Ariadna Paniagua is a recent graduate of the University of Oviedo with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in English Studies. She is currently doing a Master's Degree in Cultural Management at the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya.
With a strong passion for culture, Ariadna is looking to further develop her skills in cultural management while improving her writing abilities. Ariadna's attention to detail and creativity as a writer make her a valuable asset to any team.
The power of language and silence in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum
Language is powerful, not only as a means of communication but also as a political and social tool. It can be used in many ways, whether positive: self-expression, reaffirmation, resistance…, or negative: distortion, coercion, repression. However, when it comes to silence, we tend to see it as a mere background that facilitates the effects created by language. In ‘Silence as Gesture: Rethinking the Nature of Communicative Silences’, Kris Acheson disputes the dichotomy between speech —as part of language— and silence, where silence is conceived merely as the lack of speech. She uses Merleau Ponty’s view on this matter:
Merleau Ponty described language as a gesture, made possible by the fact that we are bodies in a physical world. Language does not envelop or clothe thought; ideas materialize as embodied language…If silence is, as I argue here, as like speech as it is different, perhaps silence, too, can be a gesture. (Acheson, 2008: 535)
The implication here is that silence, as language, is the result of our-being-in the world, and it plays an important role in our awareness and in the influence that we can exert on society. In both Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975) and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), the importance of silence equals that of speech, and they are used to defy cultural conceptions and powerful social structures. Female characters’ silence helps them to oppose the injustice to which they are subjected in their respective times.
If we consider silence as speech, as language and as gestures, and therefore as the vehicle to assert our thoughts in the physical world, then they are always related to a particular context: ‘The meanings of silences rest upon their placement in the performance, the context surrounding them as well as their arrangement relative to that context.’ (Acheson, 2008: 546) Therefore, in The Scarlet Letter, when Hester Prynne decides not to tell who the father of her daughter is, her silence is inherently embedded into the society in which she lives. By these means, she is not only covering the father’s identity, but she is also opposing the community that implores her to speak. Despite accepting her sin and carrying the scarlet letter in her bosom for it, her choice to remain silent reflects a degree of free will that contrasts with the suppression of individuality in this repressive society. In this way, her silence is the embodiment of her revolutionary thoughts:
She assumed a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic, but which our forefathers, had they known it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatised by the scarlet letter. (Hawthorne, 1850: 255)
However, it has to be remarked that her thoughts and decisions are not powerful just because she has them, but because they exercise influence in others:
Silence produces emotional and physical symptoms in our phenomenal bodies, both when we encounter it and when we ourselves produce it. Sepulchral silence, deathly silent, and silent as the grave—such statements describe more than a lack of sound. (Acheson, p. 547)
Her silence cannot be ignored by the Puritans, nor can it be overlooked by both the father of the child and Prynne’s husband, Robert Chillingworth. She has control over them: for Dimmesdale, the revelation of his true identity would put him as a sinner in front of society, and for Chillingworth, it would suppose the distrust of Dimmesdale and therefore the end of his influence over him. Speech and silence are equally powerful when she decides to speak the truth to Dimmesdale and reveal Chillingworth’s identity: ‘Hester Prynne was now fully sensible of the deep injury for which she was responsible to this unhappy man. (Hawthorne, p. 300). By remaining silent, she was perpetuating Chillingworth’s influence over Dimmesdale; by speaking, she liberated Dimmesdale of this burden.
