Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens

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Little Dorrit

Like many of his other books, Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit is about the (eventual) triumph of good people over adversity. But it is also about the futility of struggling against the establishment. The good people in this book don’t strive so much as endure what life hands them until good fortune lifts them up. While this makes sense in light of the fact that Dickens was satirizing an ineffectual government, it makes for a curiously unsatisfying reading experience.

The first half of Little Dorrit centers on the Dorrit family. The patriarch, who manages to be a snob in spite of his circumstances, is incarcerated in Marshalsea Prison for debt. His family works to help keep them all fed and clothed, while Mr. Dorrit keeps up the pretension of being a gentleman. His youngest child, Amy, takes care of him and helps him preserve his illusions. In the periphery (because in a Dickens novel, there is always a fully stocked periphery of characters), Mr. Clennam hunts down a family secret, the Meagles lose their children to marriage and misunderstanding, the Merdles wheel and deal, and Flintwinch and Mrs. Clennam try to maintain the status quo.

Nothing much changes in the first half, so we a treated to Dickens hilarious treatment of the Circumlocution Office in addition to his lampooning of various characters who are unaware of their own ridiculousness. The Circumlocution Office is a massive government organization that exists solely to prevent things from being done. In the first half, the thing they are blocking is Mr. Dorrit’s release from the Marshalsea and Mr. Clennam’s business partner’s patent for an invention. These plot points are really just an excuse for Dickens to rail against governments that are more concerned with the form of things rather than actually helping people. It’s fun to read, but I will admit to skimming a few chapters just to get back to the plot.

In the second half of Little Dorrit, the plot kicks into high gear. Mr. Dorrit has been released and now possesses a large fortune—which transforms him into a worse snob than he ever was. The second half is full of fortunes found and lost. The second half is also about another implacable institution: Society. Appearances must be kept up and polite fictions circulated (much like the interminable memos of the Circumlocution Office) in order for Society to carry on as it always has. The satire is less successful in the second half because Dickens is so busy pulling plot rabbits out of hats that the major theme gets lost.

Unlike his other novels, Little Dorrit feels much less cohesive as a whole work. I know that Dickens often altered the course of his novels and his characters in response to reader feedback but, most of the time, I don’t feel jarred or confused when I find one of those changes. There are parts of Little Dorrit that are downright clumsy and entire subplots just fizzle. Further, because luck plays such a big role in this book, Little Dorrit mostly reads like Dickens was just winging it.

There were parts of Little Dorrit I did enjoy. I laughed out loud at the descriptions of the foolish characters and the exquisite scene setting passages because, even though Dickens wasn’t a his best here, he can still turn a phrase. For example:

All the natural charm of the previous day was gone. The eaters of the dinner, like the dinner itself, were lukewarm, insipid, overdone—and all owing to this poor little dull Young Barnacle. Conversationless at any time, he was now the victim of a weakness special to the occasion, and solely referable to Clennam. He was under a pressing and continual necessity of looking at that gentleman, which occasioned his eye-glass to get into his soup, into his wine-glass, into Mrs Meagles’s plate, to hang down his back like a bell-rope, and be several times disgracefully restored to his bosom by one of the dingy men. Weakened in mind by his frequent losses of this instrument, and its determination not to stick in his eye, and more and more enfeebled in intellect every time he looked at the mysterious Clennam, he applied spoons to his eyes, forks, and other foreign matters connected with the furniture of the dinner-table. (Chapter 17)

These comic moments were the best part of Little Dorrit, but they didn’t make up, for me, for the passivity of so many characters. Mr. Dorrit and Mr. Clennam both resign themselves to their fate when they are imprisoned for debt. Little Dorrit is a striver, but she is content with her situation at large so long as she can provide a little comfort for the people she loves. I have a hard time liking a book with the message that good things come to those who wait and that trying to change one’s circumstances is doomed from the start.

A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster

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A Passage to India

E.M. Forster’s 1924 classic, A Passage to India, is a bitingly caustic look at race relations in British India. Anyone with any knowledge of the British Empire will know that the average British attitude towards any indigenous person in the colonies was a blend of condescension, racism, and paternalism. All of these attitudes are on display in varying intensities in this novel, along with the attitudes of the Indians (anger, frustration, hatred, occasionally aspirational). Two Englishwomen arrive in Chandrapore (fictional) to “see the real India” only to find two entrenched camps of people who are civil on the surface but absolutely loathe each other. One of the women causes a legal incident that threatens to destabilize the entire city—and offering us readers a chance to see what happens when someone throws a metaphorical matchstick on dry tinder.

