The Theme of Alienation

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In the memoir Shame, Annie Ernaux examines what she remembers of her childhood, the social customs of her village, and her overall feelings of shame. Over and over again in her recollections, whether she writes of her family’s social status and the customs of her immediate and extended family or of the village in which she lives, she demonstrates her sense of not fitting in. Her description of the scene of her father threatening her mother with a scythe expresses another form of alienation because, she concluded, that this event would forever mark her family as being different from every other family in her small town. As a matter of fact, almost everything that Ernaux describes in her memoir is done so with an overtone of alienation.

In writing her book, Ernaux exposes more than just the details about her father’s anger and her mother’s role as victim, and she relates more than just a historic record of her village life. The book also brings to light details about the author’s personality, things which are bared not just in what she writes but also in what she does not write. Underneath the details is a story about a young girl who lives in isolation in almost every facet of her life. Although Ernaux attempts to blame her father’s actions for her loneliness, it is dubious that all her feelings of alienation have their foundation in the one focal event that has caused her the most shame.

Ernaux begins her memoir with a description of the scene between her father and mother. Her father is filled with rage. Her mother does not seem to realize that her nagging is pushing him to the edge. He suddenly erupts. A struggle ensues, and Ernaux’s father drags her mother to the basement and threat- ens to cut her throat with a scythe. At least, this is how the youthful Ernaux remembers it. The scene is a moment, a terrible moment from which Ernaux has trouble releasing herself. She becomes stuck there, she believes, unable to develop any further, at least on a psychological level. There is no one to release her from the painful secret that she feels compelled to keep. Her parents will not discuss it; so for them, it is as if it never occurred. If she mentions it to anyone in her extended family, she fears she will disgrace her parents and therefore herself. She would never dream of mentioning it to anyone at school. Later in life she does tell certain men whom she dates that her father tried to kill her mother. This statement is offered to them as a gift, as a way of showing them that she is willing to open her heart to them. Her present, however, is often misunderstood and rejected.

Basing her memoir on this incident when her father threatened her mother, Ernaux implies that the alienation that subsequently defined her life was the result of her father’s act. The fact that she felt forced to maintain this secret could explain a certain distraction that she experienced that summer. For example, her performance at school took a turn for the worse after the incident. While she once prided herself for her quick intelligence, she later all but failed a national exam. This is easy enough to link to the traumatic event, but can she rightfully connect all her other lonely feelings to this too?

Blaming everything on this incident seems to be pushing the matter a bit too far. The event was traumatic, for sure. It was so disturbing that when Ernaux studies...

(This entire section contains 1943 words.)

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photographs of herself taken during the summer of 1952, she barely recognizes the young girl who is pictured there. The emotional energy that it must have taken to try to understand her mother and father’s relationship, as well as to suppress the horrific scene between them, could explain the sense of alienation that she believes exists between her adult self and the twelve-yearold girl she once was. That young girl was burdened with an event that scared her. When Ernaux searches through old newspapers, she half expects the story of her parents to be written in bold headlines. Because it was such an important part of her life, she cannot imagine how the newspapers could have ignored it. As an adult, of course, Ernaux realizes that other families experience similar, or even worse, tragedies. That is the difference between Ernaux, the adult, and Ernaux, the twelve-year-old child. That is also why it is hard for the adult Ernaux to fully recognize the child in the photograph. It is too difficult to relive those childhood memories, not only because they were complicated but also because the adult Ernaux understands so much more about life. Her father’s threat could explain Ernaux’s alienation from her parents and maybe even from her extended family. However, it does not completely explain other gaps she experienced between herself and her classmates and her community.

For instance, Ernaux devotes a large section of her book to her relationship with children her own age. She states that she felt secluded from them because she was a late bloomer. While other girls showed signs of puberty, Ernaux remained flatchested. Although she desperately wanted to cultivate a friendship with the girls whose blouses were ‘‘billowing out’’ or who were wearing stockings on Sundays, signs that they were going through ‘‘the gradual metamorphosis’’ from youth to adolescence, she did not gain access to them. She desired to befriend these girls because she felt left out and wanted to learn more about sexual matters, about things that the adults in her life would never tell her. She believed that the girls held the answers to the secrets she most anxiously sought to understand.

