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Flashcards in B Cards Deck (26):

Honore de Balzac

French journalist and writer, one of the creators of realism in literature. Balzac's huge production of novels and short stories are collected under the name La Comedie humaine, which originated from Dante's The Divine Comedy. Among the masterpieces of The Human Comedy are Le Pere Goriot, Les Illusions Perdues, Les Paysans, La Femme de Trente Ans, and Eugenie Grandet. In these books Balzac covered a world from Paris to Provinces. The primarly landscape is Paris, with its old aristocracy, new financial wealth, middle-class trade, demi-monde, professionals, servants, young intellectuals, clerks, criminals... In this social mosaic Balzac had recurrent characters, such as Eugene Rastignac, who came from an impoverished provincial family to Paris, mixed with the nobility, pursued wealth, had many mistresses, gambled, and was a successful politician. Henry de Marsay appeared in twenty-five different novels.
Selected Novels:
An Old Maid
The Country Doctor


Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett was born to a Protestant family near Dublin, Ireland. He moved to Paris and become good friends with Joyce. Samuel Beckett's first play, Eleutheria, mirrors his own search for freedom, revolving around a young man's efforts to cut himself loose from his family and social obligations. His first real triumph, however, came on January 5, 1953, when Waiting for Godot premiered at the Theatre de Babylone. He wrote all his major plays in French even though English was his native language. Other notable play: Endgame

Characters from Godot:
a boy

Characters from Endgame:


Aphra Behn (1640-1689)

Aphra Behn stars in the canon of English literature as the first known English woman to earn her living by the pen. She is famous for her prose work Oroonoko (1688) and for her comic Restoration dramas such as The Rover (1681) and The Lucky Chance (1686). As well as plays and prose she wrote poetry and translated works from French and Latin.

From what we know of her life she had a colourful childhood and adolescence, some of which was spent in Dutch Guiana in the West Indies (providing material for Oroonoko).

The Forc’d Marriage, her first play, was produced in 1671, and its witty and vivacious style was typical of her work. The Rover, produced in two parts, was a highly successful depiction of the adventures of a small group of English Cavaliers in Madrid and Naples during the exile of Charles II. Oroonoko is the story of an enslaved African prince and is now considered a foundation stone in the development of the English novel. Among her sources was the Italian commedia dell’ arte (improvised comedy).

Her Satyr on Doctor Dryden is a harsh, reflexive critique on Dryden's conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism. A Satyr on Doctor Dryden is the Protestant rebuttal to Dryden's anti-Protestantism seen in MacFlecknoe. Behn begins the poem by getting right to her point, "Scorning religion all thy life time past, / And now embracing popery at last.

In her time she was a popular celebrity who caused something of a stir due to her independence as a professional writer and her concern for equality between the sexes.

She often published under her spy code-name, Astrea


Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave

Aphra Behn (1640 - 1689)

Oroonoko, an African prince and later a slave to the English who called him "Caesar"; Imoinda, his lover, also enslaved and sometimes called "Clemene"; Jamoan, an opposing warrior chief who, conquered by Oroonoko, becomes his vassal; the King of Coramantien, whom Oroonoko serves and later betrays, and who betrays him; the slave-running English ship captain; and various English colonists, especially the supposedly sympathetic plantation overseer named Trefrey, the colony's deputy governor named William Byam, the gallant Colonel Martin, and "Bannister, a wild Irishman

Synopsis: The prince, who has gotten to know Behn while he is a slave in Guiana and she is a sympathetic listener, tells her his story. Successful in battle, he falls in love with a young woman who also catches the eye of the king. Having pursued their love surreptitiously, the couple is discovered and Imoinda is sold into slavery. Oroonoko, a slave-owner himself, despairs and nearly is defeated in battle by Jamoan's army, but he is roused to martial prowess by the pleas of his own troops. Lured upon an English ship by a captain with whom he previously had bought and sold slaves, Oroonoko and all his men are betrayed and taken as slaves to Guiana. There he is reunited with Imoinda, and his noble bearing attracts the praise of all who know him. However, circumstances force him to rebel against his masters and to lead an army of ex-slaves to seek their freedom. His capture, his murder of his own wife, and his torture and execution by the English slave-owners end Behn's narrative.


Robert Browning

English poet, noted for his mastery of dramatic monologue. Browning was long unsuccessful as a poet and financially dependent upon his family until he was well into adulthood. He became a great Victorian poet. In his best works people from the past reveal their thoughts and lives as if speaking or thinking aloud.