Miss Quested has traveled to India for two reasons. The unofficial reason is that she will be renewing her acquaintance with Mr. Heaslop, the chief magistrate of Chandrapore. Mr. Heaslop’s mother, Mrs. Moore, very much wants the pair to marry; the pair have traveled together to see Heaslop. The second and official reason is that both Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore want to see India. I wrote it quotes before because India is such a vast country, with so many people and ways of living, that one could spend a lifetime trying to see everything. Still, Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore want to try. Their initial efforts—a garden party with Indian and English guests, tea with a smaller group of Indians and Englishmen—fizzle into embarrassing failures. There’s too much history and too much prejudice on both sides for the ladies to make much headway.

Dr. Aziz, a complicated man who works as a surgeon and doctor for the English in a hospital, offers another chance for Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore to see some “real India” by inviting them to the famed caves outside of the city. Aziz is fascinating because he is able to see the good in some English like his friend Dr. Fielding, but is infuriated by the casual racism and constant snubbing of the rest of the English. He is an educated, interesting man, yet he is always just another Indian to most of the English people he meets. In spite of all this, he offers to take Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore to the caves. Unfortunately for him, the plan starts to fall apart almost immediately. Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore’s English chaperone and the local expert fail to make the train. Mrs. Moore has a bad reaction to the first cave. After she drops out of the little expedition, Miss Quested runs from another cave, into the cacti and sun, shouting that Dr. Aziz has assaulted her.

By this point, almost half of the book has pointed out just how fragile the civility between Indian and British is. The arrest and trial of Dr. Aziz on very flimsy evidence (mostly just racism than actual physical evidence) spark the sub-surface fury of the Indians. The fury of the Indians reminds the English of “the Mutiny” (the Indian Rebellion of 1857). Both camps circle the wagons, spreading hysterical rumors, and making plans for what might happen if things do turn violent. Forster writes:

But [Mr. McBryde] looked at him sternly, because he was keeping his head. He had not gone mad at the phrase “an English girl fresh from England,” he had not rallied to the banner of race. He was still after facts, though the herd had decided on emotion. Nothing enrages Anglo-India more than the lantern of reason if it is exhibited for one moment after its extinction is decreed. All over Chandrapore that day the Europeans were putting aside their normal personalities and sinking themselves in their community. Pity, wrath, heroism, filled them, but the power of putting two and two together was annihilated. (181*)

Affairs march on ahead of Miss Quested who, on reflection, isn’t entirely sure what happened that day in the caves after all.

The caves and the subsequent trial form an early climax in A Passage to India. The rest of the book centers mostly on Dr. Aziz, Dr. Fielding, and, to a lesser extend, Miss Quested, as they try to put their worldviews back together. At the beginning of the book, each was willing to reach across the aisle, so to speak, and form friendships that their co-nationalists warned them against. Many men, British and Indian, point to their long years of experience as their authority on the futility of fraternization.

I was expecting A Passage to India to end on a very depressing note. It is rather depressing for most of its chapters. And yet, there’s a strange feeling of stubborn hope at the end of the book. Dr. Aziz is not quite ready to stop trying, no matter what the English have done to him (though he is much more reserved than he used to be). Near the end of the book, Aziz meets the youngest of Mrs. Moore’s children and is able to form a friendship because the boy has no preconceptions of what he’s supposed to think of Indians. It’s possible, the book suggests, that both Indians and British can set aside their histories and prejudices and built anew in the future. It will be hard, but it’s not completely impossible.

The other thing that lightens A Passage to India is the commentary provided by the narrator. Everyone is a target for the unnamed third-person narrator. My favorite line comes from the furor after the attack on Miss Quested: “[The Englishmen] had started speaking of ‘women and children’—that phrase that exempts the male from sanity when it has been repeated a few times” (202). The book is packed with small, pithy observations that puncture all of the deluded or bloviating character. So, even though this is a very serious book, about very serious things, the commentary had me snickering throughout. 


* Quote is from the Rosetta Books kindle edition.

The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck

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The Good Earth

Originally published in 1931, The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck delivers a problematic (for oh so many reasons) portrait of a family that rises and falls and rises again in the years before the 1911 revolution. Buck lived in China for years, working as a missionary (though she later gave speeches against missionary work), and appears to have fallen in love with the culture. I daresay The Good Earth contains much of what Buck learned about everyday life in rural China—though I have a lot of questions about how much is true and how much is stereotype. I was worried when I started the book that I would see a lot of racism. I was wrong on that front. Instead, I should have worried about misogyny and sexism.

Wang Lung, at the outset of The Good Earth is a humble farmer. He has his patch of land. He can support himself and his father in a good year, but there aren’t a lot of extras. On the day we meet him, Wang Lung is splurging with a hot bath and some delicacies from the markets because it is the day he goes to claim his wife from the Hwang family. O-lan is a slave (having been sold by her destitute father when she was a child) for the family and, for a price, the family have released her to be Wang Lung’s wife. She is not pretty, but Wang Lung is content. He knows that she can work and a farmer doesn’t need anything fancy.

