A Journal Of The Plague Year By Daniel Defoe: A Scholarly Review Of The Book

In A Journal Of The Plague Year, Daniel Defoe examined his contemporary environment of London during the Plague Year of 1665, using a fictional narrator named

In A Journal Of The Plague Year, Daniel Defoe examined his contemporary environment of London during the Plague Year of 1665, using a fictional narrator named ‘H.F.’ to describe the onset and progression of the Plague, as well as the various attempts, both physical and supernatural, to contain it. The Plague caused a great haranguing fear to fall upon London and profoundly affected the inhabitants in ways that cannot be described, considering “the Deliriums which the Agony threw people into” (Defoe 142). People, both literally and figuratively, went insane from fear, and in turn, the foundational basis on which society was built was utterly destroyed. This is, from what one can pull from H.F.’s observations, completely understandable. For as H.F. recounts, “Death now began not, as we may say, to hover over every ones Head only, but to look into their Houses, and Chambers, and stare in their Faces” (Defoe 31). The sheer devastation was unparalleled, for “’tis certain they [the people] died by Heaps, and were buried by Heaps” (Defoe 203). As Bonney put it, “the recurrence of Plague was one of the more important brakes on the population” (Bonney 367). The staggering death toll changed the way people viewed their lives and the political, economic, social, and religious situations around them.

At the early onset of the Plague, H.F. recounts that a “great Multitude” had fled the City, and that during this time, “the [Royal] Court removed early, in the month of June, and went to Oxford, where it pleas’d God to preserve them, whereby H.F. humorously, though rather absent mindedly, pointed out that, “there would be really none but Magistrates and Servants left in the City” (Defoe 15). This is confirmed in Bonney’s resourceful book when he says that, “Kings, ministers and even whole institutions such as provincial Parlements in France would leave the infected locality” (Bonney 368). Even in the absence of the Royal Court, the government was still able to make decisions regarding the Plague, such as “[encouraging] their Devotion, and [appointing publick Prayers, and Days of fasting and Humiliation” (Defoe 26).  As the development of the Plague spread and the death toll increased, the London government looked for more effective, although inevitably harsher, tactics to enforce against the Plague. In the Journal, H.F. speaks of the “publick Measures [that] were taken by the Magistrates for the general Safety, and to prevent the spreading of the Distemper, when it first broke out” in an attempt to “[preserve] good Order” and “[furnish] provisions” (Defoe 33).

The general bill of death in 1665 (Image Source).

One such attempt to control the spread was the “cruel and Unchristian Method” of the “shutting up of houses” that were “within the Lord Mayor’s Jurisdiction” and that of the “Justices of Peace” (Defoe 42). The death rate in these Plague houses was remarkably high as related by Bonney, when he said that, “the quarantine of areas affected by the Plague, the burning of ‘contaminated’ houses and possessions and clothes of Plague victims, intensified hardship. The mortality rate in evacuation camps and Plague houses was exceptionally high” (Bonney 368). The innocent were in many cases shut up with the ill and thus condemned to die, but such was the terrible course of action to preserve the greater good. As H.F. lamentably relates, “the Misery of those families is not to be express’d, and it was generally in such Houses that we heard the most dismal Shrieks and Out-cries of the poor People terrified, and even frighted to Death, by the Sight of the Condition of their dearest Relations, and by the Terror of being imprisoned as they were” (Defoe 49). H.F. tells of a family who was locked up in their house because of a maidservant who caught the affliction; as a result of their imprisonment, the whole body of people in that house perished. This may of course have seemed a harsh and cruel method, but as H.F. later countered, “A Plague is a formidable Enemy, and is arm’d with Terrors that every Man is not sufficiently fortified to resist, or prepar’d to stand the Shock against” (Defoe 202). After all, the only way to fight terror is with terror.

Of trade, H.F. states that, “at the first breaking out of the Infection, there was ... a very great fright among the People, and consequently a general stop of Trade” (Defoe 190). For fear of spreading the Plague, the ports of foreign countries would not allow English ships to disembark, and likewise no ships were accepted in other countries affected by the Plague, such as in the Netherlands, where it was first noted in Europe. As H.F. notes, “there needs little to be said [as to foreign trade]...no Port of France, or Holland, or Spain, or Italy would admit our Ships or correspond with us” and consequently, “our Merchants accordingly were at full Stop” (Defoe 183). If any vessel from London were to arrive in mainland Europe it would not be allowed to unload its goods, or even land in Port or elsewhere. Such measures were due of course, to “the manner of its coming first to London by Goods brought over from Holland” (Defoe 167).