In an attempt to appeal to the older girls, Ernaux dreamed about wearing makeup to give herself a more mature look. She begged her mother, to no avail, to buy her a wide elastic belt, a summer fashion that emphasized the maturing figures of the girls who wore them. No matter how hard she tried, or how hard she fantasized, she could not find a way to impress these girls, to demonstrate that she was ready to learn the mysterious facts of life that only they could convey. Her body did not follow her dictates—her desires to be a woman—and this made her feel ashamed. Worse yet, when she was forced to make a presentation in class, in front of the senior students, she expected them to laugh at her, to make fun of her. Instead, they barely noticed her, an even worse shame.

Failing to earn the attention of the girls who were showing signs of puberty, Ernaux then focused on a classmate more like her, in an attempt to make a friend. The girl was an outsider like Ernaux, coming from the outer edges of the village, from the farmlands rather than from the inner, more sophisticated heart of the small town where most of the other girls lived. When Ernaux describes this young girl, however, she does so in unflattering terms. She portrays the girl in this way: ‘‘She worked desperately hard to achieve mediocre results.’’ However, this girl was the best that Ernaux could find; the one girl who would talk to her, although most of their conversations centered on food. Their relationship did not go very deep. They walked to and from school together but never invited one another inside their respective homes.

The shame Ernaux cultivated from her father’s attack on her mother surely could have influenced Ernaux’s shyness. She might have felt that she could not open up her thoughts to anyone for fear she might tell them things that would impact her family’s social standing. She could have feared that she would give away the big secret she felt comS pelled to hold onto. However, it does not seem fair to blame her father’s act for the pubescent awkwardness and introverted personality that seemed to haunt her. Her alienation from children of her own age was a powerful force of its own, possibly based on a lack of self-confidence or fear of rejection. Although it seems to have thwarted her, in many ways it is no different from many other teenagers’ reactions to the strange and mysterious changes and challenges that occur in puberty.

Ernaux’s education was, in general, another source of alienation. She was the only child in her extended family and the only child in her neighborhood who attended private school. So she finds herself isolated during school because of her shyness and after school because she does not share the same experiences with the neighborhood children. It is also her education that, at times, separates her from her father. Although he has made a special effort to send her to the Catholic school because he appreciates the fact that this will allow her opportunities that he never had, he also makes fun of her when she attempts to use the skills she has learned. For example, he does not understand her need to use so-called proper French, while he is more comfortable speaking in his local dialect.

‘‘To be like everyone else was people’s universal ambition, the ultimate dream,’’ Ernaux writes. It was a dream that Ernaux could never attain. In the privacy of her own home, she was constantly reminded of her parents and their strange connection to, and revulsion toward, one another. She believed at the time that her parents were different from all other parents in her town. Since her town was her world, she felt as if her difference marked her and would continue to set her apart for the rest of her life. At school, she was undeveloped, unsophisticated, and unsupported financially in the ways that the other girls enjoyed. This again made her stand out as a unique person, which in her mind was exactly the opposite of what she wanted to be. In her neighborhood, she was again the odd person out, the only child whose parents took her education seriously enough to send her to private school. When she traveled outside her small town to Rouen, a nearby larger city, she was the outsider there too. She talked and dressed differently from the people she saw on the street. When she and her father visited Lourdes, they were the only ones without enough money to spend on expensive souvenirs. Everywhere she went, Ernaux felt isolated.

Her stated reason for writing this memoir is to better understand her childhood, especially the event of her father’s assaulting her mother; but even in her attempt to do this, she realizes the huge gap between the incident and the words with which she tries to remember it. In her effort to comprehend this most memorable scene of her childhood, she declares, ‘‘The words which I have used to describe it seem strange, almost incongruous. It has become a scene destined for other people.’’ In other words, the more she explores the circumstances of her childhood, the more distant they become, so removed from her that it is as if the event happened to someone else. The result is that in the end, she even feels alienated from herself. The irony here, however, is that as much as she would like to distance herself from her past, she cannot do so. It is a part of her. So she does the next best thing. She writes about it.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Shame, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.

