suggestions of possible courses of action (OED, n, 1), the animals story might have turned out markedly different. Instead of allowing their opinions to be managed such that they blithely accept utopian propaganda as their blueprint to bliss, they should instead have viewed it as a strategy for evaluating the reality of the present as well as one possible programme for gradual (responsible) change (Vieira, 21).




Orwell, George. Animal Farm. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1993.

Pohl, Nicole. ‘Utopianism After More: The Renaissance and Enlightenment’, (51-78). The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Roemer, Kenneth M. ‘Paradise transformed: varieties of nineteenth-century utopias’, (79-106). The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Vieira, Fatima. ‘The concept of utopia’, (3-27). The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Welch, David. ‘Opening Pandora’s Box: Propaganda, Power and Persuasion (3-18). Propaganda, Power and Persuasion: From World War I to WikiLeaks, ed. David Welch. London: I.B. Tauris, 2014.



Is your current vision of life one of meaningless emptiness, all the more disturbing because it is so full of important things: fashion, food, family, friends, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter?

With the Sun in Aries and the Moon in Scorpio, the energy of today and tomorrow is one of bored dissatisfaction. Little wonder if you’re feeling disillusioned, uncertain.

But what are you going to do about it – that’s what you really need to know.

UnknownConsider Jane Austen’s ‘handsome, clever and rich’ heroine, Emma Woodhouse – after a few minor set-backs, her wildest dreams and ambitions are delivered up on a silver platter – and in true fairy-tale fashion, it’s happily ever after with Mr Knightley for Emma– huzza!

Consider also Madame Emma Bovary, Gustave Flaubert’s French bourgeois heroine – after a few minor set backs, her wildest dreams and ambitions are also delivered up on a silver platter – but it’s not happily after with Charles Bovary for this Emma – she’s so bored and disillusioned with her fairy-tale ending that she takes a lover who dumps her, thus destroying not only her own life but also that of her child and husband.images

  • Austen’s story is nice.
  • Flaubert’s is not nice.
  • Both are literature classics.

I figure this is because they both stress the importance of developing and maintaining a realistic personal value system.

With energy like that of today and tomorrow, it’s a perfect time to re-evaluate your own.


Prepare to receive riches

With the Sun in Pisces (dissipation) and the Moon in Taurus (acquisition), today and tomorrow are Ace of Coins days.

The Ace of Coins is an exceedingly favourable card; it is the harbinger of material prosperity and spiritual well-being. It represents triumph in the material world, perfect luck, and the realisation of ambitions.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Live rich and happy, Timon of Athens (4.3.532)

Timon-of-AthensShakespeare’s self-exiled Timon tells this to his steward, Flavius, as he gives him the gold that he’s found in the woods. After all, what does Timon need with it now that he’s a hermit living in a cave? Although he’d once had plenty of money (and false friends to help him spend it), this had not brought him lasting happiness. Maybe Flavius, the only true friend Timon has ever had, will make better use of the gold? Timon can only hope this will be the case.

The Ace of Coins is the ultimate harbinger of success – get ready to ready to reap the rewards of your hard work and ambition. But be careful what you do with your newfound bounty.

Although Venus (ruler of Taurus) bestows both friendship and riches, Neptune (ruler of Pisces) will ensure that it all slips, quietly, away.

literary criticism

Psychoanalysis and Critical Literary Theory

There are several important ways in which both Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis can serve as a model for literary analysis as for example looking for the subversive in women’s literature – i.e. that which is not explicitly stated (for any number of good reasons) but nonetheless is still present.images

Most certainly if Austen felt so constrained to so as not to publish her novels under her own name, she felt constrained to express some of her real concerns. If we wish to potentially identify some of these concerns, we might turn to Jungian Literary Criticism which usually begins with the question – ‘what psychological factors (whether an image or complex of concerns) might have been responsible for that text. If for example we wish to identify any feminist concerns that Austen might have held, we would look for clues suggestive of recurring feminist themes. In this regard it is prudent to look to ideas of feminism in play during the period in which Austen was writing (rather than to modern constructions of feminism); one such idea would have been application of the same moral code to both sexes.