According to what H.F. recounts in his Journal, horror and despair exaggerated the “Report of [the Plague abroad],” which is understandable seeing how “the Plague was it self very terrible and the Distress of the People very great,” so that those abroad believed, falsely, “that in London there died twenty thousand in a Week” and “that all the Kingdom was infected likewise” (Defoe 184-185). In actuality, under a tenth of population died in this horrid outbreak, according to H.F., and that a great multitude of people were left that lived all that time in London. That is not to say, however, or in anyway undervalue the true disastrous nature of the Plague, “for [in] the Minds of the People,” ... “Death was before their Eyes, and every Body began to think of their Graves, not of Mirth and Diversions” (Defoe 27). No one was safe and no one felt safe, and the worst of it all was that everyone knew this terrible fact, making life meaningless. Such was the nature of the disease, that “Men [who were seen] alive, and well to outward Appearance one Hour, [were] dead the next” (Defoe 168). During the progression of the Plague, it was difficult to discern who exactly was sick and who wasn’t, for as H.F. says, “People sicken’d so fast, and died so soon, that it was impossible and indeed to no purpose to go about to enquire who was sick and who was well” (Defoe 143). The Plague had such a detrimental effect on society as a whole, in that it “took away all Compassion,” so that “there were many Instances of immovable Affection, Pity, and Duty” that were consequently disregarded, so great was the “utmost distress” of the living (Defoe 100). The despair shared by the masses moved many to commit vile and vulgar acts, in the knowledge that they had perhaps mere days or hours to live. As H.F. says, “for tho’ it be something wonderful to tell, that any should have Hearts so hardned, in the midst of such a Calamity, as to rob and steal; yet certain it is, that all Sorts of Villanies, and even Levities and Debaucheries were then practis’d in the Town, as openly as ever” (Defoe 15). Suicidal propensities and violent reprisals against the ill were also undertaken, such as the case H.F. described of “One man in or about Whitecross-street, [who] burnt himself to Death in his Bed,” rather than suffer the agonizing death by Plague (Defoe 142). Another account is given by H.F. of “Nurses who looked after the dying People, using them barbarously, starving them, smothering them, or by wicked Means, hastening their End, that is to say, murthering of them” (Defoe 72). In some cases, Watchmen guarding Plague houses were also targeted by desperate people, such as a case in which “Watchmen [who] were on their Duty, and acting in the Post where they were plac’d by a lawful Authority” were summarily killed for the Execution of [their] office” (Defoe 134).

Despite, or perhaps because of, all the terror and delirium caused by the Plague, H.F. remarks that, “it is said of the People of London, that during the whole time of the Pestilence, the Churches or Meetings were never wholly shut up, nor did the People decline coming out to the public Worship of God” (Defoe 179). This is further supported when H.F. states that these gatherings “People attended with an uncommon devotion,” in order to show how they “apply’d themselves in a truly Christian Manner, to the proper Work of Repentance and Humiliation, as a Christian People ought to do” (Defoe 26). The desperations, to which people were thrown into, with Death staring at them from all sides, caused many, truly or falsely, to ask for forgiveness from God, believing it the only way to save themselves, in this life or the next. H.F. recounts in a particular passage, which I found very remarkable, that “Many Consciences were awakened; many hard Hearts melted into Tears; many a penitent Confession was made of Crimes long concealed” as “People might be heard even into the Streets as we pass’d along, ... and saying, I have been a Thief, I have been an Adulterer, I have been a Murderer, and the like” (Defoe 31).

In conclusion, Defoe accomplished his goal of presenting an account of the Plague in the year 1665, backing it up with contemporary evidence in a well-argued and interesting book. Though the text, like practically all works, has a few minor problems, it still remains clear, albeit sometimes a bit dense, in its explanations. One thing that is detrimental to the reading of the book is its lack of structure; the entire book is one undivided whole. What makes Defoe’s book a masterpiece is the thoroughness with which he analyzes and interprets various aspects and characteristics of the problems of the nightmarish period. After reading this book, one can certainly say that it was written for an audience with a high level of reading and writing. Some basic background information of the period is strongly recommended to know before attempting to read this book, and it would certainly facilitate the understanding of it. Overall, the work was thought-provoking and interesting, and it should be read by anyone interested in European history.

© 2011 Gregory Markov


Defoe, Daniel. A Journal Of The Plague Year. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.

