The Search for Marvin Gardens

In “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” John McPhee weaves together accounts of what Atlantic City is like through a running competition of Monopoly the narrator is playing with an unnamed competitor. Throughout the story, McPhee provides highly detailed images of what the streets of Atlantic City contain as well as the history of why the streets were designed the way they were. In the chapter “Visibility: The Creation of Place,” there are a number of statements Tuan makes about places that pertain to McPhee’s descriptions of Atlantic City.

On the very first page of the chapter, Tuan says that “it is not possible to look at a scene in general,” but rather “our eyes keep searching for points of rest” (161). If we think about our experiences looking over scenes or landscapes, this statement makes a lot of sense. Whether it’s the small fisherman on a boat in the middle of a huge body of water, or a massive canyon among a stretch of mountains, we tend to search for things to look at. This reminded me of the beginning of McPhee’s story in which he describes the lighthouse. He informs us that “George Meade… built the lighthouse… to reach up high enough to throw a beam twenty miles over the sea” (McPhee 9). Tuan also explains that “place is whatever stable object catches our attention” (161). By introducing us to the lighthouse, a fixture that serves as a symbol of hope and guidance for many a sailor, McPhee tells us that Atlantic City is more than just a town, it is a “place” despite the “crumbling walls of the buildings” and the “shattered glass,” and that the lighthouse serves as what Tuan described as the resting place for our eyes (McPhee 9).

Another very important point that Tuan makes is that “many places, profoundly significant to particular individuals and groups, have little visual prominence” (162). This is extremely relevant in “The Search for Marvin Gardens” because nearly the entirety of the story is spent describing how drab, run-down, and trashy Atlantic City had become, and yet clearly it was significant to our narrator, perhaps because of his attachment to Monopoly, for he spends his time roaming the broken city in search of the one spot on the Monopoly board that remains hidden from the rest of Atlantic City. We get pages of proof that the city is no longer beautiful, no longer filled with the glory it once held, and yet it remains close to our narrator’s heart, just as Tuan explained often happens.

What’s also significant about Tuan’s chapter that relates well to McPhee’s story is his description of sculptures. Tuan says that “sculptures have the power to create a sense of place by their own physical presence” (162). He continues, saying that “a single inanimate object, useless in itself, can be the focus of a world” (ibid). At the very end of McPhee’s story, the narrator turns to the statue of Charles B. Darrow, creator of the game Monopoly, and asks him the question he’s been trying to answer throughout his entire journey in Atlantic City. For the narrator, a huge weight was represented in this statue. Darrow knew that Marvin Gardens was not located in Atlantic City, and after asking various locals about this secluded area, it seemed as though this statue, this “bronze, impassive” depiction of the man who created the classic game of Monopoly was the only one who could tell him where to look (McPhee 19). The reason was that the game of Monopoly was a whole world for the narrator, and the statue represented this world and hence the hidden location of the only property in the board game that the narrator couldn’t get a hold of.

Published in: on April 28, 2011 at 11:53 am Comments (1)

Everyday Use

In the chapter “Attachment to Homeland” in his book Space and Place, Tuan mentions many concepts that pertain to Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use.” In the story, the narrator’s eldest daughter has made various efforts throughout her life to rise above her family’s social status by learning to read, moving away, and adorning herself with bangles and earrings, luxuries her family could never dream of. Tuan says that “exile [is] the worst of fates” for a person, but in the story, Dee leaves her home behind in search of something better (154). This, to me, indicates clearly that Dee was not interested in remaining connected to her family at all. Dee also changes her name to Wangero because it’s more “authentically” African than “Dee.” While this might seem like Dee is trying to connect back to a homeland that dates further back than Georgia, she disregards the fact that she was named after her aunt and other family members. Tuan quotes a Native American chief, saying, “our ancestors are sacred” and the Athenians saying that “our ancestors deserve praise, for they dwelt in the country without break in the succession from generation to generation” (154-155). While it’s true that the African Americans were forced into The States, Dee’s family was clearly one with much history in the country considering her great grandfather fought in the civil war. Yet she obviously disregards the ancestors that are closest to her by changing her name. Another interesting thing that Tuan point out in the chapter is about the specific landmarks of a homeland. He explains that the “visible signs serve to enhance a people’s sense of identity; they encourage awareness of and loyalty to place” (159). This is significant for the story when we reach the turning point as Dee tries to claim the family’s quilts instead of letting her younger sister Maggie have them. It becomes clear that Dee has no regard for the sentimental value of the quilts and only finds them “precious” in the same sense as a hipster might find a retro piece of jewelry. Dee has no loyalty to her homeland, would rather turn the sentimental pieces of her past life into artwork with which to adorn her walls, and hence storms off when she can’t get her way.

