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KAM Pui Yu Jason 2008235132 Professor Jennifer McMahon ENGL2055 American Gothic 7 December 2011 The past inhabiting the present its link to identity construction William Faulkner said in his story Requiem for a Nun, the past is never dead; its not even past. This expresses the notion that ones past often inhabits the present in that there is always a tendency for the past to affect ones actions and ones life in the present, effectively becoming a part of ones present experience. This notion is prevalent in a large part of American gothic literature. One of the reasons for this is this notion can be a very important part of a characters life; through recalling the past and/or the resurfacing of the past, his or her identity is being shaped or reformed. The past is never dead and constantly inhabits the present because the process of shaping ones identity is rarely a once-and-for-all affair; it is continuous in that ones identity is negotiated, formed and reformed throughout ones life. This essay will examine this idea that ones identity is shaped through his or her recalling of the past and/or the resurfacing of his or her past. Two texts in American Gothic literature will be looked at, namely Sherwood Andersons Death in the Woods and Toni Morrisons Beloved. The essay will first look at the ways in which the narrator in Death in the Woods recalls a past story with the aim of letting that past become a part of his life in order for him to know more about his life and construct his own identity in the short story. Then the paper will examine the constant resurfacing of the past of Paul D, one of the main characters in Morrisons Beloved, and how it affects the shaping of his identity throughout the novel. In Death in the Woods, while on the surface the narrator is simply retelling a story of the past, that of the life of an old farm woman, Mrs. Grimes, a close reading of the text will tell that the narrator is actually doing so to achieve much more than that; he is trying to

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achieve self-discovery and ultimately, the construction of his identity. This can be seen in two ways: first, as Lawry mentions, the insufficiency of the moral of the story that [t]he woman who died was one destined to feed animal life in justifying the inclusion of several details or scenes within the story (306), and second, the way in which the narrator tells the story in that he constantly interrupts the retelling of Mrs. Grimess story and relates what happened to her to the relevant events in his own life. To illustrate, the narrator dedicates several paragraphs in detailing the moments prior to Mrs. Grimess death, where the pack of dogs owned by the Grimes family ran in circles in the clearing in which she rested and ultimately lost her consciousness. This ritual of the pack of dogs running in circles has little to do with the moral of the story, that Mrs. Grimess spent all her life feeding animals. While what happens after her death, when the dogs rip open the bag of food which had been carried by Mrs. Grimes, seemed to relate to the moral of the story, it is not described in much detail, with only several sentences talking about the bag and how it has become food for the dogs, by extension implying that even after her death Mrs. Grimes continued to feed animals. In contrast, the circling ritual described in detail in several paragraphs had little to do with the moral. Also, the emotions that the narrator feels upon seeing the dead woman again have little to do with the moral of the story. When the narrator describes the body for the first time, he says that in death, the body looked like that of some charming young girl. When recalling his feelings upon seeing the body, he describes that he trembled with some strange mystical feeling. He also repeats throughout the latter part of the story about the body, saying that it looked white and lovely. Such details about the dead body as well as the narrators feelings towards it are not sufficiently justified by the moral of the story, as they scarcely have anything to with feeding animals. It is not necessary to include such details had the story been told by the narrator to convey the message that Mrs. Grimes spent her entire life feeding animals. From these details, it could be seen that the narrators retelling of the

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story of Mrs. Grimess is not told for the sake of telling a story or for bringing out the moral that she spent her life feeding animals. The way in which the narrator retells Mrs. Grimess story, with numerous junctures at which the narrator interrupts his story-telling with descriptions of relevant events in his own life, is telling evidence that the ultimate aim of retelling the past is to allow the narrator to understand more about his own life and in the process construct his identity; it is really concerned not with the woman alone, but with the receiving (here, a creating) consciousness, who is the narrator (Lawry 307). To draw from one of the previous examples, the ritual performed by the circling pack of dogs is described in such detail because the narrator intends to use this detailed recollection as a means of finding meaning of a relevant event in his own life, as the narrator also had a similar experience, saying that he once saw a pack of dogs that behaved similarly to the ones prior to Mrs. Grimess death when he was a young man. The narrator is proactively recalling the past in order to make sense of what happens in his life, in turn helping him construct his identity and affirm his beliefs, in this case, of the bizarre, almost supernatural behavior of dogs and their associations with wolves when they sense the coming of death, as dogs are likened to wolves more than once in the story. The death ritual is also mentioned a few times. The narrators recollection of what he saw and felt about the body of Mrs. Grimes, also mentioned previously, also contributes to his formation of identity; in death the old woman that is Mrs. Grimes did not look old and that the body itself looked white and lovely, so like marble. This implies that through recollecting Mrs. Grimess story and the past the narrator has found what is definitive for him as young and beautiful women: women freed from the burden of having to spend their lives to satisfy others needs, as prior to her death, Mrs. Grimes is referred to as an old farm woman. However, after her death, which effectively frees her from the laborious duty of

