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Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens

Our Mutual Friend is Charles Dickens last completed novel (he would die before finishing The Mystery of Edwin Drood), serialized in 1864-65. My first introduction to the story came with the 1998 BBC adaptation, which is excellent, and it has remained one of Dickens’ novels that I enjoy the most.

Some critics have said that the River Thames (always just called “the river” in the story) is the true main character of the book. Filthy and polluted, the river is a source of both life and death. People earn their living on the river, drown and are resurrected in the river, follow the river towards their destination. It seems to contain all that is both good and horrible in England and much of the story and characters are connected to it in one way or another.

On the death of the old miser John Harmon, who made a fortune with dust mounds (he basically collected, removed and recycled rubbish), his long-banished son, also called John Harmon, must return to collect his fortune. But in order to inherit, the will indicates that he must marry a young lady called Bella Wilfer, whom he has never met. But a body is found in the river and it is believed to be his body. The money then passes to Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, good and unpretentious servants to Harmon.

As in all Dickens novels, it’s difficult to summarize his books because there are so many characters, whose plots weave in and out of each other’s. The body in the river is found by Gaffer Hexam, who earns a living stealing from the bodies he finds in the river. His daughter is Lizzie, who attracts the interest of the usually bored gentleman, Eugene Wrayburn. Lizzie also attracts the interest of her brother’s “decent” headmaster, a man who has been called the Norman Bates of Victorian literature: Bradley Headstone. Everything about him is described as decent, yet nearly everyone who comes into contact with him can palpably sense that something is off.

Mr. Boffin soon acquires a mysterious secretory named John Rokesmith, who falls in love with Bella Wilfer. Rogue Riderhood, who claims to be “a[n] honest man as gets my living by the sweat of my brow” working on the river, in reality lives up to his name of Rogue. The Jewish Mr. Riah is Dickens’ attempt to atone for creating the evil Jewish Fagin. Riah is kind and sympathetic and becomes the surrogate father to Jenny Wren, a friend of Lizzie’s. Mrs. Higden is the poor woman who possesses a horror of the workhouse. Con artists, villains, innocents, and unforgettable characters abound.

Gaffer Hexam and Lizzie look for bodies in the river – illustrated by Marcus Stone

Besides the river, another theme that seems to be consistent throughout the entire story is that of stalking. Everyone seems to be stalking someone, whether for good or ill. Stalking them, watching them, loving them from a distance, resenting them, searching for them, testing them. At one point Bradley Headstone is stalking Eugene Wrayburn, who is looking for Lizzie. The line between love and obsession seems a thin one at times.

Another theme, of course, is that of greed and the corrosive effect of it on people. Greed and lust for money – miserliness once one has money. Not to mention murder, jealousy, lust, greed, hatred, obsession, indifference…

Perhaps one of my favorite parts of the novel is this quote from Mr. Twemlow, an insignificant member of Society (Society being an entity that requires capitalization) who startles everyone by bursting forth at the end of the book after spending eight hundred pages being passed over and ignored and used more as a useful appendage at Society gatherings. I like this quote because it provides a more expansive definition of love. Love is a word used so often that it becomes nearly meaningless, but Mr. Twemlow inadvertently provides a beautiful description of love’s varied facets (which I will put in bold letters). Mr. Twemlow is referring to a marriage contracted by a gentleman to a woman from the bottom of society that has turned Society aghast (operating like a sort of hollow Greek chorus providing commentary on the events of the story, but woefully out of touch and bound by their rules and self-congratulations).

‘A gentleman can have no feelings who contracts such a marriage,’ flushes Podsnap.

‘Pardon me, sir,’ says Twemlow, rather less mildly than usual, ‘I don’t agree with you. If this gentleman’s feelings of gratitude, of respect, of admiration, and affection, induced him (as I presume they did) to marry this lady–‘

‘This lady!’ echoes Podsnap.

‘Sir,’ returns Twemlow, with his wristbands bristling a little, ‘YOU repeat the word; I repeat the word. This lady. What else would you call her, if the gentleman were present?’

This being something in the nature of a poser for Podsnap, he merely waves it away with a speechless wave.

‘I say,’ resumes Twemlow, ‘if such feelings on the part of this gentleman, induced this gentleman to marry this lady, I think he is the greater gentleman for the action, and makes her the greater lady. I beg to say, that when I use the word, gentleman, I use it in the sense in which the degree may be attained by any man. The feelings of a gentleman I hold sacred, and I confess I am not comfortable when they are made the subject of sport or general discussion.’

