As happy as happy could be.
What a baffling phrase/idiom/cliche. Who knows how happy can Happy be?
I know someone called ‘Happy’ who hates this expression with all his being. No wonder, with a name like that. School was hard on him; with everybody expecting him to be happy all the time. “Fell and hurt your knees? Don’t cry, even your name is Happy!”; “Sky is falling? But you are Happy!”.
“Happy as Happy can be?”, he’d ask me, “how does anybody know how happy I can be, or have the capacity of being?”
I wonder how this expression came into being, and whether he suffered any ill-effects from all the curses my friend Happy has sent his way.
Audiences, as a general rule, dislike stereotypes. See what I did there? I stereotyped ‘audience’. Stereotypes are a part of life, whether we like them or not. Somewhat like cliches (and I just found out that cliches and stereotypes are etymologically related, being terms associated with printing).
Most of the times I can’t decide whether I mind it when people classify and categorize others. For example, some of my friends hated ‘Raj’ from ‘The big bang theory’ during the first few seasons because Indians (as we think of and know ourselves) are not like him. His accent for one is weird. But I always found him very cute in a self-deprecating way. Another time, I read a blog post about Indian weddings which advised the Indian woman to stay away from the guy she loves, because she won’t get to marry him anyway! (It was supposed to be a comment on arranged marriages, that Indian girls are not allowed to marry guys they love; but that’s for the most part misinformation perpetuated by bollywood movies). It was a very well-written paragraph, and of course it’s possible things like that happen in such a greatly populated country like India, but I know a lot of Indian girls (single and married, arranged and otherwise) and none of them have experienced this dilemma. So I couldn’t make up my mind whether I should be offended by that blog post or not.
I assume the bad feeling associated with cliches in general, and in literature and movies in particular is because a cliche is evidence of unoriginality. And I believe my ambiguous attitude towards cliches is because my original creations (as well as speech) abound with them, and towards stereotypes is because I consider myself one. That is to say, I seem to fit into many categories: the stereotypical woman, the Indian girl, the novice blogger, the amateur/wannabe poet, the female driver, the bride.
We don’t like stereotypes because they make us feel average; the background artists of the blockbuster called life. They take away our illusions of uniqueness, of being one of a kind.
One should still avoid cliches like the plague, especially while writing, even though they are as old as hills and we may be rushed for time. However, all’s well that ends well.
“You couldn’t (doubt yourself) with eyebrows like yours”
–Jonathan Harker to Van Helsing
I wrote sometime back about this online course I took last year, ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’. You can find my post here. Each week, we were supposed to read a book and write a 270-320 word essay which would “enrich the reading of a fellow intelligent student”. The essay shouldn’t read like a review, but should be somewhat analytic and definitely informative. So today I present to you my essay on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, assuming there are very few book-lovers who haven’t read it. I started with the quote I’ve placed at the beginning of this post.
Physiognomy is the art of judging an individual’s character by studying their facial features. Though considered a pseudoscience now, it was widely popular in the author’s time. In the novel too, it plays an especially important role. Not only does the description of a character’s facial features paint a vivid picture of the character in our minds, it also tells us from the outset whether that particular character is good or evil, which is of paramount importance in this novel.
Thus, the driver who transported Jonathan to Castle Dracula has red eyes; the devil has red eyes, and so as soon as we read this description we know that the driver is somehow dangerous. The Count has “a very strong, aquiline, [..] thin nose [..] lofty domed forehead”, signifying his strength of body and character, and his pride. But more noteworthy are his “fixed and rather cruel-looking” mouth and his “peculiarly sharp white teeth”. Even his coarse, broad, hairy hands with the long, sharp fingernails further the impression that the Count is more beast-like than human. Although during the first few hours of Jonathan’s visit we have no concrete reason to doubt the Count, his physical description is enough for us to beware of him. Similarly, Dr. Seward’s “strong jaw and the good forehead” tell us of his courage and intelligence. Van Helsing is a “kindly, strong-faced old man”, which tells us that he is mature and experienced, brave and forceful.
