Carol Anderson’s White Rage

Paper instructions:
What is her position/thesis?
What major planks does she use in constructing her argument?
What are the broader implications of that thesis?
What are the strengths [i.e. elegant pieces of synthesis, logical conclusions, unassailable observations, etc…] and/or weaknesses [inconsistencies, unanswered questions, leaps of faith, etc…] of her position?
What evidence does she use and how does she use it?

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Desperate Characters by Paula Fox: Analysis

Almost fifty years passed since the first publication of the novel Desperate Characters by Paula Fox in 1970. Portraying the deteriorating marriage of a childless couple in their middle age, the novel captures the American social reality in the 1960s. Among the numerous powerful literary devices ranging from allusions to remarkable metaphors, the symbolic description of the corporal reality surrounding the characters presents the most significant expressive imagery: the description of the household and the objects it contains as well as the district and the animal which are symbolic for Bentwood marriage and the social status they possess.


From the very beginning of the story, Fox starts with the description of a table which serves as a stage, a picture of the economic conditions and the class representation of the married couple. By the recitation of the meals and kitchen utensils,“the straw basket which held slices of French bread, an earthenware casserole filled with sautéed chicken livers, peeled and sliced tomatoes on an oval willowware platter Sophie had found in a Brooklyn Heights antique shop, and risotto Milanese in a green ceramic bowl (Fox 3),” the author focuses on the polished surfaces, “stainless steel” as in contrast to tense and messy relationship of Bentwoods. The author continues with the description of the bedroom which objects are “a bookcase which held, among other volumes, the complete works of Goethe and two shelves of French poets, and the highly polished corner of a Victorian secretary” (Fox 3). By avoiding the direct description of the appearance, the age or the hobbies of the main characters, Fox effectively and precisely provides accurate understanding to the reader by describing the objects constructing the reality of Sophie and Otto: both have high economic status, are intellectuals, and ignore the fragility of their marriage.
The name of the place the characters reside is Brooklyn Heights, space which demonstrates wealth and bourgeois culture. Though everything is artificially refined, the careful gaze of a reader through the character’s perception in the text catches the misery yet imperfections: the garbage on the street which the woman throws out of the building, the dirty stray cat transmitting the diseases even in the upper-class neighborhood where wealth cannot save the residents from the human disasters. The cat itself is a symbol of a diseased neighborhood, society, and Bentwood’s worsening relationship, “Its (the cat’s) gray fur, the gray of tree fungus, was faintly striped. Its head was massive, a pumpkin, jowled and unprincipled and grotesque” (Fox 3). The cat itself is a problem which should be solved. Meanwhile, the characters express different attitudes towards the animal that is symbolic for their diseased marriage. To Otto, the cat is repulsive being a problem which the character prefers to ignore. As for Sophie, the cat is a problem which “deserves” solution – it needs to be taken care of and fed. Therefore, by the attitudes towards the cat that is a symbol for Bentwoods’ marriage, Fox demonstrates the approaches of the characters towards their relationship.

As for Sophie, the character inextricably connects her inner world to the outer one. It is known that she likes cooking, and while alluding to the future of their marriage, Sophie refers to questioning the constantly changing world of the neighborhood, “What happens to the people in them (houses) when the houses are bought? Where do they go? I always wonder about that” (Fox 4). By referring to the external world which objects are shaky and can be bought by anyone with money, Sophie not only expresses uncertainties about her marriage but also fears about their social and economic status which can be changed and “bought” like a house by those who are wealthier and luckier. Hence, the objects and spaces reflect not only the attitudes of characters towards each other but towards the external world and their place in society also.

The search for control is also an additional aspect the author explores. While Otto is a man of habit, one who firmly stands on the ground under his feet and remains confident in the choices and future, Sophie struggles to gain control in the household and personal life. Too old for the resilient “baby boomers’” lifestyle, the woman does everything to control her aging body, at least by the help of expensive creams which prove her wealthiness and give confidence in her social status. The external world intimidates Sophie yet the need to leave her house, her kitchen which have turned into realms associated with control and habits, and visiting the hospital is scaring to the woman yet expands the conflict in the novel.
Conclusively, the description of the objects in the apartment and the spaces where the characters live constructs the characters’ habits, their lifestyles, the fears, and the beliefs. The cat as an animal of the external world in the entire imagery adds uncertainties to Sophie’s perception of herself, the social status, and the ability to control everything in her life. Also, by mentioning the spaces, for instance, the name of the neighborhood, the author reveals the details which the characters never speak about: Otto contemplates the imperfectness of their world the symbol for which is a woman throwing the garbage out, while by talking about the house sales, Sophie expresses the uncertainties regarding their future.

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