Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power by Naomi Alderman was first published in the United States this year and The United Kingdom last year. The book is getting a lot of buzz and it is generating a lot of online discussion. This is a dystopian tale that explores the issues of gender, violence, oppression and religion. 

Over the past year or so I have read several books that take place in fictional matriarchies. This book fits in with that reading. The links to my commentary on the other novels that I read on this subject are below. 

I found this novel to be outstanding. The plot is gripping. The characters are interesting. The themes are fascinating. It is full of ideas. It is imaginative and inventive. 

The book is framed as a historical novel written by a writer named Neil who lives in in the distant future. The story begins in the present time. One day, teenaged girls find that they have gained a new ability. They can administer electric shocks to others. Later they learn how to pass on the power to older women. Women and girls can control the intensity and effect of shocks. Thus, most women gain the power to easily cause minor discomfort, paralysis, great pain, serious injury, or death. The new - found power gives women enormous physical advantage over men. In most cases, males are essentially helpless if assaulted by a woman. Most of the narrative of the book takes place over the ten - year period that follows the change. During this time radical transformations occur throughout the world.

Initially, in some places, there are enormous benefits. Abused and exploited women overthrow their oppressors. Women who are the victims of sex trafficking, physical abuse, oppressive laws, etc. are liberated. In Saudi Arabia for instance, women quickly overthrow the repressive regime and free themselves from male domination.

Things quickly go awry however. Chaos and war break out in many places as revolutions spiral out of control. Much of the narrative takes place in Moldavia. There, a repressive and violent female supremacist regime takes power. Men are reduced to a status of near slavery. Males are brutalized, raped and murdered on a large scale. Lest anyone think that there is no equivalent to this in our world, this part of the book reminds me of ISIS's treatment of women. The regime also institutes laws that are very similar to Saudi Arabian Male Guardianship Laws  but in reverse. The narrative, as told by the writer in the far future, makes clear that this is a pattern that will repeat itself in many times and in many places in the future. 

In places like The United Kingdom and the United States, change is less chaotic but still dramatic. Violence committed by young girls skyrockets. In schools girls and boys are segregated for the protection of the boys. Men and boys fear being out alone and need to be cautious around girls and women. Domestic violence and murder perpetuated against men by women becomes much more common. Men begin to be displaced from leadership roles in both business and government. Men begin to be objectified and sexually harassed. 

In one passage, the President of Moldavia and her entourage is described,

Tatiana is followed into the room by two well-built men in fitted clothing: black T-shirts so tight you can see the outline of their nipples, skinny trousers with noticeable crotch bulges. When she sits— in a high-backed chair on a dais— they sit beside her, on somewhat lower stools. The trappings of power, the rewards of success.”

Alderman has created scenario, where a major change in the physical balance of power between men and women brings about massive social change in a wide variety of areas. The author puts a lot of imagination into the role reversal aspect of the story.

The narrative alternates between several main characters. Allie is an abused foster - child who goes on to lead a new worldwide female - centric religion. Margot is a rising American politician who uses her power to project strength. Tunde is young Nigerian man who is a journalist and who travels the world reporting on the great changes occurring.

This book is not for the faint of heart. It is full of graphic violence. There are numerous accounts of murder, torture and sexual assaults. Nothing is gratuitous however. Alderman is clearly trying to show the terrible aspects of violence.

This book explores so many issues that it is hard to choose what to focus on. My commentary on several other books that centered on matriarchal societies focused on the nature/nurture debate and gender differences. Thus I will write a few words on those issues. Alderman raises what I think should have been an obvious, but somehow overlooked point here. That is, she attributes much of the gender differences relating to violence, sexism, reproductive strategies, etc. to the difference in raw physical strength that exists between most men and women. In a short Twitter conversation I had with her, she emphasized that she thought that the ability to inflict pain was a big factor. It is surprising to me that that this point is not brought up more often.

The main point of the book is that the consequences of this change in physical power would drive fundamental changes in multiple levels of society. The novel makes a somewhat convincing case and makes me wonder how much gender differences relate to physical strength.

I think that if such a transformation occurred a lot of things would change. However, I also think that evolutionary psychology drives a lot of the differences in the behavior of large groups of men and women. I think this is true in regards to the propensity to be violent, and in reproductive strategies. In other words, it is more likely, due to genetics, that men will be violent. It is also more likely that men will act in certain ways when it comes to choosing mates, objectifying people in sexual ways, tendency to rape, etc. 

I do think that Alderman in on to something. I agree that the disparity in physical strength and the ability to inflict pain is at the root of a lot of gender differences. But I think that there is more to the story. If such a dramatic change happened, as envisioned in this book, violence committed by women would surely rise. However, I do not believe it would rise as high as it does in this story. More women would harass and objectify men. However, I do not believe that the mirror imagine world that the book portrays would come to be. Women might exploit and oppress men for sexual and reproductive reasons, but I think that if they did, it would be in different ways. In regards to rape, I think that more women would commit rape against men (a small number do so now) But I do not believe that they would not do so on at the level of the mass rapes depicted on this book.

