The Age of Innocence through Wilson’s Glasses

Martin Scorsese’s accurately depicts the restricted freedoms of women in old New York, and cities in general. Although Countess Olenska and May are two very different women, they are similar in that neither of them has the ability to roam around the city alone, or express their opinions in public. In this society, men also had more social restrictions than they have today, as the society was generally more formal and constricting, but they were clearly given a much greater level of freedom than their female counterparts. This society is very patriarchal. Men and women fear what may take place if, God forbid, women were aloud to walk around public spaces as they wish. They are are scared of the consequences this will have on their traditional society, and their fears are mostly correct. In fact, giving women the same independence that men have does change the entire nature of the city, as can be seen today. Once the Sphinx is released to run wild about through the streets, there is no stopping it. Boundaries will be broken, limits will be stretched, and traditions will be forgotten. That is why Newland lives his entire life with the women that he doesn’t love, while his real love wanders the world alone. It is simply less trouble for Newland to succumb to tradition, than to try to free his wife if she didn’t know what it is to be free.

Man on Wire

Man on Wire is a documentary that was directed by James Marsh and released in 2008. It tells the story of Phillipe Petit, a Frenchman who walked on a wire between the World Trade Center’s twin towers in 1974. A review from New York Magazine asserts that as opposed to the immediate reaction of the press after Petit was arrested, instead of asking why, the film asks “How the hell?” Despite the obvious authenticity of the film recreation of Petit’s adventure, it is interesting that that the film features narration from Petit himself. In addition to the narration, there are very captivating images. One shot of Petit suspended between the two towers makes it seem like he’s floating on air. In another shot, Petit is suspended between the towers of Notre Dame, while priests inside are worshipping God above them. Ironically, they are unaware that Petit is tight-roping over their place of worship. The New York review notes that this scene portrays that “we must learn to take our miracles where we find them.” Ultimately, the review asserts that despite the fact that the film takes place in a different era in which we had different notions of safety and the World Trade Center was still standing, Man on Wire manages to freeze time and bring the story of Petit alive in the present.

Read the New York Magazine review

Wilson’s depiction of women in the city

The original idea of the Spinx was a an Egyptian mythical creature, who was half women, half lion. The Sphinx has classically represented a mysteriousness that challenges man. For example, the Sphinx in Oedipus Rex who presents a riddle that makes the person who solves it king. When Wilson asserts that women have become a sphinx in the city, she is referring to the problems women create when they freely roam public spaces. Just as the Sphinx challenges man, Wilson illustrates that women challenge the patriarchal society that once ruled New York. Wilson believes that the irruption in the city is that women are challenging the “nostalgia for patriarchalism that I found suffocating” (9). The symptom of disorder is one that affects men, “but does not so much disturb women.” Wilson believes that while this is a problem, its important to fully understand it and address it in positive ways.

Comfort Zone vs. The Labyrinth

The Comfort Zone is a society of certainty and constancy. You now exactly what you’re going to get it. It’s a reassuring, predictable place that allows people looking for harmony and order to feel the illusion of safety. But the problem with this seemingly flawless world of comfort is that everything is simply an illusion, and nothing is truly authentic. There’s a false façade of formality and respectability that tames natural order and segregates into classes. It is a safe zone of bourgeoisie order physically and conceptually and offers a forced domestic harmony to those who can’t bear to live without it.

The Labyrinth lacks the order of the Comfort Zone, but also lacks the judgmental attitudes of its members. Unlike the Comfort Zone, it’s a place where the unconventional is the norm, and anarchy rules. The Labyrinth attracts a wide range people, including bohemians and criminals, who are seduced by its alluring mysteriousness. This a society that promotes undiscriminating behavior and promiscuity. Taboo impulses and forbidden desires are condoned in this world of extremes. If you like the idea of living in a heterogeneous society where you can have fluid, ambiguous identities with no restrictions on pleasure, you may consider following the serpentine path towards the Labyrinth. However, if you aren’t capable of living in land where fear flows through your veins and mystery looms down around the corner, you may prefer the tranquility of the comfort zone.