In The Lost Honour of Katharina Bloom, the use of silence is also crucial to the protagonist. It constitutes Katharina’s denial of the accusations imposed on her and therefore the rejection to participate in the spread of lies and controversies by the News. She is protecting her lover, Götten, but she is also defending her honour. Nevertheless, both her speech and her silence put her in a more committed position than Prynne, because her job as a social worker demands her to maintain a good reputation in the public sphere: ‘Katharina had always been a hardworking, respectable girl, a bit timid, or rather intimidated, and as a child she had even been a devout and faithful churchgoer.’ (Böll, p. 65). Prynne is already dismissed from society the moment that her sin is discovered. Not being part of the community allows her to act freely: ‘Little accustomed, in her long seclusion from society, to measure her ideas of right and wrong by any standard to herself...’ (Hawthorne, p. 247). Katharina is aware of her difficult situation, and therefore she pays scrupulous attention to the use of language. For instance, she insists on the correction of inaccuracies in the transcript of her interrogation:
The prolonged nature of the interrogation was explained by the fact that Katharina Blum was remarkably meticulous in checking the entire wording and in having every sentence read aloud to her as it was committed to the record. (Böll, p. 29)
This emphasis is justified by the fact that her words are constantly misinterpreted and distorted:
(…) The advances mentioned in the foregoing paragraph were first recorded as “amorous”… which Katharina Blum indignantly rejected…, with Katharina asserting that “becoming amorous” implied reciprocity whereas “advances” were a one-sided affair, which they had invariably been. (Böll, p. 29)
This manipulation of words reaffirms the status of language as a powerful political tool. In 9 ’The Paradox of Silence: Some Questions about Silence as Resistance’, Dorothy E. Roberts develops Margaret Montoya’s argument about this issue:
A central theme of Professor Montoya's article is that both dominant and subordinated groups use language in their interests: traditional legal discourse produce a centripetal force that constantly centralizes power and privilege within the hands of those dedicated to maintaining the status quo, while outsiders use language to "produce centrifugal forces that decentralize and destabilize that power and privilege. (Roberts, 2000: 343)
In this struggle between the dominant and subordinated groups, the police and the News play the role of the dominant force that applies pressure over Katharina by twisting her words. This is possible because of the existence of a patriarchal society and the continuous sexualisation of women. When Katharina is asked about her relationship with Sträubleder, she decides to remain silent because she knows that the truth is going to turn against her: ‘Who was going to believe that she would resist a man like Sträubleder, who was not only very well off but downright famous in the political…and who was going to believe of a woman like herself.’ (Böll, 1975: 110) As part of the subordinated group, Katharina uses both speech and silence wisely, taking every possible opportunity to break the conventions to which she is subjected and to escape the male pressure that is placed on her.
To conclude, we must recall the importance of language, in which we include speech and silence, and erase the boundaries between these two. Silence is not merely the background for speech, but an active device for expression. Considering speech and silence as gestures, they are the reaffirmation of our presence in the world, and therefore they are interconnected to space and time. As human beings with physical bodies, we are surrounded by other human beings. In this way, the meaning and the effect of language do not depend only on ourselves, but on others’ interpretations and misinterpretations too.
Hester Prynne and Katherina Bloom are sensible users of speech and silence, and they use them to escape the constrictions of their respective societies. Prynne’s silence allows her to exercise power over men and the strict code of laws and ethics of Puritan New England. In the case of Katharina, her awareness of language is crucial to her resistance to the attacks of mass media, and her silence concerning her lover constitutes a rebellion against society’s constrictions and conventions, especially about womanhood. Language is central to the struggle to attain or to keep power. Dominant groups in society: the government, the media, etc., often use language to silence or to confuse the subordinated groups. Thus, the subordinated can either choose to respond or to accept their position. If they choose silence, this does not necessarily mean that they are surrendering, but rather taking advantage of the impact that it can exert.
Acheson, K. (2008). ‘Silence as Gesture: Rethinking the Nature of Communicative Silences’, in Communication Theory, vol. 18, 535-555.
Böll, H. (1975). The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, trans. Leila Vennewitz. Vintage Classics.
Hawthorne, N. (1850). The Scarlet Letter. Open Road Media (2014).
Roberts, D. E. (2000). ‘The Paradox of Silence: Some Questions about Silence as Resistance’, University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, vol. 33, no. 3.
