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Analyzing The Theme Of Nature In Literary Devices English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2743 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The theme of nature is very important to each of the texts to be discussed in this essay: The Fat Black Woman’s Poems by Grace Nichols; Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. In a sense, the fact that each work is created within a different literary genre to some extent dictates the essential differences amongst them. However, this essay sets out to examine how, in addition to comparing literary devices, nature is used as a different imperative in each of the selected texts.

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Throughout the play, Willy escapes back into his memories and it is deeply significant, therefore, that the countryside is allied to this: ‘I was driving along, you understand? And I was fine. I was even observing the scenery. You can imagine, me looking at scenery, on the road every week of my life. But it’s so beautiful up there, Linda, the trees are so thick, and the sun is warm’ [3] Loman both belongs in the country and out of it because he has simply used it, as he has used both things and people, to get ahead. The fact that he has been unsuccessful is therefore a betrayal of his own and a generic dream that is never fulfilled nor justified, just as the story he begins to tell Linda, his wife, ends not in reverie on the idyllic, as it started, but on loss of control: ‘all of a sudden I’m going off the road!’ [4] Miller uses nature, therefore, as an emblem of Willy’s displacement: ‘Many of Willy’s activities can be seen as highly symbolic. He plants seeds just as he plants false hopes: both will die and never come to fruition, largely because the house has become too hemmed in by the city.’ [5] In addition, a further lost dream of Willy’s has been connected with nature, that of his brother, Ben’s, offer to join him and make his fortune beyond the suburban life Willy has lived: ‘William, when I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one. And, by God, I was rich!’ [6] For Willy, therefore, nature has become a place of lost hope where ‘the grass don’t grow anymore’ [7] ; it does not belong and nor does he: ‘A victim of both a heartless capitalist society and his own misguided dreams, Willy’s eventual suicide is presented with tragic dimensions. His beliefs may be misguided, but he stays true to them to the end. Although he has neither social nor intellectual stature, Willy has dignity, and he strives to maintain this as his life falls apart around him.’ [8] 

Displacement is also a major feature of Jean Rhys’s novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. First published in 1966, it is a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, first published in 1847. The novel uses nature as a means of developing the narrative of Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason, here known as Antoinette Cosway, a young woman who feels herself displaced following the freeing of the slaves who had worked on her family’s plantation. ‘The very word “place” occurs many times in the novel’ [9] and Antoinette seeks solace in what she sees as an Eden garden, her former home, from which she is cast out: ‘A very important early set piece is Antoinette’s description of the garden at Coulibri, where she was a child, a garden which was probably based on Rhys’s memories of her mother’s family estate at Geneva. It marks childhood as taking place in a damaged Eden.’ [10] The description of the garden is thus very important to an understanding of Antoinette and of the way Rhys uses her connection with nature to aid her character and thematic development:

Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible – the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus orchid flowered – then not an inch of tentacle showed. It was a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went near it. [11] 

The possessive pronoun with which this paragraph opens immediately establishes the dichotomy of Antoinette’s situation. This is her home, it should feel like hers but it does not. The ‘beauty’ she infers has a duplicitous lushness because it has ‘gone wild’, emblematic of a land which has lost control, albeit for a positive reason. The ‘living’ and the ‘dead’ mix and encroach upon one another, and there is a serpent in the garden in the ‘snaky’ orchids. Moreover, the ‘twisted root’ implies a distortion of what was meant to be, metaphorically echoing Antoinette’s displacement. In addition, this is not the only example of places appearing resonant of disposition and/or situation: ‘Places are extremely alive in this novel: the menacing, lush garden at Coulibri, the mysterious bathing pool at Coulibri, sunset by the huts of the plantation workers, the road from the village of Massacre up to Granbois, the sea and sky at sunset from the ajoupa or thatched shelter at Granbois, the bathing pools at Granbois (the champagne pool and the nutmeg pool) the forest where Antoinette’s husband wanders until he is lost, the road to Christophine’s home, the trees and bamboos around the house at Granbois.’ [12] Here, Antoinette appears simultaneously intoxicated and repelled by the ‘sweet and strong’ of the garden, which perhaps says something about her similarly ambivalent attitude towards those around her and they to her: ‘The picture we now have of Rhys and her heroines is that of a passive, impotent, self-victimized schizoid who, comfortable with failure, wields her helplessness like a weapon — all as natural as being female.’ [13] The presentation of nature at the ‘honeymoon house’ is similarly difficult to place, seeming to be one thing but actually being another, but her former home is ‘a sacred space where Antoinette hugs to herself the secret hidden in Coulibri’. [14] It is, indeed, these secrets in isolation, echoed in the descriptions of Antoinette’s homeland that make the representation of nature in Wide Sargasso Sea so clearly an imperative of the text:

As long as Antoinette can remember and order the events of her memories into a temporal or causal sequence, create even an illusion of sequence and maintain a measured sense of space and time, then she can hold her life and self together. Her act of narration becomes an act of affirmation and cohesion, a nod to the world and its conventions, an attempt to prevent herself from dissolving. When, in Part Three, Antoinette lies encaged in Thornfield Hall’s dark, cold attic, the threads that hold her to the reality that the world perceives as sanity finally break. These threads are the elements of conventional narrative: linear chronology, sequence, narratorial lucidity, distance. She herself admits at this point that ‘time has no meaning’; sequence disintegrates into a confusion of present and past and ultimately into a dream which narrates her future. [15] 

This has been quoted at length because it addresses many of the literary devices that the novelist, as opposed to the playwright or poet, can use to develop a theme. With regard to nature, it is used by Rhys, as suggested above, to create a temporal space for Antoinette that is emblematic of the identity she has lost. The wildness which is encroaching upon the Eden of the garden, later to be completely destroyed, is an example of the way in which the novelist can use one strong image to lead into another, both being resonant of the past. Indeed, again as stated above, the act of telling the tale creates the character in the mind of the reader and the locations in which she is placed are connected to that, as is the temporal dislocation which memory produces and which is often, as with Antoinette, indicative of her state of mind. The evocation of nature as a turbulent and emotive presence adds to this, with the sea as the ultimate semiotic of challenge, chaos and dislocation.

Grace Nichols’ second collection of verse, The Fat Black Woman’s Poems, published in 1984, also uses nature to evoke a particular image. However, as this is poetry, the linguistic and literary devices used are very different from either those of the playwright and/or novelist. ‘Nichols grew up in Guyana’ [16] but has made her life and career in England, ‘she has lived and worked in Britain since 1977’ [17] , and this cross-cultural imperative is very much evident in her work: ‘her poems frequently acknowledge the alien climate, geography, and culture of England’s cities’ [18] Within The Fat Black Woman’s Poems, Nichols seeks to evoke a different perception of beauty from that which is shown in white Western culture: ‘Nichols also deploys the fat black woman as a powerful challenge to the tyranny of Western notions of female beauty’ [19] and thus ‘engender a new heroine, a woman who revises the aesthetic of female beauty.’ [20] One of the techniques Nichols employs to do this is combining nature with an aspect of the physical self, as here in ‘Thoughts drifting through the fat black woman’s head while having a full bubble bath’:

Steatopygous sky

Steatopygous sea

Steatopygous waves

Steatopygous me [21] 

The unfamiliar word, ‘steatopygous’ (meaning having fully rounded buttocks) is repeated for emphasis and juxtaposed with images of nature so as to produce an emblem of the black woman as close to nature, her body shaped like the sky, waves and sea. Nichols is empowering black women in image by doing this as she does by giving the black woman her own unique voice: ‘In making the fat black woman the speaking subject of many of these poems, Nichols signals her refusal to occupy the subject(ed) position designated for the black woman by history and to insist on more complex subjectivities.’ [22] Nichols is also concerned that the voice should seem naturalistic and therefore the natural images perform yet another function: ‘Like many Afro-Caribbean writers, Nichols infuses her poetry with the spiritual energy of the tradition of women before her, a tradition that has little written record.’ [23] 

In another poem from the collection, ‘Beauty’, this reproduction of a different image of physical appeal can also be seen to be connected with nature:


is a fat black woman

walking the fields

pressing a breezed


to her cheek

while the sun lights up her feet


is a fat black woman

riding the waves

drifting in happy oblivion

while the sea turns back

to hug her shape [24] 

Again, the woman is juxtaposed with nature, providing a unity between the persona and her surroundings which is both literal and metaphorical. Repetition is used once more by the poet to emphasise the connection between the theme of the collection and beauty in abstract. Indeed, the word ‘Beauty’, the only capitalised word in the poem, is set alone on a line, as is ‘hibiscus’, as if to stress its importance as an emblem or iconic of what Nichols says is an imperative i.e. that this is what beauty unequivocally is. There is a mutual embrace between the woman and nature, she ‘pressing’ the ‘hibiscus/to her cheek’ and ‘the sea turn[ing] back/to hug her shape’. It is as if Nichols is suggesting that the ‘fat black woman’ who is ‘riding the waves/drifting in happy oblivion’ is in unison with nature and recognised by it as being so. All of nature, indeed, like ‘the sun [that] lights up her feet’ is glorifying her and she it. There is no punctuation in the verses, emphasising the smooth, natural flow of the descriptions and the way in which they are intended to imply all that is inherently natural. As Nichols writes in ‘The Assertion’, ‘This is my birthright’ [25] and thus the investigation of beauty within the poems becomes a socio-political imperative, too.

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In conclusion, all three texts – Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Nichols’ The Fat Black Woman’s Poems – all use nature as a way of enlarging upon and more effectively demonstrating their central concerns. An important element of this is the way in which pathetic fallacy is used by the authors, i.e. nature reflecting and/or suggesting a mood or theme. As the three texts discussed here are from different genres, they of course use nature in different ways, employing different literary devices, as has been shown. However, for each of the authors nature is singularly important and enriches the individual texts immeasurably. In the final analysis, therefore, it might be suggested, indeed, that nature itself becomes almost a communicative character within each of the very different works discussed within this essay, as its importance to the creation and communication of each cannot be overestimated.


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