Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Wrap Up

So now the time has come. I have written about three literary works, and I have found that I am a little disappointed with my results. Butterflies are primarily used in literature to express innocence and metamorphosis, just as I expected. In Lolita, butterflies were also used to mimic the capture of Dolores Haze by Humbert Humbert, and so it went a little further. But all in all, I felt that butterflies are a pretty shallow motif. Assuredly, if I continued this quest I may have found other themes that butterflies help to explain. So why butterflies? I think that the frequent use of butterflies, rather than a moth or dragonfly, which can also be used to express innocence and childhood and transformation, is simply because of their beauty. Most humans enjoy looking at beautiful things, and insects are generally (let’s face it) not very pretty. But butterflies are! Their symmetry and bright colors have always fascinated people. Insects live on a small scale world. It is a relief to compact great emotions like truth, bliss, innocence, change of self, and force them upon a tiny bug. Their small physical size combined with the emotions that they have come to represent throughout the age of literature makes them worth more to the environment and society. The use of butterflies to express innocence was simultaneous with the beginning of the zoology. Butterflies were captured for science and leisure in the 19th century, and the appearance of butterflies flying freely in nature, while in danger of hunters, became a special symbol for freedom and carefree youth. This is the vision I have in my head after doing this blog. What I have learned has become a landscape, set beside a river. There are butterflies floating in the breeze, there are bright flowers in the impressionist style. There is a small group regarding them from afar, one man appears like he is about to lunge towards one, but the rest of the party looks on calmly. All they want to do is appreciate the beauty and the innocent motion of the butterflies’ flight. And that’s all this unborn canvas will ever tell me.


Painting by Salvador Dali, "Landscape with Butterflies". The size of the butterflies and the intensity of their shadows is startling. There is a huge emphasis on color and shape, to make the focus of the work not the landscape but the butterflies (even though the title is not "Butterflies with Landscape").


In 1997, M. Vanci Stirnemann, a Swiss artist, opened an exhibit of 1200 miniature cards. On the last day, exhibit goers were invited to make their own cards and trade with the artist. Thus began the artist trading card (ATCs) movement. Swap and viewing events occur in many major cities, online, and in art classrooms around the globe (including Ms. Underwood’s of Gloucester High School). The only criteria is size, the cards must be 2.5” by 3.5”, but the rest is up to the artist.

I love the artist trading card assignments we had this year in art class because of the endless possibilities. It is easier to sketch and work with a small canvas than a giant sheet of paper. If you are working with a theme and have many ideas, the benefit with trading cards is that you can use a bunch and include every idea, rather than settle for one super idea and one composition.

For this series of cards, the theme was butterflies (are you surprised?). I used what I had discovered while blogging about the motif throughout literary works. I listed words associated with butterflies (cute, symmetric, metamorphosis, innocence, children, science, net, catch, hope, flight, fall, bliss, breezy, small, delicate…) until I felt like I had found a few visions and themes to work with. Next came sketching, and finally creating.

Unfortunately, my camera did not like to focus on the details. I will try again later.

Card one is of a young child lying in the grass, while an ominous cloud is approaching from the opposite side of the card. Butterflies break apart this diagonal composition as they move from top left to bottom right. By using the butterflies to separate the child from the cloud, it gives the impression that they are protecting the child from the cloud. The child is innocent and blissful, and the cloud contains words which represent emotions that are dark and corrupt, including Truth and Sin. I’m not very happy with the card, the colors came out too neon, and the idea behind it is kind of a cop out. But throughout blogging, I constantly saw how butterflies were used alongside children to express the innocence of childhood, so I felt that I needed to have a card that showed this.

Card two illustrates the metamorphosis from childhood to adulthood that the life of a butterfly parallels. A Victorian girl in red recedes behind her adult self, who is naked. The contrast between the young girl with her doll and the naked woman, quite unashamed of her nudity, intimates a loss of innocence. The red flower and three red butterflies are used to emphasize the woman in the middle of the composition, since two red objects frame her, creating an intensity for the eye. The shape of the girl and woman, standing back to back with head leaned slightly forward, imitates the shape of a butterfly with spread wings. The word ‘metamorphosis’ makes the idea the card shows a little too ’in your face’. But the use of butterflies to express transformation is super prevalent, and I felt like I was justified in using the idea as the word itself.

Card three, the final one, includes a lyric from a Voxtrot song “Long Haul”. The singer repeats “I wanna catch a love and make it stay” and “I wanna catch a love and make it last” throughout the song. He longs to ’catch’ what he feels is unattainable. For this card, I wanted to show the nostalgia people feel for the carefree days of their youth, as was seen in the speaker of the Wordsworth poem. In the poem, a speaker uses a butterfly as a catalyst in remembering his youth. Butterflies represent innocence and joy. The shadow of a man (a good contrast against the whites of the background) is chasing a butterfly of remarkable size and the ideas that follow it. The words innocence, bliss, and hope surround it. The size of the butterfly compared to the man, or even the net, hints that the man will be unsuccessful in his attempt to capture both the butterfly and innocence.