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serving her husband and son, she becomes young and lovely. Therefore, it could be seen that the narrators recalling the past contributes towards his formation of his own identity. Although Paul D in Beloved rarely recalls memories as proactively as the narrator in Death in the Woods, the resurfacing of his past, his confrontations with it and his ultimate reconciliation with it serve to contribute to the construction of Paul Ds identity as well. Even at the beginning parts of the story, Paul D recalls his traumatizing past in Alfred, Georgia and how it continued to inhabit the present, as he had shut down a generous portion of his head, operating on the part that helped him walk, eat, sleep, sing (Morrison 49), forming his identity of an almost emotionless, inhuman being. Only when he begins to become more involved in the lives of Sethe, Denver and Beloved and when he begins to confront his past that he can break free of the restraint that he has casted upon himself. Later in the story, as he opens up and discusses with Sethe the part of his past when he was punished by schoolteacher and had to wear a bit as a horse does, he constructs his identity in front of Sethe to one that is somewhat weak, ashamed and resembles a fractured manhood, as he believes that there was no way [hed] ever be Paul D again and that he became something less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub (Morrison 86). Similarly, Paul Ds perception of his identity as a man is again called into question when he recalls schoolteachers arrival at Sweet Home, the farm in which he worked as a slave, and how he had taken away all that Paul D had thought made him a man, for example the previous farm owners treatment of his slaves as men and how the previous owner had trusted and listened to them. This memory led to the resurfacing of all the other instances that he thought had made him less autonomous and therefore less of a man, for example being imprisoned in Alfred, Georgia and also his recent sexual encounter with Beloved, in which he felt he was being manipulated. Towards the latter part of the story, after Paul D leaves Sethe and takes shelter in the basement of the local church, he again recalls his life in the past as a slave and his lack of an identity in that

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while other slaves had family like mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles, he only had brothers. He also doubted his previous belief that his identity as a man was stronger before schoolteachers reign over Sweet Home. As he recalls the price which schoolteacher sold him for, his perception of his identity not only became emasculated, but dehumanized altogether as his worth was calculated in monetary terms as if he was a commodity. However in the end, Paul D recalls the numerous attempts at escaping or running away, for instance running away from Sweet Home and from prison in Alfred, Georgia, and wonders why he continues to run, even from Sethe. He then recalls Sixo, a fellow slave worker back at Sweet Home, telling him how his sweetheart gathered up the shattered pieces within him and [gave] them back to [him] in all the right order (Morrison 321), enabling Paul D to recognize that Sethe can help him to restore his identity as a human and as a man. From all this, it could be seen that while Paul D doesnt retell stories of the past in the same manner as the narrator in Death in the Woods, the formers recollections and the resurfacing of his past still serve to contribute to the construction and reformation of his identity in different ways. The notion of the past constantly inhabiting the present is prevalent in a large part of American gothic literature. From the analysis of the narrator in Sherwood Andersons Death in the Woods and Paul D in Toni Morrisons Beloved, this notion could be seen to contribute to the construction of ones identity, just as in real life, where one often recollects as one matures in order to understand more about ones life and ultimately, ones identity.

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Works Cited Anderson, Sherwood. Death in the Woods. Death in the Woods and Other Stories. Project Gutenberg of Australia, May 2004. Web. 6 Dec. 2011. Lawry, Jon S. Death in the Woods and the Artists Self in Sherwood Anderson. Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 74.3 (1959): 306-11. Web. 6 Dec. 2011. Morrison, Toni. Beloved. 1987. London: Vintage, 2007. Print.