New York: The City of the Yellow Devil

In “The City of the Yellow Devil,” Maxim Gorky develops one of the most intriguing voices that we’ve read this semester. The best way I could describe his voice is one of frustrated irony. Throughout the chapter, Gorky writes at great length about the detrimental effects that Capitalism has had on American society, particularly in the financial center of the country – New York City. He makes use of his powerful voice to illustrate his point with endless metaphors about the bleak reality of New York society.

One of these metaphors can be found in his title. The fact that he chooses to call New York a “Yellow Devil,” and not a red or black devil, is indicative of his thesis. There are several ways that he expresses yellow in a negative light. One thing the color yellow represents is light. As he passionately claims, “There is a terrifying abundance of light in this city…when one looks at it, enclosed in transparent prisons of glass, one understands that here light, like everything else is enslaved” (16). This passage, including the next few lines was my favorite of the article. His ironic voice truly captures his frustration with the “terrifying” Capitalist city that he sees in New York. He implies that just as light is enslaved in “prisons of glass,” New Yorkers are slaves to Capitalism. As he continues, his paranoia about capitalism and his voice only become more extreme:

…light is a party to the conspiracy against man: dazzling him, it calls: “Come here!” And wheedles him: “Hand over your cash!” People respond to this summons, buy rubbish they do not need and watch shows that only dull their wits.    (16-17)

Imagine what Gorky what say if he was alive today! He lived from 1868-1938 and was fed up with how Americans are seduced into wasting money on petty material “rubbish they do not need” and “watch shows that only dull their wits.” This written decades before reality television was conceived. How would he react to shows like “Real Housewives of New York City” and “Jersey Shore?”

Luc Sante’s New York

Just as Sante begins his article in a conversational, first-person style, I am beginning in the same way in writing this sentence. One similarity I noticed between Sante’s depiction of New York and Whitehead’s is the comparison each of them makes between New York City and a movie set. Just as Whitehead calls New York “a movie set, a false front of industry” (101), Sante describe Nw York as “a cheap stage set” (ix). I think this is a very interesting point of view to examine New York City, as we are all beginning our research projects on film in New York City.

Outline for Essay #2 – Motifs_YI (DR)

Motif: The self and the city

Thesis: Whitman, Whitehead, and Gopnik each explore the motif of the city and the self from a unique perspective; yet, they all choose this motif because it allows the reader to personally relate to the texts.

Three Texts:

  1. Colson Whitehead’s “Brooklyn Bridge”
  2. Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
  3. Adam Gopnik’s  “The People on the Bus”


Discovery: there is an eternal struggle between the city and the self. The individual attempts to achieve a vision that he has for himself, while the city attempts to hide the individual amongst the crowd. The strong individual will keep trying, while the weak individuals give up. Allows the reader to empathize with the subjects.

Supporting Quotes:

  • “for a while she is seduced by honey talk, but then she looks to the side…and she’s waist level to buildings. Up in the air before she knew it” (100)
  • “Years ago she picked a window and told herself one day she would live behind that window and watch them walk on the bridge like she walks now” (103)
  • “on the other side there is no more dreaming. Just solid ground. So put if off for as long as possible” (108)
  • “feeling that disappointed feeling”
  • “the key to the city fell out of her pocket somewhere along the way and she’s level again” (108)
  • “pick a new route into”
  • “Who knows where she will end up this time. Disappear into a crowd. It’s right there in the city charter: we have the right to disappear. The city rushes to hide all trace. It’s the law” (109)


Discovery: Whitman contradicts himself in his claim that “place…avails not.” Throughout the rest of the poem Whitman shows how place does matter. As a reader, it is easier to relate to Whitman because of the shared images and experiences in New York City.

Supporting Quotes:

  • “It avails not, time nor place-distance avails not./ I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence” (section 3)
  • “Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you?” (section 8 )
  • “Thrive, cities- bring your freight bring your shows, ample and sufficient rivers,/ Expand, being than which none else is perhaps more spiritual,/ Keep you places, objects than which none else is more lasting” (section 9)
  • “These and all else were the same to me as they are to you,/ I loved well those cities, I loved well the stately and rapid river,/…Others the same – others who look back on me because I look’d forward to them” (section 4)
  • “What is it then between us?” (section 5)
  • “I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,/ I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the/ waters around it” (section 5)


Discovery: People choose particular forms of transportation because of the impression of the city that it makes on the individual’s sense of self. Allows us to understand Gopnik’s psychology better because we make similar choices in our own lives.

