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Under the Lion’s Paw, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Hamlin Garland’s short story “Under the Lion’s Paw” falls within the specific literary tradition of American realism, with an emphasis on the particular struggles of farmers and agricultural workers. Garland’s variant of realism as presented in this story is based on two primary motifs. Firstly, there is an emphasis on a common, communal struggle that exists in the farming life, a struggle against nature, as the workers perform arduous tasks to realize their dreams. Garland appears committed to an accurate description of the difficulty of the life of the farmer, particularly emphasizing their sacrifices. Nevertheless, within this struggle there is simultaneously present an altruism that exists between the farmers.  Such a benevolent selflessness in “Under the Lion’s Paw” is exemplified in the relationship between the characters of Council and Haskins. Secondly, there is a struggle within Garland’s narrative between workers and what essentially is the non-worker, the forces of landowning capital.  The heroic farmer struggling against the elements in the establishment of his farm subsequently encounters a further obstacle in the form of capital: this is the real scene of struggle, one lacking the honorable dimension that Garland assigns to the conflict of man against nature. In the following essay, we shall examine these foundational motifs and how Garland presents them with a view to developing Garland’s own particular realist interpretation of rural life: this life is precisely a series of struggles, however one that is imbued with a sense of solidarity between farming families. It is the outside human power, the legal administrative power combined with capital that is the true enemy of the farmer – the latter signify the precise dishonorable danger at the heart of Garland’s realism.

Garland’s narrative begins with a primary emphasis on two values that are present throughout the text: the heroism of hard physical labor fused to the altruistic instinct that comes with this very labor. These values are personified in the character of Stephen Council, a hard working farmer. Council is a simple man committed to making his farm successful for the benefit of his family, a success that is to be achieved through a strong work ethic. Garland condenses these ideas clearly in the following passage describing Council: “The tired and hungry man could see the light from the kitchen shining through the leafless hedge, and he lifted a great shout, ‘Supper f’r a half a dozen!” (149) Council’s call marks the end of a long work day described in detail by Garland; but what is crucial here is the energy that is nonetheless still demonstrated by Council, shouting with a renewed vigor that the end of the day has come and it is time for rest. The jovial nature of Council’s call reflects the arduous life of the farm worker, who nevertheless can find satisfaction in a simple supper for him and his family: this is the greatest of rewards. In one sense, Garland’s commitment here is to capture a specific historical context, that of late nineteenth century Midwestern American agricultural life. However, Garland essentially uses an essentially personal methodology to recount this history: his commitment is to the personages who create history, who create a specific time and place. Garland’s conception of history is not a history of great ideas, but a history that is created by the struggles of the workingman, by the commitments of the workingman to his life and his family. Moreover, for Garland, we can understand that this is not a romanticism, but a historical realism. As Keith Newlin summarizes Garland’s approach to literature: “At the height of his critical acclaim he was the nation’s most outspoken advocate of realism, vigorously promoting a literature that accurately represented the conditions of American life.” (3-4) This advocacy of realism, however, is not only found in the literary description of hardship central to Garland’s work. “Under the Lion’s Paw” demonstrates that the altruistic communal spirit is as much a part of this realism as the hard reality of labor. It is according to the logic of altruism that the story develops, as the character of Council does everything in his power to help a family who has arrived at his farm looking for a place to stay, the Haskins family. Council offers lodgings to the destitute Haskins, while also giving the elder Haskins the idea of acquiring farming land in the area. After Council accompanies Haskins to the rich landowner Butler so that Haskins may acquire land, Haskins expresses his profound gratitude, to which Council responds: “Don’t want any pay. My religion ain’t run on such business principles.” (Garland, 155) Here the pure altruistic spirit of the farmers is what Garland attempts to emphasize: the farmers act according to a rigorous selflessness, to a logic that is not equitable with capital, possessions, or the interests of business. Thus, it is the hard-working nature of life on the farm coupled with the altruistic spirit that constitutes Garland’s realism in the story.