The Elliptical and Subtle ways that Ernaux Touches on the Topic of shame

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A reader picking up Annie Ernaux’s memoir would expect the content to reflect the title. Such a reader might think that the book dealt directly with the shame that the twelve-year-old narrator experienced on a day in June 1952 when her father tried to kill her mother. But Ernaux is too skilled and unusual a writer to hit the reader over the head with a straighton examination of shame. Instead, Ernaux examines shame by coming at it through a number of interesting angles: class, the dynamics of a small town, memory, and the context of the processes she uses to capture her feelings about the event. Ernaux is a strategic writer who accomplishes much with her sparse and unusual approach. The haunting, precise, and often distant tone of the language gives the memoir an emotional punch that works more effectively than talking directly about the topic of shame.

Ernaux dives in, right on the first page. Following the unflinching first sentence—‘‘My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon’’—Ernaux proceeds to follow this with a recitation of the day’s events leading to the incident. The cool, matter-of-fact prose contrasts nicely with the horror of the event at home and makes it doubly effective for the reader, rather than an overly emotional presentation.

Ernaux continues to use this technique—the juxtaposition of the horrid with the everyday, and all of it presented in cool, casual language—immediately after the incident.

My father wasn’t his normal self; his hands were still trembling and he had that unfamiliar voice. He kept on repeating, ‘‘Why are you crying? I didn’t do anything to you.’’ . . . My mother was saying, ‘‘Come on, it’s over.’’ Afterward the three of us went for a bicycle ride in the countryside nearby . . . That was the end of it.

It’s a typical denial of a dysfunctional incident that should be recognized as important. After it occurs, the family acts as if the threat to kill never occurred. The little girl takes her cue from her parents. It makes sense that she’d have a difficult time dealing with the incident later in life; denial has been modeled for her at an early age.

Ernaux admits that the process of writing about the incident may help her achieve some necessary distance from it. It almost sounds as if she is trying to convince herself that the incident was less momentous than it should be.

In fact, now that I have finally committed it to paper, I feel that it is an ordinary incident, far more common among families than I had originally thought. It may be that narrative, any kind of narrative, lends normality to people’s deeds, including the most dramatic ones . . . It has become a scene destined for other people.

In the narrative that follows, Ernaux describes her way of coping with everyday life after her father’s attack on her mother. Again, the author doesn’t come straight out and say that she purposefully distanced herself to protect her emotions, but she gives readers enough hints so that they suspect that this is likely. For Ernaux, the existence of this event in her personal history creates a barrier that she perceives the rest of her life through. She refers to that infamous Sunday as an impermeable ‘‘veil.’’ The author continued to go through the motions of life: ‘‘I would play, I would read, I would behave normally but somehow I wasn’t there. Everything had become artificial.’’

A psychologist might describe this behavior as dissociation, but it’s much more effective, for us, the reader, to experience the echoes of Ernaux’s dissociation through her cool concise language use and the honest look at what was actually going on inside her mind as a child. The author continues in the same vein, to try and examine the event objectively, without attaching emotion, when she says, ‘‘it was no one’s fault, no one was to blame.’’

Only occasionally, and very sparingly, Ernaux admits to the reader the full impact of that Sunday incident. At one point, she refers to ‘‘the indescribable terror’’ that she will always associate with the date.

The ‘‘shame’’ of the title refers not only to the horrendous, surreal incident that pierced Ernaux’s life on a Sunday afternoon. Other aspects of the author’s life conspire to create a sense of shame for the young girl of the memoir. Ernaux lives in a world of spoken and unspoken rules. The unspoken rules encompass a knowing she has about her social class in life; she and her family are poorer than some, and are aware of it. There is shame associated with this, but again, Ernaux shows us this with effective anecdotes, rather than subjecting the reader to an overly obviously ‘‘telling’’ of the fact. In one case she describes a photo of her and her father:

I imagine I kept this snapshot because it was different from the others, portraying us as chic people, holidaymakers, which of course we weren’t. In both photographs I am smiling with my lips closed because of my decayed, uneven teeth.

Decayed teeth likely imply that a family is unable to afford dental care, but Ernaux lets us figure this out for ourselves and infer the origins of shame, which is rewarding and interesting for the reader.