The first days of their marriage set the pattern for the rest of O-lan’s life and most of Wang Lung’s. He works in the fields. She works in the house. Apart from conceiving children, Wang Lung doesn’t pay much attention to her. In fact, he frequently describes her as dumb and dim. He’s not overtly cruel, but his lack of affection and consideration wear on O-lan over the years. Over the course of the novel, we will learn how much O-lan sacrifices for her husband and family. We also see how little she expects from her husband in return, though it never occurs to him that he owes her anything other than a roof over her head and the means to feed and cloth herself.

The Good Earth shows us Wang Lung in poverty and in wealth. He’s not a good person in either extreme. When the family are poor, Wang Lung makes drastic decisions and only purest luck changes their fortunes. When the family are rich, Wang Lung is even worse. He becomes just like the rich Hwangs he simultaneously envied and despised at the beginning of the book. He becomes a petty tyrant to his family (except for his uncle’s family, who he can’t get rid of because the village would judge him).

If ever there was a story crying out for a retelling from another character’s perspective, it’s The Good Earth. The more I read of Wang Lung and his increasing selfishness, the more I wanted to hear from O-lan. I wanted to know what she was thinking. She rarely speaks. Everything we know about her comes from her husband, who doesn’t know her at all. Wang Lung views the women in his life as either servants (O-lan, his daughters), as objects of pleasure (his mistress), or as trouble (his aunt). At one point, Wang Lung tells us:

So these two women took their place in his house: Lotus for his toy and his pleasure and to satisfy his delight in beauty and in smallness and in the joy of her pure sex, and O-lan for his woman of work and the mother who had borne his sons and who kept his house and fed him and his father and his children. (186*)

Over and over I was reminded how little women counted for in Wang Lung’s world. I wanted to roar at him through the pages to treat O-lan with the respect she deserves. He only treats her with kindness when he learns she is dying. Otherwise, he is annoyed with her or ignores her. I felt so badly for her.

Another thought that struck me while reading The Good Earth was the idea of land enduring after one’s lifetime, which I also saw in Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum. People come and go, these books show us, but the land is always there to sustain whoever owns it and cares for it. Land is one of the few things Wang Lung is prudent about. In the second half of the novel, land supports Wang Lung’s growing wealth. As he grows richer he becomes more and more removed from the land and, consequently, falls prey to the worse of his character flaws. It is only when he returns to the land and his original house to die that Wang Lung starts to redeem himself (though it’s far too late for him to apologize to O-lan, the bastard).

The Good Earth is the Wang Lung show. He fills the narrative, leaving nary a crack for other characters. (It doesn’t help that there are so few named characters in this book. Wang Lung’s sons are referred to by number, for example.) In comparison, O-lan is so hardworking and virtuous that I longed for a respite from Wang Lung’s selfishness and autocratic ways. Against her husband’s poor boy made good tale, O-lan’s tragedy stands out. She moved me just like Thomas Hardy’s Tess did. I hoped against hope that she would find happiness, only to be thwarted when her long death from cancer did little more than make Wang Lung feel “remorseful” for a few months.

I anticipate a lively discussion on Friday when the book group gets together. In addition to my comments here, I have a veritable list of things that I took issue with in The Good Earth to talk about. I may even froth at the mouth.


* Quote is from the 1944 Modern Library edition.

Uncollected thoughts about Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice

I’ve had Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, on my brain for weeks, so I figured it was time for a re-read. Because I’ve already read this book several times and because it’s so widely read, I’m not going to write a review, as such. I’m just going to jot down a few thoughts that struck me on this read-through.

***

Austen gets rather scathing about marriage via Charlotte Lucas’s explanation to Elizabeth about her acceptance of Mr. Collins’s proposal. We remember Austen’s novels as early prototypes of the romance genre; we know that the main characters will marry happily and advantageously. The story is different for minor characters and Austen’s novels are full of secondary and tertiary characters who have to make serious compromises. I felt for Charlotte when she told Lizzy in Chapter 22*:

“I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.”

These are the words of a newly engaged woman? I could do worse? Poor Charlotte, but as a 27-year-old gently reared woman, she doesn’t have any other better options.

***

Mr. Bennet is kind of vexing. He still amuses me as much as ever, but I’ve begun to see Mr. Darcy’s point about him. Mr. Bennet would rather watch someone make a fool of themselves, no matter how damaging it is to his family’s reputation, than do anything about it.

***

The version of Pride and Prejudice I’ve been carrying around in my head turns out to have had more in common with the film versions (particularly the 1995 BBC production) than with the book itself. On this read-through, I noticed that I was waiting for story beats to happen in a particular order. The film versions hit the important points, but other things are glossed over in the rush of most adaptations to get to the happy ending.

