“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”
Excitement, danger, desire, ignorance, and fear are all words that can be summed up into one: wonder. This term tends to be tossed around loosely and is typically used as a synonym for “surprise.” This tendency is not unwarranted; wonder is supposed to imply surprise of some sort but not of a startling or shocking nature. A sense of awe is what differentiates the two, mixed with the five words mentioned. It is quite popular in literature, most likely due to the fact that one person’s experience with wonder can wildly vary from another person’s experience. As such, many are not only inspired to write about their own affairs with wonder but also to read about those of other people – to compare and contrast and with which to identify. Wonder can affect all genres, ranging from adventure to romance, comedy to drama, and mystery to science fiction. Ultimately, due to its popularity as a common trope in literature, wonder is evident in many literary works, and typically manifests itself through excitement, danger, desire, ignorance, and fear.
Excitement wonder can appear in different forms. The enticement of a good adventure or the delicious vagueness of a new romance are two examples, and can actually be combined. Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s, “The Lady of Shallot,” is one such case. The eponymous Lady is a Rapunzel-type character, forever imprisoned in a tower, weaving a magical web. Unlike Rapunzel, she is cursed and actually forbidden from even looking out the tower’s (perhaps malplaced) window. Even she is not exempt from matters of the heart, however, and the Lady falls in love (via a mirror with which she sees outside) with Sir Lancelot, of King Arthur’s Court fame.
A bowshot from her bower eaves,
He rode between the barley sheaves,
The sun came dazzling through the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot. (Tennyson, 1955).
Like the proverbial straw, it broke the Lady’s concentration and led to her demise.
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot. (Tennyson, 1956).
She stopped weaving the magical web (which was there presumably to stave off the curse) and also looked out the window: “Out flew the web and floated wide; / The mirror cracked from side to side; / The curse is come upon me, cried / The Lady of Shalott” (Tennyson, 1956). Her excited wonder of Lancelot is evident here, as well as its consequences.
In fact, the entirety of the third part of the poem is about Lancelot, which the narrator – in essence, the Lady herself – describes the knight in flowery detail. These specifications serve to act as a surrogate to the Lady’s true feelings. Lovingly, it tells of Lancelot’s weaponry, his clothes, and various parts of his face. Yet, it is not desire wonder. The Lady’s infatuation with Lancelot is not lustful or selfish. She did not turn toward the window for sexual purposes but because the sight of Lancelot apparently excited her enough to do so. In fact, it is possible that the Lady did not actually fall in love with him but knew of his fame even in her isolation, and was excited at the sighting of a “celebrity.” It is not made clear in the poem, and the aftermath of this encounter is unrevealing and somber (Tennyson, 1956-1957).
The Lady, now fully under the unknown curse, abandoned the now-useless tower and decides to make for Camelot, either in last-ditch attempt to stop the curse or to see Lancelot. Finding a boat upon which she writes her name – “Lady of Shalott” – she floats down the river toward the city, “singing her last song” (Tennyson, 1956). She does in fact reach Camelot and even Sir Lancelot himself, though she is dead by that time. Her anonymity leads to her body being regarded with fear by all who behold her, except Lancelot, who pronounces her to have “a lovely face [and] / God in his mercy lend her grace…” (Tennyson, 1958).
“The Lady of Shalott” represents one of the few instances where excitement wonder turns sour. It may even evoke the old adage, “Curiosity kills the cat,” which besides making for pleasing alliteration, also implies excitement wonder. Though the Lady’s wonder does not occur until the third part of the poem, it is the climax of the story and drives the action until the end. It is likely that, had she survived, her excitement wonder for Lancelot may have indeed turned to desire wonder – perhaps even on both sides.
Desire wonder is not always sexual, of course. The desire for friendship, peace, or happiness can also be accompanied by wonder. On a more negative note, it can be lustful, sadistic, or obsessive. The Devil in John Milton’s Paradise Lost displays a surprisingly compassionate wonder for the Garden of Eden. Upon laying eyes on the place for the first time, he “views / to all delight of human sense exposed / in narrow room nature’s whole wealth…” (Milton, 782), and notes its exquisite beauty, its alluring fragrances, and the two pristine inhabitants, Adam and Eve. Unlike many other literary interpretations of the Devil, Satan is depicted as almost an anti-hero, rebelling against a force he feels to be oppressive. His desire to take Heaven leads him to bring about an assault on the place, aided by his once-angelic followers. Naturally, God defeats the army handily, and they are banished to Hell. Undaunted, Satan plans to undermine God’s authority in other ways, preferably through His creations. Even when defeated, Satan displays an incessant desire to overpower God, and this desire turns from a symbolic rage to a physical one when he sees the Garden of Eden. It is Paradise itself, and reminds him that he too was once an idyllic creation of God, hence his wonder and eventual fury (Milton, 725-785).