Ernaux examines her father’s attack on her mother in subtle, unusual ways that could be called elliptical or tangential. Not content to tell us directly of the incident, she relates how it continued to affect her over time, even many years later. The results are interesting, unexpected, and completely human, but they reveal an author who truly understands the workings of her own mind. Many people probably have thoughts like the following, but they are so fleeting and subtle that if not captured at once, they are quickly overpowered by more obvious and basic mental processes. For example, Ernaux looks at the incident using the context of two photos, one taken at her First Communion (a Catholic celebration), the other taken in the summer of the year her father tried to kill her mother. Of the photos, Ernaux notes, ‘‘one shows me in my Communion dress, closing off my childhood days; the other one introduces the era when I shall never cease to feel ashamed.’’ With very few words, Ernaux effectively shows the reader how these photos represent two milestones in her life. We can all relate to the memories—good or bad—that a photo may invoke, though it’s difficult to capture the essence, or impact, in words, as has Ernaux.

In another unusual look at the incident, Ernaux examines the use of the simple phrase ‘‘that summer.’’ Says Ernaux,

to write about ‘‘that summer’’ or ‘‘the summer of my twelfth year’’ is to romanticize events that could never feature in a novel . . . I cannot imagine any of these days ever belonging to the magical world conveyed by the expression ‘‘that summer.’’

This is an interesting and unexpected look at the incident. Ernaux tells us, with the skilled use of few words, that the words ‘‘that summer’’ will never conjure for her the typical events of a childhood summer. We can fill in the blanks, imagine the happy times she never experienced, even though she’s given us nothing but a cool reference to an idea—what a child’s ideal summer should be like.

Ernaux admits that she’s used the event between her parents as a kind of milestone; a way to measure the impact of other experiences. No other event has come close to having the impact that the 1952 attack has had: ‘‘I have never ceased to compare the other events in my life in order to assess their degree of painfulness, without finding anything that could measure up to it.’’ This is an example of something that we commonly do— compare events against one defining event—but it’s something that we may not even think about doing. Because Ernaux so aptly captures these almost unconscious thought processes, she is able to talk about shame in unusual and elliptical ways, and avoid getting caught in the trap of overdone or overobvious sentimentality.

Ernaux, in her musings, seems to have transcended the obvious. This is illustrated when she expresses a complete disinterest in psychotherapy to help her describe the incident. She has a more concise, effective description:

I expect nothing from psychotherapy or therapy, whose rudimentary conclusions became clear to me a long time ago—a domineering mother, a father whose submissiveness shattered by a murderous gesture. . . . To state ‘‘it’s a childhood trauma’’ or ‘‘that day the idols were knocked off their pedestal’’ does nothing to explain a scene which could only be conveyed by the expression that came to me at the time: to breathe disaster. Here abstract speech fails to reach me.

We, as readers, believe that the explanations of therapists fail to capture the event for Ernaux. But cleverly, she’s slipped the information in for us, since her simpler expression is not enough for those of us who need to be told of the intricacies of her family relationships. We’ve now been given alternate descriptions and explanations for the incident. And we can also infer a sense of the narrator’s personality—a possible impatience with simple, too-obvious explanations. Ernaux has accomplished a lot in one short paragraph.

Again, the author tries to approach the problem from a new angle—she looks at newspapers to try to get a sense for that day. She expects to ‘‘breathe disaster’’ again, and when readers hear that loaded phrase, they are plunged into the horrific, not-quitedefinable but effective mood that Ernaux created with those two words. What she realizes, with her newspaper perusal, is that she expected to find coverage of her father’s attack on her mother. Ernaux realizes that ‘‘not one of the billion events that had happened somewhere in the world that Sunday afternoon could stand the comparison without producing the same feelings of dismay.’’ Yet again, with very few words, the reader has been treated to her feelings of dread as she goes through each dated newspaper in 1952, fearing to reach the date in June. We feel the impact the event still has on her life in the 1990s, even though she refers back to it in the most elliptical ways possible.

Ernaux’s world is shaped by rules, and an astute reader can conclude that these rules could only have exacerbated the shame that she felt as a child. For example, the author grew up in a small town, with a small town’s typical lack of anonymity and unwritten, complex social norms. Ernaux is well aware of how her town measures up, or doesn’t measure up, to the nearest larger city, Rouen. Says the author, ‘‘In Rouen, one always feels slightly ‘at a disadvantage’—less sophisticated, less intelligent, and generally speaking, less gracious with one’s body and speech.’’