Published in: on April 14, 2011 at 11:44 pm Comments (0)

Paper 2, final draft

In Margaret Atwood’s “Death by Landscape,” the main character, Lois, is trapped in her past because of a tragic experience at summer camp when she was younger. On a canoeing trip, she and her best friend, Lucy, separate from the group to investigate a lookout point and Lucy mysteriously vanishes. Now, Lois’ apartment is practically wallpapered in landscape paintings, reminding her constantly of that horrible memory. Her relationship with the landscape paintings indicates that she is trapped within those memories, and needs those paintings to feel that Lucy is still with her. In a literal sense, it was Lucy who met her death at the lookout, but upon closer inspection it becomes clear that Lois is the one who stopped living past that point in time. Analyses of landscapes and time by Yi-Fu Tuan and Edward S. Casey help us to understand the way in which Lois remains in the past by surrounding herself with the landscape paintings.

On the canoeing trip, the girls stop to make camp at a marked lookout point. Lucy and Lois decide to venture up the cliff, in which “spindly balsam and spruce trees grow to either side” (Atwood 111). They’re in the middle of the forest, on top of a cliff, where no one can see or hear them. Tuan explains that “in a dense forest environment… aural space is less focused” and that “forest sounds are not precisely located” (Tuan 119). This is because of the many trees and other dense geological structures that turn the space into “a dense net of place with no overall structure” (ibid). It’s not hard to understand then, how someone can easily go missing, or why if Lucy had fallen off the lookout into the water, “there had been no sound of falling rock; there had been no splash” (Atwood 114).

Lois reminds herself of this moment every day by looking at her landscape paintings. All of the paintings are “pictures of convoluted tree trunks… of a lake with rough, bright, sparsely wooded cliffs… of yellow autumn woods” (Atwood 100). Lois surrounded herself with the images; the walls were covered in “blocks of pictures, above and beside one another” (99). Lois preferred them like this. She wanted these pictures to be prominent because they were important to her, and having them cover her walls “[had] more of an impact” than if they were few and farther apart (ibid). In this way, Lois made it so that she could never leave the lookout point where she lost her best friend, never escape her memory, and remain in her past forever.

Throughout the story, there are many different implications of time passing. A very clear indicator is that the story revolves around a summer camp. “Lucy was [Lois’] summer friend” (103); their entire relationship revolved around seasonal change, and because the girls were apart for a full ten months out of the year, “when they met in the summer, it was always a shock… It was like watching someone grow up in jolts” (105). Lois also thinks to herself at some point that her and Lucy’s names “date [them]” and that “now [they were] obsolete” (ibid). These things indicate that, while in camp, time actually felt as though it were passing very quickly.  It is only later on that Lois finds herself stuck in the past. In “Time in Experiential Space,” Tuan explains that the different perceptions of time are either located in objective space or in subjective space. He says that “subjective space belongs to the mental realm,” while things like “cyclical time [such as] the movement of the sun… [are] located on objective space” (Tuan 120). This is interesting in Lois’ case, because her sense of the physical passing of time—what should be located in objective space—has been taken over by her subjective space in which her haunting memories reside.