The Motif in Hugo's Poem

I always have trouble with poems, mainly with identifying the speaker and object. Two pivotal things when analyzing a poem. Well, here it goes.

The speaker of the poem is writing about virginal lovers. The first sentence of the poem (line 1 through 6) is about children (“little lovers”) and their playtime with the butterflies (“white wings”). The use of white throughout the poem makes the object seem very virginal and innocent. The time frame of the poem changes when the speaker says “Ah, the Spring time…” in line 7. From this point on, the object has changed from children to young lovers. The young lovers throughout the early spring (line 7 through 13) fantasize about one another, and write to each other, but once May arrives, one forgets the other. The love letters are forgotten, and are lost to the wind (“play things for the winds playtime”). From this point on, the speaker is creating a likeness between the love letters and butterflies (line 15 - 20). When interpreting the poem, between lines 15 and 20, I think the speaker is saying “We dream that all white butterflies who are searching for their own loves, and leave their mothers behind as they search for new beginnings, are just old love letters that are eventually forgotten and become butterflies.” I think the speaker is implying that the love letters are the actual young lovers, who are beginning to fall in love for themselves and leave their home. The “lady mistress in despair” is the mother who regards these innocent creatures (the butterflies) and realizes that one day her own child will “flit to flowers, as kinder and more fair”.

I think butterflies are essential to this work because they imply that these first love letters in April are not the signs of a true relationship, but the beginning of the age of finding a love. The young men and women are innocently experimenting with their hearts. By using a creature that has a brief life, and is very delicate, the love the speaker mentions becomes very virginal. It is not filled with unrequited longing, since the love letters themselves are forgotten and turn into butterflies, creatures that will soon die and be lost. Here, butterflies are used in the most common of ways, for innocence. They are also used to show the metamorphosis between childhood and adulthood, another common theme.

The Genesis of the Butterflies

Unfortunately, I could not find the French original of this poem. (The English translation was composed by Andrew Lang.) I would have liked to look at the French, and have something to compare the English too.

by: Victor Hugo (1802-1885)

THE dawn is smiling on the dew that covers
The tearful roses; lo, the little lovers
That kiss the buds, and all the flutterings
In jasmine bloom, and privet, of white wings,
That go and come, and fly, and peep and hide,
With muffled music, murmured far and wide.
Ah, the Spring time, when we think of all the lays
That dreamy lovers send to dreamy mays,
Of the fond hearts within a billet bound,
Of all the soft silk paper that pens wound,
The messages of love that mortals write
Filled with intoxication of delight,
Written in April and before the May time
Shredded and flown, playthings for the wind's playtime,
We dream that all white butterflies above,
Who seek through clouds or waters souls to love,
And leave their lady mistress in despair,
To flit to flowers, as kinder and more fair,
Are but torn love-letters, that through the skies
Flutter, and float, and change to butterflies.

The Motif in "Loan Shark"

As previously stated, I love “Loan Shark”, but I confess that even after some close-reading I am still a little confused by what the poem is saying. But since I finally discovered what a loan shark is, I feel a little more confident in my idea.

I think that “Loan Shark” is a story about a young man who suffered a criminal catastrophe within his family (the references to lies and jails and the actual title make me think it was a crime) that made him question his self. The speaker is the man/woman, and the audience is the guilty one who affected him so. The beginning of the song is quiet, and the speaker reflects on his surroundings. In the next verse of the song “Hard rain… unravel your mind” the speaker admits to always loving his audience, despite the press (“the papers”) and dirty facts (“grit and grime”) which come alongside trials and crimes and blackmail. Before the musical climax of the song, the butterfly appears, which stresses its importance. “Tell me…. to lie” is a question to the guilty relation of the speaker. This part of the song says “Tell me what it was like to charge the innocent with your crime and have Robert go to jail for it, and have us lie to ourselves and everyone”. The speaker uses “breaks a butterfly” to show the ludicrousness of harming an innocent by having that one absorb the guilt. The climax of the song, “Sometimes… around me” is a very powerful moment. The remaining verses of the song show the consequences of this event. The speaker admits that this event forced him to change who he looked up to (“all my heroes are dying around me”). He says that he constantly dreams, and hopes that when he dies he will finally find some reason in all that has happened (“And all my answers…steadied by reason”). He decides that he will “cut” himself so that he will have no self, and can break from “burning stretched within”. His quest for understanding of his self in light of the event is the idea that finishes the song. He contemplates on it further (“I spent a long day…breathing it out”), but the slow pace of the song at the end makes me think that he is deciding to slowly forget about the trouble the event caused him.

