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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Kartini and the exposure

When discussing a poem entitled AN OBSTACLE by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in my Poetry Analysis Class, I didn't give the students the background of Gilman at the first place. This was to show the students that in analyzing some poems by certain poets, using biographical approach will help critics to understand poems better.

Here is the poem:

    An Obstacle

    by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

    I was climbing a mountain path
    With many things to do,
    Important business of my own,
    And other people’s too,
    When I ran against a Prejudice,
    That quite cut off the view,
    My work was such as could not wait,
    My path quite clearly showed,
    My strength and time were limited,
    I carried quite a load;
    And there that hulking Prejudice
    Sat all across the road.
    So I spoke to him politely,
    For he was huge and high,
    And begged that he would move a bit
    And let me travel by.
    He smiled, but as for moving! –
    He didn’t even try.
    And then I reasoned quietly
    With that colossal mule:
    My time was short—no other path—
    The mountain winds were cool.
    I argued like a Solomon;
    He sat there like a fool.
    Then I flew into a passion,
    And I danced and howled and swore;
    I pelted and belabored him
    Till I was stiff and sore,
    He got as mad as I did---
    But he sat there as before.
    And then I begged him on my knees,
    I might be kneeling still
    If so I hoped to move that mass
    Of obdurate ill-will—
    As well invite the monument
    To vacate Bunker Hill!
    So I sat before him helpless,
    In an ecstasy of woe—
    The mountain mists were rising fast,
    The sun was sinking slow—
    When a sudden inspiration came,
    As sudden winds do blow.
    I took my hat, I took my stick,
    My load I settled fair,
    I approached that awful incubus
    Win an absent-minded air—
    And I walked directly through him,
    As if he wasn’t there!

Gilman mostly used straight-to-the-point words in her poems, without complicating flowering figurative languages so that it will be a lot easier for critics to understand her poems. After giving the material to the students, giving them 15 minutes to discuss the poem in groups of three to find out what the poem is trying to tell its readers, I got an explanation that I wanted to hear: the poet is struggling something in his life. He found it hard, however, he didn't easily feel discouraged. He kept moving on.

I intentionally used the pronoun 'he' above since the students thought that 'Charlotte Perkins Gilman' was a man. They thought that the name 'Charlotte' is androgyn name, just like 'Nana' can be used for both male and female. 

After knowing that in fact the poet was a woman, the students still did not get what was the 'thing' to be struggled by Giilman. To find out more, I gave them another poem by Gilman. In this case, I planned to combine to explain the function of biographical approach as well as comparative approach; in this case, especially comparing more than one poems written by the same poet. (Another kind of comparative approach is comparing poems having similar themes from different poets.)

Here is another poem:

    by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
    Can you imagine nothing better, brother,
    Than that which you have always had before?
    Have you been so content with "wife and mother,"
    You dare hope nothing more?
    Have you forever prized her, praised her, sung her,
    The happy queen of a most happy reign?
    Never dishonored her, despised her, flung her
    Derision and disdain?
    Go ask the literature of all the ages!
    Books that were written before women read!
    Pagan and Christian, satirists and sages–
    Read what the world has said.
    There was no power on earth to bid you slacken
    The generous hand that painted her disgrace!
    There was no shame on earth too black to blacken
    That much-praised woman-face.
    Eve and Pandora!–always you begin it–
    The ancients called her Sin and Shame and Death.
    "There is no evil without woman in it,
    "The modern proverb saith.
    She has been yours in uttermost possession–
    Your slave, your mother, your well-chosen bride–
    And you have owned in million-fold confession,
    You were not satisfied.
    Peace then! Fear not the coming woman, brother.
    Owning herself, she giveth all the more.
    She shall be better woman, wife and mother,
    Than man hath known before.

This second poem more clearly shows what Gillman struggled in her life: equality between men and women. 

"Did she struggle for 'emancipation' just like what Kartini did in the past?" one student asked me.

Perhaps because this is April, a month where most of Indonesian people commemorate Kartini's birth on April 21 as one date to encourage women's equality to men, this particular student of mine mentioned the name 'Kartini' while in fact I didn't think that way at the beginning. (How coincident! I was explaining some fundamental approaches in analyzing literary work -- especially biographical and comparative approaches -- by choosing Gilman's poems in April. FYI, you can guess, I never pass up my literature classes not to discuss literary work by women; that can be viewed using feminist approach.)

Then I explained a little background of Gilman. She was born in 1860 and died in 1935. She started writing poems, short stories, articles as well as novels by the end of the 19th century, to release herself from the nervous breakdown, a mental illness 'attacking' her since she was in her early twenties. It became worse after she married her first husband.

Women movement in American started to rise with the first women summit in 1848 in Seneca Falls. Gilman was born with such exposure. As we all know, American women got the right to vote in 1920, after that first summit, more than 7 decades later.

Kartini got some privileges in her life:
  • was born in an aristocratic wealthy family so she could go to school, although only in primary school
  • could speak Dutch so she could correspond with her Dutch friends

(In that era, people who were not born in aristocratic wealthy families could not go to school, moreover women. They would not be able to communicate in good Dutch. They would not have friends from the Netherlands. They would not get any exposure to books from the Netherlands, let's say.


I believe her intelligence as well as those privileges gave her an idea to set up school for girls. I believe she got exposed to books from Holland; she also got exposed to news or information about how women in other countries at that time struggled for women's betterment; one of them could be Charlotte Perkins Gilman's writings or other 'feminists' from England or other European countries. Gilman's writings as well as her lectures she gave by traveling to all over America and also England reached Kartini.

Unfortunately indeed that Kartini could not refuse her father's instruction to marry a married man although she realized that polygamy was just one way to show women's degraded position; her father who gave her the privilege to be able to go to (primary) scholol, the same man who gave her privilege to correspond to her Dutch friends to get know what was going on in Europe.

When Gilman got 'baby blue' when delivering her baby, but she could not on living to continue her struggle, Kartini had to die at a young age after delivering her first baby.

Happy Kartini Day, my folks. Let's continue struggling for our betterment in our lives in the future. Let us empower ourselves!!!

GL7 08.57 210411 

To read my interpretation on AN OBSTACLE, click here.

To read my interpretation on REASSURANCE, click here.

To read more writings of mine on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, click here.


Zaturania said...

thanks for the post of yours. I think it helps me in my poetry studies somehow. But, could you tell me who the narator is? Is it a male or female?

Nana Podungge said...

Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a female author :)