Sunday, December 18, 2011

after easter by anne devlin

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Identity is definition. As Althusser theorized, we bring things into existence through the utterance of their names. So why can we not bring ourselves into our own existence or a new existence by re-uttering our name? By doing so we can shape our own identities with a tailored definition rather than choosing one already out there and trying to format ourselves within those boundaries. I think the acceptance of what Homi Bhabba calls “hybridity” is doing just that. In realizing that your identity takes many different border-crossing forms, one essentially creates for themself their own space and their own actualization of their self.

In Anne Devlin’s play After Easter there is a triad of power structures that must be contended with in the process of establishing an independent self. Aoife, Helen, and Greta live under the authority of the colonizer, the Catholic church, and patriarchal social structures. These three women represent three different responses to these power structures. Their life choices are reflections of the impositions. After Easter explores female identity and the reader is taken on a journey with Greta from the time, “[t]he unhomely moment creeps up on [her]”(Bhabba, 1) until her deliverance to the ability to shape her own identity which takes the form of a seanachai, a traditionally male role of storyteller. Essentially we observe the story of Greta coming to a place where she can tell her own story.

Aoife chooses to to live a life where she seems to be the idealistic and traditional “good” Irish catholic mother. She deals with questions of identity by portraying herself as this accepted role while she allows herself to expolre other realms in secret. Greta says to her, “You have affairs and you still go to mass” to which Aoife respons, “I don;t have affairs- I have phone numbers”(Devlin, 7). Although Aoife seem conflicted she believes strongly in an Irish upbringing and tells her sister, Greta that her children would end up alright if she moved them back to Ireland. She also says that Greta is not mad but rather normal and that it is English people who have a problem(Devlin, 1). Aoife pushes Greta to visit the church explaining that a good confession is in order because Greta is suffering from the guilt of marrying an English Protestant and not baptizing her children. What is seen here is not only a different response to the power structures in the Irish society but also another structure within Greta’s family which is also an influence.

Helen represents a different response to society’s expectations. Helen experiences a form of colonial mimicry, which has, “come to describe the ambivalent relationship between colonizer and colonized”(Bhabba, 1). Helen feels that to get away from the structures which are determined to assign her the role of a traditional Catholic family woman, she must leave. Helen says, “You have to go away to get away”(Devlin, 74). One would think that Helens vehicle of constructing her own identity is exile but why does she then choose England to live in? She exiles herself from the colonized country only to move to the colonizer’s land. More interestingly she uses an American accent explaining,”There are limits to betrayal- even for me”(Devlin, 15). We see the ambivalence that Helen has for English ways through her love of the freedom it affords her to be a career woman but her hatred of their cultural history in her refusal to take on their language. Helen’s response seems to be the usage of certain attributes from certain cultures for her to attain prosperity and consequently happiness. Helen’s identity is not based on her Irish nationality because she consciously will not allow herself to be shaped by it’s influence. She says to Aoife, “What is it with you, does everything have to have a nationality?”(Devlin, 17). By keeping herself ambivalent towards nationality as a form of identity she enables herself to avoid confrontation.

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Greta is obviously the most interesting and conflicted character in the text. Here we will focus on her journey through unhomliness to a state of accepted hybridity and self actualization using her sisters as a solid starting examination point for the purposes of contrast and comparison. As Bhabba explains, “The unhomely moment creeps up on you...taking the measure of your dwelling in a state of incredulous terror...the borders between home and world become confused; and uncannily, the private and the public become part of eachother, forcing upon us a division that is as divided as it is disorienting”(Bhabba, ). The play opens up with Greta describing an occurrence in her life when she sat in the middle of the road. Sitting in this road is a kind of silent protest. Bhabba explains, “...the halfway house of racial and cultural origins”...a difference within a subject represents a hybridity, a difference within a subject that inhabits the rim of an in-between identity reality. And the inscription of this borderline existence inhabits a stillness of time and a strangeness of framing”(Bhabba, 1). This obviously portrays a woman stuck in between two places. More specifically Ireland and England as Greta explains,”You see, I left Ireland in 17, but I never arrived in England. I don;t know where I went”(Devlin, ). This is the moment in the play where the reader is made aware of Greta’s position in life or in regards to the understanding of her own identity.