Postmodernism and Judith Butler in Frankissstein: A Love Story
In Frankissstein: A Love Story (2020), Jeanette Winterson intertwines non-fiction and fiction, the past and the present, and a vision of the future, all together developing in parallel narratives. On one side of the story, the historical character, Marry Shelley, struggles with the creation of her novel, Frankenstein, at the same time that she questions the meaning of life and the fragility of the human body. On the other side, as Brexit grips Britain, Ry Shelley, a British transgender doctor, queries AI-specialist Professor Victor Stein’s aim to upload the brain contents into a hard drive, leaving the human body in disuse. The link between these characters is not just the explicit similarities in their names, but their attempt to find an answer to a recurrent question in the novel: What is your substance, whereof are you made? (Winterson, 2020) The conceptions established upon the human body through dominant discourses are challenged, presenting the body as malleable and fluid, such as is the use of language in this novel.
Frankissstein begins with the sentence Reality is water-soluble (Winterson, 2020), and this sentence is constantly reinterpreted throughout. Winterson does not offer a “genuine” response to the question of what is real and what is not; what is truth and what is false, and in this refusal to offer a definite answer it is implied that reality is constructed through discourse:
(…) What postmodernism does is to contest the very possibility of there ever being ultimate objects. It teaches and enacts the recognition of the fact that social, historical, and existential reality is discursive reality when it is used as the referent of art, and so the only genuine historicity becomes that which would openly acknowledge its own discursive, contingent identity. (Hutcheon, 1986: 182).
No matter how accurately someone wants to objectively represent reality in a work of art, the representation is always going to be subjected to that individual’s perception and to the constraints imposed by the bits that they have selected to represent. Since there is not a single reality, not an “objective” history, multiple meanings can be attained, and postmodernists make this obvious by constantly reminding the reader that what they are reading is nothing more than a creation.
Winterson shows the multiplicity of meanings by deconstructing the fixity of language, introducing continuous breaks and shifts in the novel, thus making it self-reflective. Reviews from magazines are included in the middle of pages, recalling the artificiality of the novel, but also its purpose: “There was a wilder story imagined, yet, like most of the fictions of this age, it has an air of reality attached to it.” (Winterson, 2020: 54). Fiction and non-fiction are intertwined so many times that the boundaries between them become blurred.
The reading of the novel is thus not confined to one single meaning anymore, but the characters struggle to be the tellers of their own story, and others’ stories too: “I’d love to write that story!/Of course you would. We all would. The lunatic scientist in the white coat. The secret tunnels. The vitrified head returning to life.” (Winterson, 2020: 275) The importance of discourses is so crucial that the doctor that Mary Shelley creates in her story comes to life: “He believes that you created him (…) Before I could say more, the door opened and Victor Frankenstein entered the room (…) You are Mary Shelley.” (Winterson, 2020: 213) Reason is not at the centre anymore, because there is no division between the imaginary and the real.
The multiplicity of meanings is intrinsically related to the multiplicity of conceptions of the material body that are explored in Frankissstein. Winterson breaks with the fixity of gender and sex, so the body becomes fluid. Ry Shelley, who defines themselves as “liminal, cusping, in between, emerging, undecided, transitional…” (Winterson, 2020: 29), exemplifies the notion of self as a project. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler discusses that gender and sex are socially constructed and that they are imposed through dominant discourses:
This radical splitting of the gendered subject poses yet another set of problems. Can we refer to a given sex or a given gender without first inquiring into how sex and/or gender is given, through what means? (Butler, 2002: 10).
Shelley challenges the dominant discourse by erasing the alleged fixity between the male and female bodies. They undergo surgery to change the upper part of their body, but they keep their female genital organs. In this way, Shelley is no longer biologically tied to just one of the two categories. In terms of gender, as they recognise themselves as gender-fluid, the division male/female is being deconstructed once again. All this does not mean that Shelley is outside the categories of identity, but they use the frameworks of identity against themselves to expose their contradictions. In fact, Shelley exposes the problems attached to this challenge to the binaries male/female:
My life will likely be shorter and it’s likely I will be sicker as I get older. I keep my maleness intact with testosterone because my body knows it wasn’t born the way I want it to be. I can change my body but I can’t change my body’s reading of my body (…). (Winterson, 2020: 310).
