by Caroline Wilkinson
We should be mildly famous. We should be as well-known as those
characters from Hamlet who won
title roles in Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
But we live in profound obscurity.
What has been hard for us to admit—what we have managed to deny until
a moment ago—is that even the two men whose fame we have envied for years,
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, have come close to becoming unknown since we first
started comparing our status to theirs in the late 1960s. It is possible that our claim to fame no
longer makes sense now that their status has dwindled. Still, we feel compelled to make our case
one last time.
Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we have
appeared in a great work of English literature. Several great works
actually. We are in the novels of
George Eliot, or Mary Ann Evans as the author was named at birth. From Eliot's earliest novels, which are
set entirely in England, to her middle and later ones, which move into other
countries for some or all of their scenes, we are there. It's just that we are hard to see because
of two factors that make our appearances much like disappearances: We are never named, and we are located in
these books in the same hidden place as we are now. Underwater.
We are on the floor of the ocean outside of what used
to be an elite social club. The
building is so empty it seems closed, but then again, the large structure
often looked vacant years ago when the club was open and doing quite
well. Very few people ever belonged
to this club because of the central requirement for membership: Only people who had died at sea in a work
of literature could join. Sometimes
the club's definition of literature was strict and reflected high artistic
standards; other times new members were selected on the basis of personal
motives and not much else. None of
the members worried about having their rules examined by the light of day
because of how private the club was. The
only people with knowledge of the membership list either were on it
themselves or were employees and knew that their job required discretion.
We fell into the latter category for a brief
period. For six months, we worked at
the front desk of the club. While we
would like to go into our old place of employment, a chill is holding us here
outside the doors, a chill that reaches beyond the usual cold of the
deep. Until we overcome our dread, we
must rely on memory to describe the club's interior.
Etched into our minds is a frieze on the wall
opposite the front desk. The granite
frieze depicted the heads of eight sea monsters jutting out of the wall like
hunters' trophies of deer or moose.
The monsters' eyes bulged and their mouths were large and gaping. From the sides of their massive jaws
spilled scrolls of granite seaweed.
Sometimes the frieze offended our aesthetic sensibility but not
because of the grotesqueness of the monsters. Actually it was the
opposite. What bothered us was a
blandness that emerged if one looked at the faces for too long. Whenever one studied the frieze, the large
eyes of the monsters would begin to look bored and unfocused and the mouths
would fall open with vague stupidity.
The longer one studied those faces, the more one saw how thoroughly
they lacked the fierceness that all real monsters possess to some extent.
Above the frieze was a cornice that ran along the
top edge of the first floor. In a
room of humbler proportions, the upper edge of this cornice would have abutted
a ceiling; in the lobby—a room almost as grand as it was ornate—the walls
reached up past the cornice toward a ceiling that was so high we couldn't
even see it from down at the front desk.
We would have doubted its very existence were it not for one time
when, falling asleep, we drifted up to the top of the room. We hovered there for a while, half awake
and hidden in the shadows of what we believe was the concave underside of a
domed roof. At first the room below
us was empty of both members and sea life, but as we continued to drift in
and out of sleep, various creatures slipped into the lobby: trout and crabs and anglers with arms
growing out from above their eyes. A
large school of silver fish created a tapestry that undulated with some slow
collective thought before getting caught here and there on the tentacles of
two octopi. With only a few of their
sixteen arms, the octopi unraveled the tapestry, creating a flash of silver
and panic, by pulling some of the fish into their mouths. We frightened many of these sea creatures
away when we were at our visible seat at the front desk. It was our job to scare them off for the
sake of the members, who tended to be sensitive in the extreme when it came
to—how to say it?—the brutal beauty of life in the ocean.
The members were a terrified bunch in
general. When we first started
working at the club, their terror struck us as completely unnatural in its
severity. It seemed both deeper and
colder than the bottom of the sea. We
used to tell ourselves then what we must tell ourselves now: that we cannot let this sort of extreme
fear overcome us. We must break
through our dread and move through the doors in front of us.