Physiognomy is also a valuable literary device in signifying the change in the characters’ personalities. Jonathan’s gray hair not only symbolize his shock and terrible ordeal, but also emphasize the fact that he is an old soul; he has experience and knowledge way beyond his years. Similarly, the startling change in Lucy’s features (eyes that were “dull and hard at once”, “voluptuous lips”) warn the reader of her conversion into an Undead. Mina too, bears the scar on her forehead as a reminder of her “unclean” status.
Thus, although much criticized now, the art of Physiognomy proves to be a most advantageous tool in the hands of the author; it helps us in identifying the undercurrent of the novel–the basic theme of the story–the triumph of good over evil.
Have you read the book? If you have, what do you think of my critique? And if you haven’t, do you want a link where you can download it legally from?
Filed under Books, Writing
1: flavored with vanilla
2: lacking distinction :plain, ordinary, conventional
I read a romance novel once, an ugly-duckling-turns-swan story. The heroine was advised by her best friend to stop being Vanilla (come to think of it, this was all in metaphor; the heroine was–predictably–eating vanilla ice cream at the time) and turn into Belgian chocolate or something equally exotic.
I have always been perplexed by this. What’s wrong with Vanilla?! Although, like all girl stereotypes, I love chocolate better. But Vanilla is great too! You can do so much with Vanilla ice cream. It goes with every kind of topping. You can pour hot chocolate fudge and nuts on it, or put some strawberry crush on it, or have it with fresh fruit of any kind, or put it on top of some hot chocolate brownie.. my mouth is already watering and I’ve not even mentioned mocha sauce yet. Vanilla extract is a necessity in almost all baked goodies. And my personal favorite–cold coffee. It’s just not complete without vanilla flavouring of some kind.
How then can we call Vanilla ordinary? Is being sociable an average trait? I don’t think so. Ask Mr. Darcy, if you’re still skeptical.
In fact, Vanilla has this amazing quality of being accepting of others. Moreover, when added to something, Vanilla turns the result into something greater and more wonderful than just the sum of its parts! That is exceptional, I think. (It is almost like Holism!)
That is what Vanilla is. Tolerant, open-minded. Methinks the world needs more Vanillas.
“When I use a word, it means exactly what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”
–Humpty Dumpty in ‘Through the Looking Glass’
I love how the English language is so flexible. Of course there are rules, but there are also exceptions. And there are exceptions to the exceptions! These things bothered me no end when I was a child. Should it be ‘who’ or ‘whom’? How can the same word mean three different things when used in three different sentences? You know what I mean.
In fact, some things still confuse me. And many grammatical mistakes irk me no end (people using “your” instead of “you’re”, saying “literally” when they mean “metaphorically” or “figuratively”). However, I still love the fact that I can say something like, “I’m so technologically handicapped that I can’t even operate a hair-dryer without electrocuting myself”, and still make sense! (And if I’m still not making sense to you, ‘technologically handicapped’ isn’t really a thing.)
I think what Carroll was trying to say through Humpty Dumpty is that context is as important in English language as the rules of grammar. An example is his extremely famous poem ‘Jabberwocky’. An excerpt:
“Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogoves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe.”
The grammar and syntax are perfect, but the verse itself is nonsensical; yet we love the poem and understand it exactly how it’s meant to be understood. (Like Alice says after finishing the poem, “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate”)
Another fine example of the importance of context is Douglas Adams’ Vogon poetry from ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’:
“Oh freddled gruntbuggly
thy micturations are to me
As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.”
We might not know the meaning of the words, but we get the gist anyway; and we realize first-hand why Vogon poetry is the third worst in the Universe. (If you want to know the worst and the second worst poetry in the universe, read the book. I assure you it’ll be worth it.)
The fluidity and voracity of the English language is what makes it so universal. All the Grammar Nazis notwithstanding–and I confess I’m an occasional milder version, if there is such a thing, myself–that is the most interesting and fun thing about writing!
Like Alice, I might not always say what I mean, but “at least I mean what I say”!