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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.

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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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How Do You Identify With Fictional Characters?

austenmansfieldparkSo, I have a question for everyone that has intrigued me for the last few days. How do you identify with characters in a book?

Do you imagine yourself as those characters? Do you see yourself as some and not as others? Or do you imagine yourself meeting these characters rather than being them?

It occurred to me, recently, that my reaction to characters often hinges on whether or not I would like to know them. This is why, I think, I tend to side with the “good and boring” characters in books rather than the frequently “complex” characters.

I think this is also why She from H. Rider Haggard’s She drove me absolutely up the wall. A woman who enslaves men with her beauty and turns them into fatuous idiots and has no use for other women? Yeah, I would definitely hate meeting that kind of women. Yet other readers have enjoyed her power over men. Are they, perhaps, identifying with her rather than imagining meet her?

But as Richard Jenkins wrote in A Fine Brush On Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen in regards to the worldly Mary Crawford’s affectionate response to Fanny Price and the people of Mansfield Park, “it is simply more agreeable to be among decent, good-hearted people than out in the cold wide world.” This, of course, mostly applies to meeting real people rather than fictional ones.

But on the whole, I do not identify with characters and rarely see myself in them.

There is one character, however, I identify with. Not because she’s just like me, but because I could so easily imagine myself in her place, thinking as she does and reacting similarly. It’s Fanny Price from Mansfield Park, perhaps my most cherished Jane Austen novel. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice more often, but I have a special affection for Mansfield Park and a special sense of protectiveness towards Fanny Price…not that she is likely to need it by the end of the book.

But most people do not warm to Fanny Price. They find her powerless and insipid. She’s certainly not Jane Eyre. But I find her intellectually curious, timid, possessing a powerful response to nature and beauty, a warm heart, unalterable principles that she is willing to stand up for, overly anxious about her interactions with people, a sharp and incisive mind in regard to her assessment of people (though she has to learn confidence in her own judgments), sensitive (perhaps overly so), inexperience with the ways of the world, and a strong sense of duty. But she’s not an exciting person.

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Winona Ryder as Jo March

Though Richard Jenkins writes (whose book I love because he loves Mansfield Park as much as I do) in response to the frequently expressed thought that one cannot have a mousy heroine, “It has been one of the boasts of the novel that it does not restrict itself to the splendours and miseries of the grand, the glamorous, and the clever; all human life, however ordinary and unspectacular, comes within its purview…Plenty of people are dull or insignificant or lacking in talent and resources. If they cannot play a leading role in a work of literature, we must conclude that there is much that literature cannot do.”

But in truth, if I am going to identify with anything, it is usually feelings or emotions or ways of thinking rather than actual characters. Many people talk of identifying with Jo March. I never did. Quick temper? Not me (have you ever noticed that mild personalities rarely garner respect in novels? Mild personalities frequently translate as tepid. Literature loves nothing so much as a quick temper). But the last time I read Little Women, I managed to look beyond the externals of her personality and recognize – not character – but feelings and thoughts that resonated with me.

This still is not a common sensation for me, though. It has occurred most frequently with Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy’s novels. They have an extraordinary ability to convey how real people think and react.

I’ve always thought there was a dearth of certain kinds of personalities, though, and my question has been, do I not identify because people tend not to write about characters who I would identify with, or is it simply the way that I approach books that prevents me from more closely seeing myself in other characters?

Of course, there is also the instances where I simply enjoy the creation of an unusual and fascinating (or humorous character), quite apart from whether I like them or identify with them or would want to meet them. Mrs. Gibson from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. Mrs. Bennett and Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice. Jeeves and Wooster. These are characters who are simply a joy to read about.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2017 in Books

 

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