How dark it is inside the club. The lack of light surprises us, but really
it shouldn't. This part of the ocean
floor is much murkier than it was years ago, a fact we knew before we came
through the doors. We should have
guessed that the increased amount of sediment in the water would obscure the
once impressive interior of the club.
It always has been dark in here, but now between the new murk and
shadows cast by the roof and walls, we cannot see the front desk let alone
that old frieze.
Of course, it's possible that we are not in the
club where we used to work. If only
we could move a few yards to our right, we could feel for the stone of the
front desk. We could know for sure
that we are in the right building if we could press our body into that
stone. But we don't want to hurt our
eyes. Unlike the "human
fish" or the "ghost fish"—those eyeless creatures that live in
caves—we did not evolve in total darkness.
We have eyes, and they leave us vulnerable in places so dim. Were we to run into something, we could
suffer a painful and possibly blinding injury.
So we must stay put for the moment. We must stay focused on the two factors
that brought us in here: our choice
to overcome fear and our claim to fame.
The two men whose status has shaped our thoughts on fame, Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern, came into this building while we were working at the front
desk. When we first saw them, they
were standing just above the frieze on a balcony that looked down from an
immense room on the second floor. Their
appearance took us aback for a moment since neither of them belonged to the
club. They must have come as guests
of a member, probably of the Mariner from The
Winter's Tale who often brought other Shakespearian characters with him
into the club. Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern didn't stay on the balcony for long. They soon jumped off and drifted down through the water. The two of us, sensing that they needed
something, came out from behind our desk to meet them on the floor of the
lobby. Our perception of their need
was as strong as our feeling right now that some large creature has entered
It turned out that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
did want something from us. When they
reached the ocean floor, they showed us their tags for the coat check. We led them over to the corner of the
lobby toward a room that we used to think of as dark but that was, in fact,
much brighter than the scene before us now.
At least we could make out the glint of the brass hooks in the coat
check whereas we can still see nothing of our surroundings here. As soon as we had moved behind the counter
of the coat check, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern gave us their tags. They did not place them on the counter but
tossed them past us onto the ocean floor.
Their rudeness was not exceptional within the
context of the club, and we did not react to it as if it were. While bending down to see the numbers on
the tags, we even felt ourselves saying in the language of the body,
"Thank you, we're sorry."
We remained a little stooped after we got up to go to the coat
racks. As soon as a row of brass
hooks entered our vision, we came to a stop.
Our spine—the thing that holds us together and makes us one—felt like
one of the hooks in front of us:
dramatically curved with subservience, rigid and cold.
We suddenly were struck by how divided our fate
was. Here we were in a coat check on
the ocean floor, but at the same time, we were underwater in George Eliot's
novels. In those books, we were, and
still are, bearing witness to many deaths by drowning. Eliot created a fictional world that
mirrors the real one in that it is largely covered in water. Her plots unfold
near brooks, rivers and seas, and many of her characters end up dying in the
water that surrounds them. As
perpetual witnesses to these deaths, we usually see ourselves as lucky for
being able to live underwater. But we
didn't feel fortunate while standing in the coat check with Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern behind us. We only felt
constrained and servile.
Rage swelled within us. We tried to contain it with the thought that we deserved our
fate. It was poetic justice, we told
ourselves, for us to serve the sorts of characters whom we usually
pitied. We speculated that our time
in the coat check would rid us of our condescending attitude toward the
doomed and drowned.
While trying to hold on to these lofty thoughts,
we found ourselves turning back around.
We can't recall what we planned on saying or doing as we looked toward
the counter. All we remember was
seeing a man behind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who made our mind go blank
with dull shock. His name was
Constantius, and he rests at the heart of our claim to fame. This heart beats hard with ambition, panic
or frustration, we don't know which.
All around the edges of the room, jellyfish are
starting to glow. In their pulsing
light, we finally see our surroundings.
