Showing 151 - 160 of 606 annotations contributed by Coulehan, Jack

Doctor Faustus

Mann, Thomas

Last Updated: Aug-17-2006
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The full title of this novel is "Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend." Mann wrote it during the latter part of World War II when he was living in exile in the United States. The Faust character in this story is a German composer named Adrian Leverkühn (1885-1940), whose biography is recounted by his childhood friend, a schoolmaster named Serenus Zeitblom. Zeitblom presents the tale in his own voice--in essence, the novel is an extended reflection on the composer’s life (the past) set into the context of the deteriorating military situation in Germany (the present) as he is writing; i.e. the same period that Mann is actually writing the novel.

Adrian Leverkühn starts out as a student of theology, but succumbs to his passion for musical composition. His early pieces, though technically skillful, lack energy and imagination. However, all this changes when the young man experiences himself as having made a pact with the devil. In a confession written years later, Adrian recounts that he "voluntarily" contracted syphilis in an encounter with a prostitute, an episode that he believed was emblematic of this Faustian bargain.

In the confession he recreates his dialog with Satan, who promises the composer an artistic breakthrough, if he agrees to forego human love. As a result of the pact, Leverkühn sets off on a brilliant 24-year career, becoming the greatest German composer of his time. Throughout the novel Serenus intersperses technical details of Leverkühn’s many compositions, culminating with his masterwork, an oratorio called "The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus."

Adrian Leverkühn had been a self-centered youth who failed to reciprocate the friendship and devotion that others, especially Serenus, had lavished upon him. As an adult he leads an austere, solitary, monk-like life. Yet, while he lives only for his music, he also yearns for love. His personal life consists of a series of aborted relationships. Leverkühn becomes attracted to a female acquaintance and asks a friend to court her for him, only to learn that she has fallen in love with the friend.

Toward the end of his career, Adrian’s 5-year-old nephew comes to live with him in the country. The nephew ignites in him another spark of love, only to be snuffed out when the boy suddenly dies of meningitis. Finally, just as he is in the process of "unveiling" his great composition to a select group of friends, Leverkühn experiences a "stroke" and lapses into a coma from which he recovers physically, but not mentally. He survives for another decade in a demented, childlike state, and cared for by his mother.

The larger theme of this somber work relates to the decline of German culture during the decades before the onset of the Nazi era. Mann explores the collapse of traditional humanism and its replacement by a mixture of sophisticated nihilism and barbaric primitivism. In "The Story of a Novel" (1949),

Mann wrote that "Dr. Faustus" was about "the flight from the difficulties of a cultural crisis into the pact with the devil; the craving of a proud mind, threatened by sterility, for an unblocking of inhibitions at any cost; and the parallel between pernicious euphoria ending in collapse with the nationalistic frenzy of Fascism." In Zeitblum’s narrative comments, Mann subtly relates the composer’s personal tragedy to Germany’s destruction in the war. Mann also claimed a "secret identity" between himself, Leverkühn, and Zeitblom.

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Death in the Evening

Holub, Miroslav

Last Updated: Aug-16-2006
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

An old woman dies at home. After "the young ones had gone to bed," she arises and moves around the house, doing the usual things that defined her life--putting out the candles, mending a stocking, finding a lost glove--before she falls back into her coffin and is cremated in the morning.

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Dance Fire Dance

Dorsett, Thomas

Last Updated: Aug-16-2006
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

These poems push at the edge of the unknowable, as in "Credo," where Dorsett concludes, "Nearer those peaks / I understand nothing, something / in the far side." Unlike many poets of his generation, Dorsett confronts reality with hope, rather than despair. He does not, however, ignore the random pain and self-delusion of human life. In "Our Father Who Art," for example, he writes, "what are we left with? Fly swarmed swamps / where our puffed-up selves promise the bog not to eat beetles . . . . "

As a pediatrician, Dorsett must frequently confront unjust and random suffering. In the strong poem "Like Flies We Are . . . " Dorsett writes, "Who can doubt the world’s amoral? / And not only to great artists: / if the briefcase had been placed / inches closer, Hitler would have died; / Anne Frank, etc. would have survived."

This acceptance is, however, only a few poems deep. Dorsett realizes that human beings searching for meaning are like his two goldfish discussing "fish religion." We can never attain the truth about why the conditions in our tank are deteriorating. Facile New Age answers merely delude us: "Modern taste in resurrections / wants fast easters with no cross / . . . Selfjesus is coming! God help us." In the end, Dorsett opts for an ecstatic reality beyond faith and knowledge, a reality in which Christ’s resurrection and the Buddha’s enlightenment both reside.

