Monthly Archives: January 2013

Dramaturgical Analysis and Gender Roles in “Paladin of Souls”

[Spoilers]

“Ista was very unsure about her next move, but it seemed the logical progression.  She had a profound mistrust of logic; it was quite as possible to reason one’s way, step by slow step, into a mire of deep sin as it was to fall into it headlong” (236-237).

This afternoon, I finally finished Lois McMaster Bujold’s Hugo award winning novel, “Paladin of Souls”.  Although it took me several weeks to read, it actually hooked me more than “The Curse of Chalion.”  Though I adored Cazaril, the protagonist from the previous book, it was a joy to read about Ista, a more complex character with a different kind of tragic past.  She is the character that I referenced in my last post that seems to have been based in part on Juana “La Loca.”  Ista is a refreshing point of view character, especially in the fantasy genre.  She is intelligent, humorous, and wry at times.  However, she also is flawed and vulnerable.  In the beginning of the book she seems to view the world very negatively, or perhaps cynically.  She is well aware that she lives in a patriarchal society with more limited opportunities for women.

In chapter one, Ista is essentially imprisoned by her loved ones due to their perceptions of her lack of sanity and is forced into a feminine role that she doesn’t want.  As an excellent glimpse of Ista’s insights about the world, she thinks, “[s]he knew what she feared—to be locked up in some dark, narrow place by people who loved her.  An enemy might drop his guard, weary of his task, turn his back; love would never falter” (2).  Ista develops a suitable escape plan by playing to the role that others perceived her in.  It would be acceptable for a woman of her station to go on a pilgrimage.  I appreciate the fact that Bujold writes about a forty year old character going on an adventure.  In fact when realizing that she wants to travel, Ista reflects, “Roads were made for young men, not middle-aged women.  The poor orphan boy packed his sack and started off down the road to seek his hearts hope…a thousand tales began that way” (4).  As a reader, I’m thankful for a character that does not fit that mold.

As mentioned above, throughout the journey, Ista determines who she is, moves past mistakes from her younger years, makes friends (and a lover) who appreciate her for who she is, and saves the realm.  She banters with a bawdy god.  She is a sexual being, unlike the presentation of many characters of the same age in other books.  Yet, Bujold doesn’t wave away the limitations of aging.  The travels for Ista are more difficult than for her younger party members, yet she pushes herself.  While she doesn’t  know how to sword fight, she uses her other virtues like her wit instead.  When I think of characters as role models for women (and men), I would put Ista high on the list.

As I’ve discussed several times now, dramaturgical analysis is an idea by Erving Goffman.  We are constantly on a stage, performing for an audience.  This book does an excellent job of looking at how we may play a part and how others may want to force us to continue playing this particular role.  Near the end of the book, many of the characters from the first part of the book are reunited with Ista. They want her to be the lost woman that she was at the beginning. For instance, “[s]he let herself be coaxed back to bed by those who loved her.  Though the Ista they thought they loved, she supposed, was an imaginary one, a woman who only existed in their own minds, part icon, part habit.  The reflection did not depress her unduly, now that she had someone who loved the Ista who was real” (445).  I think it is important to reflect on the roles that we are playing.  Do we want to be playing all of them? Are there some new roles that we want to try?

I could write another blog post just on the supporting characters.  Liss is a strong, young woman who is unexpectedly to many characters, a courier.  Ista selects her to be her lady-in-waiting for her pilgrimage.  Another great role model, Liss is physically adept and a fast learner to her new role.  Cazaril sends two brothers, Foix and Ferda dy Gura, to accompany her.  The brothers have distinct personalities and through them, and an older pair of brothers in the book, Bujold explores different types of masculinity.

Similar to the first book, the world building is exquisite.  Her descriptions are lush but don’t feel overwrought.  The characters are three dimensional and believable, even when they are in unusual situations.  When compared with the earlier book, this book develops the theology more and continues to develop the norms and values of the people in this world.  I highly recommend the book for those who enjoy swashbuckling, strong characters with sardonic wit.

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Socialization in Children’s Literature and Graphic Novels: The Owly Series and “The Blueberry Girl”

“Grant her the wisdom to choose her right path, free from unkindness and fear.” (Gaiman, “The Blueberry Girl”)

With the unfortunate myriad of social problems impacting the world today, I often think about the topic of socialization.  According to the textbook, “You May Ask Yourself,” socialization is “the process by which individuals internalize the values, beliefs, and norms of a given society and learn to function as members of that society” (Conley 114).  One of my favorite assignments that I created for my introduction to sociology class is one on children’s books and socialization.  The students have to learn about many different psychological and sociological theories relating to the stages of socialization.  I make the argument that children often learn a great deal from the media that they are exposed to like children’s books.  It’s both educational and fun for adults to go back and look at some of their childhood favorites like “Green Eggs and Ham” and “Where the Wild Things Are” to evaluate what norms and values are being taught to children in this society.

One of my closest friends started dating Andy Runton, the author of the Owly graphic novel series, years ago so I began reading his series due to their relationship.  Now, I’m hooked.  Although I’m likely biased, I think Owly and his friends have a great deal to add to the socialization of children (and adults).  The art is lovely, and the characters communicate through symbols.  In fact, one of my favorite symbols in the series is now the compact florescent light bulb used to convey one of the characters having an idea.  The main characters is an owl named Owly, who slowly makes friends through the series.  The series usually explores feelings of loneliness, friendship, and building community.   In terms of sociology, I think one of the strengths of Owly is that it deals with topics like stigmatization, in-groups, and out-groups.  It shows how we have to move past our stereotypes to see how the people (or in this case animals) that belong to other groups can be our friends.   In-groups are “social group toward which a member feels respect and loyalty” while out-groups are “a social group toward which a person feels a sense of competition or opposition” (Macionis 124).  Often, in-groups may become powerful and a negative label, called stigma, may be attached to the out-group.  This may lead to stereotyping about the other group or discrimination towards the other group.