That said, the book does (as usual) a much better job of showing us how Darcy loses his shy but arrogant pride and Elizabeth her obstinate prejudice against him. Of course the films have to speed things up to cram everything in to two and a bit hours and books have more time. In the book, the characters have time to grow much more realistically.

The downside of the book, however, is that Mr. Darcy never actually dives into a pond with his white linen shirt.

***

Pride and Prejudice has never disappointed me. Part of the joy of reading this book is coming across lines that still make me laugh, like:

“‘I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love,’ said Darcy.

‘Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.'” (Chapter 9)

Or:

“An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.” (Chapter 20)

And, of course, the opening lines:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Chapter 1)

Or the lines that make my bookish heart sing:

“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” (Chapter 34)

 

* I downloaded a copy of this book from Project Gutenberg. Page numbers are not available.

Bartleby, the Scrivener, by Herman Melville

Bartleby, the Scrivener
Bartleby, the Scrivener

“I would prefer not to.” I’ve seen this phrase all over the bookish internet: on totes, mugs, t-shirts. Bartleby’s refrain always struck me as petulant. It reminds me of a kid whose parents have just asked them to do their chores. I would prefer not to do the dishes. The response to this usually some variation on, “Tough, kid. Do them anyway.” So this was my impression of Herman Melville’s story Bartleby, the ScrivenerI confess that I only picked it up because it was so short and I didn’t have enough time to read another pre-1950 classic for my monthly reader’s resolution goal. Now I think I see why readers are so endlessly fascinated by this story. We know very well what Bartleby would prefer not to do. We don’t know the answer to the unasked question: what would Bartleby prefer?

We learn about Bartleby via his unnamed employer. Our narrator is a lawyer who employs two copywriters—a lost profession in which men with good handwriting would make copies of legal documents—who have problems with alcohol. Because lack of alcohol makes one belligerent and too much alcohol does the same to the other, they’ve basically canceled each other out in terms of productivity. Our narrator essentially has only one one functioning copywriter at any given time, so he hires Bartleby. At first, Bartleby does good work. When his employer asks him to do anything but copy documents—proofread, run errands, etc.—Bartleby declines. He would prefer no to. If our narrator were a more hard-nosed man, Bartleby would have been fired at this point and the story would be even shorter.

Over time, our narrator learns that Bartleby never leaves the office; he even sleeps there. Even after our narrator decamps to a new office—because he can’t stand Bartleby hanging around and refusing to do anything—Bartleby stays in the office. He is described in so many words by the new tenants as haunting the building. At times during this part of the story, I wondered if Melville was writing under the influence of Poe because Bartleby’s quiet insistence and lack of motive make him downright creepy. Eventually, the new tenants of the old office have Bartleby arrested and sent to New York’s notorious and aptly named, the Tombs. There, Bartleby starves to death because he would prefer not to eat prison food.

Bartleby, the Scrivener is a story of withdrawal. I don’t mean physical withdrawal—as Bartleby refuses to leave his former employer’s old office until forcibly removed—but of withdrawal from life. He would prefer not to work, talk about his past, or leave the office. Bartleby is passive in spite of his constant resistance to the people around him. He doesn’t take any offer of help or employment. He would prefer not to. His passivity and withdrawal from life manifest in his refusal to find something he does want. His is the kind of character one can’t help but label as fundamentally wrong; he desperately needs fixing. (His employer, at one point, theorizes that Bartleby is a test from god.) Bartleby is a mystery, a creepy mystery—the kind that invites readers to try and puzzle out what motivates this man.

I know critics and scholars have numerous theories about Bartleby. He’s such a cipher that its tempting to abandon psychology altogether and view the Scrivener as a metaphor. Perhaps I’m too grounded in psychological and historicist criticism, but I never find metaphor theories satisfying. Weirdly enough, one theory that did satisfy occurred to me while I was reading was that Bartleby might be a figment of the narrator’s imagination. Most of Bartleby, the Scrivener is the narrator agonizing about what to do with this exceedingly weird man. Of course, this theory has problems since other people interact with Bartleby in the story. Maybe I just liked this explanation because I read the story at Halloween.

The other big reason I stayed away from this story was because I had a bad experience in college with Moby-DickBartleby, the Scrivener is very different from Melville’s magnum opus. While some of the sentences and paragraphs are punishingly long, the story rolls along at a good clip. There are even moments of snarky absurdity. I think readers should give this story a chance. If nothing else, we need all the brains we can muster at work trying to figure out what Bartleby—character and story—mean.

The Vatican Cellars, by André Gide

The Vatican Cellars
The Vatican Cellars

Why do we behave the way that we do? Psychologists would argue about nature versus nurture, but they rarely go so far as to talk about the ongoing pressures that family and society and law and religion and culture have on us as adults. André Gide’s The Vatican Cellars, originally published in 1914, is an exploration of that very question. The exploration, however, is the subtext to a strange and funny tale of atheists who find faith, pietists flirting with atheism, con men, nihilism, misguided love—and family.

