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Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

download (1)Of Mice and Men – published in 1937 by John Steinbeck – is only about 100 pages long, but I cried over nearly every one of them. I thought it was going to be a story about friendship and it is. The conclusion is that it’s no good to be alone, and yet no one can keep what and who they love. Everything inevitably, fatalistically, comes to naught: the dreams, the friendships, the brief hopes, the moments of human connection. But it’s a powerfully written book, simply told and yet bursting with feeling.

George and Lennie are friends traveling together during the Depression near Soledad, California.  A short, savvy guy, George has known Lennie for years. Lennie is a giant of a man with a child’s mentality who doesn’t know his own strength. But he trusts George completely and likes to hear George tell him things, like how most guys are alone, without family, but it’s different for Lennie and George, because they will always have each other. George sometimes complains about having to look after Lennie – and Lennie does need a lot of looking after – but he knows he’d never leave him.

Their dream is to earn enough money so that they can buy a place of their own and grow alfalfa, raise rabbit and be their own boss. Lennie loves to hear George tell him about it, especially the part about the rabbits. They arrive at a ranch to buck wheat and meet Candy, an old guy who sweeps and cleans and has a very old dog he loves, but who is arthritic and blind. Slim is the sympathetic, kind skinner, the man who drives the mules. Curley is the boss’s son, a small guy who is good at boxing, likes to pick fights and is always jealous of his wife. Curley’s wife (she never gets a name) is flirtatious and generally seen by the ranch hands as a tramp. Crooks takes care of the horses and is the lone black man on the ranch.

Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr. in the 1939 film version

Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr. in the 1939 film version

Lennie and George are unique, because they travel together. and characters frequently remark on it. Most guys travel alone, but George says it’s no good to be alone because it makes men mean, something that elicits sympathetic understanding from nearly everyone. People need companionship, but no one seems to be able to keep those they love. Candy’s beloved dog is shot, supposedly out of mercy for his old age, Lennie likes to pet soft things, but accidentally kills both his puppy and the mice he occasionally finds. Curley is jealous of his wife, which alienates her. It’s all leading up to the ending, with the ultimate tragedy for George and Lennie.

The other theme is how all the guys want a “stake” of their own, a home that belongs to them and that they belong to. When Candy hears George telling Lennie about what their ranch will be like, he is infected with their hope and offers to go in with them on buying it, since he has some money saved. Crooks remarks that he’s seen a lot of guys dream and talk of a stake, but it’s never happened. Not even George and Lennie fully believe in the reality of their dream, but suddenly, with a group of people going in together, it seems possible.

Lennie and George’s friendship is contrasted with nearly every other’s characters’ lonely and alienated status. Candy is old and afraid of being considered useless someday, without friends or family and he is enthralled by George and Lennie’s dream of their own home. Another character is Crooks, who has an added disadvantage in that he’s black. He can play horseshoes outside with the guys, but when they go into their bunkhouse at night and play cards, he is not allowed and he has grown bitter over the years. But when Lennie walks into Crooks room in the stable – something no one ever did before – Crooks begins to see why George hangs out with Lennie. It’s simply being with a guy that is so important and there is something about Lennie that makes people tell him things, even though Lennie doesn’t understand what they are saying.

OfMiceAndMenPosterAnd while Lennie and Crooks are talking, Candy comes looking for him. All the other guys are at a brothel, except these three outcast misfits. Candy has never been in Crooks’ room before, but though he is initially uncomfortable, soon he and Crooks and Lennie are talking about their stake and Crooks begins to dream that maybe he could contribute some money and have a place with them. For me, this scene was the highlight of the book; three guys making a human connection, dreaming of a home of their own. But the happy dream is snapped when Curly’s wife shows up. Since all the other men are gone, including her husband, she flirts a bit, even though they are what she calls “the weak ones.” When they try to get her to leave, she pulls rank and says she could have Crooks lynched and when Candy says he would tell the truth, she points out that no one would take his word over hers. Crooks and Candy are reduced to their previous, powerless position and when George returns and tells Lennie he shouldn’t be in Crooks’ room, Crooks gives up his brief hope of going in with them on a ranch.

The irony is that even Curley’s wife is lonely and alienated, which is why she flirts. She’s the only woman on the ranch and she used to have her own dreams about going to show business or the movies.That same quality in Lennie that gets Crooks to tell him things he’s never told anyone also gets her talking, too: her broken dreams, why she married Curley, who she doesn’t like. It is a simple moment of human connection between her and Lennie and yet it causes the ultimate tragedy of the story.

