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Month: September 2019

Madeline Welch Reading Blog 4

As I began the story of Ragged Dick, also known as Richard Hunter, I noticed a few technical intrigues. I was able to see that we had an overt narrator, who spoke in the first person when describing several events and our protagonist. There’s a desire of the narrator, whether it’s the actual or implied author, that “young readers will like him” as he does, despite the child’s faults (Alger, 1868, pg. 6). Thus, I wondered if he would become an unreliable narrator, if he would have any sort of bias when describing Dick. This wasn’t specifically addressed, though I did think of it every time the narrator referenced himself and his own thoughts. The concept of narrated monologue seems to be at play as well, as we see, often, a “double-voiced kind of discourse” when the narrator discusses his own thoughts as well as  Dick’s (Keen, 2015, pg. 62). 

Once I began to pay attention to the narrative, however, I was bothered by how easily Dick was able to move out of his current situation. Mr. Whitney gave Dick new clothes and “a five dollar bill”, in hopes that he would “repay it in the form of aid to some poor boy” (Alger, 1868, pg. 50), and suddenly Dick changes his entire life and does just that. This made me uncomfortable because there are people today who truly believe this is how to help the lower classes, and they call it trickle down economics. I didn’t like how smoothly Dick went from sleeping on the street, to creating a bank account, to renting a room, to getting a tutor, to going to Sunday School, to saving up over one hundred dollars. It just felt very unrealistic. Especially the end, where just for saving some random kid he suddenly has the new job he’d been hoping for and a benefactor. I understand this is a rags to riches stock story, but rags to riches in less than a year? When millions are stuck in the same situation for decades? I started to wonder if this was less a stock story and more capitalist propaganda. Then I read Demythologizing Alger, and my feelings were only strengthened. 

Admittedly, I had not heard of Horatio Alger before picking up this novel. I did not carry with me any preconceived notions about the man, like a large portion of America seemed to in the past. Thus, I had no idea that he turned from an “economic mythmaker…into a patriotic defender of the social and political status quo and erstwhile proponent of laissez-faire capitalism” (Scharnhorst, 1980, pg. 192). Ah, and there, I was already seeing a connection to my own thoughts about his work. To hear that so many lauded his work, that he inadvertently created his own masterplot, the “Horatio Alger hero”, again brought up great discomfort for me (1980, pg. 194). It meant my fears were realized, that his ideas about working hard to get ahead did fuel debates about our economy and validated those who felt the same. I understand where it started, the anxieties about the state of the nation during the Great Depression and a need to look for hope in any form (1980, pg. 192). If that hope was a rags to riches narrative, one man’s version in particular, so be it. I also acknowledge Scharnhorst’s point that the whole political ideology stemming from Alger’s work had more to do with “the cultural context  in which the books were read and remembered” (1980, pg. 197). But that doesn’t make the story any less powerful and dangerous. If we truly keep things as they are, believe in the Horatio Alger hero, things in our country will never improve. 

Madeline Welch Reading Blog 3

It’s a bit strange for me to be combining the idea of storytelling with that of law. I’ve grown up equating ‘narrative’ with ‘fiction’; something that ultimately isn’t true, despite any ties it may have to the real world. As such I experience a sort of dissonance promoting storytelling in the legal field. But I think, despite my apprehension, narratives have always existed in law. Because stories are created for a purpose. That purpose could very well be to convict or pardon an individual.

As we can see in the readings, a key aspect of storytelling is the creation of empathy. Keen speaks at length about the various forms that can be found in literature, but the one that I think can be most applied here is ambassadorial strategic empathy. It “addresses audiences with the aim of cultivating their empathy…, often with specific appeal for recognition, assistance or justice” (Keen, 2015, pg. 157). It automatically made me create the connection to legal storytelling, not just with the direct reference to justice but also in its nature to draw audiences-perhaps juries-in with tales of woe. Tales that could push people to feel sympathy for a particular individual by reminding them of certain masterplots. This can easily be combined with broadcast strategic empathy, which emphasizes “our common human experiences, feelings, hopes, vulnerabilities” (Keen, 2015, pg. 157). I think nearly every book and movie about law that I’ve seen showcases a defense lawyer utilizing these two forms of empathy when pleading the case of his client, often someone misunderstood. It’s not hard to picture it in real life either. Utell notes also that in “legal cases, stories serve as a springboard for interpretation, resulting in…passing down a ruling” (Utell, 2015, pg. 134). 