I picked this book up because the description mentioned a pope being kidnapped and farce. I don’t think I read anything else about The Vatican Cellars on the NetGalley cite before I hit the request button. A casual reader wouldn’t expect anything like this from the first chapters of this brief book. According to the note at the end of the book, Gide didn’t consider The Vatican Cellars a novel. He called it a sotie:

A sotie (or sottie) is a short satirical play common in 15th- and 16th-century in France. The word (compare modern sottise) comes from the sots, “fools”, who appeared as characters in the play. (Wikipedia)

In those first chapters, we are introduced to Anthime and his wife, Véronique, his brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Anthime is a staunch, combative atheist. He drives his wife crazy with his cruel experiments on animals and his constant antagonism towards the rest of the family’s faith. One night, after damaging a statue of the Virgin Mary, Anthime has a vision and wakes up cured of the pain in his leg. Anthime immediately converts, becoming so saint-like that it annoys his family even more than his atheism. After these chapters, Gide detours into the tale of the brother-in-law, Julius de Baraglioul, and Julius’ previously unknown illegitimate half-brother, Lafcladio Wluiki. While Julius is very proper and highly conscientious of his family’s reputation, Lafcadio is almost the prototypical nihilist.

As we learn more of Lafcadio’s debauched youth and his lack of empathy to pretty much everyone in his life, the story shifts again to yet another member of Julius’ tangled family. Julius sister, a comtesse, is taken in by a scam artist. The note at the end of the book reports an actual scam that occurred in 1892 that inspired Gide. Con men would dress as priests and target credulous and deeply devout rich people by asking for money to free the pope, who they said had been kidnapped. If word got out, the con men said, Catholicism would collapse. One of Lafcadio’s childhood friends, Protos, is deeply involved in running the con. There are coincidences everywhere in The Vatican Cellars. They are used to great effect to gaslight some of the characters into believing that there really is a vast conspiracy involving the pope.

I get the impression that The Vatican Cellars would make more sense to someone reading in 1914. The antagonisms hinted at between the Catholic Church and the Freemasons. Lafcadio’s character would probably make more sense before the creation of existentialism, when nihilism and the will to power and traditional values did battle for people’s souls. Still, Gide’s subtle, snarky humor had me very entertained, even though many of the characters do completely depraved things. I understand why Gide was such a controversial author in his time.

 

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. 

Emma, by Jane Austen

Emma
Emma

This month’s resolution read actually fit two categories. I’ve read Emma, by Jane Austen, before. I didn’t like it. I took a chance on it to see if I still didn’t like it. I know Emma is a big favorite with Austenites…but, I’m not one of them, even after my re-read. I’ve loved every other Austen novel I’ve read. I adore Pride & Prejudice, PersuasionNorthanger Abbey. I adore Austen’s gentle snark. Her characters make me laugh or make me want to hop into the book and be friends when them or just give them a hug. I didn’t get any of that from Emma.

Emma Woodhouse is a twenty-one year old girl who desperately needs to finish growing up. The trouble for Emma is that she doesn’t know this. The plot is a series of episodes that illustrate this. In the first third of the novel, Emma tries to create an attachment between her friend, Harriet Smith, and one of the most eligible bachelors in Highbury, Mr. Elton. It fails spectacularly. Emma discovers that Mr. Elton was only being nice to Harriet to please Emma, right before he proposes. The rest of her mistakes are smaller, but not any less embarrassing. She is rude to people she looks down on. She constantly misinterprets people’s emotions. She enables her father’s self-imposed invalidness. I don’t like her.

What I didn’t know about Emma—the book and the character—is that I’m not supposed to like her. Wikipedia quotes Austen via A Memoir of Jane Austen*, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” (157). Emma is a terrible snob when it comes to class and rank. She immediately develops intense dislikes of any woman who might be her rivals.  She is so very manipulative! I feel sorry for Harriet. If Emma really were her friend, she would stop treating the poor girl like a pawn on a chessboard. But Emma Woodhouse stands out as a character because she is so fully realized on the page. We’re not supposed to like her; we’re supposed to learn from her. I can easily picture Austen cackling at her writing table as she details Emma’s misadventures.

Unlikeable characters have been getting a lot of press in the last few years, especially after Claire Messud’s novel, The Woman UpstairsPublishers’ Weekly published a now infamous interview with Claire Messud in which Messud took the interviewer to task for saying she wouldn’t want to be friends with the protagonist of The Woman Upstairs. Messud responded:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”

Is Emma alive? Yes, very much so. We (I) may not like her. I definitely wouldn’t want to be her friend. The more I think about it, however, the more I think about what makes this book work and why people still read it. That’s a much better set of questions to ask about Emma.