In Emma, despite being ‘handsome, clever, and rich’, we find a heroine morally flawed (the citizens of Highbury are not impressed with the way that she treats them). When Emma undertakes to morally improve herself she does not do so on her own but instead seeks instruction from Mr Knightly. This in turn leads to his estimation of her to rise so much that he wants to marry her. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is also a heroine flawed and although in many respects she is portrayed in feminist terms – i.e. as speaking her own mind and refusing to marry as her guardian would like, when she seeks to improve herself. Like Emma, Fanny turns to her love interest, Edmund – who not surprisingly like Emma’s Mr Knightly decides that now Fanny, reformed in his own mould, is the girl for him. Arguably Catherine Morland in Northanger Abby is cut from a different mould – for the most part she is left on her own to develop her own ‘understanding’ of what is morally wrong and right – unfettered either by fathers, lovers, or husbands.

Jungian theory might suggest that we make the most of ‘meaningful coincidence’ in respect to these seemingly recurrent themes in Austen’s work. Even if she were not consciously replicating this theme of moral code in line with love interest = marriage, she was most likely unconsciously doing so for the Jungians would be quick to demonstrate that statistically these same motifs regarding equality amongst the sexes (especially in a society when there was almost certainly none) should not have occurred otherwise.

Jungian literary criticism has also highlighted archetypally inspired literary themes that recur across a broad cross-cultural spectrum – for example as with the process of ‘individuation’ whereby a protagonist struggles to experience the ‘triumph of consciousness over the unconscious’ and hence make his or her psyche whole. Individuation is depicted as the ‘Hero’s Journey’ and hence is often associated with the Bildungsroman or classic coming of age novel which has in turn been associated with classic accounts of stifled individuation such as with Dickens’ hero, David Copperfield. Most certainly his nasty stepfather, Mr Murdstone, tries very hard to mould David into his own (rotten) image and when he fails to do so sends him off to work his London-based wine-bottling business. Luckily David escapes this situation and hence commences on his process of individuation allowing him to fulfil himself in his own right – by not only getting the girl of his dreams, Agnes, but also with being a commercial success through expression of his own talents.

Freudian literary criticism also pays close attention an author’s unconscious motives and/or feelings in order to tease out ‘covert’ themes. The assumption is that these ‘covert’ themes are just as important if not more so than the ‘overt’ themes (i.e. those consciously expressed by the author) and also that they demonstrate classic psychoanalytic symptoms of blockage in the emotional /sexual development in the author and/or his/her characters.

Freudian literary criticism asserts that all art and literature fulfils some repressed infantile desire of its creator which it turn almost always relates to the Oedipal complex whereby the son wishes to murder his father because he sees him as a rival for sexual congress with his mother. There are obvious parallels in great literature with, for example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where when the character by the same name is called upon to avenge the murder of his father by his uncle who in turn married Hamlet’s mother, Hamlet spends all day musing about ‘to be or not to be’ instead of committing what ought to be the fairly straight forward act of revenge-driven murder. Using Freudian theory, some critics have seized upon a possible explanation for such ‘irrational’ behaviour in the sense that Hamlet can not kill his uncle for doing that which he himself wanted to do.

Perhaps a less straightforward application of Freudian literary criticism may be found in the poetry of Christina Rossetti. With a women, the Oedipal complex takes a different form suggesting that once bound to her mother by homo-sexual desires, a young girl like Rossetti would then need to turn her desire toward father and the wish to have his baby. I would suggest that her signature poem – Winter: My Secret may reflect such an urge – and that naturally repressed because she was so religiously inclined – her Oedipal instincts remained her jealously guarded secret, preventing her from developing (1) other poetic themes (she predominately favours religion and the fallen women) in her work and (2) her life – in a society where women were expected to marry, she mystifyingly turned down three suitable marriage offers.

In summary, Jungian-based psychoanalysis can serve as a model for literary theory by rooting out subversive feminist themes in women’s literature, as for example, moral equality as demonstrated in the works of Jane Austen. Likewise Jungian-based literary theory seeks to identify underlying archetypal themes such as the process of individuation – or the Hero’s Journey – that recurs across a cross-cultural spectrum. The Bildungsroman is perfect for this. Freudian-based psychoanalysis also can serve as a model for literary theory likewise rooting out unconscious literary themes relating to sexually repressed desires that prevent either the author or his/her characters from moving forward with their personality development.

literary criticism

Beginnings and Endings in Renaissance Drama

‘Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight’ (Dr Faustus).

Are the endings of Renaissance plays implicit in their beginnings? Often this is the case, at least in those Renaissance tragedies where the classical Greek chorus was in whole or part adopted. However the audience may have to work rather harder than might be expected in order to unravel these implications as the above quote taken from the ending chorus in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus suggests.