I’m still stuck, though, on this path of combining law and narrative, as “real life if more complicated than allowed in fiction” (Utell, 2015, pg. 136). We also need to remember that different people can try to use empathy and narratives in different ways, asking the question: “from whose perspective is this being told?”(Utell, 2015, pg. 152). This is highlighted in the article The Baby in the Well. The author points out that empathy can “betray us when we take it as a moral guide” (Bloom, 2013). I’m aware this is referring to the overarching point of the article. However, I took this to mean that, when others try to use empathy as a means to cause action from the audience, it can be dangerous. The so-called “identifiable victim effect”, even if it is only a reaction within individuals, can be used by storytellers to manipulate the audience (Bloom, 2013). And “the context of the audience matters” as well (Utell, 2015, pg. 157). Brooks has a very strong example here in terms of politics, as liberals may “argue for gun control…by focussing on the victims of gun violence” while “conservatives point to the unarmed victims of crimes” (Brookes, 2013). Aside from utilizing empathy in a morally questionable way, it’s also tricky because, in general, different people “will have different capacities for experiencing empathy” (Utell, 2015, pg. 157).

So, in the end, I’m still skeptical about the practical uses of narrative in law as it relates to the creation of empathy. But I understand that it exists no matter how I feel about it, not just in the legal fields but in others as well. I also know it’s not always a bad thing either. After all, “stories matter. And it is the matter of stories that make us who we are” (Utell, 2015, pg. 158). Empathy matters too. It’s “what makes us human” (Brooks 2013).  

List of current and semi-current events (that I can think of): climate change protests, the refugee crisis, illegal immigration, the #MeToo movement, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the transgender ban in the military, gun control debates, California wild fires, opioid crisis, vape controversy, the Mueller Report’s release and the push for Trump’s impeachment, abortion debates, legalization of marijuana, the accusations of boy scout leaders, increasing hurricanes like Hurricane Dorian, and the college admissions scandal.

Empathy does have a place, I think, in all of these events. It’s important to consider all sides and understand their beliefs about what’s going on. Being a social work major, it’s difficult for me to say if empathy would actually be the wrong response for any particular thing. I suppose I can understand the view that facts should be the most important thing, particularly with, say, the Mueller Report or the college admissions scandal, because they have certain implications for the rest of society. Or at least, American society. But despite what Brooks believes, I’m not going to be so quick to abandon empathy even if it can have it’s problems. I think we can be critical of it while still advocating for it. I do think it’s vital to creating a more peaceful society.

Madeline Welch Reading Blog 2

There have been several examples of masterplots in our readings. The one I would like to discuss is the characterization of George Edalji. There are actually a couple different versions of masterplots used for the man in question, created either to paint him as the villain or the victim, so I will be focusing on the latter. Barnes and Doyle follow this masterplot in an attempt to create a compelling narrative. For the purpose of this discussion, I’ll be using this description of narrative: “the representation of an event or a series of events” (Abbott, 2002, pg. 12). This is because of the word ‘representation’, which I think is very important when regarding these two men as narrators. I will also be using Keen’s brief description of narrators, those “responsible for acts of telling” the narrative (Keen, 2015, pg. 33).