Shelley reminds us of the difficulties that come with the administration of hormones, but that is not what torments them the most. Even if they can malleate their body, it is still going to be subjected to a determined “reading” that is infused by the discourses of sex and gender. They are aware of this, and they know that they are always going to be under the scrutiny of others, but also under their own perception, which is also shaped by society’s prejudices.
Perceptions over individuals have scope in many fields. Ry Shelley is seen as an outsider not only in terms of their sex and gender but in terms of nationality when they travel to the US: they are instantly recognised as British by their last name and accent. There is a nationalist discourse that is discussed many times in the novel, since it is part of its background: Brexit, and the inherent racism that comes with it, with a focus on Wales. The various reactions to the object of this discourse in the story are permeated by fear towards what is considered the “other”, the foreigner, that evolves into rejection as a self-defense mechanism of one’s national identity. However, the target of the discourse of sex and gender is perceived in more ways aside from just fear and rejection. Ron Lord reacts to Shelley’s sexuality in confusion, but later in the novel, he seems to accept it and even praise it, while Claire totally despises their decision of changing their body because she considers this as “unnatural”; a crime against God’s creation. However, in the case of Frankenstein, he romanticises the “idea” of Ry Shelley. For Frankenstein, Shelley anticipates his vision of a future in which the human body would no longer be necessary, and therefore no labels regarding sexuality would be needed anymore. Frankenstein is fascinated by Shelley’s body in the same way in which he is fascinated by his experiments. Thus, the theme of love being a crucial point in the novel, the reader is not able to know if Frankenstein is actually in love with Ray, or if he is just amazed by this idea that he has created in his mind.
Frankenstein’s idealisation of Shelley goes back to the importance of discourses and the power that language has in the creation of stories. It is because Frankenstein sees himself as the “creator” of a dominant discourse for the future, that he has a fascination for Ry Shelley. When both of the characters are discussing Shelley’s sexuality, there is a moment in which Shelley thinks the following about Frankenstein:
I don’t say anything because he is the centre of his world. I have affected him and he never wonders how he has affected me. He is in control of what he creates. He hasn’t created me and so he feels uncertain. (Winterson, 2020: 158).
Shelley constitutes an intrusion into Frankenstein’s “equation” because they do not fit into the fixities that Frankenstein is trying to go beyond. He cannot integrate Shelley into his boundaries, and that is threatening. However, he claims to love them despite this destabilisation in his control.
To conclude, it could be said that the question What is your substance, whereof are you made? is never fully answered. Despite all the fixed conceptions imposed upon the human body through discourses of sex and gender, the body is anything but fixed. Ry Shelley and Victor Frankenstein exemplify the constraints in the formation of identity, and how it is shaped by the perceptions that others have about someone. Winterson’s postmodern style in the use of language, with constant shifts and interruptions in the novel, and the mix between fiction and non-fiction, reminds the reader of the artificiality of the novel, and of discourses themselves. The representation of reality is as subjective as the concepts of sex and gender.
Butler, J. (1988). Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Theatre Journal, 40(4), 519–531. https://doi.org/10.2307/3207893
Butler, J. (2002). Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Taylor & Francis e-Library.
Hutcheon, L. (1986). The Politics of Postmodernism: Parody and History. Cultural Critique, 5, 179–207. https://doi.org/10.2307/1354361
Lindenmeyer, A. (1999). Postmodern Concepts of the Body in Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. Feminist Review, 63, 48–63. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1395587
Winterson, J. (2020). Frankissstein: A Love Story. London: Vintage.