This issue of Greta’s swaying identities is regarded by Aoife not as a mixture of all identities but as neutrality. Greta explains he religious affiliation,“I am a Catholic, a protestant, a Hindu, a Muslim, A jew”(Devlin, 1). Greta goes on to say, “I’m not even Christian. I don’t want this- I don’t want to be Irish. Im English, French, German”(Devlin, 18). Aoife takes this as Greta not choosing “sides” and through this idea of neutrality she rationalizes that this is the reason God has chosen to express himself through her. Greta is not neutral however because if she were, she would have no problem with the inclusion of Catholic, and Irish. Furthermore her actions are completely contradictory to her verbal expression which is obviously a form that her resistance takes on. Her visions are both descriptively religious and national as she says, “I felt as if the whole of Ireland was crying out to me”(Devlin, 17). Greta is full of contradictions throughout the play and the most interesting of them all are her death and re-births.

When Greta is explaining her “death” to her sisters she say that there were roses everwhere and suddenly she was outside looking at the sky where she could see a constellation. She says, “And I felt it leave my body”(Devlin, 0). She never says what exactly “it” is. One could propose that the “it” is her soul, but that is very abstract. It is the understanding of who she is and her identity that is lost because she is still physically living on Earth going through the motions of life. She says, “I had no self to throw away”(Devlin, 1). When one throw sometimg away, it is theirs to throw away. They have ownership over that which they choose to remove from themself. Greta did not own her own space or her own person and so it was impossible for her at that time to make waste of her life. Most interesting in her explanation of her death is that she feels the need to resist. A voice tells her to distribute communion wafers to the public but she feels that it is her duty and struggle to deny this voice. This is a denial of her self.

This is also an important place to stop and make a juxtaposition of Greta and her two sisters. Aoife insisted that the constellation Greta say was the plough, which is on the flag on the Irish Citizen Army. To Aoife, Greta’s vision was fixed to Irish nationalism and the struggle against colonialism. Helen believes that the constellation was the Pleiades which the Greeks called the sisterhood of seven. The myth behind the Pleiades is that they are seven sisters running from Orion, the hunter, who is trying to capture them. Perhaps Devlin uses this allusion to point out Helen’s choice to exile England, her being one of the sisters, Ireland being Orion, the hunter, and England (and the opportunity it affords) being Zeus(who enabled the sisters to escape).

Although Greta experiences more than one rebirth, the first she experiences has the most description and layered meaning. Bhabba explains, “By making visible the forgetting on the unhomely moment in civil society, feminism specifies the patriarchal, gendered nature of civil society...This results in re-drwing the domestic space”(Bhabba, 11). Greta is obviously restained by religion and patriarcy. We see both of these darknesses embodied in her husband. In the scene of her re-birth she explains, “I could see out of two separate windows each with a different view”(Devlin, 1). Greta is silenced by a man and she is silenced by Catholic orthodoxy which is perpetuated by colonization so here we again encounter the triad of power structures exerting their forces on Greta.

Greta sees, “ old man in the corner watching [her]. [She has] felt watched all [her] life”(Devlin, 1). She goes on to say, I was being silenced”(Devlin, 1). Greta in this experience sees a sphere lit up below her and it is symbolic of the world being hers for the taking. The good voice comes to tell her, “Enjoy your fall through space and time”(Devlin, 1). In other words she should turn around from the bad situation she is in with her husband and be reborn out of his grips and to herself. When the voice is telling her to “turn around”, Devlin is referring to the earlier idea that Greta should resist her instinct and the voice is telling her not to resist but rather to go to it and embrace it. At Greta’s rebirth see can see through her own window which is her individually made perspective. Elish however, slave to patriarchal Catholicism can not even fathom the importance of an ascent from the enslavement of a two window view to her own perspective and says, “And that was all”(Devlin, 1). To which Greta responds, “All? That was the beginning”(Devlin, 1).

Greta explains that she was living in the “outer room” of her life. Greta was going through the motions of life with her husband and children on an exterior level and on an interior level something very different was going on. Why does Devlin equate these layers of being to a home with rooms? Perhaps she is making a comment on accessibility both entering and exiting. The idea that Greta for many years had two separate rooms of habitation, and two separate windows of perspective is not unlike Aoife who secretly dreams of affairs with men. (Whether or not the affairs take place Devlin leaves up to the reader as the suggestions are often contradictory) Either way the idea of having such a duality or oppositions of inside and out make a commentary on the expectations of women in Ireland.