A small town, on the other hand, has intense relationships and all the interconnectedness that this implies. Ernaux notes, when at home, that ‘‘in the street I pass men and women whom my mother and father almost married before they met.’’ The impact of such a place can be powerful. Ernaux notes that when she returns to her hometown, she succumbs to a ‘‘state of lethargy that prevents me from thinking or even remembering, as if the place were going to swallow me up once again.’’ The author leaves it to the reader to discern whether these feelings have to do with the 1952 incident, or the invisible constraints of a small town, or both. Ernaux’s eye misses nothing: the intricacies of small town communication, the rituals at home, enforced politeness, conformity, required ways to act in the family store or at school. Though these aspects might initially seem disparate and unrelated, Ernaux succeeds in showing how they played a part in the shame she felt as a child, and how all these aspects conspired to give the incident between her parents its lasting power.

A Publishers Weekly reviewer notes that ‘‘with unsparing lucidity,’’ Ernaux strips herself and her memories of any comforting myth, and in the process, she forces us to face the jarring facts of being human.’’ Because of the approach Ernaux uses, she provides a subtle and satisfying read, giving the reader endless new ways to examine the topic of one person’s shame.

Source: Catherine Dybiec Holm, Critical Essay on Shame, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.

Ernaux's Use of Time

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What is shame? What does it mean to be ashamed? Shame can be clearly labeled and worn on the sleeve or it can be internal, like a shameful secret, invisible but for the ways it leaks into a person’s responses to other people and events. Both are fraught with sorrow and regret, but it is the insidious nature of private shame that may be the more devastating, for there is no release, and thus, no escape. In Annie Ernaux’s memoir Shame, the author deals with her hidden shame through the genre of memoir, allowing furtive glimpses into the mind of a young girl facing the often brutal transition from adolescence to adulthood. Ernaux manipulates time to inspire her refracted memory; by careening back and forth between three specific sets of events, she allows the reader to follow the jarring experience of trying to relive events that are difficult, and sometimes impossible, to comprehend. Ernaux uses the present tense to recall a specific period of her adolescence, distilling her past into discrete memories that provide the reader with an objective skeleton of Ernaux’s life, upon which the author subtly and devastatingly expounds.

There is shock value to the memoir’s commencement: ‘‘My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon.’’ Ernaux drains the suspense from the story in the very first sentence, giving away the climax as the narration begins. However, by taking away the seminal suspense, she actually infuses the book with a renewed vigor. Having learned of this big, shocking event, the reader is compelled to know more. Human beings are, in fact, in a constant state of assessment, running over the particulars of our quotidian lives, adjudging the effects that some or another act on our parts might have on ourselves or others, reassessing the past in order to better understand our present actions, as well as to avoid pain or mistakes in the future. Life is a fractured whole, full of pieces that refuse to fit neatly together and reveal a clear, whole reflection of a person’s existence and its larger meaning. Instead, the pieces meet jaggedly—and sometimes not at all. In the end, what is left is a partially realized portrait, full of questions, misunderstandings, mysteries, and gorgeous, intermittent moments of clarity. Ernaux’s Shame is a pristine rendering of the jagged picture.

Shame is laid out as a triptych. The story begins with Ernaux’s description of her father attacking her mother with a scythe, which introduces Ernaux’s descriptions of the summer of 1952, when the attack took place. The second story line describes a series of events in the author’s life, both at school and at home, that led up to that climactic summer. Finally, Ernaux describes memories from a bus trip she took to Lourdes, France, with her father in the year following the attack. A beginning, a middle, and an end—a seeming adherence to conventionality. But the storytelling is anything but conventional. Ernaux weaves the three sets of memories intricately and seamlessly through one another with a sense of stream-of-consciousness writing, similar to the way in which individuals recall the past, wherein memories simply flow in rapid, random succession. But here again, Ernaux fools the reader with seeming simplicity, for although the story weaves in and out of memories, the order is carefully planned and presented; there are no extraneous or gratuitous thoughts falling across the pages of this spare text: ‘‘Naturally I shall not opt for narrative, . . . [n]either shall I content myself with merely picking out and transcribing the images I remember; I shall process them like documents, examining them from different angles to give them meaning.’’