For example, in Runton’s most recent book, “Bright Lights and Starry Nights,” Owly and his friend, Wormy, get a new telescope in the mail.  Along the way, they face challenges to using the telescope, partially due to their fears of the unknown visitors in the woods that they can hear.  The unknown visitors turn out to be a friendly bat population.  They help Owly and Wormy learn to use their telescope, although Owly and especially Wormy are afraid of the other at the beginning.  I believe that this piece is all about being willing to trust others, even when we’re afraid.  In this case, the bats were an out-group, meaning they were seen as an other that was perceived as frightening and potentially threatening.   Certainly, children and adults in our culture need to be taught that strangers do not necessarily mean them harm, and individuals from another culture may help us get past group think.  Diverse view points can help with problem solving.

Another book I read recently that might at first glance appear to be a children’s story is by Neil Gaiman.  This link to Gainman’s blog explains where “The Blueberry Girl” came from.  The poem begins as a prayer for a blueberry girl.  The art by Charles Vess fits the mood of the poem perfectly.  And I can imagine that if I were to ever raise a daughter, that I would want for her exactly what is mentioned in the book.

I love the idea of the child having an adventurous life full of physical activity and travels.  Part of the prayer states, “[h]elp her to help herself, help her to stand, help her to lose and to find.”  The reason that I love these ideas is that they acknowledge that a girl and a woman’s role in this world should be more than subscribed traditional gender roles.  And the book also mentions the pitfalls that many modern girls and women find themselves facing, like “false friends at fifteen” or ““bad husbands at thirty.”

Children’s literature and graphic novels can be an important part of the development of individuals with integrity in our society.  When I picked up Maus as a freshman in college more than a decade ago, I realized the importance of graphic novels and art as an important medium to convey important societal ideas.  The important questions for us as a society become how can we socialize people to value both community and the individual simultaneously.

 

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Seeing Beyond the Mask: Sociological Imagination and Dramaturgy in Terry Pratchett’s “Maskerade”

[Spoilers]

“Teach, no,” said Granny [to her new student, Agnes], “Ain’t got the patience for teaching,  But I might let you learn” (Pratchett 358)

For several years, I’ve found Terry Pratchett’s fantasy books to be incredibly humorous, heartwarming, and sociologically insightful.  For some reason, it took me several tries to read the first book, “The Color of Magic,” but I’ve been hooked ever since.  I’ve read around twenty-two of the books in the Discworld series, of which I believe there are 39.  People often argue over how to read Pratchett’s works since he writes about different series of characters like the witches, wizards, and guards.  I’ve been reading them in order of publication, except for the young adult series about Tiffany Aching, which I read out of sequence. (His last Tiffany Aching book is one of my favorite books.  Recently, my spouse got a book called “My Ideal Bookshelf.”  If I had only one bookshelf, I’m pretty sure it’d be on there.  It’s a tough choice though because whichever Pratchett book I’m currently reading might displace the others.)  Other readers of Discworld decide to read the books in a particular series before moving onto a different series.  Here is a chart that might be helpful, although it does not include the most recent books.

I just finished “Maskerade,” which is about an opera house that is experiencing a series of strange ghost sightings and murders. (Yes, you may say hello to a parody of “ The Phantom of the Opera”.)  Pratchett’s witches series always deals with important ideas about community, helping others, and where the boundaries of good and evil lie.  With my interest in musicals growing up, I particularly enjoyed the references to both classic opera and modern day musicals in this particular book.  Furthermore, the witches books often deal with Shakespearian ideas, as well as folklore.

Terry Pratchett’s rules for his witches actually remind me, to a certain extent, of the sociological imagination.  “The Sociological Imagination” is a book, as well as a concept, by the sociologist C. Wright Mills, who was critical of other sociologists in his time.  He thought that sociologists (and sociology students) should be able to see how our individual, personal troubles connect with the larger social forces around us.  This is often stated as we need to note how the historical and biographical connect to one another.  This video briefly explains the sociological imagination (as well as mentioning part of the sociological perspective.) In “Maskerade,” many of the people in the opera house cannot see the truth and allow rumor and gossip to sway their thinking.  The witches are different because they have a talent for seeing how things really are in society, instead of how they appear to be.  This theme is developed considerably in this book.  Agnes is an excellent singer, as well as being overweight.  She has left the path of being a witch to become a singer, although she is told she will not get a lead role due to discrimination relating to her size.  However, she is able to see what is really happening in the opera house, when no one else can.  She, and the other witches, consistently give sociological analysis of their society.  The book deals with cultural values relating to how people playing certain parts should be a certain weight and be beautiful (or ugly).

This reminds me of the well-known Shakespearian monologue from “As you like it,” that begins with the line,  “All the world’s a stage.”   I’ve discussed Goffman’s  dramaturgical analysis on this blog before, and the idea that we are always acting on a stage is a core idea of this concept.  We are always playing roles in various settings.  Pratchett does a great job of illustrating how people may try to take on new roles like Agnes, who changes her very name to Perdita X because “it was a mysterious name, hinting of darkness and intrigue” (11).  Although the people in Lancre, her home, didn’t accept it, the name was perfect for the opera setting.  Agnes tries to become Perdita in the opera house, although she still has her “sociological imagination” turned on, observing what was happening around her.   These themes are explored with many characters, and the book covers topics like getting the correct costume for the part you are playing, among many other aspects of dramaturgical analysis.

If you enjoy humor, word play, sociological and political analysis, and character development, then I highly recommend this book, as well as Pratchett’s entire series.  I plan to read “Feet of Clay” next.

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