Now we know for sure that we are in the right place. Next to us is the front desk, and over in
the back corner, we can see the entrance to the coat check. On the whole, the lobby is remarkably
unchanged. Few barnacles have
attached themselves to the walls and moldings. The most notable difference in the room is the surplus of
jellyfish. Back when we worked here,
we never saw so many jellyfish in the lobby at one time. The slow rhythm of their light is
mesmerizing—but we mustn't watch the display for too long. We must finish making our claim to fame
as quickly as possible, seeing as how we are not immune to the poison of
And so we return to the subject of Constantius, a
man we know well. He knows us
too. He mentions us in a discussion
that first appeared in The Atlantic
Monthly in 1876. The piece,
entitled "Daniel Deronda: A
Conversation," is a dialogue between a man and two women who are
discussing what turned out to be Eliot's last novel; she died in 1880, four
years after writing Daniel Deronda. The women in the conversation have strong,
opposing views on the novel.
Pulcheria is critical of it, sometimes peevishly so, while Theodora
has only the highest praise for the book.
Compared to the women, Constantius comes off as
grounded and calm. At first he mostly
listens and offers neutral comments such as "I think you are both in a
measure right" and "Well, I must say that I understand that." He claims to understand Pulcheria when she
calls Daniel Deronda
"protracted, pretentious, pedantic." Theodora quips:
…Oh, you understand too
much! This is the twentieth time you
have used that formula. Constantius.
What will you have? You know I must
try to understand; it's my trade. Theodora.
He means he writes reviews. Trying not
to understand is what I call that trade.
At this point, Constantius emerges as a double
for the man writing this conversation, Henry James. Not only is Constantius a critic, but, like James in 1876, he
has written some fiction too. Just
how much fiction reveals another similarity between James and the double he
created for himself. This similarity
pertains to a subject most dear to an ambitious, panicked and frustrated
heart such as ours: lying.
By 1876, James had published two novels, Watch and Ward and Roderick Hudson. Later in his career, however, he pretended
that the former didn't exist. In a
preface he wrote in the early 1900s for Roderick
Hudson, he claimed that Roderick was his "first attempt at a
novel." In light of how James
denied the existence of Watch and Ward,
it is interesting to note how Constantius speaks about his own career. He makes a point of saying that he has
only written one novel. When
Pulcheria says about him, "He writes novels," he corrects her by saying,
"I have written one."
Maybe by the time James wrote this conversation, he was already trying
to forget Watch and Ward—
Or maybe we need to think about what we want to
avoid. We have reached the most critical
point in our argument, but we don't want to continue, our embarrassment is so
acute. We feel ridiculous asserting
that we should be well-known while staring into an oblivion lit by jellyfish. But we must, so here it goes: "Daniel
Deronda: A Conversation" should have rescued us from the obscure
depths in which we live. James's
script casts us in a much more visible role than the one we play in Eliot's
novels. It should do for us what Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern are Dead did for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It should transform us from invisible
characters into stars in a single moment, and that moment comes when
Constantius says of Eliot's work:
"These two heads have been very perceptible in her recent
writings; they are much less noticeable in her earlier ones."
two heads have been very perceptible in her recent writings; they are much
less noticeable in her earlier ones.
We are those "two heads." As Eliot's double, we live underwater and
usually go unnoticed. Eliot sweeps
her characters into rivers and seas, and we unblinkingly watch them die. Unlike the astute Constantius, we are an
unflattering version of the author we represent. We are cold if not cruel, and chances are that, were Eliot
alive today, she would deny all connection to us. Our whole body contracts with shame when we think of her
disavowing us. Of course, our
relationship with her could be an illusion.
It could be that we have just taken a sentence out of context from an
old book review to nurture a fantasy about being Eliot's double and deserving
fame. To do such a thing would make
us small, and we do feel small right now.
In fact, we feel infinitesimal, staring into the darkness in the
center of this room.
