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Othello – William Shakespeare

Plot Summary – Othello is a black Moor who has converted to Christianity and fought for Venice against the Ottoman Turks for well over thirty years. At the beginning of the play, he has eloped with Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator. Iago, Othello’s ensign, is at the same time angry that he has been passed over for promotion by Othello for the young and less experienced Cassio and plots to destroy Othello. Manipulated by Iago, Othello ends by suffocating Desdemona, believing her to be unfaithful to him.

Generally, when I have heard or read “Othello” discussed, professors and critics are primarily fascinated with the character of Iago, the villain who manipulates and destroys Othello. He often becomes, for these people, the main character, the one who drives the plot and possesses the most modern sensibilities with his cynicism, wit and amorality. The other characters are obsessed with virtue, personal honor, loyalty and military glory.

However, one of the aspects of the play that fascinated me is not so much Iago’s great genius – something that gets covered a lot – but Iago’s hypocrisy. Iago, a deeply twisted soul, has acquired the reputation of a good and honest man who tells it like it is. The kind of man everyone trusts and confides in. Even strangers confide in him and trust him.

Othello: “This fellow’s of exceeding honesty, And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit of human dealings.”

We tend to think of hypocrites as being like Tartuffe or Elmer Gantry. Often religious hypocrites, often gratuitous. Tartuffe is so obviously a hypocrite that nearly every character – except the one who matters – sees through him. But Iago is so successful and subtle a hypocrite that it is almost never remarked on, even by critics.

Iago: “In following him, I follow but myself. Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty, But seeming so, for my peculiar end; For when my outward action doth demonstrate The native act and figure of my heart In complement extern, tis not long after But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve For daws to peck at; I am not what I am.”

But his chief weapon is not his genius for understanding character’s weaknesses and exploiting them (though he does have a genius for this), but for being believed by those characters. It wouldn’t have mattered how well he understood their weaknesses if no one trusted him. He is able to plant little poisonous seeds into so many characters precisely because everyone expects him to speak the truth, no matter how painful it supposedly is for him to do so. As Othello says after Iago begins his campaign by implying that Cassio and Desdemona are in love:

“This honest creature doubtless Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds.”

Paul Robeson as Othello

Half Iago’s proof is his own word. The further “proofs” that Iago contrives are pretty flimsy, but he only needs a little something to seem to concur with his own word. Thus his scheme of stealing Desdemona’s handkerchief and planting it with Cassio. Not overwhelming proof. As the Doge  of Venice says at the beginning of the play when Desdemona’s father asserts that Othello must have used dark arts to captivate her, “To vouch this is no proof.”

Interestingly, it has been pointed out that there is a dichotomy in the play between Venice (law and order) and the Turks (uncivilized barbarians). Most of the play is set on Cyprus, an outpost for Venice, somewhat far away from the reassuring law of Venice. In Venice, everyone, including Desdemona, is allowed to state their case when her father complains to the Doge. In Cyprus, Othello does not investigate the matter, but merely believes.

Emilia, Desdemona’s maid and Iago’s wife, speaks in defense of Desdemona and shrewdly divines that someone must be playing on Othello’s jealousy, but is discounted by Othello as “a simple bawd.” He does not believe Desdemona, either. He only trusts Iago, his ensign.

In some ways, Othello shares some parallels with General Ulysses S. Grant. Both great generals, saviors of the country they serve, but both indiscriminately trusting. Iago knows that “The Moor is of a free and open nature That thinks men honest that but seem to be so.” This can serve one well as a general, who must trust his men, but is deadly in politics and relationships. Grant’s presidency was wracked with corruption and he lost his fortune near the end of his life because he trusted the wrong people. This trust in his soldiers, however, leads Othello to mistrust the words of others, especially those of the women.

The racial aspect of the play was less prominent than I expected. Othello is indeed an outsider, which makes him vulnerable, but although Iago makes a number of gross racial comments, most characters hold him in esteem and admire him. Desdemona says that “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind, And to his honors and his valiant parts Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.” In fact, Desdemona goes so far as to say – after hearing his stories of all that he had suffered and done – that she wished she could have been “such a man.” His reputation is one of greatness and dignity and his fall is mourned. He’s a bit like a colossus from Greek times – a man known for thirty years of upright implacability and honor, brought low by petty human jealousy.

 
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Posted by on July 5, 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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