A heav’n on earth: for blissful Paradise
Of God the garden was…
The open field, and where the unpierced shade
Embrowned the noontide bow’rs. Thus was this place,
A happy rural seat of various view…
From this Assyrian garden, where the Fiend
Saw undelighted all delight, all kind
Of living creatures new to sight and strange. (Milton, 782-784).
Unfortunately, instead of being proud of the God who created it all, Satan is pained that humans are favored above all of God’s creations. His desire to destroy them and their Paradise, thus wrecking God’s plans, are reflected in his monologues as he gazes in wonder at Adam and Eve (Milton, 725-785).
“O Hell! what do mine eyes with grief behold,
Into our room of bliss thus high advanced
Creatures of other mold, earth-born perhaps
Not Spirits, yet to heav’nly Spirits bright
Little inferior; whom my thoughts pursue
With wonder, and could love, so lively shines
In them divine resemblance, and such grace
The hand that formed them on their shape hath poured.” (Milton, 786).
Satan apparently has mixed feelings toward the human couple, feeling he “could love” them had he not turned against God. Repentance is out of question, his “wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep,” and any submission would be “vows made in pain, […] violent and void” (Milton, 780).
Though his wonder eventually devolves into hatred, Satan retains his desire, and his exploits in the Garden of Eden are what make up the majority of the rest of the poem. He studies the Paradise of Adam and Eve, calculating the best way to bring about their downfall. Eventually deciding on the form of a serpent, he persuades Eve (and ultimately, Adam) to taste the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, which was specifically forbidden by God. It is this seduction that allows sin to enter the world, and essentially fulfilling Satan’s mission to destroy the works of God. The latter, being omniscient, allows for this to happen (having given man free will) but plans to sacrifice His Son to save mankind in the distant future. Nevertheless, Satan created a new and dangerous world for the favored humans.
Yet, danger wonder is perhaps the most popular form of wonder, despite its overtly negative qualities. Perhaps it is a sense of thrill and suspense that makes it so appealing.. In Heart of Darkness, the protagonist, Charles Marlow, seeks danger wonder. He is an Englishman who takes the job as a captain of a steamership in Africa, allured by the “Dark Continent.” Feeling the call of adventure, he prepares for his journey quickly but has a dangerous feeling of unease when he comes across an elderly woman while signing his forms for the trip.
“There was something ominous in the atmosphere. I don’t know – something not quite right… The old [woman] sat in her chair. […] She seemed to know all about…me… An eerie feeling came over me. She seemed uncanny and fateful. Often far away there I thought of [her], guarding the door of Darkness… I, who used to clear out for any part of the world at twenty-four hours’ notice, with less thought than most men give to crossing the street, had a moment…of startled pause. […] I felt as though I were about to set off for the centre of the earth.” (Conrad, 2335).
That a man of his experience could be frightened by an ancient senior citizen is as startling to the reader as it is to Marlow. He feels it is akin to being an impostor, anxious that someone might discover his ruse. Of course, he is a respectable man, and retains an equally venerable reputation throughout his life, but at this moment, he is young and impressionable. The childlike wonder he still holds of going to the place he had dreamed of as a boy is unfortunately saturated with danger.
Regardless of how he felt, Marlow had a duty to fulfill, and his danger wonder strengthens exponentially when he sees the untamed jungles of Africa for the first time.
The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight… along the formless coast bordered by dangerous surf, as if Nature herself had tried to ward off intruders; in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair. Nowhere did we stop long enough to get a particularised impression, but the general sense of vague and oppressive wonder grew upon me (Conrad, 2337-8).
The center of Africa, it seems, should be called the “Heart of Danger,” according to Marlow. Even after spending weeks deep in the jungle, he never loses his sense of wonder for the area. Every region Marlow and his team traverse is described densely, with the descriptions of the jungle almost parallel to those of Hell. Yet he never becomes exclusively fearful. Marlow recognizes dangerous situations and wisely chooses his battles, but he never loses his respect for Africa. When trudging through the treacherous trees for the missing Captain Kurtz, he is constantly overwhelmed by the power of his surroundings. It is only when he meets the infamous Kurtz that he realizes he probably should be afraid. The fact that Kurtz dies with the words, “The horror! The horror!” on his lips does not alleviate any trepidation Marlow has, and by the time he returns to Europe, he is disillusioned (Conrad, 2339-2386). Fear wonder had replaced danger wonder.
Fear wonder is sort of an anomaly for a type of wonder. Wonder is supposed to indicate awe or admiration in the midst of excitement, desire, or danger. Fear wonder seems to exclusively indicate shock or surprise. However, it is possible to be afraid of something, and still be in awe of its fearful qualities, like the narrator in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In the poem, he recounts the frightening experience he recently had at sea.
