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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1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Sociology

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

  1. Pingback: Musings on Anger, Art, and Social Justice: A Response to Neil Gaiman’s Guardian Piece on Terry Pratchett | Jackofallbooks

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