Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Essay on On The Black Hill

Bruce Chatwin's "On The Black Hill": Tradition And Modernization Essay

"Without change, something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken” (Frank Herbert, 1965). Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill, is ‘a work of great dramatic intensity’. The novel spans the majority of the twentieth century, a period of immense social, economic and political change, and clearly chronicles the conflict between modernisation and tradition that occurs during this period. Throughout the closely intertwined lives of Lewis and Benjamin Jones, this conflict is apparent, and a sense of the immensity of the changes which are taking place is conveyed. It is difficult to judge whether Chatwin endorses the traditional or modernising aspects of the world he presents in On the Black Hill.

However, while evaluating Chatwin’s stance on the subject of change, we must keep in mind that the twins live their life blocked off from the world, virtually unchanged, and as a result, something is always missing in their lives. Something inside them is always ‘asleep’ and they, especially Lewis, feel an emptiness to their life. In order to evaluate whether the novel is written in the interests of endorsing either modernisation or tradition, we must examine the degree to which Lewis and Benjamin’s refusal to progress with the rest of the world affects their lives, as well as the various changes in social distinctions, gender discrimination, social practices and even technology that take place throughout the period that the novel spans.

One of the most important social changes that occurred in the novel is the way in which social distinctions dissipate as the book proceeds. Chatwin deeply explores the traditional, discriminatory distinctions that existed in the class structure of Britain at the beginning of the century (especially the way in which the English are ‘higher’ than the Welsh) and the way in which they altered over the century. This aspect of the modern world, where social distinctions are less severe, appears to be one that Chatwin endorses. This is explored most notably in the relationship between Mary and Amos. Before the twentieth century, there was great animosity between the Welsh and the English, due to the Welsh resentment of England’s power over Wales. It was previously unthinkable for an English woman, especially the daughter of a Reverend such as Mary, to marry a Welshman. Clearly, from the moment of their meeting, the differences in the class, culture and education of Mary and Amos is amplified.


During the church hymn, Amos’ voice is described as a ‘baritone murmuring round the nape of her neck’ while Mary’s voice is described as a ‘clear, quavering soprano’, emphasising that Mary’s voice is trained and educated while Amos’ is not. In a similar effect, Mary is described as having ‘long, white, tapering fingers’ while Amos has ‘red hands’, implying the fact that Amos is used to manual labour, while Mary has no need for it as she has servants. When Amos and Mary attempt to talk to one another, they feel that ‘nothing would come of this meeting and their two accents would never make one whole voice’. Quite obviously, at the beginning of the twentieth century, due to traditional distinctions, it was almost impossible for a Welshman and an English woman to be together. However, as the century (and thus the novel) progresses, such social constraints begin to fade, a change which Chatwin seems to endorse.

Despite the constraints of their respective classes, Mary and Amos are able to transcend these social distinctions and be married. This is the point at which there is great conflict between the traditional mistrust between the Welsh and the English, and the newly emerging relationship between Mary and Amos. For example, ‘their neighbours, of whom most were chapel-folk, whose mistrust for English went back centuries, were suspicious of Mary’. However, Mary ‘soon won them over’. Another example of this conflict between modernisation and tradition is when, years later, after buying the Vision for a terrible overprice at an auction, Amos snaps at Mary, and all his resentment for her being of a higher class comes through. Amos shouts at Mary that it was ‘her money that stocked the farm, her furniture furnishing the house, her class and her clever, clever letter that had saved all’. Despite this tension which arises due to class differences, Mary still loves Amos, as seen in the way she becomes obsessed with him after his death. Bruce Chatwin clearly endorses the matrimony of Mary and Amos and the change which has occurred in the animosity between Welsh and English. As the novel proceeds, social differences are overcome more easily, as seen in the friendships which arise between Mary and a number of Welsh women such as Aggie Watkins, as well as when the twins find a friend in Nancy Bickerton. Bruce Chatwin quite obviously approves of change and modernisation in the respect of changing social distinctions.