Bonney, Richard. The Short Oxford, History of the Modern World: The European Dynastic States 1494-1660. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.


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The Emperors New Sonnet by Jose Garcia Villa: An Analysis

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A critical analysis of Villa's classic wordless poem.

The Poem:

The Emperor’s New Sonnet


Just a background on the author, Jose Garcia Villa was a Filipino poet, short-story writer, painter, and literary critic who was awarded the National Artist of the Philippines for literature in 1973. He was known for being one of the renowned “artsakists” of his time who believed that art should be for art’s sake. And although he advised his students that poems are “written with words, not ideas,” he released poems such as The Bashful One, which consists only of a comma, and of course, The Emperor’s New Sonnet, which contains nothing at all, other than the title.

On normal circumstances, I would go through a poem line per line in analyzing one, and see how every line would contribute to the overall meaning. However, the poem to be tackled has no meter, no extended metaphors, no symbolisms, nor any text whatsoever. All we are banking on is its title, which alludes to the popular children’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes, which was written by Hans Christian Anderson.

Hans Christian Anderson / Wikimedia

The story is an attack on snobbery and pretension, and makes fun of people who do not have their own say on what is beautiful and tend to rely on other people’s judgments before making their own. It tells its readers that sometimes, we need to view things as innocent as a child would so that we could plainly see what true beauty is, free from all social conditioning that often warps their perspective on things.

With this in mind, let us now tackle the poem by Jose Garcia Villa, which has no words at all. What we have here is something that tells readers that it is a poem, although in reality, there really is nothing. There is no beautiful weaving of words, and it seems like the poet is mocking the reader by telling them to accept the blankness as poetry, in the same way that the weavers the emperor in the story hired expects him to accept his invisible suit as one of the most beautiful in the world.

In all objectivity, there really is no poem in The Emperor’s New Sonnet, although it calls itself one. Although there are literary critics and intellectuals who can extract some meaning from the blankness, there would undoubtedly be that child in us that wants to shout out that this is not a poem, and that it is only a blank page.

We can probably borrow the moral lesson in the story and put it into the context of this poem. There are probably times when, like the characters in the story, we have felt the need to convince ourselves that a work of art is beautiful, just because some ruling body deemed it so, even though we ourselves did not genuinely appreciate it. There must have been some time when you came across some abstract painting and thought that it was something a child could have done, and yet you just kept mum about it, because it was supposedly created by a world-class painter. Or a time when an artsy-fartsy friend asked you what you thought about this foreign film you totally found boring, and answered that it was nice. Or a time in English class where you were forced to nod and say that you liked a certain short story, even though you did not understand a single thing from it.

Oftentimes we are too quick to suppress our own judgments; for fear that other people may find us “less-cultured” or even downright stupid if we would not agree with them. In effect, we no longer practice our critical thinking, thinking that anyway, there are authorities who can decide for us, and we wouldn’t mind being enslaved to their judgments because we can readily dismiss that they are right.

However, this shouldn’t be the case, and The Emperor’s Sonnet tells us this in its own eccentric way. It plays on how readers would think of it, on whether the blank space is a poem or not, while reminding them of the message in the story The Emperor’s New Clothes.

On why Jose Garcia Villa wrote this (if you would call that writing), I could make a guess. He was known to be one of the harshest critics of Filipino poetry in English in his time, and has angered many of those who received his critiques. And I wouldn’t exactly blame the subjects of his critiques for their reactions. To one literary collection, for example, he wrote: “The poetry you print is unforgivable. It stinks. My God, if I had judicial power, I’d throw you in jail for publishing such rot and exemplifying them before the public as good poetry, thus submerging the public still more.”

In one essay, he wrote that there wasn’t anyone who was educated enough in poetry in the Philippines. The country, according to him, was “deluged with poet-simpletons—triflers in verse, poets without crania—the producers of featherweight poetry.”

Perhaps it was his frustration with Philippine poetry in English that drove him to create The Emperor’s New Sonnet. Frustrated, or maybe even disgusted, with the praise that some of the Filipino poets were getting from the critics, he may have written the poem to target those who readily accept the so called “featherweight” poetry of his time, who were, perhaps, reading poetry in the same way that the emperor’s ministers and the townspeople were looking at the emperor’s “suit.” Perhaps with this poem of his, he sought to serve as the child in the story to challenge what he felt was a sorry state of Philippine poetry in his time.

Whether you’re still debating with yourself if this is a poem or not, it is undeniable that Villa’s The Emperor’s New Sonnet shall continue to provoke and baffle its readers for many years to come.