One of the most significant events of the play, is when Greta actually did steal the chalice from the church and distribute the communion wafers to people on the bus. Aoife and Helen’s response to this is, “She did it. She said she wasn’t going to do it. Didn’t she? She did and she did it”(Devlin, 51). In this brief moment after the family finds out what has happened there is a strong repetition of the exact words “did it” and other similar sounding words such as “do it” and “didn’t”. The suggestion here is one of accomplishment as in the joyous exclamation, “She did it!”. This is exactly what this event is for Greta, an accomplishment. It is with this action that she gives in to her instinct and does something for herself. She no longer can or feels the need to “resist”. Why should she resist? This is never thoroughly explored except for the damaging social effects it would have on their family in relation to the church and her mother’s local business. What is suggested but not spelled out specifically in words is that the resistance is due to the influences of the oppressing power structures, again, men, church, and British. By breaking past these inhibitions, Greta comes one step closer to the actualization of her identity.

The mother says, “I’m looking for the franchise ofor the school uniforms in this parish and you’ve just been arrested for stealing a chalice from the church. Wait till the parish priest hears about this!”(Devlin, 5). What the integration of the mother’s business suggests is the dependence of the people on the power structures to live. These structures have made life so that the people become dependent. When Greta says, “I’m not I’ll I acted deliberately”(Devlin, 5), it not only makes a statement for Greta’s relation to her instinct and desire but also about her mother’s concern with the impression this has on the church. Further layered is the fact that this is their only concern, no one mentions that they feel in their own hearts that this is blasphemous or even just disrespectful to the Catholic community or to God himself. In this scene Devlin is giving many messages one being that in the context of religious loyalty, these people are not concerned with their personal relationships with God but with the possible negative outcome of a poor relationship with the church. As a part of Greta’s journey she realizes that it does not matter to her how she is seen in the eyes of society, she says, “I suddenly understood it”(Devlin, 5). This idea of “it” resurfaces and this time there is an understanding and a consequent action. The “it” is herself and the voice inside her and so she is understanding who she is.

Homi Bhabba explains, “...colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same but not quite...mimicry emerges as the representation of a difference that is itself a process of disavowel”(Bhabba, 86). Scene six opens with a monologue that Greta has arguably been having with the audience in continuum throughout the play. She tells the stories of two people she once taught. One a man who came from Mayo and didn’t know how to write. Instead of writing his daily memos, he would copy ones from previous years. She says, “he couldn’t write- and he thought if he told them, they would sack him”(Devlin, 6). She tells another story of a little boy who couldn’t write and for a very long time, copied the name of the person sitting next to him. She describes the boy as “confused” and explains that she identifies with these people, “ I too am a copier. I do it out of fear. I listen to people speaking and I hear there are no individuals”(Devlin, 6).

This is Greta’s articulation of her accomplishments thus far and a prescript to her final deliverance. Isn’t this the source of mimicry? Oppressive power structures give people a fear of themselves, a fear of their ability to survive independent of the colonizer. Because of this fear people are forced to respond. Imitation is one response. Helen, as we see goes to the colonizer to find opportunity, in some ways mimicking the English and their way of life. It is unfortunately cyclical as colonization has perpetuated the oppression Helen feels from Ireland. For Greta this is not only a realization of independence but also that she is not alone and perhaps this gives her the final strength to push towards her found identity.

Although Greta throughout the play wandered in confusion somewhere between Aoife and Helen, our two examples of standard forms of response, living the expected role for the sake of society despite conflicting internal beliefs, and choosing exile, Greta’s most outstanding quality juxtaposes her siblings because it is final deliverance. The play closes with Greta who is “home” Devlin does not exactly define home to infer that home is now within Greta. Greta is the seanachai, a traditionally male role of storyteller. She says, “My mother was afraid, but I saw that [the stag] was only it ate, it’s face was transformed and it began to take on human features”(Devlin, 7). This is Greta’s arrival after confusion, her re-birth from a “second class no one” to a full and empowered human being. Greta took the risk that her mother could not bear and crosses a boundary into a realm of autonomy and self actualization. The leap through the years represents generations of women in Ireland who have struggled and also represents Greta’s own journey. Devlin is also making commentary on the root of many difficulties in Ireland. Perhaps the people should realize that they are all hungry for the same thing like the stag.

The disputes in Greta’s family all arose from the constraints placed on them in one way or another from the triad of power structures, the church, patriarchy, and the colonizer. We journey through questions of nation, religion, and sex with Greta and by doing so explore the roots of her unhomliness, which enables her to finally find identity and peace in the notion that she can create her own space. Greta goes through a period of evaluation through which she claims her right to make her own decisions regarding who she is, where she is from, to whom she prays, as well as to whom she answers. After Easter is the story of a woman’s journey to self realization and autonomous identity fighting the forces of colonialism, Catholicism, and patriarchal power structures.

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