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Imagining Society: Hegemony in Poetry and Fiction Essay

The concept of hegemony, which asserts that society is ruled by a set of beliefs ingrained within the minds of individuals figures heavily into not only the ideals of society but also the representation of images and ideas. In poetry, we can see it in the references to nature, literature, and common social themes that reach beyond national boundaries to be easily relatable to the masses. In fiction, we can see the same concept in the attitudes and behaviors of characters and their respective communities.

The poems “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “A Song on the End of the World,” and “Odessa” the poets use universally relatable images to invoke imagery and emotion within the characterization of humanity. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day uses a similar notion but rather than representing these ideals through imagery, he exerts the dominance of hegemonic ideals in the behavior and beliefs of an individual character. Each work shows the hegemonic concept in practice, relating the easy acceptance of beliefs and ideals both blatantly as shown in Ishiguro’s story and through a coercion of imagery.

They show that Gramsci’s theory applies beyond acceptance of societal norms to the emotional and tangible evidence of the connectedness of perceptions within society. The reading from Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, shows the ability for hegemonic ideals of the upper class to penetrate within an individual’s consciousness in a seemingly unaware manner. For Mr. Stevens, the butler, the silver polish represents a bygone era in his life. This was the height of the society in which he found himself in the periphery.

His participation in this ritual, which he describes as significant in an outsider’s view of that particular household, “no other objects in the house were likely to come under such intimate scrutiny from outsiders as was silver during a meal, and as such, it served as a public index of the house’s standards” (Ishiguro 86). As butler, he was directly tied into the representation of these standards. The question is why this silver, which had no discernable effect on his own personal life carried such weight for him? Quite simply, Mr. Stevens as part of the mechanism of upper class society had adopted their views as his own.

Though the presentation of silver at the dinner table has little to no relevance in a lower or working class home, the ideal of finely polished silver represents a dream of upper class affluence. The influence of this upper class practice on Stevens is evident in the pride he retains in the “pleasing impact” (86) of the Darlington Hall silver on guests. The only relevance this has on his life, and for that matter the lives of the other butlers in great houses, is a matter of hegemonic assignation.

They have inherited this ideal of silver from their employers, given their own servant status it would be unlikely they would adopted this view of silver without the influences of the great houses. Similarly in the poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” the images created by Eliot are easily associated within the mind of the reader. He in fact relies on the hegemonic ideal to help the reader associate his imagery with the correct feelings and sensations. The character of the poem, struggles himself against the constraints of such ideals which relate the world around him to concepts he accepts but cannot reconcile.

He is playing his part in the larger play of life, “There will be time, there will be time/ To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;/ There will be time to murder and create” (Eliot 137. ll. 26-28). He is a middle-aged man fighting the depressions of the sameness, the women “Talking of Michelangelo” (138. ll. 36) but ignoring the living. Prufrock is left in uncertainty between the ideals, which have been ingrained within him by society, and his own desires to break free, “Do I dare/ disturb the universe? ” (138. ll. 45-46).

His struggle is accented with Eliot’s imagery of a broken man that is highlighted by references easily discerned and relatable in the ideas and literature of modern society, “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;/ Am an attendant lord, one that will do/ To swell a progress, start a scene or two,/advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,/ Deferential, glad to be of use” (139. ll. 111-115). In this reference to Hamlet, Eliot identifies Prufrock as a tragic figure though less so than a hero or villain; Prufrock’s sorrow is of a peripheral kind that never reaches the passion of Hamlet’s excesses or madness.

Prufrock’s melancholy is tempered by his knowledge of what he ought to be and what he wants to be, “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? / I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. / I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me” (ll. 122-125). He has grown accepting of his role as assigned by society, while Eliot highlights his sadness in the silent songs of the mermaids who even mythical fail to acknowledge or recognize this unremarkable man. His tragedy lies in his anonymity, having absorbed too much of the upper class ideal as part of himself.