Gratitude, respect, admiration, and affection live on, though Society is too blinkered to notice.


Posted by on March 20, 2017 in Books


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Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

515jl42nlcl-_sx329_bo1204203200_It’s amazing how Gustave Flaubert can write such a tragic ending for a story about a provincial town and one rather silly woman. One is hard pressed to find many sympathetic characters, yet by the end I felt devastated by their stories. Those with some virtues come to sad ends, while the venal, greedy and grasping live on.

Madame Bovary was published in 1856 by Flaubert. It’s subtitle is “Provincial Ways” and is a story of the unspectacular and ordinary. What surprised me was how little sympathy Flaubert seems to have for the unspectacular and ordinary. It is the story of Emma Bovary, who is married to the dull and inferior doctor Charles Bovary and constantly finds life a disappointment. She expects grand passion, romance, and occurrences that demand an extraordinary response from her, but life and people remain resolutely common.

(Plot spoilers contained in this review) – Flaubert employs a unique tone throughout much of the book. Somewhat detached, like he is looking at characters through a microscope while they expose themselves as mediocre, self-deluded, shallow, ineffectual, venal, selfish, grasping, and cowardly.

Emma marries Charles and expects an exciting life, only to realize that, though he adores her, he is mediocre (he manages to maim a patient for life) and lacks imagination. The pharmacist, Homais, is self-important and imagines himself a philosopher (he also prompts Charles to perform the risky surgery that leads to the maiming). Leon is a clerk with aspirations to romanticism and is somewhat of a kindred spirit with Emma, but fundamentally weak-willed. Rodolphe is the cad who loves and leaves Emma. Then there is Lhereaux, the financially predatory draper who ensnares Emma in debt.

While one can sympathize with Emma’s desire for something more, Emma herself is rather silly. She is always acting out according to some kind of romantic model. She rarely seems to experience her own emotions because she is so busy trying to experience the heightened emotions she’s read about. She’s playing a part in a world that has no room for such roles; she wants to be Louise de la Valliere (mistress to Louis XIV before becoming a saintly nun), a martyr or sacrificial wife or saint or mistress. She is waiting for a man to arrive who can inspire these passions. The irony is that she is desired and loved by a surprising number of men, but it rarely inspires the glorious feelings she anticipates.

At bottom, Emma seems a deeply unhappy and discontented woman – so much so that she is frequently unwell (always to Charles’ great concern and helplessness). It’s her hollow despair and grasping at some kind of meaning that leaves the reader feeling an equal sense of hollowness and gloom by the end of the book. Flaubert seems to offer no hope of any deep meaning. Religion, love, duty, philosophy? It is all reduced to empty cant by the characters (like when the cleric and Homais debate religion and philosophy over Emma’s dead body at the end of the book).

downloadOne of the problems is that Emma is so selfish. No matter what role she is playing – devoted mother, repentant sinner – she always has more than half an eye on her emotional responses to these roles, which inevitably is less than inspired.

But most characters are selfish in Madame Bovary. An exception is Charles, but I alternate between admiring his genuine love and frustration with his complete and supine cluelessness. The only person who seems to experience genuine and admirable emotion is Emma’s father, a farmer named Rouault. He fondly remembers bringing his wife home on the night of their wedding and is crushed at the death of Emma – all without a hint of irony and possessing genuine dignity.

Ultimately, although the story is often described as though Emma’s world as what lets her down, one can’t help but wonder if she would have always been dissatisfied, no matter what kind of life she lived. That the emptiness is in her, not the world. The book has also been described as expressing Flaubert’s contempt for the pretensions of the bourgeoisie, but he hints that even the aristocrats’ lives are less romantic than one would think, describing one figure who romantically knew Marie Antoinette as sitting vacantly with soup dribbling down his chin. The entirely book is resolutely anti-romantic.

Flaubert also goes into meticulous, though compact, descriptions of nearly everything. His style is celebrated for that, but I must confess that details were never as interesting to me (I’m not as visual as some readers). However, his metaphors are unique (the carriage in which Emma and Leon consummate their affair is described as being shut up like a tomb and tossing in the sea). On the whole, however, I found his tone detached…up until the devastating ending where Emma commits suicide.

She expects even suicide to be a brave and romantic gesture, like those figures who achieve immortality through beautiful death. Instead, death is an agonizing, drawn-out process that ultimately brings grief to her husband, father and child. The emptiness of it all, her extraordinary desire for something to fill her soul with meaning ultimately seemed very human and and very sad and I was surprised at the power of my response to her at the end, as well as to the inherent progress of life that seems to reward venality and punish sentiment.