Doyle and Barnes present us with the masterplot ‘the scapegoat’ for George Edalji. As Abbott explains, “masterplots come equipped with types- characters whose motivation and personality are an integral and often fixed element of the masterplot” (2002, pg. 185). The motivations of Edalji as the scapegoat are made clear in Beginning with an Ending: he wants to prove his innocence. George says, “I want my name back again. I want to be readmitted as a solicitor” (Barnes, 2005, pg. 261). In The Case of George Edalji, we see a similar motivation set up by Doyle. Edalji has come to him for help in seeking “his complete acquittal” and “his restoration to the rank of that honourable profession from which he has so unjustly been removed” (Doyle, 1907). In Barnes’ portrayal of this, he has Doyle add yet another motivation, one to earn “a large sum in compensation” for what Edalji had endured (Barnes, 2005, pg. 261). But it’s unclear if Doyle truly wanted this, as I couldn’t find evidence of it in his writing. In terms of personality, at least as it relates to George as the scapegoat, we can see his frustration and pain over being charged with a crime he did not commit. Both versions of his story showcase this. During the first conversation between Arthur and George in the novel, George says, “my incarceration did not strengthen my faith. Quite the contrary. It has, I think, destroyed it. My suffering has been quite purposeless” (Barnes, 2005, pg. 263). Even though he did not have to serve all seven years from the initial sentence, we see this case has taken quite the toll on him. In Doyle’s work, we can see him characterizing Edalji as “the sufferer” (1907). He is shown to be a tragic figure, even in the days of the anonymous letters where he was “coming in to his fair share of the gross abuse” (Doyle, 1907). 

None of this is to say that Edalji didn’t endure a lot, that he wasn’t suffering, but it is important to remember that we are being told a story. A specific narrative. And the way that these two authors go about telling it, or narrating it, leads the reader to feel a certain way about the characters. Barnes and Doyle both do their best to garner sympathy for the man, because it is important to their narrative of him as the wronged, the falsely accused, the misunderstood. Barnes may have just wanted to tell a story that would inevitably make money, but Doyle, as previously stated, was fighting to see Edalji’s innocence accepted by the Home Office. In order to do that, he not only gathered evidence but also set up Edalji as that specific sympathetic man. He relied on that masterplot, perhaps because he knew that would tug at the public’s heartstrings. Authors craft stories out of existing and familiar ones, because they know what people will respond to and understand. This isn’t a bad thing per say, but it does give us an interesting perspective to explore.

Madeline Welch Reading Blog 1

Unlike the first two sections of the novel, I approached part three of Arthur & George, ‘Ending with a Beginning’, with a more critical eye. This is mostly due to our class discussion on Wednesday, where we questioned both Arthur Conan Doyle’s and Julian Barnes’ stories. We had wondered if we were only getting those results with both authors already having the ending as an advantage. In fact, Captain Anson makes this point during his conversation with Doyle: “Everything you’ve written proceeds from the feeling” that George is innocent (Barnes, 2005, p. 329) . That is, Doyle’s decision about Edalji dictated how he looked at the case. Interestingly, that line Barnes wrote changes everything else in his novel. Was he providing these in-depth biographies based on actual knowledge or conclusions from Doyle and the court? Did he provide the true lives of these two men or was he simply foreshadowing later conversations and documents? I can’t be sure, but now I can’t look at the novel on its own without those kinds of questions popping into my mind.

I happened to read Wilson’s report before finishing part three, because I wanted my own perspective on the ending rather than Barnes’ or Doyle’s. I think this was a good decision, because it is directly quoted in the novel in between the thoughts and beliefs of the characters. This can shift one’s stance easily. For example, reading that the jury “held that Edalji was the writer of those letters” and that the authors of this report were “not prepared to dissent from the finding at which…the jury arrived,” one might agree wholeheartedly (Wilson et al., 1907, p. 5). If everyone’s so sure, then that must be what happened. But if one had read the novel first, they might have instead felt concern because both George and Arthur consider it untrue. Arthur shouts “balderdash” while “George feels himself going faint”, and the reader is upset for both rather than just accepting of the report as is (Barnes, 2005, pp. 378-379). I’m not saying I agree completely with the findings of the Home Office, but I was more neutral about their case when it was on its own.

I think overall the readings were interesting. I look forward to seeing the end of the novel and hearing from the rest of the class.

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