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The Darling

Chekhov, Anton

Last Updated: Aug-16-2006
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Olga is a lovely, plump, and friendly girl; the kind of girl whom everyone wants to squeeze and cry delightedly, "You darling!" She marries Kukin, the manager of the amusement park, and lives quite happily, selling tickets to his shows and parroting Kukin’s opinions about the theater.

But Kukin dies while in Moscow on a business trip. Olga goes into deep mourning, but within a few months she marries Pustovalov, the timber merchant. Now Olga adopts Pustovalov’s opinions--all business, no theater. When Pustovalov dies, Olga begins an affair with Smirnin, an army veterinary surgeon who is separated from his wife. While she lives with Smirnin, Olga is full of talk about animals and their diseases.

Finally, Smirnin is transferred elsewhere; Olga is left with nothing to talk about--the darling has no opinions of her own. Many years later, Smirnin returns to the town with his wife and son. Olga becomes attached to the young boy and her eyes light up again. She has something to talk about!

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Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This remarkable book takes the reader into a Dutch nursing home where many of the 300 patients are terminally ill. The main protagonist is Anton, a competent, tough, and compassionate physician who tries to discover some meaning in the suffering of his patients, while at the same time disavowing any such meaning. Anton’s colleagues include Jaarsma, a somewhat detached and bureaucratic older physician, and Van Gooyer, a young physician who still believes that science has all the answers.

The first-person narrative consists of short, punchy segments (almost like an endless series of discrete physician-patient interactions) detailing the stories of Anton’s patients and his reactions to them. Many of these persons request assisted suicide or euthanasia. Anton reveals what he feels about these requests, how he goes about judging their validity, and the manner in which he actually carries out assisted deaths. A strong spiritual theme permeates the book; while Anton denies the relevance of God and religion, he seems constantly to be searching for a spirituality that "makes sense" of contemporary life.

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The Death of the Hired Man

Frost, Robert

Last Updated: Aug-16-2006
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

In this domestic epic, a man and woman converse on the porch of their farmhouse. The man is just coming home in the evening; his wife meets him at the door to warn him that Silas, the old ne’r-do-well hired hand, had returned that day. She found him "huddled against the barn door, fast asleep, / A miserable sight, and frightening, too--"

Silas looked terribly ill, yet he didn’t ask for help. Instead, he told her he would cut the upper pasture, and he kept inquiring about the college boy he worked with on the farm a few years back. He and the boy argued all the time; now the old man wants to "make things right."

The husband shakes his head. No, he will not take Silas back. The old man walked away one too many times. You can’t depend on him to stay and finish the job when someone comes around offering him a little "pocket money" to go elsewhere. Indeed, Silas’s brother is the president of a bank; why doesn’t he go to his brother for help? At last the husband quiets down and goes in to see the old man, who is presumably asleep beside the stove. A few moments later, he returns to the porch. To his wife’s query, "’Dead,’ was all he answered." [175 lines]

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A Day's Wait

Hemingway, Ernest

Last Updated: Aug-16-2006
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Schatz, a 9-year-old American boy who lived in France, develops a fever of 102 degrees. A doctor diagnoses the flu and prescribes some medication. Over the next day or so, the boy’s father is surprised at how depressed and fatalistic his son is. At one point the boy asks, "About how long will it be fore I die?" The father is flabbergasted and assures the boy that he isn’t seriously ill. However, it turns out that Schatz had heard his school friends say that you couldn’t survive a fever of 44 degrees. Obviously, he was bound to die from 102. His relieved father explains to Schatz the misunderstanding--the French use Centigrade while Americans use Fahrenheit. The boy relaxes. He is not going to die.

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Doctor Zhivago

Pasternak, Boris

Last Updated: Aug-09-2006

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

This complex novel is difficult to summarize. The main characters are introduced separately. We meet Yurii Andreievich Zhivago (Yura) when he is ten, at his mother’s funeral. He goes on to study medicine, write poetry, and marry a young woman named Tonya. We first encounter Larisa Foedorovna (Lara) as the adolescent daughter of a widow who has been set up in a dressmaking business by Komarovsky. Komarovsky later harasses and seduces the young woman. In her anger and guilt, the impulsive Lara tries to shoot Komarovsky at a grand Christmas party, but she misses and inadvertently wounds another man. Subsequently, Lara marries Pavel Pavlovich (Pasha), her childhood sweetheart.

All this takes place against the background of social upheaval in pre-World War I Russia. When the war begins, Yura joins the Army medical corps. Pasha leaves Lara and their daughter Tanya to enlist in the army. When Pasha is reported lost behind enemy lines, Lara becomes a military nurse in order to search for him. Thus, Lara and Yura meet at a hospital where his wife Tonya has just delivered a baby boy. Lara and Yura feel attracted to one another, but neither one expresses it. At this point the Revolution breaks out in Petersburg.

