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Various views exist concerning how the life of one person can reflect the life of the whole society. I have always been trying to understand whether a single ordinary man is influential for the history of his or her country or a man is a drop of water in the ocean of life. I believe that Rita Dove’s Pulitzer Prize winner poetry collection Thomas and Beulah (1986) is concerned with the same problem. Introducing the reader to the lives of the two persons Dove speaks of the whole society they live in. Moreover, she handles the problem regarding it through the perspectives of the faithful and fictional history.
The collection describes the life of a black couple from the industrial Midwest from 1900 when Thomas and Beulah were born to 1960 when Beulah passed on. What is peculiar about the book is that it does not treat what the author calls “big moments”, but faithfully depicts the particular circumstances in which ordinary people live their lives (Wallace 3). My point is that the story of this couple tells a lot about the life of ordinary Americans. The author admits that she “was interested in the thoughts, the things which were concerning these small people, these nobodies in the course of history” (Rubin and Ingersoll 236).
The story of the couple is presented through male and female perspectives: it is told by the male narrator in the Mandoline part which is Thomas’s side and the second part Canary in Bloom is told by Beulah.
The two-side narration reveals the problem of how differently men and women can react to one and the same situation. In Thomas’s part, we read that when he wants to please Beulah he “warps the yellow silk still warm from his throat around her shoulders ” (Dove 35). Meanwhile, Beulah in her part states that all she sees is “a yellow scarf run[ing] though his fingers” adding that “she’d much prefer a scent in a sky-colored flask” and “not that scarf, bright as butter.” (Dove 60).
Another example of how different men and women may be is also seen in the poem Variation on Guilt. There the reader understands that Beulah is pregnant. The woman is happy because of the very fact that she will have a child, but the man desperately wants a baby boy. When he gets to know that his wife expects a girl, he is “weak with rage.”(Dove 45) Thus, one can observe that the man and the woman treat differently one and the same situation. For him, the yellow scarf is a special gift that he can hardly afford, for her it is an ordinary thing that she does not like at all. Throughout the book, there are numerous examples of the balance between two people. To see the world in two different ways and at the same time be able to find consensus – is the basis for a marriage. I suppose that in the author’s exploring the family issue one of the main values of the collection is rooted.
Another problem that the work reveals is the problem of racism. Throughout the collection, Dove uses a lot of colors, and the black one serves as a racial identifier: “the two Negroes leaning” (Dove 4). Still, the author does not want to concentrate the reader’s attention on this color, instead, she presents a completely non-racial color several lines below: “Thomas’ silver falsetto” (Dove 4).
What is interesting is that the work does not merely present a story of the two characters who are deeply involved with one another; at the same time, the work presents a story of how it feels like to be African-American in the twentieth century. The characters’ perceptions of reality differ significantly, which is significant for our understanding of how history may be manipulated. The meaning of the twice-told story varies depending on the reactions of the characters involved. By their example, the author encourages the reader to think of the importance of a truthful depiction of one’s history that one day will be presented to future generations. The reader tries to understand what historical truth is if it comes out that people are rather different in their perspectives of the same events.
As far as the problem of real and imagined history is concerned we should also speak of the correlation of fiction and reality that the author uses. Patricia Wallace in her work Divided Loyalties: Literal and Literary in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song, and Rita Dove (1993) claims that both literary and historical elements are present in the book. According to Wallace, the “two sides” of the story suggest the claims of literature and history (Wallace 3). “I started off writing stories about my grandfather,” Dove has said, “and soon, because I ran out of real facts, in order to keep going, I made up facts for the character, Thomas” (Rubin and Ingersoll 236). The author could not resist her desire to implement the literary elements into the couple’s story thus making the work more original because of the combination of truth and fiction. I suppose that this combination can also imply the problem of interpretation of history that we talked about above.
I feel thankful for the author who made me think of the importance of proper interpretation of history and of finding the balance between fiction and reality. Different issues that the poetry collection is concerned with will not stop touching the readers’ hearts and make the work unfading.
Dove, Rita. Thomas and Beulah. Pittsburgh: Carnegie-Mellon UP, 1986.
Rubin, Stan Sanvel, and Earl G. Ingersoll. “A Conversation with Rita Dove.” Black American Literature Forum 20: 226-240.
Wallace, Patricia. “Divided Loyalties: Literal and Literary in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song and Rita Dove.” MELUS 18.3 (1993): 3.