Throughout the story, Ernaux recognizes that it is impossible to tell a history unstoried by the bias of time and personal reflections on the events. Thus, Ernaux interjects her current opinions in parenthetical statements, freely allowing herself a judicial voice of reflection. Outside the parentheticals, she mainly keeps to the facts (though she sometimes recalls her childhood opinion on how she may have felt at the time an event occurred), sparing the reader from didactic interpretation and thus allowing the reader to form his own opinion of the story being told. Ernaux’s innovative style of interjecting commentary through parenthetical statements stems from necessity. She tells the story as a series of recollections shorn of explication because she cannot explain the events—because, finally, she cannot explain what she does not understand:

(After evoking the images I have of that summer, I feel inclined to write ‘‘then I discovered that’’ or ‘‘then I realized that,’’ words implying a clear perception of the events one has lived through. But in my case there is no understanding, only this feeling of shame that has fossilized the images and stripped them of meaning. The fact that I experience such inertia and nothingness is something that cannot be denied. It is the ultimate truth.)

Ernaux’s writing style is loose yet vigorous, casual yet exact. In only 111 double-spaced pages, she pours forth a vivid sampling of an adolescent girl whose mind is being concretized by the events happening in her life. It is fairly obvious that adolescents are impressionable and that the events and emotions that they experience during those impressionable years will affect the way that they look at and live their lives. But it is rare to get a first-hand look at the events themselves, as opposed to commentary on how the events shaped the person. By providing lists of events and keepsakes, Ernaux allows the reader to draw his own conclusions as to how the events leading up to and following that summer day when Ernaux’s father attacked her mother affected Ernaux’s life. She lists a litany of actions condemned by the nuns who ran her school; she relays lists of items she has saved or salvaged from 1952; and she lists a series of violent or shameful events that occurred to her or her family in the immediate aftermath of her father’s attack on her mother. She writes to the point of exhaustion; her list-making ends when a redolent redundancy sets in, seemingly enveloping her in shame. ‘‘There is no point in going on. My shame was followed by more shame, only to be followed by more shame.’’ By the end of the book, Ernaux is almost apologetic for the seeming shortcomings of a book that cannot answer its own questions. In writing Shame, she had hoped to write ‘‘the sort of book that makes it impossible for me to withstand the gaze of others.’’ Her goal proved unattainable—what degree of shame could possibly be conveyed by the writing of a book which seeks to measure up to the events experienced in my twelfth year’’—but the book remained. Herein lies the book’s greatest strength: by attempting to examine a part of her life and ‘‘get to the bottom of things,’’ and then failing to come to any conclusion, Ernaux reveals an unerring, universal truth: that life holds no hard and fast answers, that events occur, and that there is no certainty that we can ever truly know why or how they affect us, but only that they do.

Shame is a shockingly bare tale; it tells not by telling but rather by transposing scattered events of her life and re-ordering them in a list-like fashion. However, Ernaux’s simplicity of style is, in fact, anything but. It is a depiction of family ties, desperation, and the intangible relics of memory that grow and change, haunting a life. In Catholic, small-town France in the 1950s, little was left to chance, and little was kept secret, and it is therefore all the more astonishing that the seminal, shocking event in Ernaux’s life would, even after dissection through time, remain such a little-understood event. It speaks volumes about the unspeakable nature of tragedy. And it leads people in myriad directions: toward recovery, toward penitence, toward anger, toward shame. Ernaux’s experience of watching her father try to choke her mother, and her memories that preceded and followed it, are select for the very reason that all of our memories are select: we remember what we can, what time allows, and what our heart is able to bear. Sometimes, the whole truth is too much, or else too little. The reader cannot know what transpired between mother and father before and after the fight that altered Ernaux’s perception of her place in society and solidified her sense of shame, and in the end, it is immaterial, for it is one’s perception, and not objective truth, that ultimately matters.

Source: Allison DeFrees, Critical Essay on Shame, in Non- fiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.


Critical Overview