In this musical work, the appearance of the butterfly gave me the idea that this song is a story about a crime and its effects. Without the butterfly, and the association to innocence I have gathered from other works, I would never have thought to interpret the song in that way. Using Wikipedia and finally learning what a loan shark was also helped me. Yay. Thank you, motif.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Motif in "Lolita"

In Nabokov’s afterward to his novel “On a Book Entitled Lolita”, he mentions two important facts that are essential in understanding the appearance of butterflies in the work. One: “everybody should know that I detest symbols and allegories” and two, “Lolita was energetically resumed on the evenings or on cloudy days” while butterfly hunting. The first statement validates the importance of butterflies within the work. Despite Nabokov’s distaste for symbols, the prevalence of butterflies assures the reader that there can be meaning drawn from the creatures’ several appearances. However, Nabokov’s statement also suggests the frequency of the butterfly motif. Butterflies do not appear on every page or chapter. References to butterflies are often as slight as using the verb “flutter” rather than “beating” to describe the rhythm of one’s heart. If the pages of Lolita were to be overrun with the bright insect, it would be very uncharacteristically Nabokov, and the fact that they appear so few times, in true Nabokovian style, makes the motif all the more enchanting. To me at least.

The second statement hints at the intimacy of Nabokov’s use of butterflies. As I previously posted, Nabokov’s butterfly collections have appeared in leading U.S. universities and museums, and several species were named after him. His quote “Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man” shows his intense delight with the creatures. Just as Lolita is filled with Humbert Humbert’s many private jokes, plusieurs en fran├žais, the motif of butterflies and other fairy-like beasts become a sort of inside joke for Nabokov. Many expected to find some sort of hidden meaning in Lolita, but Nabokov confesses it has “no moral in tow” and “For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me aesthetic bliss…” Nabokov also calls books of literary merit “Literature of Ideas…very often tropical trash”. There is one point in the novel, chapter 20 of part two, where the butterfly motif is so obvious that I see it as Nabokov’s commentary on author’s who overuse motifs for lack of literary genius. Between two paragraphs where H. H. comments on his love for Dolores Haze, there is the single sentence “An inquisitive butterfly passed, dipping, between us.” This blatant reference amongst several brief appearances is my least favorite use of the motif in the book, despite its importance in explication.

Butterflies are used in Lolita when Humbert Humbert describes Dolores Haze and other nymphets. Words like “frail, silky, fragile, fairy-like” all reference the tender and delicate young girls that Humbert Humbert fancies. This is a physical likeness to the insect. The appearance of butterflies, like the sentence from chapter 20, are used to show Lolita‘s innocence and metamorphosis. In this chapter, Humbert Humbert is reflecting on how Lolita has grown in the two years he has known her. She is almost fifteen, and in a few years, after she escapes Humbert Humbert, she will be a young pregnant wife. This metamorphosis from Lolita to Dolly Schiller (her married name) is heartbreaking for Humbert. Butterflies, noted for their biological transformation, make an excellent motif to illustrate Lolita’s change. They also are excellent in illustrating her innocence because of their delicate appearance and distance from human concerns. Humbert, in many ways, captures Lolita as if she were a butterfly and he Nabokov. In chapter 11 of part one, he compares himself to a pale spider that has a super sensitive web stretched throughout the house, ready to sense Lolita. This insect reference where Humbert is the predator and Lolita the prey foreshadows the journey of the brute and his butterfly. Once Humbert takes Lolita away from Ramsdale, the two become alienated from society. She has no real childhood with a father and mother, and he has no place in America amongst Suburbia and the Wild West. Lolita loses her innocence because of Humbert, yet Humbert is still desperately trying to keep that childhood bliss within her. In catching Lolita, she becomes someone else, and his continued passion for her despite it all eventually dooms him.

Butterflies have very few defenses. Lolita, while she was cunning in finding a way to escape from the incest, alienation, and identity crisis her relationship to Humbert placed her in, was eventually weakened by her own ploys. When she escaped to Quilty, a pedophile even more pornographic than Humbert (the evil mirror of Humbert) she grew defenseless after several dirty films, and ran away from him as well. She ran to a young man, became pregnant, and as the story goes, died young without returning to Humbert. Her several transformations and brief life remind me of a butterfly. In many literary works, butterflies are often used to express the fastness of life, since their lives are also very quick.

Butterflies are not a huge or even terribly memorable part of Lolita. My favorite parts of the novel are the many allusions and literary jokes, and motifs are somewhere in the background. Because Nabokov spoke of symbols and “Literature of Ideas” with such distaste, I enjoyed searching through the pages for symbols and motifs. But it was not as fun as actually reading the prose. And while, regrettably, I have learned very little about Nabokov, I feel that I can make the assertion that he would have been happy, or at least indifferent, that I enjoyed reading Lolita more than searching through it. While butterflies do appear, and questions about innocence, alienation as a result of incest, identity crises, and transformations are all expressed by the appearances of the motif, it is important to understand that this is not the heart of the novel. The motif may explain these themes in an alternate way, but primarily the themes are drawn from the text through the allusions, eloquence, and wit of Humbert Humbert, which will forever be the core of Lolita.