Zuckert, C. (1991). The Politics of Derridean Deconstruction. Polity, 23(3), 335–356. https://doi.org/10.2307/323513
Surveillance and mechanisms of power in Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon
In Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon (2012), mechanisms of power are reduced to their ideal form: an institutional prison with cells arranged around a central watchtower from which the prisoners can be seen at all times. This building is the representation of surveillance in a capitalist system, when one becomes its own jailer: the guard in the watchtower cannot see the prisoners at all times, but because the prisoners know that they are being watched, they start to take care of their actions. Furthermore, the novel explores the power of narratives as mechanisms of both empowerment and constriction. Anais’s indeterminacy in terms of her family background and therefore of her life story provides her with survival techniques over these processes of surveillance and control. She understands how to deal with the mechanisms of power by converting massive information into individual knowledge: by getting away from the general narration, you can come across lies that otherwise are concealed. In this sense, the Inmates in the panopticon can escape the surveillance because they are inside the system, inside the building, and because they are outsiders in society. They form alternative family connections, alternative narratives: their imagination is their escape. However, Anais remains ultimately trapped in the novel: the internal focalisation of the narrative gives the reader an insight into Anais’s thoughts. Thus, this shows us that literature can be also part of these processes of control over individuals.
The structure of the Panopticon and its constant surveillance is compared in the novel with our contemporary capitalist society. The Panopticon is just a building, but this building is a representation of the perpetuation of the status quo. In an increasingly globalised world, people expose themselves to the higher ranks of society:
I dinnae get people, like they all want to be watched, to be seen, like all the time. They put their pictures online and let people they dinnae like look at them! (…) their bosses are watching them at work, the cameras watch them on the bus (…). (Fagan, 2012: 34).
In this sense, the Inmates, who are fully aware of the existence of the mechanisms of surveillance because they live in this building, can escape, or at least try to avoid, this influence: “If they knew about the experiment they wouldnae be so keen to throw it all out there.” (Fagan, 2012: 34). Anais has some kind of power, because she has the knowledge that is necessary to understand how to deal with these structures of power, and she has this knowledge because she has made the massive information her own: “You can learn a lot on Google, but some of it’s lies (…) Teresa used to say school was an unnecessary form of social control.” (Fagan, 2012: 84-85): you have to resist the power that is imposed by schools, but Google gives you power over the government because you can come across pure lies that in a more formal curriculum would be concealed.
Anais escapes control too because of the hallucinations that she has; because of her mental state, and because she is an outsider. By being outside social structures such as the family, and forming her own, she is also stepping outside conventions: “I dinnae have an identity, just reflex reactions and a disappearing veil between this world and the next.” (Fagan, 2012: 99) The hallucinations that she has increase her imagination and also give her some kind of control over her thoughts. Nevertheless, she does not only have to avoid the influence of the structures of power of society, but the prevailing narratives that surround her. Words are extremely important, as well as the way in which stories are told. Thus, sometimes literature can be a force of perpetration of control, and in the narrative of The Panopticon, Anais is under the continuous watch of the reader that has access to her thoughts. However, at the end of the novel, she deconstructs this narrative by creating a new identity for herself and a new beginning of her story: “I am Frances Jones from Paris. I am not a face on a missing-person poster, I am not a number or a statistic in a file. I have no-one watching me.” (Fagan, 2012: 323) She steps outside conventions, although the reader is still watching until the novel ends.
In conclusion, the use of power in The Panopticon is represented in several ways. The surveillance of individuals in society is symbolised in the novel by the structure of the building of the Panopticon by itself. People feel coerced because they know that they are being watched from the watchtower; however, if they do not realise that they are being controlled, they tend to expose themselves to the mechanisms of power: Internet, social media, public cameras, etc. Another form of power that is portrayed in the novel is the control over narratives and therefore over people’s thoughts. Anais’s thoughts are public because the reader can introduce himself in her mind. Thus, both structures of surveillance and literature can be equally powerful and harmful in certain contexts.
Fagan, J. (2012). The Panopticon.Windmill Books.