Another major social change that occurs during the course of On the Black Hill is the way in which women are treated. Bruce Chatwin clearly disapproves of the traditional method of treating women such as the way that men are allowed to hurt them and the lack of respect they are given (they are not seen as able to support themselves). This is seen on several occasions at the beginning of the novel (and century). For example, early in the book, when Mary’s father (the Reverend Latimer) dies, people exclaim (about Mary), “the poor thing! To think she’s alone in the world!” Obviously, it is ‘unbelievable’ that a woman would be able to support herself. The chapter in which Reggie Bickerton uses Rosie Fifield before leaving her to fend for herself is evidence of the mistreatment of women, as well as the when Amos beats Mary after the fire at the Vision. However, as the book progresses, more and more women become independent and able to support themselves. For instance, Rosie Fifield is able to support herself and her child, Billy, after Reggie leaves them. Also, Aggie Watkins ‘hit on the idea of boarding unwanted children’ as a source of income to support her family (once Tom left). Without a doubt, women have become more independent and powerful as the novel progresses. The expulsion of social and gender discrimination which has occurred through the century is clearly an aspect of modernisation which Bruce Chatwin supports. Alternately, Chatwin seems to disapprove of many of the social practices which emerge as the novel progressed.

There are numerous changes in society’s values in On the Black Hill which Chatwin chronicles throughout the novel and appears to disapprove of. The most significant, modern social value which Chatwin emphasises is the increased materialism which begins to surface as the century progresses. Throughout the novel, especially in the later years of the twins life, Chatwin suggests that there is an increased emphasis on money and greed. This is evident in a number of characters who form a part of the twins’ lives. Firstly, in the case of Rosie Fifield, when Reggie Bickerton ‘protests his love’ to her, she accepts, ‘imagining the butler bringing in her breakfast tray’. Chatwin is clearly suggesting that Rosie simply succumbs to Reggie (and betrays Lewis) for his money, in the hopes of a comfortable life. This increased emphasis on materialism is re-established with the character of Mr. Arkwright, who ‘to avail himself of her capital, had laced his wife’s food with arsenic’. Again this materialism is exemplified in the Watkins family feud over the Rock. In the very day of Jim the Rock’s funeral, instead of mourning their (adopted) brother’s death, Sarah and Lizzie Watkins have a dispute over who has ownership rights to the Rock. Chatwin demonstrates this point again with Mrs. Redpath. When the twins first meet her, she seems a fairly kind woman. However, when she receives news of her son, Kevin, becoming the heir to the Vision, ‘suddenly, overnight, she changed her tactics, acting as thought the farm was her birthright, importuning them for money and rummaging in their drawers’. Mrs. Redpath is a clear example of the increasing materialism of man which Chatwin attempts to highlight. However, this increased materialism is not the only modern social practice which emerges in the novel which Chatwin frowns upon.

There are several other modern practices which are mentioned throughout the novel which Bruce Chatwin certainly does not endorse. Firstly, Chatwin attacks the decreasing modesty of women, especially when the twins visit the Rhulen Fair and ‘skirts, since the twins were last in Rhulen, had risen not above the ankle, but above the knee’. We receive a sense of Chatwin’s disapproval of this practice as ‘all Benjamin saw were legs – kicking, prancing, and reminding him of his one and only visit to an abattoir and the kicks of the sheep in their death throes’, an unpleasant image which certainly does not convey this social practice in a positive way. Chatwin obviously does not endorse the way in which women flaunt their attributes more freely as the years pass. Another new practice in society which Chatwin highlights with disapproval appears in the later stages of the twins’ lives. Chatwin clearly frowns upon the ‘hippies’ which arrive, and who Kevin gets mixed up with. The hippies have strange habits and are rumoured to ‘sleep together like pigs’. Also, they are responsible for Kevin becoming intoxicated after ‘eating mushrooms’ and returning home ‘reeling’ with a ‘glazed and faraway look’. Bruce Chatwin obviously does not endorse many of the practices which society has fallen into during the twentieth century, most notably the increasing materialism. Another aspect of modernisation in the twentieth century which Chatwin does not approve of is, quite obviously, the First World War.

World War I was clearly the most significant change to occur during the twentieth century and is, without a doubt, an aspect of modernisation which Chatwin does not endorse. From the moment of the first mention of war in the novel, Chatwin’s pessimism on the subject (and rightly so) is evident, as he concentrates not so much on the effects of battle itself, but in the way that young men are duped into leaving for war as well as the effect that war has on the man and women at the home-front. A sense of Chatwin’s disgust with the war enterprise is displayed when he describes the ‘blaze of Patriotism’ that emerges at war-time almost bitterly. Chatwin emphasises how naive those young men who are fooled into joining the war are with the image of Jim with his ‘mouth agape’ and the way he joins the war foolishly ‘for a lady with moist wet lips and moist hazel-coloured eyes’ (Isobel Bickerton). Also, the terrible effects that war has on those back home are conveyed through Aggie Watkins as she mourns for her son’s death (Jim does not actually die but she believes it to be so due to a misunderstanding).