In that play the chorus performs one of the most important roles of the Greek chorus by preparing the audience for key moments in the storyline. The chorus in Dr Faustus tells us that this play is neither about love nor war nor ‘audacious deeds’. Instead it is about a man born of parents, ‘base of stock’ – and hence signals something akin to the so-called ‘everyman’ plays wherein the protagonist will receive instruction on how as a Christian, he should lead his life and hence save his soul.Greek Chorus

But at the same time this chorus also references the classical myth of Icarus, whose waxen wings melted when he foolishly flew to close to the sun. In classical terms the fate or ‘fortunes’ (as the referenced by the chorus) of one such as Icarus depended more on ‘ignorance’ rather than on the ‘wickedness’ with which the Christian audience would be faced. There would appear little suggestion that the character Faustus is ignorant of his situation; although in the first scene he importantly neglects to finish his quotation from the First Letter of John regarding the effect of confessing one’s sins and hence receiving God’s forgiveness, we have the sense that such omission is more strategic (to justify his chosen position) than ill-informed. Hence quite how the reference to Icarus and his ‘melting heavens’ that ‘conspired his overthrow’ are meant infer how Faustus’ ‘wickedness’ contributed to his sad end is something that audience were perhaps meant to ponder a bit.

Further, this quote taken from conclusion of Dr Faustus seems to suggest that Faustus actually had a choice as whether his ‘branch might have grown full straight’. This raises the importance of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination; those in the audience who adhered to this view would have wondered at such a suggestion for in their view Faustus is clearly damned from the beginning and hence there was nothing he could ever have done – no choice he could ever have taken – for his branch to have ‘grown full straight’.

In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, clearly influenced by the Roman dramatist Seneca, the ‘chorus’ in the form of the interchange between the ghost of Andrea and Revenge, works slightly differently. Although it does imply the ending in the general sense that justice will be done – i.e. Balthazar, the Portuguese prince who killed Andrea, will get his just-deserts at the hands of Andrea’s old girlfriend, Bel-Imperia – it does not prepare the audience for key moments in the story line. Instead it rather long-windedly sets the scene of the pagan underworld in which none of the play actually takes place. Naturally the audience is meant to hang on the final words of Revenge in that opening chorus – ‘here we sit down to see the mystery’ but they remain none the wiser as to nature of that ‘mystery’ – indeed they do not even yet know who will be the tragic protagonist. At least they can take heart in that unlike with the chorus in Dr Faustus, they are not being deliberately misled except perhaps to the extent they might expect the play to unfold in that so carefully described underworld.

The ‘Argument’ and ‘Prologue’ in Jonson’s Renaissance comedy, Volpone, likewise works similarly to the Greek chorus – the ‘Argument’ preparing the audience for key moments to come by summarising the plot and, as did the ghostly chorus in Kyd, implying that justice will be done when at the end ‘all are sold’. The Prologue adds to this by suggesting that ‘our play’ will be a ‘hit’ as the result of the dramatists’ salty ink – with which he intends to ‘rub your cheeks’ till ‘red with laughter’. This is a clear signal that the play is not tragedy but comedy and satire.

In those Renaissance plays without a chorus or prologue, the ending is sometimes suggested with the opening lines – as for example, in Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling. Here Alsemero hints at the play will be a tragedy with words like ‘omen’ and ‘fate’. But at the same time he suggests that it may be a comedy with words of love and matrimony. Clearly the audience will need to work to unravel that. However with Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, there is neither chorus nor prologue nor argument and rather like a 21st century novel, the opening lines jump straight into the action as the (soon-to-be) husband of the Duchess chats amiably with his friend, Delio, implying very little of what is to follow except perhaps that it is meant to ‘instruct princes what they ought to do’.

In summary, in those Renaissance plays that adopt a Greek-style chorus, the ending is more or less implicit in the beginning in the sense that the audience is being prepared for key moments in the storyline. Often however the audience will need to work hard to unravel the various clues given because often enough they are (deliberately or not) misleading. Renaissance plays with prologues and arguments work in a similar fashion often summarising the plot as with Volpone and making clear whether what is to come is meant to be tragedy or comedy. However in those plays with neither a chorus nor prologue nor argument, the opening lines may still give a hint what is to come although not nearly in so much detail.

literary criticism

The Institution of Marriage in English Renaissance Drama

‘Marriage is a merri-age, and this world’s Paradise’ (Rachel Speght).

Catherine Richards notes in her essay, ‘Tragedy, family and household’(Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy), there were two rulers to every household – the husband and wife – and although they were not equal (women always subservient to men) both parties were expected not only to work together for the benefit of the household but also to show mutual respect for each other.