Atwood makes mention of Lois’ relationship to time at various points throughout the story. For example, when the girls reunited in the summer “they had changed so much, or Lucy had” (105). Here, Atwood clearly plants the hint that Lucy was the one moving through time, but that Lois remained the same, clearly foreshadowing Lois’ entrapment in time. It is also no coincidence that “when she heard the shout,” “it was noon,” the time of day when the sun seems held suspended in the sky at its highest point (112). The sun seems held in its place, as though time halts altogether, and it is at this point that Lucy disappears, keeping Lois as suspended in time as the sun seems to be at midday. Atwood also makes Lois’ awareness of time particularly prominent when, just before Lucy disappears, “Lois looks at her watch” (111). Clearly, when Lucy was still around and the girls were in camp, Lois was very much aware of the passing of time, for “she [was] the watch-minder” while “Lucy [was] careless of time” (ibid). It is only after Lucy disappears and Lois is left to carry out her life without her friend that she forces herself to stay locked in that moment instead of moving on. At this point, we gain understanding of Atwood’s title for the short story, “Death by Landscape.” Upon first glance, it seems as though the death in the title refers to Lucy’s death. However, with closer analysis, it becomes clear that it is Lois who loses her life at the lookout in the lush forest landscape. Once she loses her friend, she loses her sense of objective time, and as a result keeps herself locked within her memories forever.

It’s clear that the way in which Lois surrounds herself in her past is through her landscape paintings. Tuan explains the significance of these paintings in the latter half of “Time in Experiential Space.” He reminds us that upon looking at landscape paintings, “we almost automatically arrange its components” to be able to set them in terms of our own lives (Tuan 123). We picture ourselves inside the painting, and “imagine ourselves traveling down [the countryside] road” in the picture (ibid). Distinguished professor and phenomenologist Edward S. Casey also explains that landscapes are more than just representations of geological formations. Rather, when painting the landscape, “the artist’s body… displays its sense of the place it paints” and not just “the landscape’s precise contours” (Casey 261). We look at landscape paintings, and become a part of the scene. Casey explains that in these portrayals of wide horizons and lush trees, Casey “feel[s] that [he is] already over there, out there” in the scene (265). When Lois looks at the paintings in her apartment, she too is transported back into the scene that they represent, for when she “looks at her pictures… it’s the same landscape they paddled through” (Atwood 117). Of course, these images are not paintings of the same lookout on which Lucy and Lois stood years before. But to Lois, they were exactly the same, and she chose to surround herself with the images so as to constantly live within them, and be transported back to that crucial, tragic moment in her life.

Casey also calls these broad images worldscapes, in which the image is a “non-enclosed, ever-expanding totality” much like scenes described in Lois’ paintings of lakes that stretch out before her as seen from high up places (Casey 265). He explains that “what matters in a worldscape is the… panoramic sense of endless space and… time” (ibid). This is important because for Lois, her landscape paintings represent an endless time for Lucy. Lois is traumatized by the fact that Lucy’s fate is unclear, and therefore feels the need to ensure that she live on in some way. The paintings give Lucy endless time in which to live and last in Lois’ life. Lois feels that “every one of [the paintings] is a picture of Lucy” (Atwood 118). Because the landscape paintings are there, Lucy “is in Lois’ apartment” and “she is entirely alive” in Lois’ mind (ibid). It is for this reason that Lois feels the need to remain stuck within her memory of Lucy and that dreadful moment on the canoe trip. If Lois were to move on and risk forgetting what that moment meant to her, she would risk losing Lucy for the second time, this time forever. Lois chooses to surround herself with her paintings so that she can stay in the landscapes, and so that Lucy can peer out through them and continue to live within them.

Through her landscape paintings, Lois keeps herself trapped and surrounded by the memories of her and Lucy at the lookout over the lake. Casey and Tuan help us to understand how and why it is that Lois feels this connection to the landscapes by explaining that these images are not just representations of a scene. Rather, Lois’ affinity for the paintings shows us “the process by which… a story gets attached to an object” (Casey 14). She demonstrates “the habit of mind that looks behind objects to events, and sees in objects a sign of something else” (ibid).When Lucy vanished into the landscape, she and Lois switched places in time. On the lookout, Lois meets her “Death by Landscape,” and ceases to live her life beyond that point in time. Behind those paintings lies Lucy’s story and hence what remains of her life. It is for this reason that Lois must keep the paintings close to her, so that she can keep herself within the past and Lucy within the present.

Published in: on at 1:41 am Comments (1)

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