The Critical Villa: Essays in Literary Criticism by Jose Garcia Villa, compiled and edited by Jonathan Chua

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Iambic Pentameter

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Petrarchan (Italian) Sonnet

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Shakespearean (English) Sonnet

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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Plot Summary of Volume Two

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The tale of Frankenstein touches on issues of bioethics, morality, religion and existentialism. Here is a summary of Volume II of the three volume story of Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was written in three volumes. Links at the bottom of the article will take you to the summaries of Volume one and two as well as to an introduction and character summary.

Plot Summary Volume II

After a time of grieving with his family over the death of William, Victor sets out on a journey, not to pursue the monster but to find relief from his despair. He sets out toward the Swiss Alps on horseback and finds that his spirit is lightened by the magnificence and beauty of the mountains. It has been two months since the execution of Justine.

Victor decides to make an ascent to a glacier field during a particularly cloudy day. It is an invigorating and soul satisfying climb and his heart is overwhelmed with joy over the sight of the mountains beyond. As he sits in a recess of the rock he utters these words “Wandering spirits, if indeed ye wander, and do not rest in your narrow beds, allow me this faint happiness, or take me, as your companion, away from the joys of life.” It is at this moment that he sees the figure of a man approaching him across the ice at superhuman speed. As the man gets closer Victor realizes with rage and horror that it is the monster. He resolves to wait and engage the monster in mortal combat.

When the monster arrives Victor threatens to kill him. The monster responds, “All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things!” “You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.

Victor lunges at the monster intending to kill him but the monster is superior and eludes him. The monster declares that his life is precious to him and he will defend it but he has no wish to be in opposition to his creator. “I am thy creature”. He tells Victor that he will be docile and mild to his natural lord and king if Victor will only fulfill his duty. He asserts that he is due the justice, clemency and affection of his creator. “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed” He claims that he was, in the beginning, benevolent and good but that the exclusion from the joys of life has made him a fiend. His desolation and pain are apparent as he begs compassion and goodness from Frankenstein. 

A long dialog ensues between the monster, as he defends himself and asserts his rights to compassion and joy. Frankenstein rejects and curses him. The monster insists that Victor accompany him to his hut to hear the tale of how he came to gain the knowledge of language and life and joy. Victor complies with the request out of a sense of duty and indeed begins to feel his responsibility to his creature.

The monster and Frankenstein arrive at the hut that the monster calls home. A fire is lit and the monster begins his monolog of remembrances of his creation and the dawning of his awareness and enlightenment. He reflects on the joy of living and the excitement of discovering and experiencing his sensory faculties and his growing comprehension of the world into which he has come.

He turns then to the dark and hateful experiences that have caused him to flee into isolation. He has been chased and attacked with stones and weapons and reviled whenever he has sought contact with humans. It is in fear that he has sought refuge in a hovel adjacent to a cottage where the De Lacey family dwells. He dwells on his isolation “no Eve soothed my sorrows nor shared my thoughts; I was alone. I remembered Adam’s supplication to His Creator. But where was mine? He had abandoned me, and in the bitterness of my heart I cursed him.”

In hiding, he begins his observation of the family through a hole in the wall between his hovel and the main cabin and learns a great deal about the normal relationships among people. He observes a poor but gentle family and learns about reading and music and affection. He is able to learn language through his close observation. He becomes fond of the family and finds ways to help them secretly. He dreams of the day that he can reveal himself to them and win their affection in spite of his dreadful appearance.

The day arrives when he decides to reveal himself. He first approaches the blind father when the others are gone. He appeals to his sense of charity and love for others. The old man is warm and encouraging to the monster. In the midst of their conversation the others return and upon entering the cottage are horrified. Felix strikes out at the monster beating him while the women scream and faint. Although the monster could easily break the bones of Felix and destroy him, he flees instead in sorrow and pain.

The failure of his efforts to connect with the family has driven him to deep despair and rage at his creator. As he processes the events he decides that he will make one more effort to win the hearts of the De Lacey’s. He returns to the cottage but finds that they have moved out. In a rage he burns it and destroys the garden that was regularly tended by Felix. He leaves the region to find Victor Frankenstein.

As he reaches Geneva he encounters a young boy playing and decides that perhaps he can make friends with the child. When he reveals himself to the child the child begins screaming and the monster picks him up and tries to quiet him. The child tells him that his father is M. Frankenstein and that he will come to rescue him. When the monster discovers the child’s identity he kills him and finds pleasure in the revenge he has taken upon Victor. He leaves the dead child and flees into the mountains.