I have’t read much Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t count because it was so long ago I do not remember it well – but I was deeply moved. It’s powerful, evocative writing with a devastating ending, all the more devastating for the power of the portrayal of George and Lennie’s friendship and the deep response in the other characters to them and their dream. It’s almost uplifting, but ultimately just makes the whole thing more devastating. The way the characters fatalistically accept their fate is heartbreaking, because their stoicism does not mitigate the pain and longing they feel inside.

 
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Posted by on July 29, 2015 in Books

 

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Villette (1853) – Charlotte Brontë

villette-charlotte-bronte-paperback-cover-artVillette is an odd book, though it is a fascinating one. It reads like a dream, like living inside someone’s head and looking out. What I call living in your head is when you are so self-aware and thoughtful that you are referencing the outside world from your own sensations, as if your internal life were more real than the external one. The protagonist of Villette, Lucy Snow, though she maintains that she is not particularly imaginative, lives in a constantly imaginative world of her own senses that feels to the reader (at least this one) as if it were as real as the physical alone.

Since Villette is generally considered to be the chronicle of a woman both lonely and set apart from her surroundings, this is very well shown by Brontë. The novel is told in first person by Lucy Snowe, whose background she does not explain. There is some family tragedy and she seems to be left without family or fortune. She leaves England and travels to the fictional city of Villette, in the fictional country of Labassecour, where she becomes a teacher at a girl’s boarding school.

The school is run by the imperviously immovable, calm and cold Madame Beck, who has a distinct flair for espionage on her pupils and staff. She knows everything there is to know about everyone and will even snoop in their private possessions, always neatly putting everything away, of course. Another teacher is M. Paul Emanuel, who is Madame Beck’s cousin and teaches literature and is a temperamental, imperious, but also utterly sweet man. Lucy also reconnects with her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, and her godmother’s very handsome son, Dr. Bretton. There is also Paulina Home and her father, friends of the Brettons who Lucy knew in England.

The book could almost be called a psychological novel and is less about what Lucy does and more about her isolation in Villette (religiously, since Labassecour is Catholic, culturally and physically – people view her as insignificant and she has a habit of withdrawing for people) and her attempts to reconcile herself to what she considers to be her destiny. As a woman without money or beauty, she believes she must forge her own independence and suppress all strong feeling and love, first for Dr. Bretton and then for M. Emanuel. She feels that the most she can hope for is a degree of independence, as achieved by Madame Beck, who owns and runs the school.

The most fascinating aspect of the book to me is how Lucy perceives herself. She is not a reliable narrator. There are things she doesn’t say, such as the unnamed tragedy in her background. Even the ending is ambiguous: does Paul Emanuel die or doesn’t he? She makes incorrect statements about herself. She says she does not suffer from an extreme imagination, which is palpably not true. She considers herself timid and retiring yet travels to Europe alone, with very little money and no prospects. She quells defiant students. She gets pushed into a play and finds that she likes it very well and does well at it.

But not only does she not see herself correctly (or is she deliberately misrepresenting herself, or is she being ironic or is it a blend of all three?), but no one else understand her, either.

The light in which M. de Bassompierre evidently regarded “Miss Snowe” used to occasion me much inward edification. What contradictory attributes of character we sometimes find ascribed to us, according to the eye with which we are viewed! Madame Beck esteemed me learned and blue; Miss Fanshawe, caustic, ironic, and cynical; Mr. Home [de Bassompierre], a model teacher, the essence of the sedate and discreet: somewhat conventional perhaps, too strict, limited and scrupulous, but still the pink and pattern of governess-correctness; whilst another person, Professor Paul Emanuel, to wit, never lost an opportunity of intimating his opinion that mine was rather a fiery and rash nature – adventurous, indocile, and audacious. I smiled at them all. If any one knew me it was little Paulina Mary.

Ironically, it is not at all clear that Paulina knows her any better than anyone else. And in truth, Lucy’s character contains aspects of all these traits. Even Paul Emanuel, the only person to see the fire underneath, does not see all.

Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte

One other fascinating thing about Lucy is how much Madame Beck and she have in common, though Lucy has more heart than Madame Beck. Madame Beck’s extreme phlegm is something Lucy admires and Madame’s habit of espionage is something that Lucy engages in, too. This is partly because she often seems to be a looker on of life, rather than a participant, which lends her an air of voyeurism. She watches people, she sees them when they are not aware of her, she listens when people don’t know she’s near. Like Lucy, Madame Beck wants to marry Paul Emanuel, though she never says so, and is aligned with Emanuel’s priest to keep them apart. She’s like a mirror image of Lucy, grown cold and calculating, a frightening possible fate for Lucy. Dr. Bretton calls Lucy a shadow and Madame Beck certainly acts like one, stealthily shadowing people, spying on them, a cipher to everyone except Lucy.

The prose in Villette is quite unique, but thoroughly enjoyable. At times, she engages in incredible flights of imagination, describing her emotions in pictorial terms that are almost florid, which is ironic considering how much she despises the pomp, ceremony and excess complexity of Catholicism, Italian arias and the Dutch masters. She values simplicity and realism in art, is a relatively plain Protestant, yet her expressions are by no means temperate or plain. For her, emotions almost become animate objects or living things. Here is her description of how she felt, waiting for a letter from Dr. Bretton, whom she loves.

“I suppose animals kept in a cage, and so scantily fed as to be always upon the verge of famine, await their food as I awaited a letter. Oh! – to speak truth, and drop that tone of a false calm which long to sustain, outwears nature’s endurance – I underwent in those seven weeks bitter fears and pains, strange inward trials, miserable defections of hope, intolerable encroachments of despair. This last came so near to me sometimes that her breath went right through me. I used to feel it, like a baleful air or sigh, penetrate deep, and make motion pause at my heart, or proceed only under unspeakable oppression. The letter – the well-beloved letter – would not come; and it was all of sweetness in life I had to look for.

But she is also ironically funny. Her description of the governess of Madame Beck’s children is fresh and unexpected: she describes a “coarse” and drunk woman as a “sleeping beauty” and “heroine of the bottle.” There is a bit of French in Villette, which is frustrating if you don’t know French (which I don’t, alas). There are exchanges of several sentences in French, though Lucy’s reactions and thoughts can sometimes give a vague idea of what is said.

Ultimately, Villette is a less satisfying book than Jane Eyre, but perhaps more interesting to think about. It’s a book of several moods. Sometimes she makes the reader privy to intimate feelings and at others it seems she holds them at a distance. I alternated between pity, mild exasperation, admiration, and humor. She never explains her ultimate fate, but the reader is left with the impression that she did not find happiness in life. She seems to have found independence, but never mastered the art of suppressing those powerful emotions and longings. But perhaps it is a good thing, otherwise she would have become Madame Beck.

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2015 in Fiction

 

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Cat People (1942) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Cat-People-PosterCat People and The Curse of the Cat People are often evaluated separately as films, but since I watched the two movies back-to-back and they contain nearly the same cast with the same producer, I think it can be just as valuable to analyze the two films together, as two sides of a similar theme.

Cat People was made in 1942. It was the debut of producer Val Lewton for RKO. He had a tiny budget in which to make a horror film, compared to the larger budgets that Universal Studios allotted for their horror films, and so there are very few special effects. In fact, there are so few that it allows for a great deal of ambiguity.

Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) is from Serbia and is a fashion designer now living in New York. She keeps to herself and has no friends, living near the zoo where she can hear the roar of the lions and leopards. At the zoo, she meets Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), who is intrigued by her and walks her home. She tells him he is her first friend in America and despite knowing it is a bad idea, she falls in love with him and they marry. But before they marry, she confesses that she is afraid. In her village where she was born in Serbia, there are said to be cat woman; her mother was thought to be a cat woman.

It is said that when a cat woman kisses a man and embraces him (code for consummating the relationship) at some point she will turn into a large cat or leopard and kill him, especially if aroused to jealousy. Irena tells Oliver she is afraid there is evil inside her. Oliver just thinks it’s her excited imagination and believes that after they are married she’ll shake it off. But she doesn’t and because she is terrified that she will kill him, they never consummate the marriage.

Kent Smith and Simone Simon

Kent Smith and Simone Simon

As a result, Oliver grows closer to his co-worker, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), who confesses that she has always loved him. While Oliver drifts away from Irena, Irena grows more jealous and more desperate, even seeing a psychiatrist, who turns out to be a lecherous creep.

