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Owen Marshall’s ‘Mr Van Gogh’ addresses the inevitable issue of marginalisation of an individual. Through language features he influences the reader to reflect and consider action of the attitudes towards the socially marginalised. The social rejection of an individual is described through the voice of the town bully, and the cowardly acts of the narrator. Set in a small town in New Zealand it serves as a microcosm of contemporary society. Marshall presents a parable to educate the reader so they understand that there is only inclusion when there is exclusion.
Marshall aims to influence the reader to take action and act in ways that challenge the universal social norms. Through the voice of the town bully Marshall presents the issue of Frank’s rejection. Marshall achieves this by emphasising the mockery demonstrated toward Frank. In, ‘… a local turn to entertain the visitors. “Was he any good though, this Van Gogh bugger? ”’, Marshall uses direct speech from Mr Souness to tease Frank about his fondness of Van Gogh.
Vincent Van Gogh is Frank’s passion, he admires him like nobody else.
The rhetorical question that Souness derides Frank with is appropriate because it shows the reader colloquialism that Souness uses whilst he talks down to Frank. Frank is used as entertainment for the townspeople who sadistically take pleasure by ridiculing Frank’s devotion toward Van Gogh. This arouses guilt in the reader because it relates to the broader social context, showing the truth about society; Marshall uses representative characters to show that society must have “outcasts”.
The reader realises that you can either be part of society or have individuality.
The isolation of Frank is further evident in, ‘… old bugger is holding up the democratic wishes of the town’, this shows the parallel relationship between Van Gogh and Frank through Marshall creating repetition in diction through the repetition of, ‘bugger’. Marshall used an extended metaphor, which further developed the character of Frank by relating him to Van Gogh, who was also marginalised. Ironically by calling Frank, ‘Mr Van Gogh’, the community are isolating him, destining him to follow Van Gogh’s fate – a misjudged genius dying alone, unrecognised in his ifetime for his work. The exclusion that Marshall created through the voice of the town bully is additionally seen through the acts of the bystanders in the community. The marginalisation of Frank is reflected through the cowardly acts of the narrator. The townspeople have no interest in standing up for Frank; he stands up for himself. In, ‘Mr Van Gogh was standing before the laughter with his arms outstretched like a cross’, the simile accentuates to the reader that Frank is derided, the town bully and his accompanies laugh at the fight he reluctantly devotes himself to.
The Biblical allusion emphasises the use of the simile by connecting Frank to Jesus; this shows that Frank and Jesus have a parallel relationship – Frank is being used as a sacrifice for the entertainment of the townspeople, sacrificing himself by standing up for his hero, Van Gogh. The community proceeds to be spectators even if they believe the ridiculing is wrong; they convince themselves that the discrimination is not their business, highlighted in, ‘I went away from the fence without watching anymore’.
Pontius Pilate walked away, ‘washed his hands’ of responsibility of Jesus’s crucifixion; the narrator relates because he sees Frank being used as a human sacrifice, yet he turns his back and walks away – not wanting to be part of the taunting acts, and too fearful for his own self worth if he stood up for Frank. Marshall elaborates to the reader the unwillingness to risk ourselves for others is human behaviour; such as following in the role of others. The community mirrors Souness; whereas Frank chooses to create his own path. By destroying Frank’s house Marshall symbolises the destruction of Frank’s individuality.
Marshall shows the community is unconsciously making efforts to destroy any forms of individuality. In, ‘It rose like a phoenix in its own flames, and he wasn’t part of it anymore… the colour, and purpose, and vision of Mr Van Gogh had gone out of himself and was there on the walls about us”, the listing of abstract nouns accentuates to the reader creating a link between Frank and Van Gogh – they both dedicated their lives to their passion. The relation to the mythical creature, phoenix, certify the resurrection of Frank; his soul is carried through his work, his house.
This Classical allusion is used to demonstrate to the reader the symbolic aspects of the house, such as Frank’s originality. The simile in, ‘the house collapsed like an old elephant in the drought surrounded by so many enemies’, compares the townsfolk to scavengers – they are seen as cowards, only attacking when their prey seems weak. Marshall uses this because elephants symbolise sensitivity; the relation to an ‘elephant in drought’ underlines the vulnerability of the house whilst Frank is not present to protect his individuality.
The author positions the reader to feel sympathy and horror about the destruction of the house, and evokes the sense of powerlessness within the reader because the majority overwhelms the individual. Marshall portrays to the reader that group mentality of the majority attempts to overwhelm individuality. Due to the concept of binary construction, society is predicated on inclusion and exclusion; in order to achieve a sense of community, marginalisation is inevitable and universal. Marshall’s short story makes the reader reflect about the hypocritical ways in which society works.
There will always be Van Gogh as long as there are those who express their individuality; there will always be forms of exclusion through inclusion. In, ‘… Souness kept laughing, … rubbed his knuckles into his left eye because of the dust’, the Biblical allusion refers to the Book of Luke through, ‘dust’, emphasising the message, ‘Why point at the speck in your brother’s eye, when there is a plank in your own? First remove the plank from your own eye… ’. Hypocrisy is shown by the townspeople judging others on their personal values, when they themselves have them.
Marshall has caused the reader to realise the hypocrisy in their lives, the reader follows in majorities’ lead of society. Marshall causes the reader consider action by changing the ways they think about social marginalisation. It is important for young people to read this story to raise awareness of the reality of society; the social marginalisation in the story is an example of what happens in reality. People are laughed at for being different, however, they should be laughing because society is all the same.
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