This realism is repeated in the description of Haskins’ struggle to make his farm successful. Garland’s descriptions of the work the Haskins’ family perform to make their farmland flourish paints the struggle at the heart of farming in precise detail: “Haskins worked like a fiend, and his wife, like the heroic woman that she was, bore also uncomplainingly the most terrible burdens…By June the first year the result of such Herculean toil began to show on the farm.” (Garland, 156) Again, Garland attempts to underscore not only the hard work of the Haskins, but also the positive results of such a hard work. In the world of physical labor, when one works with the land, it is possible that moments of joy arise from this hard work.  This is certainly a struggle, but an honest struggle, one in which the tension between man and nature can eventually lead to harmony, for example, in the reaping of a good harvest, such that Ronald Weber writes, “Garland brought to his early stories a theoretical commitment to local-color realism.” (38) Realism does not only entail the difficulties of struggle; for Garland, realism can also include altruism and a success that results from the toils of labor.

“Under a Lion’s Paw”, however, is essentially a story consisting of two narratives of struggle. The struggle of man versus nature, however difficult, is described by Garland with a certain appreciation, a certain heroism. The second struggle is an economic struggle, the struggle between farmers and landowners. It is this struggle, for Garland, that is not a heroic struggle – this is the vulgar struggle in which exploitation is present, and also, as one can infer from Garland, even a criminality. After working for the whole year, the landowner Butler demands from Haskins that he pays him a twofold price. Haskins is outraged at Butler’s demands: “It’s stealing jest the same. You take three thousand dollars of my money the work o’ my hands and my wife’s.” (Garland, 160) Amidst Garland’s fury, Butler nevertheless emphasizes the legality of his actions: “It’s the law. The reg’lar thing. Everybody does it.” (Garland, 160) Here Garland makes two sweeping criticisms. Firstly, Garland wishes to demonstrate the exploitative nature of the relationship between workers and landowners. Whereas the laborers toil unbelievably hard, they remain slaves to the interests of the landowners:  the motif of class struggle is explicit in Garland’s work. Secondly, insofar as Butler emphasizes that it is the law that allows him to extract payment from Hawkins, Garland identifies the complicity of the law and society in general in allowing such exploitation to occur. Accordingly, Lutz sees Garland’s “Under the Lion’s Paw” as a “paradigmatic case of politically committed fiction.” (76) Garland is clearly dissatisfied with this exploitation, demonstrating a certain disgust with the political system as a whole. In contrast to the altruistic nature of the relations between the farmers, it is the non-laborers, the political apparatus and the landowners that are essentially criminal, creating a situation in which there is a certain hopeless struggle for the working class. Whereas the struggle against nature is difficult, with hard work and good luck victories can be won; in the context of a political and legal system that is ultimately absent of equality, such struggle is impossible to overcome.

Thus, we can essentially understand Garland’s “Under the Lion’s Paw” as a story consisting of two separate yet related narratives of struggle. In the first narrative, there is a struggle of man against nature. Haskins initially loses his farm, but through hard work reverses his fortunes. Amidst this struggle against nature, there are also moments of altruism, as evidenced by Council’s kindness to Haskins. This struggle is an honorable struggle, one that requires hard work: however, it can be won. The second narrative of struggle is the corrupt struggle: it is the story of exploitation, of bad laws, of those who have distanced themselves from hard labor and emphasize speculation and capitalization on the work of others. In this second narrative, Garland’s political commitments become clear: he is firmly opposed to the unfair struggle presented by this system. Garland’s realism thus is not only a fidelity to the hard work of labour; it is at the same time a political critique, identifying the real injustices in the rural life of the time period.

Works Cited

Garland, Hamlin. “Under the Lion’s Paw” In Norton Anthology of American Literature, 7th ed., New York: W.W. Norton & Company,  2009.

Lutz, Thomas. Cosmopolitan Vistas: American Regionalism and Literary Value. Cornell, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Newlin, Keith. Hamlin Garland: A Life. Linclon, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

Weber, Ronald. The Midwestern Ascendancy in American Writing, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992.

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