We must surface soon to breathe, but not
yet. We are beginning to understand
the language of the jellyfish. They
are pulsing with light because they feel threatened. They sense the same thing we do—that a
creature bigger than all of us together is in the center of this room. The top of this creature is brushing up
against the domed roof. Its legs,
which number in the hundreds, are threadlike and clear and very long. Those legs are a drifting tangle of hunger
and sting that almost touches the floor.
There is a jellyfish in the center of this lobby, a giant one, and
even though we are the only creature of our kind here, we are starting to
feel comfortable. We feel we are
No, the sense of closeness is stronger than
that. We feel as if we were looking
into a mirror made of nerve, of pure sensation. It is the most honest mirror we have ever come across even
though we can see nothing in it. We
only feel this reflection. The
creature revealed in it is like a jellyfish; it cannot see itself because it
has no eyes. It doesn't have ears or
a brain or a heart either. Its only
feature is a mouth hidden among the legs.
Confronted with this simple reflection of nerve and hunger, we
remember the matter of survival that led us to work here: We were hungry when we took a job in this
club. We never wanted for food while
we were here because the building played home to countless fish. Whenever the members were not around, we
made sure to eat our fill and then some.
Our focus shifts to the background of this
reflection. We remember the staircase
that used to be in the centerpiece of this lobby. If it is still there, it would be behind the legs of the giant
jellyfish. The gentle sway of those
legs is calming us down, oddly enough.
It is allowing us to remain here for another minute. We want to stay and see that staircase, an
impressive thing built of marble to a massive scale. The members would stand with such a sense
of importance on those steps as if the banisters, which were two feet across,
were just large enough for their hands.
But we don't remember the Mariner from The Winter's Tale ever standing there. He was down-to-earth, so it's hard to imagine him posing on
those steps. Truth be told, we can't
see him standing anywhere in this club.
The room is so grand and opulent that not many people could come into
this building and feel they belonged.
But just thinking about the Mariner makes us want to leave. We need to resist the urge, even though we
need air. Before we go, we must face
the fact that we have lied. The
Mariner never stood in this club period, not unless he came as a guest. We were wrong when we said he belonged to
this club. He never did.
The moment we saw Constantius, we could tell from
his blank expression that he had no idea who we were. Our gaze moved over his impassive face to
the line forming behind him. The men
over his shoulder were all members, but for an instant, they were strangers
to us. As if Constantius's empty
stare were catching, we looked at these men without knowing who they could
be. Then our memory came back to us
in a wave, and we saw the members in too much detail. Not only did we know their names, we were
conscious of the violent dramas in which they played starring roles.
The first man behind Constantius was
Theoclymenus, the King of Egypt in Euripides' drama Helen. He dispatches a
ship at the request of Helen, who wants to hold a funeral at sea. But the man being honored at this funeral,
Helen's husband Menelaus, is not really dead. He is alive and on board and has plans of seizing control of
the ship. He wants to keep Helen from
having to marry Theoclymenus against her will. A battle breaks out, a rather lopsided one. Menelaus's men are armed with swords,
which they have been concealing beneath their robes, while the sailors must
fight with nothing but poles. Blood
runs down the decks of the ship as those sailors who do not jump overboard
Behind Theoclymenus stood Leontes, the King of
Sicilia, from The Winter's Tale. At the beginning of the play, he suspects
his wife of sleeping with another man.
He also believes that their baby girl isn't his. Even after an oracle states that his wife
has been faithful, Leontes remains unconvinced. For defying the oracle, the gods cause the death of his older
child, a son. Still Leontes is
furious about his wife and baby who he insists is illegitamate. He orders one of his lords, Antigonus, to
leave the infant in "some remote and deserted place." After sailing to Bohemia—in reality, a
landlocked country but, in the play, a wilderness by the sea—Antigonus comes
to shore with the baby and the Mariner.
Before returning to the ship, the Mariner notes that a storm is on its
We have landed in ill
time: the skies look grimly, And threaten present blusters. In my conscience,
The heavens with that we have in hand are angry, And frown upon 's.