Emma is an early sort of bildungsroman, a novel of a character growing up into the person they are. It’s fascinating to watch Emma grow up. She learns not to meddle so much. She learns that she’s not the wise matchmaker she thought she was. Fortunately, she retains her ability to tease and doesn’t become a bland, inoffensive creature. Emma looks to her neighbor and brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley, as a model for herself. She greatly respects his opinion on everything. He’s the only one who can (sometimes) check her worst impulses. I didn’t notice this the first time I read Emma, but Mr. Knightley is grooming Emma to be his wife. After Mr. Knightley proposes, Emma thanks him for his advice over the years. He replies:

Nature gave you understanding:—Miss Taylor gave you principles. You must have done well. My interference was quite as likely to do harm as good. It was very natural for you to say, what right has he to lecture me?—and I am afraid very natural for you to feel that it was done in a disagreeable manner. I do not believe I did you any good. The good was all to myself, by making you an object of the tenderest affection to me. I could not think about you so much without doating [sic] on you, faults and all; and by dint of fancying so many errors, have been in love with you ever since you were thirteen at least. (Volume III, Chapter XVII**)

Two years ago, Wendy Moore wrote a book about a philosopher’s attempts to train a young girl into the “perfect wife.” That was the first thought that popped into my mind when Knightley said that he had been in love with Emma since she was 13. Knightley is 16 years older than his bride-to-be. He’s been doling out advice for Emma’s entire life, presumably. The dynamics of their relationship—with Knightley as pseudo-father—make me very uncomfortable. Emma and Knightley are not equals in the way most of Austen’s other leading couples are. And if the partners in the relationship are not equal, can there be real love?

Emma is problematic, but I can understand why people keep coming back. I’ve thought more about this book more than any of Austen’s books. I wonder if I will still be bothered by it if I read it again in another decade and a bit?

 

* Austen-Leigh, James Edward (1967) [1926]. A Memoir of Jane Austen (R. W. Chapman ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

** I read the Project Gutenberg edition of Emma. Page numbers are not available.

The Golovlyov Family, by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin

The Golovlyov Family
The Golovlyov Family

At the end of Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s biting satire, The Golovlyov Family, the narrator meditates on the random fates of families. Some reverse their declines and rebuild the family fortunes. Others are at the top of fortune’s wheel before precipitously falling to the bottom within generations. Personality has much to do with the rise and fall of fortunes, but there is also an element of luck. At the beginning of The Golovlyov Family, published as a serial between 1875 and 1876 but set some years before serfdom was abolished in 1861, the eponymous family controls a growing estate in the Russian country side. By the end, three generations are ruined and the estate passes to another branch of the family.

Arina Petrovna, the matriarch of the Golovlyov clan at the beginning of the book, works tirelessly to add new land and “souls” (serfs) to the estate. She works less tirelessly at raising her family of three sons and a daughter. She resents any resources she has to turn over for their upkeep, frequently referring to her brood as “horrid creatures.” The beginning chapters of the novel set up the pattern the narrator will follow for the rest of the book. An event is announced—a house is sold, money is requested from whoever rules the family fortune at the moment, a scion of the family commits suicide—and the family members react in sometimes inexplicable ways before the narrator backtracks to explain how the event came to pass. After a few of these jumps and flashbacks, I started to view the characters of the book the way astronomers used to view the motion of the heavenly bodies before Galileo. Watching the Golovlyovs live their lives in this novel is like trying to follow the planets as they move according to the rules of retrograde motion. That is to say, the Golovlyovs are a bewildering bunch until you learn what’s passed between the last event and the new.

Perhaps the precipitating event of the family’s decline comes after Arina Petrovna’s first son, called Simple Simon, drinks himself to death after Arina refuses to give him another living. She divides the estate between her surviving sons, Porfiry and Pavel. Because she can’t stand Porfiry, she goes to live with Pavel with her granddaughters (the children of her dead daughter). Pavel, like his brother before him, drinks himself to death. Much later, Arina Petrovna reflects, like a more clear-headed King Lear, that:

Had she not made a mistake “at that time,” had she not portioned out her estate to her sons, had she not trusted Yudushka [Porfiry], she would to this very day have been a harsh, exacting woman, with everybody under her thumb. But since the mistake was fatal, the transition from a testy, arbitrary mistress to an obedient, obsequious parasite was only a matter of time. (Book III, Chapter 1*)

When Arina Petrovna realizes this, her granddaughters have left her and she has relocated to one of the poorer holdings of the vast Golovlyov estates. Everything else is in the hands of her hypocritical son, Porfiry, known as Judas (Yudushka).