The narrator, known only as the Mariner, tells a guest at a wedding (and thus, the reader) that he and his crew had been making a long journey, when they ran into a storm, which sent them on a crash-course to Antarctica. An albatross appeared and like a beacon of hope, led them to safer waters. Though the great bird had apparently come to save the sailors’ lives, the Mariner gunned it down. Understandably, his shipmates were horrified and claimed it to be a bad omen. Their fears seemed to be unfounded when the ship cruised into the warm open ocean. However, the crew’s emotions were as unpredictable as the sea itself, for they realized that they are now stranded in the middle of nowhere, and they quickly placed the blame on the Mariner. He is then forced to wear the dead albatross around his neck as a token of shame (Coleridge, 1615-1619).
Whether the Mariner’s gunning down of the bird was foolhardy or not is revealed in the third part of the poem, when a ghostly ship appeared.
At first it seemed a little speck,
And then it seemed a mist;
It moved and moved, and took at last
A certain shape, I wist. […]
I bit my arm, I sucked the blood,
And cried, A sail! a sail! (Coleridge, 1620).
Even in this simple description, there is a sense of foreboding. What awful sight could the Mariner have seen that would provoke him to bite his own arm until it bled? As the eerie ship sails closer to the frightened sailors, the narrative takes on an almost Gothic tone.
Are those her sails that glance in the Sun
Like restless gossameres?
Are those her ribs through which the Sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew? […]
Is Death that woman’s mate?
The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold. […]
Fear at my heart, as at a cup,
My life-blood seemed to sip! (Coleridge, 1621).
Though the word is not expressively used, there is no denying the wonder that the Mariner felt at the sight of the figures on board the ship. He instantly recognized them for who they are, and is appropriately fearful. The description of the woman figure, Life-in-Death, is particularly elaborate, detailing her appearance in an awed, almost loving way.
Life-in-Death is worse than Death himself, as her punishments are like living Hell, while Death merely brings a merciful release from mortality. Unfortunately for the Mariner, the woman won his soul with a quick roll of the dice, and Death took his shipmates. Although eventually he was released from a cursed eternal life at sea, the Mariner was still forced to walk the earth, not unlike Cain, forever retelling his ill-gotten story. If perhaps he had not been so ignorant of naval superstitions, he may not have shot the albatross and would not have suffered so.
Ignorance is rather a double-edged sword. People gaze at the great pyramids of Egypt, ignorant of the amount of work that was undoubtedly put into building them, yet it is still a sight of wonder. The eponymous Englishman of Gulliver’s Travels finds himself in a similar situation when he is marooned on a strange island. The main inhabitants are horses, though they do not have the mentality of typical English horses and are called Houyhnhnms. Gulliver does not know this when he first arrives, though he quickly realizes they are not like regular beasts when they curiously examine his hat and shoes (Swift, 1072). Unable to conceive the possibility of superior animal intelligence, he assumes they are transfigured wizards.
Upon the whole, the behavior of these animals was so orderly and rational, so acute and judicious, that I at last concluded, they must needs be magicians, who had thus metamorphosed themselves upon some design; and seeing a stranger in the way, were resolved to divert themselves with him; or perhaps were really amazed at the sight of a man so very different in habit, feature, and complexion from those who might probably live in so remote a climate. (Swift, 1072-3).
Gulliver obviously finds their actions wondrous, for he automatically jumps from an well-trained horse to a transformed human as an explanation. He does not know that the Houyhnhnms are the near-equivalent to man on their island, and he later discovers that human beings are actually the wild beasts. Though his ignorance is short-lived, his wonder never ceases. Gulliver takes to the Houyhnhnms to such a degree that when he is banished back to his homeland, he finds human contact to be repulsive and finds more comfort in the horse stables (Swift, 1073-113).
Gulliver actually saw a great many wonders throughout his travels, and ignorance wonder was at the height of each new adventure. The Lady of Shallot, too, was not exclusively prone to excitement wonder but also to the wonders of danger (knowing the curse was upon her) and ignorance (forgetting the curse when she turned away from the mirror). Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost experienced desire wonder when tempted by the Devil for the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and fear wonder when hiding from God after their great sin. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow too was filled with desire wonder when searching for the elusive Kurtz, though it also faded with his sense of danger wonder. There are many more examples, and many more stories to showcase those examples, but such a list would be far more than any one book could hold. That wonder can be found in any story, in many forms and styles, is what makes literature so compelling.
- Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Greenblatt and Reinhead 1615-1631. Print.
- Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Greenblatt and Reinhead 2328-2385. Print.
- Greenblatt, Stephen, and Julia Reinhead, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. Print.
- Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Greenblatt and Reinhead 723-852. Print.
- Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Greenblatt and Reinhead 974-1113. Print.
- Tennyson, Lord Alfred. “The Lady of Shalott.” Greenblatt and Reinhead 1953-1957. Print.
Another college essay, written in 2010 for my “British Literary Tradition” class. Reads alright, though I’m pretty sure I got a few red marks all over it . . . 😉