The storm worsens soon after the men get back on
board. Not far from shore, the sea
swallows up the ship. A witness to
the wreck describes the sounds that the doomed men made: "how the poor souls roar'd, and the
sea mock'd them."
Other men from lesser plays stood behind these
kings. What those members had in
common was not how they had died.
None of them had perished at sea.
What brought them together were circumstances of birth. They belonged to the class that sends
other men out to die. They were kings
and lords, not nameless mariners.
Usually we saw them as separate from the dramas in which they were
cast. We would focus on their needs
and fears and make them feel comfortable.
In that instant in the coat check, however, we only saw the roles that
had secured their membership in the club.
As we suddenly looked at the members in horror,
they continued to stare at us without any emotion. Their gazes were vacant until Constantius turned a critical eye
our way. Afraid that he would make
some cutting remark, we immediately fetched Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's
things. While handing the men their
coats, we said with one of our heads, "Pardon the delay"; with the
other, we thought about leaving the coat check. We needed a break and soon got one. While going to the surface to breathe, we promised ourselves
that we would change jobs soon.
We kept that promise, but the club members seemed
to follow us wherever we went. We
felt that, wherever we traveled in this wide ocean, we were working for the
same small club of royalty. Maybe
it's time to rid ourselves of this chilling paranoia once and for all. We probably should change our perspective
on these kings and lords. We should
view them with the sympathy all human beings deserve, and the truth is that
both Theoclymenus and Leontes eventually do learn from their mistakes. By the end of The Winter's Tale, Leontes is ashamed of how he has destroyed his
family, and Theoclymenus does come to accept that he can't marry Helen of
Troy. Maybe if we were human
ourselves, we would believe in the redemption of these men. We would like to celebrate the idea that
goodness prevails in them, but we can't.
It's possible we are too tangled up in their tragedy to free
ourselves. Whatever the reason, our
heart goes cold when we remember the characters whom we served too well and
too long. In the end, we think too
many people have to die before a king will care about what he has done.
We sense hundreds of paralyzing arms moving
toward us, be we cannot leave. We cannot return to a world growing emptier
every day. All of the creatures that
we eat and need to survive are vanishing.
Sometimes we travel for days without coming across a meal, and so we
try to convince ourselves, using both of our heads, that the ocean is full of
life still. We are being followed by
schools of edible fans until we wake to find muck and jellyfish. These waters have become so airless that
few things can live here anymore. The
jellyfish have flourished because they don't need much oxygen.
As for us, we are sick of making it through one
more day, one more month. We don't
want to rise to the surface again to breathe out the tops of our heads like
the exhausted servant we have become—one breath, a long apology, the other, a
sigh of resentment. We yearn to be
part of something much larger than ourselves.
Something as large as you, dark star in the
center of the room. Creature of sting
and appetite. If we were part of you,
we would never starve, even if the ocean became so dense that only jellyfish
could live in it. We would endure if
we were part of your body. You can
feast and sting whereas we can only stare and speak about the past. Go ahead and take us into your arms and
mouth. It seems fitting that we
should die this way. Always in the
back of our mind, we have kept a quote from George Eliot about the nature of
the appetite—something about the "family of desires" and living "hand
to mouth." It's strange that we
can only recall snippets of the quote since the passage has shaped many of
Maybe our brains need oxygen—or maybe we are
turning into an organism without a brain, a thing of pure nerve. We are becoming part of you. You with your pale legs coming closer. We have a new understanding of the secret
moving around the terrified edges of this room. The secret is pulsing through us, illuminating your form in
such a lovely glow. We know that you,
taking survival to its deadly extremes, eat other jellyfish. That is why everyone here is so focused on
you. You truly are the star
And you are the future too. Not us.
Just you, consuming you.
Wilkinson's fiction, poetry and nonfiction has appeared in many journals
including DIAGRAM, Memorious, Tarpaulin Sky, Can We Have Our Ball Back?
and 42opus. She lives in upstate New York.