(sub)Text: Fate and Blame in “Long Day’s Journey into Night”

Who is to blame for Mary Tyrone’s morphine addiction? Is it Mary herself? Is it Edmund, her younger son, after whose difficult birth Mary was first prescribed the drug? Is it Jamie, her older son, who caused the death of the brother that Edmund was born to replace? Is it the doctor who prescribed morphine too readily? Or is it James, Mary’s husband, who hired a third-rate  Continue Reading …

(sub)Text: Work as Madness in “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957)

In the beginning, Colonel Nicholson seems to be a stickler for principle, willing to die rather than have his officers do menial labor in a Japanese prison camp. In the end, his principles seem to be a cover for personal vanity. He is willing to put his officers to work building a bridge for his enemies, as long as it leaves him with a legacy. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is  Continue Reading …

(sub)Text: What Falls Upon the Living in James Joyce’s “The Dead”

In 1906, presumably finished with his short story collection Dubliners, James Joyce wrote to his brother with dissatisfaction that, though he set about to create a comprehensive portrait of Ireland’s capital city, he had not managed to render its famous, unrivaled hospitality. His efforts to rectify this omission resulted in “The Dead,” the book’s final story. It takes place  Continue Reading …

(sub)Text: Finding Home in Stephen Spielberg’s “E.T.” (1982)

Stephen Spielberg once said that he was “still waiting to get out of [his] Peter Pan shoes and into [his] loafers.” Being a filmmaker, he said, was his way of remaining a child. Sort of. While his film “E.T.” is told from a child’s vantage point, it does not completely honor the wish to remain there. Like the alien he befriends, Eliot has been abandoned. And to this, many of us  Continue Reading …

(sub)Text: The Power of Calm: Two Wordsworth Sonnets

William Wordsworth wrote no fewer than 523 sonnets over the course of his career. (By comparison, the second most prolific Romantic sonneteer was Keats with a paltry 67.) Two of Wordsworth’s best-loved efforts in the form are both Petrarchan sonnets with the same rhyme scheme, written in the same year, published in the same volume. Yet their messages, at least at first blush,  Continue Reading …

(sub)Text: What Nature Betrays: Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” (Part 2)

In Part 1 of our discussion of “Tintern Abbey,” we talked about whether Wordsworth was right to suggest that our experience of nature was good not just for restoring our weary spirits, but for helping us to mature and even for making us better people. In part two, we explore his justifications for this thesis, in particular the claim that nature connects us not just to our  Continue Reading …

(sub)Text: Mother Nature’s Nurture in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” (Part 1)

After an absence of five years, the poet William Wordsworth returned to the idyllic ruins of a medieval monastery along the River Wye. The spot was perhaps not so very different from his last visit, but Wordsworth found that he had undergone a significant transformation in the intervening years. In a long blank-verse meditation, he explores the changes that  Continue Reading …

(sub)Text: The Fool Gets Hurt in Fellini’s “La Strada” (1954)

Fellini called his film “La Strada” a dangerous representation of his identity, and had a nervous breakdown just before completing its shooting. Perhaps this identity, and its vulnerability, have something to do with the film’s portrayal of a disappointed hope that love might vanquish pride, if properly assisted by the forces of playfulness and creativity. The problem is that  Continue Reading …

(sub)Text: False Roles and Fictitious Selves in “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin

In the late 19th century, the “New Woman” was a term coined by Henry James for a particular kind of feminist who demanded freedom of behavior, dress, education, and sexuality. Out of that paradigm came “The Awakening,” a novel that scandalized critics upon its publication with its tale of New Orleans society wife Edna Pointellier, who tries to throw off the shackles of  Continue Reading …

(sub)Text: The Pain of Anonymity in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)

Though sometimes accused of a sentimentality dubbed “Capracorn,” Frank Capra’s films are clear-eyed about the suffering of the everyman. A quintessential director of the Great Depression and World War II eras, Capra expressed better than most the desperation at the heart of a young country’s ambitions. And as a chronicler of his age’s disillusionment and alienation, he joined  Continue Reading …

(sub)Text: Attachments “Die Hard” at Nakatomi Tower

It’s a Christmas movie, some say, and in the end the holiday classic “Let it Snow” plays over the credits. But what counts as snow in the final scenes is a confetti of smoke, debris, and millions of dollars of bearer bonds, not to mention the Euro-villain who tried to steal them. These descend from the blasted-out upper floor of a skyscraper onto a scene of total destruction.  Continue Reading …

(sub)Text: Mad as Hell in “Network” (1976)

Diana Christensen is a television executive in search of an angry show—something that articulates the rage of the average viewer. In Howard Beale, failed newscaster turned mad-as-hell prophet, she seems to get exactly what she’s looking for. Yet in doing so, she reduces political and social discontent to a form of entertainment focused on generating audience excitement and  Continue Reading …

(sub)Text: Autonomy and Incest in Sophocles’s “Oedipus Rex”

His first claim to fame was the solution to  a riddle that earned him a kingdom by sheer force of intellect. His second was a doomed attempt to escape the particularly gruesome fates of patricide and incest. With his first act, Oedipus saved the city of Thebes from the sphinx; with his second, he afflicted it with a plague. In his retelling of this myth, Sophocles reflects on  Continue Reading …

(sub)Text: Gender Opera in “Tootsie”

How do you become the many you truly are? Try becoming the woman you aren’t. While Michael Dorsey can take the blame for his desperate transformation into Dorothy Michaels, it’s she who gets the credit for making him a better man. How are gender dynamics reflected in our relationships to ourselves? When are we staying true to ourselves, and when are we just acting out  Continue Reading …

(sub)Text: Our Name is Subtext, Podcast of Podcasts. Hear our “Ozymandias” Discussion, Ye Listeners, and Despair!

The land is not just ancient but “antique,” and while many of its artifacts end up as the possessions of distant museums, they may yet be capable of overpowering their audiences. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is traditionally taken as an exploration of hubris, and of the obliviating effect of time on power and its pretensions. But the poem also speaks to the power of art  Continue Reading …

(sub)Text: Dead Wall Reveries in Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”

Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” is subtitled a “Story of Wall St.,” yet there is almost nothing in it of the bustle of city life, and entirely nothing in it of the hustle of the trading floor. The story’s walls block out the streets, serving on the one hand as a container for a colorful assortment of human Xerox machines, on the other as a blank projection screen for the  Continue Reading …

(sub)Text: Cursed Kids or Psych-Au Pair? “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James

The story begins and ends with two variations on the meaning of the title. On the one hand, to give another turn of the screw is to ratchet up the horror of a good ghost story, in this case by involving children in it. On the other, it’s to treat the cause of that horror as if it were just another of life’s many obstacles, to be overcome both by screwing one’s courage to the  Continue Reading …

(sub)Text: Gentility and Injustice in “Gone with the Wind” (1939)

On the moors of medieval Scotland, three witches hail Gone with the Wind— adjusted for inflation, the highest-grossing film in American history— has undergone several critical reappraisals in the 82 years since its production and release. Certainly the film romanticizes the Antebellum South and the Confederacy while glossing over the evils of slavery and stereotyping many of  Continue Reading …

(sub)Text: Realism as Cruelty in “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams

In the transition from stage to screen, A Streetcar Named Desire retained its long-running Broadway cast with a single exception: the role of Blanche Dubois, which passed from Jessica Tandy to Vivien Leigh. Like Blanche, Leigh was the odd woman out. A symbol of the glories of the studio system, married to the symbol of English stage acting, her classical training ran  Continue Reading …