While the two above readings center in part around a particular class of society, and through that representation show their ideals and the roots of the hegemony within the individual context, Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “A Song on the End of the World” offers a departure in the lack of specificity to an upper or middle class society. Instead Milosz’s poem relies are universal images of nature, that are easily put into context regardless of class or nationality. By doing this, he is showing the capability to tragedy to reach beyond these boundaries.

He juxtaposes the heavy line “On the day the world ends” (ll. 1) with the natural and everyday details of nature, “A bee circles a clover”(ll. 2). He is playing off the religious idea of the world ending in great catastrophe. However, in this poem the “world” is not meant to imply the Earth as a scientific fact to be destroyed by natural or manmade disaster. Instead the “world” is humanity, an idea of community and the individual that is implied throughout in the singular, though relatable images of a “drunkard” (ll. 9), a “yellow-sailed boat” (ll. 11), and a “violin” (ll. 2) to show both the universal and personal nature of such an event.

Milosz’s relies on hegemony to help the reader understand the interconnectedness of life. He uses easily associated and common images to avoid alienating the audience, instead bringing them into the idea of oneness that was behind the 1944 Warsaw uprising against the Nazis. For the Polish of Warsaw, this defeat represented an ending to the world they had known. Ilya Kaminsky’s “Dancing in Odessa,” like Milosz and Eliot’s poems relies heavily on imagery to bring the reader into the moment.

Though her images to do not carry the universal relatability of Milosz’s nature images, the emotional and mental effects of the invasion of the German’s into Odessa. She builds the first part of the poem with imagery to evoke a sense of freedom, which contrasts sharply with the restrictions of the German invaders. Where once the family had lived “north of the future” (Kaminky 12. ll. 1) and the invaders reveal this removal from the future as a removal from the damages of reality that are encroaching on this community.

The danger that arise smother this future and the people live in the past, even before they are so roughly brought to the present, “my mother danced, she filled the past/ with peaches, casseroles” (ll. 9-10). Her retelling of the story, is meant to evoke memory buried within the individual. The imagery is such as to show the dreamlike quality of the past seen through the brutal truth of the future. Unlike Eliot and Milosz’s poems she does not rely solely on cultural markers such as Shakespeare or Michaelangelo nor does her nature carry the same universality of the images of nature.

However, the day-to-day life as imagined by Kaminsky allows for an understanding that plays on emotion and historical allusions. More separate than the other writers from the hegemonic ideal, the emotions evoked by displacement are meant to strike at the basic human core. Her search for understanding is not so unlike the other poets’ expression of reality and the altering effects of the human mind on this reality. Any longer in literature language and imagery overlap with history to provide a core understanding that branches barriers of class, nationality, and culture.

An understanding of the world is gleaned through these works by the use of the relatable and hegemony of the ideals which dominate the context of their subjects. In both Kaminsky and Milosz’s poems we can easily see and understand the references to the Nazi dominance of World War II and the loss of hope. For Eliot’s Prufrock, so influenced by the ideals of society, the loss of hope is highlighted by his inability to move beyond his melancholy and the life role assigned to him.

He has become and will remain what is expected of him. Assigned to a particular class, carrying all of its restrictions and belief within his actions, Prufrock is stunted by his inactivity against this structure. Similarly, Mr. Stevens has taken on the role of butler and absorbed not only the ideals of his status but also those of his employers. In mindset, he is upper class in his equal obsession with silver as a marker of status but in reality he remains a servant without status.

The hegemonic concept is apt in the looking at the relationship between language and perception, allowing writers and poets to impart imagery and feeling through easily relatable conclusions. We do not doubt the sadness of Prufrock or the hopelessness that accompanied the Nazi occupation of Warsaw or the subsequent crackdown on the rise the rebellion, nor can we deny the sadness, which accompanies remembering in Kaminsky’s poem. We do not doubt them because we can relate, we can accept these images as representative of the beliefs and ideals of the society to which we are also a part.


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