As the fighting rages, Lara and Yura are posted to a hospital in a small town, where Yura struggles with his feelings. When he reports his friendship with Lara, Tonya assumes incorrectly that they have become lovers. Over the winter there are food shortages and the threat of a typhus epidemic. As the war ends, Yura returns home to Moscow, and to his old job at the hospital, but his co-workers are suspicious of him. Influenced by Bolshevism, they dislike his use of intuition instead of logic. The family resolves to travel to the Urals. Amidst Marxist rebellions, Yura's family finds room in a cargo train. During the long train ride, Yura reflects on the suffering of peasants and prisoners caused by the revolution. He shares the desire for equality and freedom, but is disenchanted by the revolutionaries' pedantic, insensitive opinions.

The family safely arrives in the Urals and set up a farm. During the long winters, Yura returns to writing poetry. While visiting the local library, he re-encounters Lara. They begin an affair, sharing a common joy in a fully-lived existence. Lara is aware that her husband is still alive, having become a feared member of the Red faction under another name (Strelnikov). Yura resolves to tell his wife about his unfaithfulness and to ask forgiveness, but as he rides home, he is kidnapped by a faction in the Civil War (the Reds) and forced to serve as their doctor.

After some years, Yura escapes from the Reds and walks back to find Lara, who still lives in the same place.  To escape being informed upon, Lara and Yura flee to the farm house where Yura and his family once lived. Again, Yura turns to his poetry, expressing his fears, courage, and love for Lara. He learns that Tonya and a new baby daughter have been deported from Russia. One night, Lara's old lover, Komarovsky, appears and tells them that the triumphant revolutionaries know where they are and will inevitably kill them both. He offers to take them abroad, where Yura could rejoin his family. Yura refuses to accept help from Komarovsky. To save Lara's life, though, he tells her that he will follow them out of the country, but actually remains behind. Alone, he turns to drink.

One night Lara's husband, Strelnikov (Pasha), who is fleeing the new government, arrives. When he learns of Yura and Lara’s love, he leaves the house and shoots himself. Yura then goes to Moscow where he strikes up an affair with Marina and becomes a writer of literary booklets.  His brother finds him a job at a hospital, but on his way to his first day at work, he dies, presumably of a heart attack. Lara, who had been living in Irkutsk, has returned to Moscow and wanders accidentally into the house where his body lies waiting for burial. After several days, Lara disappears, presumably captured and sent to a concentration camp.

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Mercy

Selzer, Richard

Last Updated: Aug-08-2006
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

A man dying of pancreatic cancer has reached the point where the pain is no longer controlled by morphine. In the hospital he begs for death. The surgeon tells his wife, "To give him any more would kill him." "Then do it," she says.

He returns with three syringes of morphine and finally injects them, but the man will not die. How easy it would be to suffocate him! But the surgeon rejects this thought and leaves the room, having failed to provide euthanasia.

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Misgivings

Williams, C. K. (Charles Kenneth)

Last Updated: Jul-26-2006
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The poet C. K. Williams enters the room where his father has just died and exclaims to the corpse, "What a war we had!" (p. 1) Soon thereafter, his mother comes into the room and quietly lies down beside her dead husband, their bodies close but not touching. Thus begins Williams's memoir about his parents' deaths and his grieving. In the process of working through his grief, the poet finally comes to "see" his parents and to understand the nature of his feelings toward them and their feelings toward each other.

"You used to be such a nice man," he remembers his mother once telling his father. Indeed, when Williams was a child (and the family poor), his father was engaged and attentive. But as he evolved into a very successful businessman, he emotionally withdrew from the family. Throughout Williams's adult life, he and his father were alienated, their interactions consisting of verbal warfare, made much worse by the young man's choice of profession (writing poetry). It was only after the father had his first "stroke" (indicating brain metastases) that he was able to declare a truce. At one point he said, bemusedly, to his son, "We were kids together, you and I" (p. 37). However, during this truce, Williams's father, unable to bear his suffering, repeatedly pleaded with his son to help him end his life, an act that Williams was unable to perform.

Williams remembers whispering "I love you," when he first viewed his mother's corpse. Yet during life he saw her as a "completely and unquestioningly self-centered" woman (p. 58) whose life was filled with constant anxiety that she wouldn't get enough out of life, or that she'd lose what she had. She was a careless mother and a fretful and vain person. Yet there was more than that. Williams connects with his mother as a suffering person during her final illness: "Someday I'll thank her for how much of herself she risked to have divided herself when she was so young, so unprepared, so vulnerable, into the double creature she and I were...and the linked beings we always would be." (p. 166)

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