Supporting Quotes:

  • “If you had asked me why I avoided the bus, I suppose I would have said that the bus was for old people – or that taking the bus was one step short of not actually living in New York at all” (89)
  • “structures of delusional domesticity” (92)
  • “the bus feels safe (91)

Conclusion: Does the motif contribute to our enjoyment or understanding of them?

-The motif definitely enhances the enjoyment and understanding of each of the three texts to New Yorkers, or anyone who has ever visited New York. However, because the reader’s understanding  of the motif is dependent on their own experiences in the city, it limits the appreciation of people who are not very familiar with New York. Therefore, the more familiar the reader is with the city, the better they will understand and the more they will enjoy the three texts.

The Journey

Whitehead’s “Brooklyn Bridge” is the story of a journey. There’s a clear beginning and a clear end. However, it’s the main part of the journey that is more cryptic. The journey begins as an almost religious pilgrimage from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Whitehead warns the journeyer, “Pack mule and palimpsest. It starts out slowly.” He alerts the journeyer to come prepared before embarking on “this rather spectacular leap of faith” (100).  The journeyer must understand that getting to the other side will not be easy.

As the journeyer begins, “for a while she is seduced by the honey talk,” attaining a naïve enthusiasm. However, this innocent passion is fleeting. Soon, the journeyer sees “refugees pass her going the other way and she wonders what they know that she doesn’t. Forsaking what she seeks. Concrete walkway becomes wooden slats and less assured…farther on it becomes a rope bridge probably, how else to explain their swaying” (100).  The continually changing ground under the journeyer’s feet represents a doubtful state of mind. Once wholeheartedly committed to the mission, the journeyer begins to question. A spark of unease is lit as she watches “refugees” leaving the place the she had been so devoted to reaching. Now, her passion is gone, and she continues “her lazy progress along the bridge” (102).

Crossing the bridge from Whitehead to Mumford

Whitehead and Mumford have drastically different voices. Whitehead’s voice defies all conventions, slips in and out of different perspectives, and has employs a very unique poetic license. On the other hand, Mumford’s remains in first-person throughout and has deep feelings of nostalgia. The first eye-catching aspect of Whitehead’s voice is the visual structure of the piece. Unlike Mumford’s standard paragraph form, Whitehead’s structure is broken into paragraphs that fall somewhere in between the classification of poetic stanzas and separate chapters. He rarely begins with topic sentences or uses transitional phrases; instead, he tends to begin with short phrases to spark your interest, such as “So Squint” (99), “Free Passage” (100), “In The Middle” (105), and “This Spans Water” (107). The strangeness of his beginnings is only magnified as each paragraph progresses. A third motif that is shared by Whitehead and Mumford is the idea that when walking the bridge, we are no longer individuals; rather, we are all part of a higher collective community. For example, Mumford “trod the narrow, resilient boards of the footway with a new confidence that came, not from my isolated self alone but form the collective energies I had confronted and risen to” (844).

Another way that Whitehead keeps you on your toes is by continually shifting the point of view. For example, in the first paragraph he begins in second person – “you can always tell” – and then immediately shifts to third person when writing, “her steps give her away” (99). The subject is constantly changing between the city, the bridge, the reader, tourists, and a vast assortment of other characters. As a result, the piece develops a very ambiguous voice that is open to countless interpretations. This simultaneously allows for an omniscient view of all the characters and an introspective look into their individual psyches. The higher all-knowing voice is displayed in the passage describing “walkers,” “joggers,” and “bikers” (101). Individualized plunges into a character’s private thoughts are exemplified in lines like, “Years ago she picked a window and told herself one days she would live behind that window and watch them walk on the bridge like she walks now” (103). None of these elements are present in Mumford’s voice.