As Richards also points out, the household was seen as the microcosm of the nation-state – the assumption being that to the extent individual households succeed, the nation-state does too. However the closeness of human relationships constrained by the physical shape of the household – a private yet familiar space – can and did lead to rather bizarre results especially when household loyalties break down.

Understanding the institution of marriage in this way, it becomes readily apparent that the romantic love that we in the 21st century so favour in relationships was not a key factor in the Renaissance equation. Hence it would appear that Ms Speght’s definition of marriage as ‘merri-age’ and ‘this world’s Paradise’ requires a wider interpretation than simply romance as no doubt she, herself a product of the Renaissance, would have understood.

At least in regards to tragedies of the period, romantic ‘love’ seems to have been a drawback. In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, the marriage of Bel-Imperia is very much a political game. When she decides to love Horatio, the son of the tragic protagonist, Hieronimo, rather than Balthazar, the choice of her brother, Lorenzo, and presumably also her father, the King of Spain, everrenaissance marriageything goes wrong; the result is that all the lovers must die. Likewise in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess, a young widow is second-guessed by her jealous (and likely incestuous) twin brother, the choleric Ferdinand, on her choice of her household steward, Antonio, as a husband; again all lovers must die.

In The Changeling by Middleton and Rowley, there is some compromise in regards to romantic love. When Beatrice’s fiancée, Alonzo, chosen by her father, dies (murdered by Beatrice and her servant, Deflores), her choice of Alsemero (who took every opportunity to butter up Beatrice’s father) is accepted. Yet in this play ‘romance’ is still not straightforward, at least in the eyes of the tragic protagonist, Beatrice. Although she would say with her rational brain that she loves Alsemero, with her irrational unconscious she choses to become both emotionally and sexually entwined with her accomplice in murder, Deflores.

Yet because both women and slaves are considered exempt from (or incapable of) rational behaviour, the apparent requirement that both Beatrice and her lover must die here, remains to me, a bit of a mystery. I can only conclude that the breakdown of a household such as this was seen as such a political threat that it required death to bring such threat to an end.

In Renaissance comedy, the treatment of marriage is quite different. Usually one of the key ingredients of a comedy is that the play ends either in marriage (as does Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream) or the promise of marriage. Unlike with tragedy, romance in our 21st century sense is more in evidence in comedy and it usually is rewarded as with Midsummer’s Night Dream where all the warring couples are at the end, happily united in matrimony. However unlike with the tragedies, the comedies do not usually probe the personal dynamics of a marriage as deeply as do the tragedies.

For example, in Jonson’s Volpone, the character Corvino is shown to be as unjustifiably jealous of his pretty wife, Celia, as is Leontes over his wife, Hermione, in Shakespeare’s tragi-comedy, The Winter’s Tale. Indeed the jealous husband is often a motif in Renaissance drama – perhaps reminding us again that all is not right when in a marriage, there is no mutual respect. The outcome of these comedies differ dramatically however with how the jealous husband reacts. With Corvino the slightest provocation (Celia only tossed her handkerchief out her window – she was hardly caught in bed with another man) sets him to berate his wife most unbecomingly – taking his sword he threatens to ‘strike this steel into thee’ and then promises to ‘lock’ her up and ‘keep thee backwards’ which has rather seedy implications of its own.

Whilst Corvino later appears to try to patch things up with his wife, it is only to lure her to Volpone’s house – where (unbeknownst to her) he has arranged lease her out as a whore. With this, Corvino has now gone much too far and we are not surprised when later the four magistrates punish him by taking away his wife and sending her home to her father. Like Corvino, Leontes also loses his wife – at least for a time – but he does finally see the error of his ways (in a way that we can imagine Corvino never could) and when he has suffered enough for his bad behaviour, his wife is (more or less magically) restored to him.

In summary, during the English Renaissance, the institution of marriage was viewed as a partnership whereby both husband and wife had responsibilities to the household as a whole. Because the household was seen as a microcosm for the nation-state, the success/failure of the individual household had important political implications and hence romance, as we might understand it in the 21st century, was not usually a key ingredient. In the tragedies, romance was usually an impediment and always gave way to more important political goals. However in the comedies, romance was not necessarily seen as a problem and indeed many comedies end with a happy marriage, as with Midsummer’s Night Dream. However this was not always the case and in some comedies such as Volpone or tragi-comedies such as The Winter’s Tale, a marriage partnership that had become sufficiently unbalanced was either terminated or (painfully) repaired.

literary criticism

The Plusses and Minuses of New Criticism

The New Critics established that ‘literature requires and deserves responsible reading and readable response’, but the New Criticism was eventually rejected as being ‘intellectually naïve and methodologically fruitless’ (John Willingham).

new criticismNew Criticism emphasizes close reading of a text – treating it is a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object – ‘art for ‘art’s sake’ – rather than a work fitting into some larger cultural or other context.