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Posted by on February 28, 2017 in Books


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Miss Marple, Sleeping Murder and The Duchess of Malfi

834354Agatha Christie often liked to use lines from plays, nursery rhymes or poems as clues, plot-devices and titles for her books. One quotation that made an early impression on me was the reference to the poem “The Lady of Shalott” in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (which was possibly based somewhat on a tragic incident involving Gene Tierney). The second quotation that made a deep impression on me was:

“Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young.”

This was from John Webster’s play, “The Duchess of Malfi,” first performed in 1613, and is quoted in Agatha Christie’s Sleeping MurderSleeping Murder is one of my favorite Miss Marple novels and I’ve long wanted to read the play. I was curious if knowledge of the play would furnish extra clues pointing towards the murderer.

(I will try not to overtly give away the identity if the murderer, but through the act of discussing both stories unintended spoilers might occur)

The Plot of “Sleeping Murder”

Sleeping Murder was published in 1976, after Agatha Christie’s death, but was actually written in 1940 during the Nazi blitz of London. Newly married Gwenda Reed was raised in New Zealand and has just arrived in England for the first time to look for a house for her and her husband, Giles. She finds the perfect house, which seems to draw her to it, but she keeps experiences odd little moments of seemingly psychic insight. She seems to know things about the house, as if she had visited it before. The existence of a door now plastered over. The existence of steps that were moved. The exact pattern and color of the wallpaper hidden under another, uglier wallpaper.

But when she attends a production of the play “The Duchess of Malfi” and hears the line “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young,” a memory flashes through her mind of standing on the stairs, looking through the banisters, at the strangled corpse of a young woman, while the murderer stands over the corpse and quotes that line from the play. Gwenda is sure the young woman was named Helen.

Except Gwenda doesn’t remember knowing anyone named Helen. While she and her husband begin to dig into the mystery of the house and of Helen, only their friend Miss Marple is able to put everything together.

What I’ve always loved about the book is the sense of haunting, how the past still hovers over the house and the idea of stirring up an evil that lay dormant for many years. It’s a poignant concept and although Sleeping Murder is not one of Agatha Christie’s most mind-bending puzzles (it’s one of her few novels where I correctly guessed the identity of the murderer), her sense of atmosphere is marvelous.

The Duchess getting strangled

The Duchess being strangled

The Plot of “The Duchess of Malfi”

“The Duchess of Malfi” is, in the words of Miss Marple’s nephew, “a bit grisly.” And a bit macabre. And salacious. Everyone is obsessed with the widowed Duchess’s sex life, but no one is more obsessed than her brother, Ferdinand, who eventually has her murdered when he discovers she’s secretly married again. A trail of corpses is the ultimate, with the Duchess making the most poignant one.

It is when Ferdinand sees his sister’s strangled body that he utters the lines,

Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young.”

And then goes mad with lycanthropy (he’s convinced he’s a werewolf).

Incest is one of the themes of the play and this theme comes out in Sleeping Murder, as well.

One character even made me think of a potential Norman Bates type (possibly because I was reading the book the same day I watched Psycho for the first time). He is a reliable, shy and very nice solicitor who never married and seems dominated by his mother. Could he kill anyone?

The entire play is also drenched in a sense of haunting, of doom, dreams and warnings and evil that seeks to destroy what is good. Some of that mood can also be found in the novel. And Miss Marple is the only one who sees it clearly.

One of the things that I always love about Miss Marple is how utterly conversant she is in all aspects of human nature. Nothing shocks her. Not even Webster. She looks like a nice, curious, nosy, fluffy old lady, always knitting shapeless woolly things, but there’s nothing shapeless or woolly about her mind.

But what is interesting to me is how Miss Marple manages to combine an essential goodness with a sharp and trenchant mind. Considering how many murders have occurred in her time and how deep-seated her insight is into humanity and its many depravities and weaknesses, she never loses a deep compassion for people. This quote near the end of the book always makes me laugh, when she explains that Gwenda and Gile’s mistake was to believe what they were told.

It is really very dangerous to believe people. I never have for years.

And yet she’s not a cynical old misanthrope! Amazing.

This was my contribution to the Agatha Christie Blogathon. Be sure to read all the other excellent posts for Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3!



Posted by on September 17, 2016 in Books


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