A man can have but one life and one
One heaven, one hell.



Beowulf (c. 700-1000 A.D.)

You can count a set of questions on Beowulf. It is likely that ETS will give you a passage and ask you to be able to summarize it, maybe explain how a specific word is used, and identify the poetic devices or meter used. If you have not read it, DON’T (I didn’t). Read a short synopsis online, memorize the characters, and focus on what’s important–it’s historical significance. Schlors (and ETS) are more interested in the dynamics of early Anglo Saxon verse than they are in the actual content of the poem.

ETS is going to want you to identify a caesura, which is the metrical break in the middle of an Old English line. If you see a passage in which every line is broken into two pieces, you’re probably looking at Beowulf or an immitation of it. Also knowing that Beowulf is alliterative will be important.

Beowulf is a heroic epic poem. At 3,182 lines, it is notable for its length in comparison to other Old English poems. It represents about 10% of the extant corpus of Old English poetry. The poem is untitled in the manuscript, but has been known as Beowulf since the early 19th century.

First battle: Grendel

Beowulf begins with the story of King Hrothgar, who built the great hall Heorot for his people. In it he, his wife Wealhtheow, and his warriors spend their time singing and celebrating, until Grendel (angered by the singing) attacks the hall and kills and devours many of Hrothgar‘s warriors. Hrothgar and his people, helpless against Grendel’s attacks, abandon Heorot.

Beowulf, a young warrior, hears of Hrothgar’s troubles and, (with his king’s permission) leaves his homeland to help Hrothgar.

Beowulf and his men spend the night in Heorot. After they fall asleep, Grendel enters the hall and attacks, devouring one of Beowulf’s men. Beowulf, feigning sleep, leaps up and grabs Grendel’s arm in a wrestling hold, and the two battle until it seems as though the hall might fall down due to their fighting. Beowulf’s men draw their swords and rush to his help, but there is a type of magic which aids Grendel and makes it impossible for swords to hurt him. Finally, Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm from his body and Grendel runs home to die.

Second battle: Grendel’s mother

The next night, after celebrating Grendel’s death, Hrothgar and his men sleep in Heorot. Grendel’s Mother appears, however and attacks the hall. She kills Hrothgar’s most trusted warrior in revenge for Grendel’s death.

Hrothgar, Beowulf, and their men track Grendel’s Mother to her lair under an eerie lake. Beowulf prepares himself for battle; he is presented with a sword, Hrunting, by a warrior called Unferth. After stipulating a number of conditions (upon his death) to Hrothgar (including the taking in of his kinsmen, and the inheritance by Unferth of Beowulf’s estate), Beowulf dives into the lake. There, he is swiftly detected and attacked by Grendel’s mother. Unable to harm Beowulf through his armour, Grendel’s mother drags him to the bottom of the lake. There, in a cavern containing her son’s body and the remains of many men that the two have killed, Grendel’s mother fights Beowulf.

Grendel’s mother at first prevails, after Beowulf, finding that the sword (Hrunting) given him by Unferth cannot harm his foe, discards it in a fury. Again, Beowulf is saved from the effects of his opponent’s attack by his armour and, grasping a mighty sword from Grendel’s mother’s armoury (which, the poem tells us, no other man could have hefted in battle), Beowulf beheads her. Travelling further into the lair, Beowulf discovers Grendel’s corpse; he severs the head, and with it he returns to Heorot, where he is given many gifts by an even more grateful Hrothgar.

Third battle: The dragon

Beowulf returns home and eventually becomes king of his own people. One day, late in Beowulf’s life, a man steals a golden cup from a dragon’s lair. When the dragon sees that the cup has been stolen, it leaves its cave in a rage, burning up everything in sight. Beowulf and his warriors come to fight the dragon, but only one of the warriors, a brave young man named Wiglaf, stays to help Beowulf, because the rest are too afraid. Beowulf kills the dragon with Wiglaf’s help, but dies from the wounds he has received. The dragon’s treasure is taken from its lair and buried with Beowulf’s ashes. And with that the poem ends.


Samuel Butler

Butler is notable for Hudibras, from the terms Hudibrastic verse comes. Don’t concern yourself too much with the plot of Hudibras, as ETS really values the style.

