Written by: Sage Kearney, Kathleen McCarey, Marie Naudus, Kya Primm, Isaac Schiller, and Owen Vincent
Merriam-Webster defines denotation as “a direct specific meaning as distinct from an implied or associated idea.” Conversely, Merriam-Webster defines connotation as “something suggested by a word or thing or the suggesting of a meaning by a word apart from the thing it explicitly names or describes.” To better understand the difference between denotation and connotation, we can think of the common phrase, “that is just how the cookie crumbles.” Should the phrase be interpreted based on its denotation, one might expect for the ways in which a cookie falls apart to be explained. However, when interpreting this based on its connotation, the speaker is referring to an unfortunate event that there is no foreseeable solution to. To give a clear example, if you miss the RTS bus here at Geneseo, a common response by a defeated, yet resigned, student could be to say “well, that’s just how the cookie crumbles.”
The tensions between connotation and denotation in Mat Johnson’s novel, Pym, reach their climax as the reader is introduced to Thomas Karvel’s “paradise.” As Chris stumbles upon Thomas Karvel overlooking the interior of his world, Chris inquires about how Karvel views change and how he has come to create his own sanctuary. Karvel replies, “No. There is only one look. There is only one vision. Perfection isn’t about change, diversity. It’s about getting closer to that one vision” (251). The connotation revolving around this statement is that Karvel wishes to extinguish all diversity and keep his world white. He values whiteness over all else and has his world mirror this belief. If only analyzing the denotation, the reader could interpret this as an innocent if not singularly focused display of artistic vision. Karvel says. “No, what I’m still creating is the land itself” (251). In doing so, he claims that he is only designing a room to manifest his artistic vision, but, he is actually creating a world in which there is only whiteness and, by extension of whiteness, perfection. However, an analysis of the connotations at play reveal a discriminatory message as it highlights his obsession with whiteness. This “one vision” belongs to him; he believes that all of the best things on Earth are in his dome and happen to be white. His vision, at first glance, is jumbled. However, Karvel clarifies his intentions when he states that he’ll “never leave the U.S. of A” (236). Karvel is striving to create an ideal America, while removing any non-white context from these “components.” While Karvel and Chris are defending the 3.2 Ultra BioDome, the arctic snow monkeys are rapidly approaching but Karvel doesn’t notice them: “‘I don’t see anybody. Are you sure somebody is there?’” to which Chris responds, frustrated, “‘There, right there, in front of your face’…not even aware of my tone” (263). The denotation of this is that Karvel could not distinguish a white figure against a white canvas in Antarctica. The connotation however, would be that Karvel cannot comprehend whiteness as anything impure or as a threat. The culmination of all these events cause Chris to become wary of the motives of white individuals, humans and arctic monkeys alike.
Chris’ physical and ontological assaults from an all white world propel him to an all Black world, Tsalal. Once he discovers what he believes to be Tsalal, Chris explains the image he sees as a man “shaking his hand in the air, waving it, and we, relieved, waved ours back” (322). The novel ends with Chris stating how “on the shore all I could discern was a collection of brown people, and this, of course, is a planet on which such are the majority” (322). Chris is able to see Tsalal as a symbol of hope due to his prior experiences. In the opening scene, Chris recounts how he was fired due to his refusal to join the diversity committee and was denied tenure. Chris explains to his replacement: “‘The diversity committee has one primary purpose: so that the school can say it has a diversity committee. They need that for when students get upset about race issues or general ethnic stuff… People find that very relaxing’” (18). Chris views his role at the university as being a token, used only for his race. These experiences are not isolated in America, but can be seen in his experiences in Antarctica as well. Upon interacting with Mrs. Karvel, Chris acknowledges: “I often forget to some I actually look ‘black,’ not just ethnically but along the ‘one drop’ line…in that sense, Mrs. Karvel’s discomfort with my presence as a Negro was more comforting to me than the trepidation I often feel not knowing how I will be perceived” (239). Chris vocalizes to the reader how he is constantly in a sense of discomfort over how his race will be interpreted by others. This discomfort comes to a head when Chris realizes Thomas Karvel’s unhidden trepidation: “it was just that, clearly, the six of us were more startling to him presently than the one unfortunate Tekelian who was no doubt that moment ravaging Karvel’s stores of frozen pastry products” (273). Chris notices that Karvel is more comfortable with the presence of a seven foot snowman than he was with the other black human’s in the room, further highlighting his desire and favoritism for whiteness. All of these accumate to Chris’ worldview being one of skepticism regarding white intentions.
These events can work to show how Chris views his arrival to Tsalal as a positive outcome. A world where he cannot see any whiteness upon his approach is a welcome change for him. This vision provides hope and the prospect of no longer having to question white intentions which have proven to stem from selfish motives. Chris views the connotations of the individuals of Tsalal waving as welcoming and can only imagine a positive outcome upon arriving to the island because it does not appear to be touched by whiteness, and thus is viewed as a place of refuge for Chris. However, there are other connotations that readers can see from this scene. The waving can come across as unwelcoming, a signal for Chris and his crew to turn around and leave. His eagerness to want to be accepted by this group can blind Chris from any danger that could actually be on the island. The individuals may not want Chris to corrupt them. We believe the waving on Tsalal and its ambiguity to be an overarching signifier to represent Western views, more specifically those that have affected Chris throughout his life in America. Chris views this final interaction as positive because he is seeing a land that has not been affected by whiteness. However, they may not accept him because of the way he has already been affected by the same system he is trying to escape. He has been so affected by American views on race that he does not recognize that there is more to acceptance in society than being judged by it.