Chatwin continues to emphasise his bitterness for war on several occasions, especially when expressing his contempt for the officials, such as Mr. Arkwright, who enrol young men into the regiments. For example, Gomer Davies’ insincerity when he claims the ‘war was a Crusade for Christ’ is clear as Chatwin describes his ‘muddy smile’. This contempt for higher officials is displayed quite strongly in the way the officials are insensitive to the fact that Lewis and Benjamin are twins, and are determined to send one of them off anyway. Mr. Arkwright, especially, is a character who personifies all the deceit and insensitivity that Bruce Chatwin finds in those who support the war enterprise. After assuring Amos Jones and his family of the twins’ safety, with the words ‘don’t give it another thought, we’re not ogres you know’, he betrays them and Benjamin is forced to join the war effort.

Bruce Chatwin’s beliefs are once again effectively expressed through Benjamin, who, after being enrolled for battle, defiantly asks the vicar if he ‘believes in the Sixth Commandment – thou shalt not kill’. The officials simply reply with ‘what cheek!’, unable to defend themselves against such a comment. Bruce Chatwin cleverly conveys the conflict between modernisation and tradition, as Britain, which by tradition was quite religious, turns to war and breaking the Sixth Commandment as a means of settling disputes with other nations. War is quite obviously an aspect of modernisation which disgusts the author. Clearly, there are a number of changes which occur during the century in which Chatwin favours modernisation, while in others, such as war, he endorses tradition. It is difficult to decide what Chatwin’s final message on the subject is.

The most important evidence in determining Bruce Chatwin’s stance in the conflict between modernisation and tradition is the twins’ lives themselves. Lewis and Benjamin Jones, aside from their visit to the seaside, Lewis’ brief stay at a farm near Rhydspence and the time that Benjamin spent in the barracks at Hereford, live their lives virtually isolated from the world. They live their entire lives at the Vision, repeating the same routine every day and the same rituals every year for eighty years. They ‘turn away from the modern age’, and refuse to advance with the rest of the world. They shun new technology (although Lewis wants to fly or have a tractor, Benjamin prevents this from happening), and are disgusted by the changing social practices, living virtually unchanged for their entire lives. ‘Nothing in their home was changed since the day of their father’s funeral’, and the two men simply live in the past, in a bygone era. Any attempt by Lewis to have his own life is counteracted by Benjamin, in the hopes of keeping them together. As a result, the twins feel ‘the pain and the anger, the shame and the sterility’ and that their lives have been wasted. They (especially Lewis) feel that they have never really lived and that a part of them has always been ‘asleep’. In the one occasion that they do break free from their own boundaries, on their eightieth birthday flight (a present from Kevin), they find that they are ‘definitely enjoying themselves’. In this one occasion in which they allow themselves to change with the world around them, they find ‘all the frustrations of their cramped and frugal life now counted for nothing’ as ‘their souls flew up to Heaven’. Clearly, the emptiness that is felt in the twins’ lives is because they refuse to change with the world around them. Without a doubt, Bruce Chatwin endorses change and feels that a life is not complete without some change and some variety. However, there are still many aspects of modernisation which Chatwin certainly does not endorse and it is difficult to fully evaluate Chatwin’s exact message about change.

Perhaps the most important symbol in determining whether Bruce Chatwin endorses tradition or modernisation, are the tractors which Lewis purchases and loves. The tractors represent a transition from the traditional method of farming to the modern age of technology and a significant change in the twins’ lives (as they usually shun such technology). While this change gives Lewis immeasurable pleasure, as he ‘loves his tractor’ and ‘is forever checking her (the tractor’s) plugs, fiddling with her carburettor and fretting about her general state of health’, it is also the cause of his death at the end of the novel, as he dies in a tractor accident. This is symbolic of Bruce Chatwin’s message about change; that although change is necessary and often beneficial, we must be careful in our modernisation, or it will bring about our downfall.

Rather than endorsing tradition or modernisation specifically, the novel On the Black Hill simply endorses change. Bruce Chatwin’s message to the reader is conveyed through the lives of the twins, that ‘without change, something sleeps inside us’, and that in order to experience life fully, we must progress as the world around us progresses. However, although he approves of changes such as the dissipation of social and gender discrimination, Bruce Chatwin does not appear to support all forms of modernisation, and is sceptical about changing social practices and values, as well as society’s violent solutions (such as war) to conflicts. The novel On the Black Hill teaches the reader that although we should not be trapped in the constraints of tradition as Lewis and Benjamin Jones were, we must be careful about the changes we make as well as their consequences.

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