As the novel shifts in time from Arina’s reign to Porfiry’s, the narrator shows us how Porfiry repaints the family history. Arina is, for the most part, quite blunt about how she treated her family members. Porfiry lies outright to portray himself in the best light. He cannot bear to be thought of as a villain. He cannot even bear to know that he annoys everyone he speaks to with his interminable sermons and pondering about his calculations about the estate’s production rates and rents. He is tolerated, because of his power, but this fades, too, until he is completely irrelevant.

The less said about the third generation, the better. For all the faults of Arina and Porfiry, they have some grit in their personalities. Porfiry’s sons and nieces all come to ignominious ends. Just as Arina came to regret her actions, Porfiry has a moment of realization before he dies in a blizzard, walking to his mother’s grave. Who has he been working and saving for, if not the Golovlyov children? Now that they are gone, who is it all for?

Towards the end of the novel, Porfiry’s niece Anninka dreads returning to Golovliovo, the family seat, after her acting career has come to an end and she can no longer find a man to keep her as a mistress. She declares that “Golovliovo was death itself, hollow-wombed death, constantly lying in wait for new victims…All the deaths, all the poisonings, all the pestilence, came from there” (Book VII, Chapter III). Anninka attributes to the family’s misfortunes to the land itself, but all the evils she mentions in describing Golovliovo came from her grandmother, Arina Petrovna, and her uncle. The family elders killed the family through their autocracy, miserliness, and inability to change for anything.

The only thing that kept me reading the relentless depressing decline of the Golovlyovs was the satirical voice of the narrator. The narrator reveals, in stark relief, the perfidies and hypocrisies of the family members. The narrator does not explain the characters, but simply shows the path they took to arrive at alcoholism and suicide. At times, the narrator had me laughing with a description of how the servants and serfs live around the family and take advantage of them or by discussing Porfiry’s performance of his prayers so that everything looks just right. That said, however, The Golovlyov Family is the sort of novel that gives Russian literature its reputation for tragic darkness, flavored with vodka.

 

* Quotes are from the Project Gutenberg edition of this book and page numbers are not available.

 

Notes for bibliotheraputic use: No. Just…no.

The Odd Women, by George Gissing

The Odd Women
The Odd Women

The Odd WomenIt’s strange that an obscure book from 1893 should have so many things in common with 2015. George Gissing’s novel, The Odd Women, is the story of two women who are caught in the war between the sexes. Monica Madden, terrified of living in poverty, married the wrong man. Rhoda Nunn is an early feminist whose pride keeps her on the front lines of the gender wars.

The Odd Women opens on the Madden family, in the happy days before the pater familias dies in a riding accident. Gissing jumps ahead fifteen years to show us what happened to the six Madden daughters in the meantime. Three of them have died. The two eldest work as governesses. The youngest is a shopgirl in London. Rhoda Nunn, an old family friend, reintroduces herself and tells the older Madden’s about her patroness’s work teaching girls typewriting and clerking skills. The rest of the novel primarily details Monica and Rhoda’s misadventures in love—a more complete summary of the plot is available on Wikipedia.

What astonished me most about The Odd Women were passages that could have been written today. With one exception, the men in this novel are firm believers in their traditional roles as breadwinners and kings in their castles. Monica’s husband, Edmund Widdowson, constantly remarks on this theme. His opinion is best summarized when he tells Monica, “I am no tyrant, but I shall rule you for your own good” (348*). Their relationship began by chance. They met one day in a park and struck up a conversation. Widdowson is immediately smitten. Monica is not sure about him and worried about how it will look if she meets with a man she hasn’t formally been introduced to and without a chaperone. Widdowson begins to send her overwrought letters, declaring his love for Monica. He essentially browbeats her into listening to his proposals. Monica’s fear of being poor, of being an “odd woman”—a woman who never got married—do the rest. They have a happy enough honeymoon, but things go almost immediately wrong between them. Monica wants to have friends; Widdowson wants to schedule her day and keep her to himself. Over a year, they destroy each other’s health and almost each other’s sanity.

In contrast, Gissing shows us the relationship between Rhoda Nunn and Everard Barfoot. Everard is the cousin of Nunn’s patroness. At first, Everard plans to tease Rhoda and woo her to see if he can get her to renounce her principles. But, funnily enough, they actually do start to fall in love with each other. While we watch Monica and Widdowson quarrel and grow miserable, Everard and Rhoda talk about what marriage does to people and how it sets up an unequal system. Rhoda wants women to be able to take care of themselves, financially, so that there are no more pitied “odd women” and literal poor, starving spinsters. She wants women to realize that they don’t need men to make their way in the world. Marriage should not be a Hobson’s choice; it should be a real choice. Everard is more interested in free love, but he’s a willing audience for Rhoda’s ideals. Still, they cannot find a way to live with each other. There’s too much mistrust, too much game playing, and too much pride.