Hudibrastic – A term derived from Samuel Butler’s Hudibras. It refers specifically to the couplets of rhymed terameter lines which Butler used in Hudibras, or generally to any deliberate, humorous, ill-rhymed couplets. All lines have 8 syllables, and are iambic tetrameter couplets. This was Swift’s chosen poetic style:

We grant, although he had much wit
He was very shy of using it
As being loathe to wear it out
And therefore bore it not about,
Unless on holidays, or so
As men their best apparel do.
Beside, tis’ known he could speak Greek
As naturally as pigs squeak.


Hudibras is a mock heroic poem from the 17th century written by Samuel Butler. The title comes from Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

The work is a satirical polemic upon Roundheads, Puritans, Presbyterians and many of the other factions involved in the English Civil War. The work was written in three parts in 1663, 1664 and 1678 although an unauthorised edition came out in 1662.

Published only four years after Charles II had been restored to the throne and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell being completely over the poem found an appreciative audience. The satire is not balanced as Butler was fiercely royalist and only the parliamentarian side are singled out for ridicule. Butler also uses the work to parody some of the dreadful poetry of the time.

The epic tells the story of Sir Hudibras, a knight errant who is described dramatically and with laudatory praise that is so thickly applied to be absurd and the conceited and arrogant person is visible beneath. He is praised for his knowledge of logic despite appearing stupid throughout, but it his religious fervour which is mainly attacked:


Robert Blair

A Scottish poet,his sole work, “The Grave” (1743), is a poem written in blank verse, and is much less conventional than its gloomy title might lead one to expect. Its religious subject no doubt contributed to its great popularity, especially in Scotland. It extends to 767 lines of very various merit, in some passages rising to great sublimity, and in others sinking to commonplace. It inspired William Blake to undertake a series of twelve illustrative designs, which were engraved by Luigi Schiavonetti, and published in 1808.


Robert Burns (late 1700s)

He is the best known of the poets who have written in Lowland Scots. Burns also collected folk songs from across Scotland, often times revising or adapting them. His poem (and song) Auld Lang Syne is often sung at Hogmanay, and Scots Wha Hae served for a long time as an unofficial National anthem of the country. Other poems and songs of Burns that remain well known today across the world include A Red, Red Rose, A Man’s A Man for A’ That, To a Louse, and To a Mouse.

Burns’ direct influences in the use of Scots in poetry were Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) and Robert Fergusson. Burns’ poetry also drew upon a substantial familiarity and knowledge of Classical, Biblical, and English literature, as well as the Scottish Makar tradition. Burns was skilled in writing not only in Scots but also in English. Some of his works, such as Love and Liberty (also known as The Jolly Beggars), are written in both Scots and English for various effects.

Burns is generally classified as a proto-Romantic poet, and he influenced Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley greatly. The Edinburgh literati worked to sentimentalize Burns during his life and after his death, dismissing his education by calling him a “heaven-taught ploughman.” Burns would influence later Scottish writers, especially Hugh MacDiarmid who fought to dismantle the sentimental Burns cult that had dominated Scottish literature in MacDiarmid’s opinion.


Charlotte Bronte (1816 – 1855)

Charlotte Brontë was an English novelist, the eldest of the three Brontë sisters whose novels have become enduring classics of English literature.


Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre (1847) Charlotte Bronte (1816 - 1855).

Characters: Jane, Rochester, Bertha Mason, St. John Rivers, Helen, Blanche Ingram, Thornfield Hall (the estate that serves as setting)

Primarily of the bildungsroman genre, Jane Eyre follows the emotions and experiences of eponymous Jane Eyre, her growth to adulthood, and her love for Mr. Rochester, the byronic master of Thornfield Hall. The novel contains elements of social criticism, with a strong sense of morality at its core, but is nonetheless a novel many consider ahead of its time given the individualistic character of Jane and the novel's exploration of sexuality, religion, and proto-feminism.
Characters: Jane, Rochester, Bertha Mason, St. John Rivers, Helen, Blanche Ingram, Thornfield Hall (the estate that serves as setting)


Wuthering Heights

Emile Bronte:
Wuthering Heights is Emily Brontë’s only novel. It was first published in 1847 under the pseudonym Ellis Bell.

Characters: Lockwood, Nelly Dean, Catherine Earnshaw, Heathcliff, Hindley, Hareton, Edgar Linton, Isabella Linton, Catherine Linton (child of Catherine Sr. and Edgar)

Brontë’s novel tells the tale of Catherine and Heathcliff, their all-encompassing love for one another, and how this unresolved passion eventually destroys them both. Social tensions prevent their union, leading Heathcliff to shun and abuse society. The plot is given here in detail, as the book’s narration is at times non-linear.