Now that the monster has told his story to Victor he makes his demand. He tells Victor that he wants a wife. The wife is to be similar in nature to himself. When Victor completes this task the monster promises he will disappear to the jungles of South America and he will never bother mankind again. He pleads with Victor to grant this request out of mercy and compassion. Victor is reluctant to relent to the monster’s request and argues that if he creates a second monster then they will bring more destruction and grief to humanity. The monster vows that he will kill everyone that Victor loves if he does not undertake this task.

Victor relents and he and the monster part company. Victor and the monster have spent the entire day together on the glacier and it takes Victor until late at night before he makes his way back to the village and ultimately home to his family and to make plans for the commencement of his task.

Proceed to Summary of Volume III

Return to Summary of Volume I

Proceed to Introduction to Frankenstein

Proceed to Character Summary of Frankenstein

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Volume One Plot Summary

In: Books
The tale of Frankenstein touches on issues of bioethics, morality, religion and existentialism. Here is a summary of Volume I with links to the remaining summaries of Vol II and III.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus in 1816. This work is now in the public domain and can be downloaded for free on most e-readers and computers. For a summary of the main characters and introduction and notes see the links at the end of the article.

Frankenstein Plot Summary Volume I

Victor Frankenstein has been raised in gentility by doting parents. He has two younger brothers Ernest and William and an adopted sister, Elizabeth, to whom he is engaged to be married.

Victor is exposed to death for the first time when his beloved mother dies from scarlet fever after nursing Elizabeth through her own bout with the disease. His brooding obsession with life and death is awakened and he eventually leaves for university to study science and philosophy at Ingolstadt. 

As a student, Frankenstein applies himself to the goal of creating life and renewing life where death has taken life. He works night and day in isolation and at the expense of his health. Through horrifying and gruesome experiments Victor is soon successful.

The monster awakens, his eyes open, he breathes his first breath. Victor flees from the chamber to his bedroom in shock leaving the monster alone. Victor finally falls asleep on his bed. Dreams of death and corruption fill his mind until he awakes in horror. As he awakes in the dim room he becomes aware that the monster is standing next to his bed reaching out his hand to him and attempting to speak. Victor escapes the touch of the monster and rushes from the house.  While Victor is fleeing his creation he runs into his best friend Henry Clerval. He brings Henry back to his apartment and finds the monster is gone. Victor falls ill and is nursed throughout the winter by Henry. We hear nothing of what has become of the monster during those months. We just know that he is gone.


As spring arrives Victor regains his health and is cheered by Henry. They engage in study together and take a walking tour later that year. It has been nearly two years since the monster has disappeared. Victor appears to have forgotten the abomination and looks forward to his return to his family in Geneva. As he returns from his tour he finds a letter from his father. He finds that it contains dreadful news. His brother William has been murdered!

Victor begins his journey home deeply grieved over the murder of his youngest sibling. As he nears his home he is determined to visit the site of the murder and must take a boat across a lake to do so. It is a stormy night and as he lands on the bank he observes a large and ghastly figure in the flash of lightening. He recognizes the monster immediately. He is stunned and with anguish realizes that it his creation, his monster, that has killed his innocent brother.

Victor resolves to remain silent about the monster for fear that he will be thought mad. When he finally reaches his home he finds that there is a suspect identified who will stand trial for the murder. It is the beloved servant girl, Justine, who is accused. She stands trial and is convicted. Victor does not come forward to reveal the existence of the monster and the girl is hanged. Victor is now responsible for two deaths at the hands of his monster.

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Great Villains of Myths

In: Books
Everyone likes villains, because they make stories interesting, exciting, and fun to read. Without villains, all stories, whether real life situations or fictional tales, would be boring and lifeless. We will take a closer look at ten memorable villains found in some of the greatest myths of the ancient world.


In Persian mythology or Zoroastrianism, Ahriman, also known as Angra Mainyu, was the personification of evil that introduced all kinds of disasters and ills into the world. He battled against his spirit-twin Spenta Mainya, the personification of good, who assisted Ahura Mazda become the final victor in the cosmic war.


Also known as the "Evil Eye", Balor was the Irish mythic god of death, who, as had been prophesied, was ultimately slain with a slingshot by his grandson Lugh, the god of light. He was a king of a race of gigantic warriors called Formorians; he had one huge leg and one eye, which was kept shut except during battle because anything he glanced at would instantly die.


