Thesis: Ann Beattie

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¶ … Ann Beattie's "Janus"

Great literature is often associated with revealing great passions, and large events happening. The English literature produced during the nineteenth century can be especially noted for the grand scope and sensationalism employed by many of its authors. Charles Dickens stands out as the foremost example of these sensationalist literary figures. In his novels such as Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and a Tale of Two Cities, not to mention the many others, life altering events happen almost every chapter, and the circumstances the various characters find themselves in change drastically through the course of the novels' plots.

One explanation for this is that the novels Charles Dickens wrote reflect both the turbulence of the time and pace he lived in, and the many major changes of circumstance that Dickens himself went through in his own life. He experienced life at most levels of British society, and wrote about the many inequalities and injustices he perceived. The fact that he wrote about them as fiction does not diminish the truth that these factors had in his personal experience. In fact, a biographical reading of his work reveals that the great passions and events that occur in his novels that have them considered to be great literature are really just reflections of his own real life -- with some necessary embellishments and modifications, of course.

In the case of Charles Dickens, the connection between his biographical details and the plots and themes of his literary works is direct and easy to perceive. It can be less simple to discern the biographical impact of a work that does not exhibit such a grand scale, however. Ann Beattie is considered one of the great geniuses of the minimalist form, and as such her stories reveal characters through small details rather than plot (Frost, par. 1). This can make a biographical reading tricky, but not impossible.

The world changed drastically from the Victorian Era and the Industrial Revolution that Dickens lived in. After the turn of the century and two World Wars, things were coming down again by the late 1940s and into the 1950s. A lot of disillusionment also occurred during this time period, and many literary figures began to focus on the false promises of equality and the disappointment that passions can bring. As time wore on, a complete lack of passion or total ennui began to emerge as a new literary theme, the theme of disillusionment with the world in general and specifically with the idea that mankind had any special place in the universe. This is the tradition that Beattie is a part of, and it is harder to identify biographical influences in her work precisely because much of her work is delivered in such a seemingly passionless and pointless manner. Yet even with this obstacle, comparisons between her life and work can be made.

Beattie's short story "Janus" centers around the figure of Andrea, an upper-middle-class white woman who works as a real estate agent and is married to a stockbroker; both of them also went to graduate school, which gives an indication of their class (Beattie, 80; Miller, 48). Beattie's own experience with class is very similar. She was born in Washington D.C. 1947, part of he generation now known as the Baby Boomers who largely grew up in very prosperous conditions following the end of World War II (Frost, par. 2). Like many mothers, Beattie's mother stayed at home while her father worked at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (Frost, par. 2). Not only did this job provide a very comfortable living for he and his family, but it also provided many connections to people of means and power that led to increased privileges for Beattie as she was growing up and in her adulthood (Frost, par. 2-3).

Andrea displays the same sense of entitlement that one might expect someone in Beattie's situation growing up with. Though it is not revealed until late in the story, the bowl that figures so prominently in "Janus" and in Andrea's life was given to her by an extramarital lover, who left her soon after when she refused to leave her husband (Beattie, 83). Andrea thought she could have it all; she does not seem particularly disappointed or heartbroken about the situation. Her marriage is not particularly bad, either -- it's just too easy, calm, and passionless, and so it grew stagnant. Her attachment to her lover is obviously not that strong, either, or she would have expressed more regret and sorrow at the end of the relationship. Instead, she simply hung on to the bowl he had given her, "sitting on the table, still and safe, unilluminated" (Beattie, 83).

Stillness and safeness seem to be Andrea's guiding principles, and they had a lot to do with Beattie's life as well. As a restively spoiled only child, Beattie did pretty much as she pleased throughout her early education, and was only able to gain entrance to the American University because of connections her father had at the institution (Frost, par. 2). She originally wanted to study journalism, but her boyfriend at the time convinced her that this would be an "uncool" field to go into, and not wanting to rock the boat among her social peers Beattie switched majors to English Literature (Frost, par. 2). This is one of the earlier occurrences that demonstrates Beattie's awareness of social pressures, especially as they relate to gender and sexuality. The question of gender roles and power structures is also apparent in "Janus."

The bowl that Andrea's lover gives her also gives the story its title. On it is a depiction of Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and endings, and the keeper of doorways. This bowl has become an essential part of Andrea's real estate strategy; she leaves it in every house she is showing where it attracts the attention of every buyer; she believes it helps her sell the homes. It is described as "a paradox of a bowl," echoing the opposite and opposing faces and principles of Janus, but it also "seemed to glow no matter what light it was placed in," making it at least seductive if not actually imbued with goodness (Beattie, 81). All of these comments about the bow take on new meaning when the addition of gender issues is applied to the symbolism of what the bowl represents, just as realizations of this kind effected Beattie's own life.

After a boyfriend convinced her to give up journalism for literature, it was a male mentor at Connecticut University, where Beattie was studying for a Ph.D., that believed her work was publishable and secretly submitted it to literary journals and reviews while Beattie herself still considered her writing a hobby (Frost, par. 3). This reflects a continuing lack of agency on Beattie's part regarding her writing; an aspect which she eventually recognized and ended to the point that now she claims "I rarely try to write anything people suggest I write -- in fact, I simply can't" (Koch, par. 22).

Along with this recognition of these patterns in her life, it began to appear in Beattie's work, and the bowl in "Janus" is one example of the way men exert control, even passively. Andrea feels as though the bowl -- which was given to her by her male lover after she refused to be it for herself -- is what allows her to be god at her job. This parallels the career choices that Beattie had made for her -- it was a male lover that "gave her the bowl" of writing, and a male mentor that pushed her even further down this path. Perhaps this even reflects some of Beattie's doubts about her talent.

Interestingly, however, the bowl is more of a traditionally feminine symbol than it is a masculine one (Henningfield, par. 9). Diane Andrews Heenningfield explains that there are two basic types of phallic symbols in literature -- "generally, objects such as towers or rockets, or any item that is taller than it is wide, often serve as male phallic symbols. Lakes, swimming pools, tunnels, and other rounded structures with openings are often used as female phallic symbols" (Henningfiled, par. 9). These symbols relate directly (and rather obviously) to male and female genitalia, and are some of the most common and early appearing symbols in art and in literature (Henningfiled, par. 7-8).

Just as Beattie eventually exerted control over her own destiny and her writing, Andrea exerts control over the feminine receptive capabilities of the bowl by refusing to let her husband put his keys in it (Beattie, 81). There is a sense of taking back the power of femininity, but it is incomplete. Her husband's reaction to the bowl is not nearly as large as Andrea's nor exactly what she was looking for in him: "When her husband first noticed the bowl, he had peered into it and smiled briefly" before turning away (Beattie, 81). This suggests his amusement… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Ann Beattie.  (2009, March 12).  Retrieved May 19, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/ann-beattie/8055835

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"Ann Beattie."  Essaytown.com.  March 12, 2009.  Accessed May 19, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/ann-beattie/8055835.