Such an approach is somewhat useful for at the end of the day all that we do have is the text and the larger context into which it may fit remains at best interpretation or conjecture. In this regard, New Criticism can never be ‘methodologically fruitless’; words do speak for themselves and if we are to understand what it being said it helps to focus on what is (as opposed to what is not) on the page.

However there is also significant room to argue as does Willingham, that New Criticism is intellectually naïve in the sense that for although we can never know for certain how the greater context in which it was written influences the text, we can be certain that it has indeed influenced it and if we ignore that influence then we have lost a great deal from our aesthetic experience.

For example in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a close reading of the text in 2.5 where Ferdinand expounds ‘Rhubarb, O for rhubarb (t)o purge this choler’ may well leave us none the wiser. Certainly a 21st century reader realises that Ferdinand is angry (for ‘choler’ has retained that link) but the connection between ‘rhubarb’ (the New Critics were keen to focus on ambiguity and indeed tried to show the unity beneath the text’s apparent disunity) and ‘purging’ that ‘choler’ is lost. Without context, it is almost impossible to fit rhubarb together with anger (unless one suggests they are both related to the colour red). Indeed we may even be tempted to see this ambiguity or disunity as a flaw in the work; many 21st century readers tend to judge a work harshly when we are forced stop reading and think.

However if we know that in the early 17th century rhubarb was considered to medicinally ‘purge’ or cure ‘choler’, then a meaningful connection is made. But unless we understand that Ferdinand’s ‘choler’ is not a fleeting state of mind, but his temperament, we cannot realise the full import of this connection. We can rectify this however if, for example, we examine this text as might a proponent of New Historicism – in conjunction with a text contemporary of the period. For example in John Harrington’s 1607 Poems on Temperament, we discover that a choleric like Ferdinand is not only angry, but he is ‘oft malicious’ and ‘all violent and fierce’. Not only that but ‘on little cause to anger’ a choleric like Ferdinand is ‘great inclin’d’. This understanding of the nature of his temperament presents a different picture that if we were to believe him simply angry on a certain day.

Further, if we accept that a text is an ‘aesthetic object’ (however TS Eliot and others might have us define that) then if we are to take anything valuable away from our ‘aesthetic experience’ , we need to focus on what it tells us about ourselves. For example, if we were to examine this text as might a proponent of feminist literary criticism, we might focus more on the suggestion that Ferdinand intends to ‘purge’ his temper on his sister (whom in a few lines earlier was pronounced ‘a notorious strumpet’) because she has married not to his liking even whilst he appears to have no problem that his brother, the Cardinal, keeps as his mistress, another man’s wife. Where is the equality in this asks the feminist? How can the Duchess express herself (as she clearly is attempting to do by marrying of her own choice) if politically she has not the power to do so? Now the focus is no longer just on a choleric brother having a 17th century rant but on the sexual politics of the period and how they might still inform our own sexual politics in the 21st century.

If we were to examine this text as might a proponent of psychological literary criticism then we would focus not on Ferdinand’s ‘choler’ and its manifestations but instead on its potential causes – perhaps the problem is sexual libido gone wrong – this is not an unreasonable suggestion what with all the knives and their phallic symbolism (in 3.2 Ferdinand sneaks into his sister’s boudoir and surprises her with a knife) and Ferdinand’s protestations in 4.1 about the effect on him of her body (‘Damn her, That body of hers’). Thus instead of Rhubarb to ‘purge’ Ferdinand’s ‘choler’, a 21st century psychotherapist might prescribe psychoanalysis or even a modern day substitute for ‘rhubarb’ like prosaic. What might this tell us about how much scientific advancements have changed 21st century society as opposed to that of 17th century?

In summary, if we wish to come to grips with a text then as suggested by the New Critics we should focus on the text. To do otherwise make it all to easy miss not only what has been written but also to add things that have not. In this sense the approach of the New Critics cannot be methodologically fruitless. It can however be intellectually naïve to believe that one can fully appreciate a text (or indeed any piece of art) if one does not understand it in the context in which it was created. It is likewise intellectually naïve not to attempt to draw conclusions about what that text or piece of art might tell us about ourselves – for example how society has or has not changed over time.

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