The story is narrated by a character named Lockwood, who is renting a house from Heathcliff. The house, Thrushcross Grange, is close to Wuthering Heights.
Much of the action itself is narrated to Lockwood during his illness by the housekeeper of Thrushcross Grange, Nelly Dean. Lockwood’s arrival is after much of the story has already happened – but his story is interwoven with Dean’s.

The plot is complicated, involving many turns of fortune. It begins with Mr. Earnshaw, the original proprietor of Wuthering Heights, bringing back the dark-skinned foundling Heathcliff from Liverpool. Initially, Earnshaw’s children – Hindley and Catherine – detest the boy, but over time Heathcliff wins Catherine’s heart, to the resentment of Hindley, who sees Heathcliff as an interloper of his father’s affections. Later, Hindley is packed off to college by his father. Catherine and Heathcliff become inseparable.

The tempestuous love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff is at the centre, surrounding by the relationships between the Earnshaws and the nearby Lintons; Heath. wants Cath.; Cath marries Edgar and Heath. marries Isabella; Cath. and Edgar have Cath Jr., who ultimately falls in love with Hindley's son Hareton


The Way of All Flesh (1903)

The Way of All Flesh is a semi-autobiographical novel by Samuel Butler which attacks Victorian era hypocrisy. Written between 1873 and 1884, it traces four generations of the Pontifex family. It represents the diminishment of religious outlook from a Calvinistic approach, which is presented as harsh. Butler dared not publish it during his lifetime, but when it was published, it was accepted as part of the general revulsion against Victorianism.La


Lord Byron

Byron is not as much of a player on the GRE as you might imagine, though the fact that Childe Harold’s Pilgrimages is written in Spensarian stanzas is the kind of thing that those GRE people would love to quiz you over.

Byronic Hero

A theme that pervades much of Byron’s work is that of the Byronic hero, an idealised but flawed character whose attributes include:

* being a rebel
* having a distaste for social institutions
* being an exile
* expressing a lack of respect for rank and privilege
* having great talent
* hiding an unsavoury past
* being highly passionate
* ultimately, being self-destructive

Not only is the character a frequent part of his work, Byron’s own life could cast him as a Byronic hero. The literary history of the Byronic hero in English can be traced from Milton, especially Milton’s interpretation of Lucifer as having justified complaint against God. One of Byron’s most popular works in his lifetime, the closet play “Manfred,” was loosely modeled on Goethe’s anti-hero, Faust. Byron’s influence was manifested by many authors and artists of the Romantic movement during the 19th century and beyond. An example of such a hero is Heathcliff from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.


*“Porphyria’s Lover”

*“Porphyria’s Lover” by Robert Browning

This poem is told by a madman in the process of murdering his lover by strangling her with her own hair, which he does so that she can be his forever and will be in an eternal state of love.

The rain set early in to-night,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listen’d with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneel’d and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soil’d gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And call’d me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me—she
Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me for ever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could to-night’s gay feast restrain
A sudden thought of one so pale
For love of her, and all in vain:
So, she was come through wind and rain.
Be sure I look’d up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipp’d me; surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
I warily oped her lids: again
Laugh’d the blue eyes without a stain.
And I untighten’d next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blush’d bright beneath my burning kiss:
I propp’d her head up as before,
Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:
The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorn’d at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gain’d instead!
Porphyria’s love: she guess’d not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirr’d,
And yet God has not said a word!


James Baldwin (1924-1987)

Most of Baldwin’s work deals with racial and sexual issues in the mid-20th century United States. His work is notable for the deeply personal – even courageous – way in which he explores questions of identity and meaning. His novels mime all the complex, social and psychological pressures related to being both black and homosexual at a time well before the social, cultural or political equality of these groups could be assumed.

His most important works are Notes on a Native Son (essays) and Go Tell it On the Mountain.

Go Tell it on the Mountain examines the role of the Christian Church in the lives of African-Americans, both as a source of repression and moral hypocrisy and as a source of inspiration and community. It also, more subtly, examines racism in the United States. The protagonist is John Grimes.


Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)

Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoi Jones on October 7, 1934 in Newark, New Jersey) is a American writer of poetry, drama, essays, and music criticism. Baraka is today most widely known for the fact that in 2002 the state of New Jersey made him poet laureate, but forced him out of that position a year later because of his poem Somebody Blew Up America.

For the sake of the GRE, you need only know the poem below.

“Poem for Half White College Students”

Who are you, listening to me, who are you
listening to yourself? Are you white or
black, or does that have anything to do
with it? Can you pop your fingers to no
music, except those wild monkies go on
in your head, can you jerk, to no melody,
except finger poppers get it together
when you turn from starchecking to checking
yourself. How do you sound, your words, are they
yours? The ghost you see in the mirror, is it really
you, can you swear you are not an imitation greyboy,
that the sister you have you hand on is not really
so full of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton is
coming out of her ears. You may even have to be Richard
with a white shirt and face, and four million negroes
think you cute, you may have to be Elizabeth Taylor, old

if you want to sit up in your crazy spot dreaming about
and the say of certain porters’ hips. Check yourself,
learn who it is
speaking, when you make some ultrasophisticated point,
check yourself,
when you find yourself gesturing like Steve McQueen,
check it out, ask
in your black heart who it is you are, and is that image
black or white,

you might be surprised right out the window, whistling
dixie on the way in


Elizabeth Bishop (1911 –1979)

An American poet and writer, increasingly regarded as one of the finest 20th century poets writing in English.

A disciple of Marianne Moore, and a good friend of poets Robert Lowell and James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Bishop did not see herself as a "lesbian poet" or as a "female poet." Although she still considered herself to be "a strong feminist," she only wanted to be judged based on the quality of her writing and not on her gender or sexual orientation. In contrast to this confessional style involving large amounts of self-exposure, Bishop's style of writing, though it sometimes involved sparse details from her personal life, was known for its highly detailed and objective, distant point of view

Early in her career, Bishop was regarded (and perhaps dismissed) as a “miniaturist,” a master of small poetic structures and descriptive detail. Careful reading of her work, however, reveals a sharp-edged confessional edge: her life story is told through poems which, though nominally addressing and describing other subject matter (including paintings, tourist destinations, etc.), in fact speak to true events (and to her, and the reader’s, underlying existential states). She was far from prolific: her Complete Poems is a relatively slim volume.


Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

an award-winning African American woman poet. Although she also wrote a novel, an autobiography and some other prose works, she was noted primarily as a poet. Her 1949 book of poetry, Annie Allen, received a Pulitzer Prize, the first won by an African American.

Her poetry is rooted in the poor and mostly African-American South Side of Chicago. Although her poems range in style from traditional ballads and sonnets to using blues rhythms in free verse, her characters are often drawn from the poor inner city. Her bluesy poem “We Real Cool” is a favorite of the GRE.

“We Real Cool”


We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.


John Berryman

an American poet, born in McAlester, Oklahoma. He was a major figure in American poetry in the second half of the 20th century and often considered one of the founders of the Confessional school of poetry. He is one of the figures acting as a bridge between the formally loose, socially aware poetry of the Beats and the personal, grieving poetry of Sylvia Plath. He was the author of The Dream Songs, which are playful, witty, and morbid. Berryman died by suicide in 1972.

For the sake of the GRE, all you need know is that his poems often feature a character named “Henry” and one named “Mr. Bones.” Be able to identify those names with Berryman.


Saul Bellow (1915-2005)

Bellow has a fair chance of showing up on the exam. If you know the names associated with a few of his books, you should be fine. An acclaimed Canadian-born American Jewish writer, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976 and is best known for writing novels that investigate isolation, spiritual dissociation, and the possibilities of human awakening.



Saul Bellow...

Herzog is a novel set in post-war America. It’s a story of a man, a Jew who has had two unsucessful marriages. The entire novel is about the life of the protagonist, how he copes with the tragedies, his unsent letters to his friends, famous people living or dead. The beauty of the novel lies in the dissection of Herzog’s mind. In typical Bellow style, the descriptions of emotions, physical features are simply brilliant. Herzog’s relationships are the central theme of the novel. It’s about relationships with not just women, friends, but also society and with himself. Many believe Herzog is autobiographical. There are many similarities between Herzog and Saul Bellow (Jewish, Chicago residents, failed marriages, etc.) Herzog’s Jewishness is very visible. One will possibly be reminded of Philip Roth’s novels when reading this. The setting is post-war America and for a traditional Jew this culture is very foreign. This adds subtle humor in the book even though Herzog is going through a tough phase. This book deserves a read and re-read. A thorough understanding of the book makes us think, try to find Herzog’s characteristics in our own selves and avoid the mistakes that Herzog commits.