Mumford’s voice is a reflection of the author’s past experiences and thoughts. His discussion begins the “early period of [his] manhood (1914-1919)” (840). It is in this personal manner that he depicts the transformation from ferries to bridges. He focuses on his love for ferries in the first few paragraphs before saying, “But if I loved the ferries, I loved the bridges, too…But it was the Brooklyn Bridge that I loved best” (841). Moreover, he portrays the movement through the stages of New York City transit as a reflection of his own development, fusing the two by relating his thoughts, dreams, and memories. For instance, he reals that the”the Bridge itself [captures] my imagination…for many of my written fantasies have turned out to be gropings, forebodings, formative anticipations of unconscious urgings” (842). In other words, one of the main reasons he loves the bridge it offers him a “contrast with the sober, neatly planned, dutiful routine” (842). Clearly, Mumford’s voice is more focused on his internal relationship to the subject matter, while Whitehead offers a much broader spectrum of perspectives.

There are several motifs that Whitehead and Mumford share in their pieces. One of the most interesting shared motifs is honey. Mumford makes a subtle reference to honey when “across the Bridge [he] saw the skyscrapers in the deepening darkness become slowly honeycombed with light” (844). Whitehead imagines that the “bridge is seduced by honey talk” (100). While the honey themes are introduced in different contexts, I found it very intriguing that they both chose this same image to describe the Brooklyn Bridge. Another motif that is shared between the two is the religious nature of the bridge. Mumford writes, “as I reached the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, the sunlight spread across the sky, forming a halo around the jagged mountain of skyscrapers” (844). Similarly, Whitehead mentions “this rather spectacular leap of faith” that you take on your pilgrimage from one end to the other (100). A third motif that is shared by Whitehead and Mumford is the idea that when walking the bridge, we are no longer individuals; rather, we are part of a higher collective community. For example, Mumford “trod the narrow, resilient boards of the footway with a new confidence that came, not from my isolated self alone but from the collective energies I had confronted and risen to” (844). Whitehead connotes the same motif that we are simply “one speck among many specks” (102).

Unleashing the Boundaries of Time

One of the many intriguing features of Walt Whitman’s poetry is his ability to blur the boundaries of time. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman speaks of his present as the past and his future as the present. Trying to conceptualize this concept can be very tricky; nonetheless, Whitman effectively creates an illusion of timelessness throughout the poem that creates an intimate connection between himself and the reader.

Throughout the poem, Whitman employs the literary techniques of diction and imagery to achieve this feeling of the interconnectedness of generations. In the first line of the poem, Whitman immediately introduces his connection to future readers: “I see you face to face” (section 1). While he may simply be speaking to nature, after reading the entire poem, it becomes quite obvious that this first line is also directed towards the reader. Whitman supports this understanding of the first line several lines later, when he explains, “you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose” (section 1). This theme is continuously reintroduced over the course of the poem. Whitman believes that regardless of the “time nor place…I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence” (section 3). Although Whitman does a tremendous job of expressing this idea, it is not unique to his writing. Rather, Whitman is a product of the Transcendentalist era.

By selecting his words carefully, Whitman succeeds in evoking the Transcendentalist motif of the universal connection of all people. One way he does this is by repeating specific phrases to begin several consecutive lines. For example, he starts many successive line with “others will…” (section 2), “just as you…” (section 3), and “I too…” (section 5).  He chooses each of these phrases to show that “these and all else were to me the same as they are to you” (section 4). In other words, everything that we do, see, think, and feel in our lives, he did, saw, thought, and felt in his. In reading his poetry and contemplating Whitman in our own lives, we extend his life. Because he understands that his “time will come,” he dreams that “others [will] look back on me because I look’d forward to them” (section 4). By facing his own physical death, he learns to live eternally through his poetry.

Furthermore, Whitman vividly describes detailed images to share his vision with us. A perfect example is his description of the sea-gulls “floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies…glistening yellow” (section 3).  Other examples of his detailed descriptions are “the crested and scallop-edg’d waves” and the “red and yellow light over the tops of the houses” (section 9).  When we see the sea-gulls flying, the waves flowing, and the skyline lights shining, we are bringing to fruition everything Whitman “consider’d long and seriously…before [we] were born” (section 7).

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