There was one scene that stood out to me above all of the speech that reads scarily like modern Men’s Rights Activist propaganda. Rhoda’s patroness, Mary Barfoot, gives a speech to her pupils in which she reads out a letter she received from a detractor. The letter is introduced and read:

The taste of this epistle was as bad as its grammar…[Mary says,] “They will tell you that, in entering the commercial world, you not only unsex yourselves, but do a grievous wrong to the numberless men struggling hard for bare sustenance. You reduce salaries, you press into an already crowded field, you injure even your own sex by making it impossible for men to marry…Why don’t I encourage girls to become governesses, hospital nurses, and so on?…I don’t care to make use of the argument, which at once involves us in a debate with the out-crowded clerk [the author of the letter]. No; to put the truth in a few words, I am not chiefly anxious that you should earn money, but that women in general shall become rational and responsible human beings. (210-211)

Barfoot then goes on to tear down the prevailing ideal woman—docile, content to be ruled by men, not too intelligent, etc. She says nothing that might sound out of place coming from Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, or prominent feminists today.

The lesson I take from Gissing—now that I know he wasn’t being satirical—is that the problem with feminism and “meninism” is that it puts both genders into unattainable roles. If a man is pushed to be the pater familias, he can become lost and angry when women don’t “behave” or despising women as “born to perpetual pupilage” (308). Widdowson reflects at one point:

The bitterness of his situation lay in the fact that he had wedded a woman who irresistibly proved to him her claims as a human being. Reason and tradition contended in him, to his ceaseless torment. (308)

When women are pushed to be wives and mothers only, we resent the people who told us we couldn’t be anything else and that there’s something wrong with us for wanting to find our own fulfillment. We should, as Widdowson learns much too late, to treat each other as human beings—without the trappings of what the genders are expected to be.

The Odd Women is a didactic novel, but it’s actually enjoyable to read. There’s a solid plot. Some of the characters are less than three-dimensional, but Rhoda and Monica and Everard and Widdowson are fully realized. I highly recommend this novel. I think it will astonish people, even after 122 years.

 

* Quotes are from the Project Gutenberg edition, via Scribd. Page numbers are approximate.

Red Cavalry, by Isaac Babel

Red Cavalry

Last January, I read The Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin and was horrified by the rapid emotional cycling of the main character. The same man who, in the morning, could commit rapes and beatings and executions would be the same man who wept at the beauty of an opera. What I didn’t know at the time was this kind of character is part of a Russian character. I saw several of his type in Isaac Babel’s short story collection, Red Cavalry, soon to be reissued by Pushkin Press.

Issac Babel‘s stories are drawn from life. As a young man trying to become a writer, Babel was assigned to the First Cavalry Army in 1920. Red Cavalry began as Babel’s war diary as he fought with the First Cavalry in the Polish-Soviet War—a tidy name for a conflict in which every faction is fighting every other faction and the civilian population, as well. The man in the cavalry mourn their slaughtered horses and weep when they are particularly moved by a song, then turn around and commit mass murder or atrocities on the civilians. The stories in Red Cavalry document a world gone mad.

According to the translator’s note at the beginning of this reissue of Red Cavalry, the collection is considered a masterpiece of Russian literature. Wikipedia quotes the inimitable Jorge Luis Borges on the effect of one of the stories, “The music of its style contrasts with the almost ineffable brutality of certain scenes. One of the stories, —”Salt”—enjoys a glory seemingly reserved for poems and rarely attained by prose: many people know it by heart” (Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Nonfictions, page 164.) The translator, Boris Dralyuk, also comments on the “music” in Babel’s stories. It is a rough music. The stories—vignettes, really—flow into each other. Characters reappear in later stories, lending some coherence to the chaos.

Because the stories tumble into one another, it’s hard to pick any standouts. Many of the story titles were omitted from my advanced reader copy, so I actually read the book as one piece. (I’m not sure which method is more effective, to be honest.) As I read, I had bookmarks in the historical notes at the end so that I could understand the brief references to various commanders, heroes, and villains; the flashes of Polish and Yiddish; and the pertinent history of post-World War I civil war wracked Russia, Ukraine, and Poland.

I suspect that Babel’s stories and vignettes are deliberately confusing because the events themselves were so confusing. Instead of putting political speeches into his characters’ mouths, the combatants and civilians don’t seem to know what anyone is fighting for. To an outside observer, it’s sheer anarchy. (Possibly to an inside observer, too.) In the past, I’ve read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard, which is set at roughly the same time, but Red Cavalry is only my second exposure to contemporary Russian Civil War literature. Because Red Cavalry was written as the author killed and avoided being killed, it feels truer to the time than The White Guard (serialized in 1925, but not fully published until 1966). That is to say, it feels as true as a war story can feel to anyone who wasn’t there.

I received a copy of this collection from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be published 12 May 2015.