Coyolxauhqui was the moon goddess in Aztec mythology. She, together with her brothers (the stars) was just about to attack their pregnant mother Coatlicue (the earth), her brother Huitzilopochtli (the sun god) suddenly sprang from her mother's womb fully armored. Coyolxauhqui was eventually slain by Huitzilopochtli, who cut off her head and threw it into the sky forming the moon.


(Loki as depicted on an 18th century Icelandic manuscript) Image source

As the god of mischief in Norse mythology, Loki tricked the blind Hod to create and shoot a magical arrow made of mistletoe, with which to kill the otherwise invincible Balder, the god of innocence and light. This trickster god, known as "the Sly One," can shapeshift into various animal forms, including changing his sex.


In the Hindu epic "Ramayana," Ravana was the demon-king of Lanka, who was depicted as having 10 heads and 20 hands. He lusted after Sita and held her in captivity for many years, often threateningly urging her to marry him but was refused every time. He was killed in a violent war by Rama, an avatar of Vishnu, in his effort to rescue his wife Sita.


Mordred was the son of King Arthur and a knight of the Round Table, who usurped the throne of England when his father and the rest of the knights pursued Lancelot into France. His rebellion caused the downfall of his father in the Battle of Camlann, where he was ultimately defeated and killed, while his father was mortally injured.



Considered to be the embodiment of evil, Seth, the Egyptian god of chaos, was often depicted with a curved snout, sort of like an aardvark, erect-tipped ears, forked tail and a body similar to a greyhound. He murdered his brother Osiris by cutting his body into pieces, which he cast into the Nile to prevent its resurrection.


The sky god Anu's daughter, Lamashtu was the Sumerian demon goddess, who was often portrayed as having a hairy body, lion's head, donkey's ears, long fingernails and bird's legs with sharp claws. Her modus operandi would include sneaking into a room of a pregnant woman to touch her tummy 7 times killing the baby; or feed the new born baby with her poisonous breast milk.


A personification of evil according to Buddhist myth, Mara gave visions of lovely women attempting to seduce Siddharta, later Gautama Buddha, who was meditating under the Bo tree in order to hinder his enlightenment. She was regarded as the source of all misfortune, wickedness, annihilation and death.


(Odysseus in the cave of Polyphemus by Jacob Jordaens, first half of 17th century) Image source

In Homer's "Odyssey," Odysseus and his men feasted on the food they found in a cave which happened to belong to Polyphemus, who proceeded to trap and eat several of them. Polyphemus was a cyclops, who was offered wine by the crafty Odysseus, who then used a sharpened pole to blind his only eye when he became drunk and fell asleep before escaping with his men.

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The Bheel Mahabharata and Tale of Draupadi and Sex with Visuka the Snake King

In: Books
The Bheel Mahabharata recounts that Draupadi was a woman of exceptional beauty with golden hair and milk white complexion. The news of her beauty reached Visuka the snake god, who ruled over the Patal or the nether world. Visuka was enamoured of Draupadi and he mounted his horse and set forth towards Hastinpura where the Pandvas resided, with a one point agenda to possess the beautiful Draupadi.

The Mahabharata is a well known epic by Vyasa the poet from the Vedic age.  The Mahabharata is a story of two clans of ancient Hindustan, the Pandva’s and the Kaurava’s who finally met in battle at Kurukshetra in about 4000 BC. 

The Pandva’s were 5 in number and one fact of the Mahabharata that is accepted by all is that the five brothers married Draupadi a princess whom Arjuna had won in a swayamwara. This was polyandry as practiced in ancient India.

The Bheels are a tribal community in Central India who also believe in the Mahabharata. They also have their own version of the Mahabharata, but it has significant aspects which differ from the published version by Vyasa. It is possible that Hindu religious heads exorcised these chapters from the original Mahabharata. Whatever that may be, the Bheel version of the Mahabharata   paints an entirely different picture of Draupadi the queen who had married the 5 Pandva brothers.

The Bheel Mahabharata recounts that Draupadi was a woman of exceptional beauty with golden hair and milk white complexion. The news of her beauty reached   Visuka the snake god, who ruled over the Patal or the nether world. Visuka was enamoured of Draupadi and he mounted his horse and set forth towards Hastinpura where the Pandva’s resided (it was their capital and is approximately at the same place where the Present city of Delhi is located).