“Seize the Day”`


It tells the story of Wilhelm Adler (a.k.a. Tommy Wilhelm) , a non-religious jewish New Yorker in his mid 40’s who is having a midlife crisis. He is financially irresponsible and leaves his family. His wife says that he is like a youngster; she has great confidence is his earning ability, however. Tommy doesn’t receive from his father what he wants most–he needs money to keep him going. The novel is set on Tommy’s “day of reckoning”, which leaves him a broken and humbled man. He is a familiar American type, the desperate man looking to get rick quickly. He thus falls for a con-artist. Tommy finds his surrogate father in a shady psychologist named Dr. Tamkin. The colorful Dr. Tamkin has put Tommy’s money into the commodities market. Tamkin, and the money, disappear when it becomes clear that Tommy’s father won’t be supplying any fresh money for speculation. The charlatan poses as a psychologist who offers “seize the day” type bromides. Tommy’s father, on the other hand, has always been all too prudent, and he seems to live for taunting Tommy about being more responsible.

Tommy has recently had two religious experiences. He had an “onrush of loving kindness” in an early part of the story, but at the end he offers a type of prayer to be delivered from the devil that plagues him. On the final page he is sobbing his heart out in a massive emotional release.


“Henderson the Rain King”


Eugene Henderson is an unhappy millionaire and pig farmer who searches for meaning and purpose in his life. His desperation at home brings him on a pilgrimage to Africa, where he hopes to find a new meaning to his seemingly lacking life. After his first native encounter ends in disaster, he arrives in a new village that soon declares him Rain King. With a new found friendship with the native king, Dahfu, Henderson is brought unwillingly into the king’s ritualistic search of a lion thought to be the reincarnation of his predecessor. During this time, Henderson and Dahfu engage in disscussions that help to fill Henderson’s spiritual void. Following another disaster and narrow escape, Henderson returns, planning on becoming a doctor.

Henderson the Rain King (1959) follows a similar theme as his previous work, the short story Seize the Day (1956). Both feature men in or approaching middle age who are plagued by acute desperation and lack meaningful social contacts. While the first ends in a breakdown, Henderson the Rain King ends on a particularly upbeat note, at least in Henderson’s eyes. The philosophical discussions and ramblings that take place between Henderson and the natives and within himself serve as a precursor to Bellow’s next novel, Herzog (1964), which frequently engages in similar inquiries into life and meaning. It was said to be Bellow’s own favourite amongst his books.


Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was an Argentine writer who is considered one of the foremost literary figures of the 20th century. Best-known in the English speaking world for his short stories and fictive essays, Borges was also a poet, critic, and man of letters.


“The Library of Baebel”

The story repeats the theme of Borges’s 1939 essay “The Total Library” (“La biblioteca total”), which in turn acknowledges the earlier development of this theme by Kurd Lasswitz in his 1901 story “The Universal Library” (“Die Universalbibliotek”).

Borges’s narrator describes how his universe consists of an endless expanse of interlocking hexagonal rooms, each of which contains the bare necessities for human survival—and four walls of bookshelves. Though the order and content of the books is random and apparently completely meaningless, the inhabitants believe that the books contain every possible ordering of just a few basic characters (letters and punctuation marks). Though the majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books. The narrator notes that the library must contain all useful information, including predictions of the future, biographies of any person, and translations of every book in all languages. Conversely, for any given text some language could be devised that would make it readable with any of an infinite number of different contents.

Despite—indeed, because of—this glut of information, all books are totally useless to the reader, leaving the librarians in a state of suicidal despair. However, Borges speculates on the existence of the “Crimson Hexagon”, containing a book that contains the truth of all the other books; the librarian who reads it is akin to God.

This short story features many of Borges’s signature themes, including infinity, reality, cabalistic reasoning, and labyrinths. The concept of the library is often compared to Borel’s dactylographic monkey theorem; it is also overtly analogous to the view of the universe as a sphere having its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere. The mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal employed this metaphor, and in an earlier essay Borges noted that Pascal’s manuscript called the sphere effroyable, or “frightful”.

Borges would examine a similar idea with his later story, “The Book of Sand”; in the later story, there is an infinite book rather than an infinite library.