Because of the extremely low budget that Val Lewton had to work with, there is no transformation scene were we can see, incontrovertibly, that Irena is really turning into a cat. It is all done with shadows and illusion, but mostly shadows. However, many people consider this an asset. There are two particularly good moments, when Alice is walking home, followed by Irena, when Alice becomes convinced that something not human is hunting her and we later see some branches of a tree moving, as if a feline had jumped through them. Later, Alice is in a swimming pool in the relative dark, with the water causing distorted shadows on the wall that look possibly like a large cat.

For me, though, it was really a heartbreaking film. Irena knows the truth, she even tells the truth, but no one believes her. In fact, they think she is going insane and at one point talk of putting her away. Irene is so vulnerable, you can’t help but feel for her She knows she ought to be alone so she won’t hurt anyone, but she is unhappy alone and loves Oliver, who never truly loved her,  because he never really knew her. And the tragedy is, like so many Universal horror pictures, she cannot help what she is.

curse_of_cat_people_poster_01The sequel, The Curse of the Cat People, was made in 1944 and the RKO studio heads wanted to cash in on the unexpected popularity and success of the first film. They made Val Lewton use the title, “The Curse of the Cat People,” even though cat people have absolutely nothing to do with the film. The film is not even a horror movie. It is a psychological, fantasy drama that happens to have the same cast as the original film with characters who have the same past story. It was a very personal story for Lewton and he is said to have put a lot of his own childhood into his portrayal of Amy, the main character.

The film begins many years after Cat People. Oliver has married Alice (Jane Randolph) and they have a daughter, Amy (Ann Carter). They live in Tarrytown, New York, where Washington Irving’s “The Headless Horseman” id set. Amy is an extremely introverted child and her father worries that she spends too much time dreaming and not enough time playing with other children. When she mails the invitations to her birthday party in a tree (which her father had said years ago was a magic mailbox), the children are angry with her for telling them she would invite them and then not apparently doing so.

Amy’s mother is less worried, but Oliver is still haunted by the memory of his first wife, Irena. He now believes that through excessive imagination and obsession, she came to believe something that wasn’t true and destroyed herself and he is afraid Amy will do the same. Amy’s teacher, Miss Callahan (Eve March), thinks that the problem with Amy lies more with Oliver and his unwillingness to believe the things Amy tells him, things that are imaginary, but that Amy fully believes.

Simone Simon and Ann Carver

Simone Simon and Ann Carver

On her street, there lives a former actress, Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean) and her daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell). Mrs. Dean is also lonely and fond of Amy, but is suffering from senility and no longer recognizes her own daughter, who she keeps insisting is an imposter. Meanwhile, Barbara is jealous of how her mother cares more for Amy than her.

Meanwhile, in her loneliness Amy wishes for a friend and the imaginary friend that comes to her is Irena. She comes, she says, from a place full of darkness and peace. Oliver is appalled when he hears that Amy thinks she’s seeing Irena; he feels like Irena has been haunting him and his famil. But Irena is a good friend to Amy and seems to derive comfort from her friendship, too.

It’s very different from Cat People and suffered at the box office when the studio advertised it as a horror sequel and people found that the movie had no curse or even large, scary cats. The Cat People is generally thought to be about female sexuality and anxiety and the second to be about lonely childhood. But there is a thread that runs through both films that hold them together. In both movies, the main character suffers loneliness and isolation. Even Mrs. Farren and Barbara suffer from it. And both characters speak truth and are not believed. At the end of Cat People, Oliver acknowledges that whatever may have happened, Irena had never lied. In The Curse of the Cat People, Oliver doesn’t believe Amy, either. He thinks that insisting that she’s really seeing Irena when she’s just imaginary her is the same as lying and punishes her.

Simone Simon hovers over Jane Randolph and Kent Smith

Simone Simon hovers over Jane Randolph and Kent Smith

What is interesting is that we are meant to believe Irena in the first movie, but not necessarily to believe Amy in the second. Amy is telling the truth as far as she knows, but we are to assume that it’s not real. In the first movie, someone imagines something terrible that turns out to be true and in the other, imagination stays imagination and is used to bring comfort, though in The Curse of the Cat People, Oliver has talked himself into believing that what happened to Irena in the previous film did not really happen The movies leave it ambiguous, what is real and what is not.

 
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Posted by on November 17, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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