Visuka soon locates the cloud palace of Draupadi and with his whip he entwines her slim waist and drags her to him. He tells her he loves her and is hungry for her body. As per the Bheel Mahabharata Arjuna the warrior Pandva approached but he was defeated by Visuka who tied him with a strand of his hair and hung him over the bed where he planned to mate with Draupadi. Visuka ordered Draupadi to prepare a meal of 32 courses for him after which he repeatedly mated with Draupadi while a hapless Arjuna just watched. Next morning after Visuka left Draupadi untied Arjuna and also served him a sumptuous meal. This state of affairs continued and the Bheel Mahabharata says that Draupadi repeatedly and willingly mated with Visuka who was like a lion and after every encounter he was fresh as ever. Ultimately Arjuna requested Draupadi to find out how Visuka could be killed and Draupadi promised to do so.

The Bheel Mahabharata records that ultimately Visuka was killed by the illegitimate brother of the Pandva’s Karna, after Draupadi was able to discover the secret of how he could be killed. These chapters are missing from the original epic of Vyasa. Many people have wondered whether this tale could be true. Many sociologists also wonder how the Bheels have incorporated this tale in their version of the Mahabharata. There could be many reasons for it. One of the foremost reasons is that the Bheels a tribal group in the ambit of Hinduism worship Visuka the snake god. Over centuries this story got transplanted in the Mahabharata to glorify the snake god. The second reason is that it formed part of the original Mahabharata but was removed by the higher caste Hindus.  The tale of Draupadi and her sexual liaison with the snake god Visuka makes interesting reading.

An Analysis of the Poem Reservist Written by Boey Kim Cheng

In: Books
The Reservist by Boey Kim Cheng, who is a Singaporean poet who migrated to Australia, is a ballad that has the characteristics of a free verse in terms of its form, structure, rhyme scheme, and rhythm.

The Reservist by Boey Kim Cheng, who is a Singaporean poet who migrated to Australia (Poon, 2009), is a ballad that has the characteristics of a free verse in terms of its form, structure, rhyme scheme, and rhythm. War is the theme of the poem as indicated by certain war-related phrases, such as “report for service”; “We will keep charging”; “long years of braving the same horrors”, especially “As clarion notes” which directly connotes is a war trumpet. Other war-themed words used in the poem are “battle-weary”, “command” “joust”, and “weapons”.

From the opening stanza, a mix of martial language and physical reality of the irregular soldiers is exhibited. The martial language includes “court-martial fanfare”, “call to arms”, while physical reality of the irregular soldiers includes “grunts”, “pot bellies”, and “creaking bones”, indicate age of the soldiers. Aside from the soldiers who are not sound fit to fight, “rusty armour” implies that they have been doing this for some time, which also refers to the repetitiveness and monotony of war. Along with the comic contrast given by the “sleek weapons” are the ironies from “battle-weary knights”, “the annual joust”, and “the tilting ‘at the old windmills”.

In the second stanza, a figure of speech used connects closely to the poem’s intention and feeling. Through the alliteration of “m” and repetition of “same” in lines 14, 15 and 30 and “again” in lines 11 and 17, monotony is shown. The alliteration of the letter “m” is contained in the quote “masked threats and monsters armed with the same roar” of lines 21 to 22. The monotony of war is shown by lines that feel monotonous, such as “We will keep charging up the same hills, plod through the same forests”. This reference to the situation’s monotony strengthens the intention of the poet to portray war.

More serious in mood, the second stanza suggests that the reservists have no control and are ‘like children placed/ on carousels’, the fairground simile expanded with military exercises described as an “expensive fantasyland”. The reference to “tedious rituals” and those in command as “monsters” clearly shows the impatience of the narrator.

It is up to the reader to decide whether the narrator’s appearance in the final stanza as one of the medaled “unlikely heroes” and discovering “daybreak” and “open sea”. There is also a good effect of the connection of the poem with ancient Greek myth. In lines 30 and 31 which say “We will march the same paths until they break onto new trails, our lives stumbling”, the feeling of fear is evident along with the monotonous and tiresome lives of soldiers.

Assuming the voice and persona of a part-time soldier, the poet has the objective of showing the repetitive nature of war. In the entire poem, there is a self-deprecating and amused tone of the narrator, the army, and the routines. However, the poem ended with a tinge of optimistic tone, indicating that something worthwhile will be achieved ultimately, although it could also be interpreted as a final joke. Generally, the poem successfully created a feeling of fear, monotony, and age that prevailed in the tone.


