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Florence Nightingale

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When the majority of people think of Mother Teresa, their conception is that of the 87 year old Angel of Mercy, the empathetic, sympathetic, condoling, and selfless care giver who aided those afflicted by poverty and disease in India. Most people think of her as the harmless, grandmother figure who could not possibly bruise a person if she were to punch him with all her might; however, Mother Teresa was indeed a bold and daring revolutionary who gave up her life to work indefatigably, challenging the bounds of the Church, authorities in India, disease, and famine, until the point of her death in 1997, when she died older than most nursing home bound invalids who can hardly speak because of the hardships age inflicts upon people, but she was still working incessantly. Lytton Strachey too presents the populous’ misconceived notion that Florence Nightingale was a delicate community server who gave to others with neither hardship nor failure, and he disproves this notion through the use of the juxtaposition of diction and imagery and shifts in tone.

Strachey first uses the juxtaposition of diction to convey the difference between the popular notion of Florence Nightingale and his own. He opens with the popular conception that she indeed was a “saintly, self sacrificing…delicate maiden…gliding through the horrors of the hospital,” diction that would suggest Florence arrived at her saintly status without due effort or too easily, suggesting she gracefully glided through hospitals of the afflicted. However, then he juxtaposes the idea that indeed it was “not as facile fancy painted her, ” that she did not simply give up her “pleasures of a life of ease” without strife, and that a “Demon [must have] possessed her” for her to endure so much distress for others. The idea that no person who was not possessed by a demon would give up their life of ease to endure the toils that Nightingale suffered juxtaposed with the delicately gliding maiden of popular conception is the first indication of how strong of a woman Strachey believes she was.

Strachey uses the imagery of Nightingale from her birth to her conception of heaven to indicate the passion with which she viewed her service and commitment. Still in the nursery, she “had shown an almost morbid [pleasure] in sewing” back together the dolls which her sister had so happily torn to pieces, just as she was “driven now to minister to the poor in their cottages, to watch by sick beds.” Diction such as “morbid” connotes almost an obsession with fixing the afflicted dolls, and her dedication to the afflicted becomes even more clear through the image of her ministering to the poor on their own death beds.

She was so obsessed with feeling this compassion that she even empathized with her pets, personifying them as people, “[putting] her dog’s wounded paw into elaborate splints as if it were a human being.” She did not just think about opening up a hospital, but instead her head was “filled with queer imaginations of the country house at Embley turned into a hospital,” diction entailing that the thoughts would not leave her head, another image of her obsession. In fact, she was so obsessed with helping others that “her vision of heaven itself filled with suffering patients to whom she was” responsible for helping. Strachey clarifies that these were not simply happy thoughts that she thought of sometimes but “agitations of her soul” which could not be retained. He even states clearly that “a weaker spirit would have been overwhelmed…would have yielded or snapped” if faced with the torment that Nightingale faced incessantly.

Strachey continues to indicate the dedication and commitment that her service entailed through diction and the juxtaposition of images. Not only did she not yield or snap, Florence Nightingale “held firm, and fought her way to victory,” diction that portrays the will power of her character to fight through troubles “with amazing persistency,” never quitting until victory. Strachey refers to her as “prey to the tortures of regret and of remorse,” so she “struggled and worked and planned” through it all, dedicated to her cause like a predator with “the energy to…undergo the experience which alone could enable her to do what she had determined she would do in the end”, a harsh contrast to the former image of prey. He juxtaposes her choice to spend “London season in ragged schools and work houses” and to spend her time abroad with her family secretly studying and visiting hospitals, leaving “hardly a great city whose slums she had not passed through,” the choice to forgo a vacation from the hustle and bustle of daily life and to continue her ministry to the invalids in the slums of cities, the image of complete self sacrifice. Lastly and most importantly, Strachey juxtaposes Florence’s mother’s statement “We are ducks…who have hatched a wild swan” with the idea that “it was an eagle.” He corrects Florence’s mother for her symbol of a graceful, indolent swan, almost simply an object pleasing to look at, with the image of an eagle, a predator, constantly scheming, the boldest and most daring of all animals.

The common perception of Florence Nightingale is that of a frail maiden who indeed gave much time to alleviate the pain of others, but it does not include the pain that she incurred while in the process, the daring and boldness which drove her never to quit, and the determination she held throughout her life. Strachey pleas the reader not to overlook the hard work and labor that people put into their work. He does not want people to misconceive the dedication and labor that people such as Mother Teresa devote to others. It is sometimes important to realize the sheer force and even sometimes obsession that people have towards their goals, and to recognize and honor this in them.

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