Poon, A. (2009), The “swaying sense of things”: Boey Kim Cheng and Poetics of Imagined Transnational Space, Travel, and Movement. Postcolonial Text. Vol. 5, No. 4

Contemporary Writers' Criticisms of Charles Dickens

In: Books
Charles Dickens was the most popular novelist of his day, but many of his fellow writers were critical of his approach.

Charles Dickens was the most widely-read author of his day, from his breakthrough at the age of 24 with The Pickwick Papers up until his death at age 58. Yet, like most purveyors of popular culture, he was often criticized by more intellectual elements of the reading public. Indeed, many of Dickens’s writer contemporaries were somewhat dismissive of his talents.

Thackeray's Love of Dickens Work

Of Dickens’ great English contemporaries, only William Makepeace Thackeray was unstinting in his praise. On reading A Christmas Carol (1844), Thackeray said: “It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness.” On reading an installment of Dombey and Son in 1847, Thackeray burst into his and Dickens’s publisher’s office and exclaimed: “There’s no writing against such power as this – one has no chance!” Thackeray and Dickens were never personally close, and fell out in the late 1850s, becoming reconciled shortly before Thackeray’s 1863 death.

Wikimedia public domain

Eliot and Lewes: Voices of the Intelligentsia

Less impressed by Dickens was George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), as she made clear in an 1856 essay. Here she admitted that Dickens was adept at rendering the “external traits” of characters, he had no proficiency in drawing “psychological character”. She went on to say: “He scarcely ever passes from the humourous and external to the emotional and tragic, without becoming as transcendent in his unreality as he was a moment before in his artistic truthfulness.”

Eliot’s partner was the literary critic G. H. Lewes, who wrote one of the most influential critiques of Dickens in 1872, two years after Dickens’s death. In “Dickens in Relation to Criticism”, Lewes allowed that Dickens was great in “fun”, and possessed a “glorious energy of imagination”, so intense that for Lewes it seemed hallucinatory. Then Lewes went on to accuse Dickens’s work of an absence of thought, and noting “his was an animal intelligence, i.e., restricted to perceptions”. Lewes concludes his reflections on Dickens thus:

We do not turn over the pages in search of thought, delicate psychological observation, grace of style, charm of composition; but we enjoy them like children at play, laughing and crying at the images before us.

This is, at best, a back-handed compliment, with a notable element of condescension, and most modern commentators have found in Dickens far more psychological depth than Lewes or Eliot allowed.

Bleak House: John Stuart Mill and Charlotte Bronte

The publication of Bleak House in 1852-53 brought Dickens criticism from several angles. Renowned philosopher and social commentator John Stuart Mill disliked the book intensely: “Much the worst of his things and the only one of them I altogether dislike, has the vulgar impudence in this way to ridicule rights of women. It is done in the very vulgarest way, just the style in which vulgar men used to ridicule ‘learned ladies’ as neglecting their children and household.” This refers to the character of Mrs. Jellyby, the “telescopic philanthropist” obsessed with the deprived people of the Borrioboola-Gha region, while her own children live in squalor and neglect.

Charlotte Bronte was also unimpressed by Bleak House. On reading the first instalment, she announced of the presentation of the central character Esther Summerson: “It seems to me too often weak and twaddling – an amiable nature is caricatured – not faithfully rendered.” This is interesting, as Esther Summerson, in her emotional reserve and self-denying nature, and her propensity for self-deprecation, seems to owe something to Bronte’s depiction of Jane Eyre, though Dickens never acknowledged an influence.

Anthony Trollope and Mr. Popular Sentiment

Anthony Trollope satirized Dickens in his novel The Warden as Mr. Popular Sentiment, whose “good poor people are so very good; his hard rich people so very hard; and the genuinely honest so very honest”, who is more interested in “imaginary agonies… than true sorrows”, and who engages in ridicule rather than argument. But while noting that Mr. Popular Sentiment’s heroes and heroines “walk on stilts”, he admitted that his secondary characters “are as natural as though one met them in the street… and will live till the names of their callings shall be forgotten in their own, and Bucket and Mrs. Gamp will be the only words left to us to signify detective police officer or a monthly nurse.” By mentioning two Dickens characters by name, Trollope dispels any lingering doubt about the true identity of Mr. Popular Sentiment.

So Dickens did not please all his contemporaries; though there were none who denied that he had great gifts of imagination, many felt decidedly ambivalent about his talents, and, contrary to his current position at the pinnacle of novelists in the English language, his work was not considered to belong to the highest rank, but to be something of a guilty pleasure, that failed to provide nourishment for the higher faculties of the human mind.