I wrote much of the above before I finished the book. To my surprise, I found that before the story closes, Alderman presents a fascinating, counterargument to the evolutionary psychology type arguments that I mention above. She clearly anticipated such objections. As mentioned above, the entire story is framed as a historical novel by a writer in the far future. The supposed writer is a man named Neil, living in a society where men are clearly face sexism citizen and discrimination, but that may be slowly moving towards equality. “The Power” has indeed changed the world forever. Neil exchanges letters with another writer who is a woman named Naomi. In her letters Naomi makes an evolutionary psychological argument as to why women are more violent then men. She writes, 

“Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women— with babies to protect from harm— have had to become aggressive and violent. The few partial patriarchies that have ever existed in human society have been very peaceful places. “ 

Neil writes back,

“I… don’t think much of evolutionary psychology, at least as it relates to gender. As to whether men are naturally more peaceful and nurturing than women… that will be up to the reader to decide, I suppose. But consider this: are patriarchies peaceful because men are peaceful? Or do more peaceful societies tend to allow men to rise to the top because they place less value on the capacity for violence? “

I think Neil is speaking for Alderman here. I also think that she is leaving it to  "the reader to decide" here.

The counter argument, presented in this way is simply brilliant. At the vary least, it illustrates how easy one can create a narrative based on evolutionary psychology, that sounds convincing, but that is simply untrue. With that, I am still convinced that evolutionary psychology plays a major part in relation to these issues. In my opinion, a change in relative physical strength between the sexes would make a big difference in our society but such a change would not create a mirror image society.

I am quibbling a little here. These are complicated issues that almost no two people would agree on everything about. Despite my own beliefs, this book is an extremely compelling narrative. It is extremely imaginative and it is bursting with fresh ideas. Alderman is, at the very least, raising many compelling questions. 

I have also only scratched the surface. The book has so many other things to say about people and society. In particular, the book delves deeply into the subject of religion. I could devote an entire, long blog post on that issue. The work also tries to explore the root causes of violence and oppression. 

I found this book to be fascinating. I found it to be brilliant in parts.  The plot and themes are intriguing. The characters are interesting. Throughout the book there is a sense of tension that shows Alderman’s skill as a writer. I think that this book belongs alongside some of the best works of work of dystopian fiction. Due to a lot of graphic violence this book is not for everyone. However, for those interested in this kind of story and themes, this is a must read.

My commentary on The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent is here.

My commentary on The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper is here.

My commentary on Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is here.

My general commentary on fictional matriarchies is here here.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock

Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock is an examination of the American Revolution through the lens of violence. Specifically, the author looks at non-battlefield violence, such as mob attacks, violence directed against civilians, violence and mistreatment of prisoners of war and similar events and incidents. Though I disagree with some of the author’s contentions, this is an important and riveting history book. 

Early on, Hoock makes an assertion that is, in my opinion, questionable. He argues that there exists a pattern of underplaying and whitewashing of the violence that occurred during the American Revolutionary War. He cites several historians and books. He writes,

"For over two centuries, this topic has been subject to whitewashing and selective remembering and forgetting. While contemporaries experienced the Revolution as frightening, messy, and divisive, its pervasive violence and terror have since yielded to romanticized notions of the nation’s birth. In painting an unvarnished portrait of Revolutionary-era violence, violence, we can shed new light on how participants understood their struggles and how survivors and subsequent generations have remembered and mis-remembered the conflict."

I find this contention unconvincing, at least in terms of contemporary history and popular accounts. I have read somewhat extensively on this subject. While there may be some tendency in popular culture to see the Revolution through rose-covered glasses, and some histories to not touch upon the negative aspects of the event, anyone who reads or otherwise explores the history of this era in any detail will be familiar with the bad stuff. Violence against civilians, mistreatment of prisoners of war, mob violence, etc., are commonly chronicled and sometimes analyzed in history books. Works such as Fighting For the King in America's First Civil War by Thomas B. Allen, Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor by Willard Sterne Randall, and His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis, are just a few examples of books that I have read over the past few years that examined these terrible events. Even the recently aired television series Turn depicted a lot of violence that was part of this trend. 

Despite my above objection, this is a very worthwhile book. It is a fair account of the dark side of the American Revolution. Though other books and accounts do delve into these things, by focusing on this kind of violence, Hoock is able to paint a coherent picture of this aspect of the revolution. He also provides important insights and analysis. Violence committed by both armies as well as by mobs and bands of citizens is detailed. The horrendous actions of both sides are well illustrated. This is a balanced history.

The British army perpetuated rape and general violence against civilians as well as pillaging. American prisoners of war were treated horrendously and endured starvation, disease, exposure to the elements and filth. Hoock gives credit where it is due. For instance, with a few notable exceptions, the Americans treated British prisoners of war much more humanely. 

There are plenty of things that Hoock calls the rebel side to task for. For instance, an American force in upstate New York carried on a brutal campaign against mostly noncombatant members of the Iroquois nation. The Loyalists in particular were subjected to terrible violence and often endured mob attacks and torture. Their property was often destroyed or confiscated.

Hoock succeeds not just in organizing this violence and crimes, but also in illustrating the causes as well as some of the implications of these events. For instance, he attributes the better treatment of British prisoners to two factors: first, George Washington had a strict code of honor that impelled him to ensure that prisoners were humanely treated; second, the rebels had a lot more physical room at their disposal to house prisoners. The author explains how this difference in available space made an enormous difference in the quality of life of prisoners of war. 

Another interesting, insight: Hoock explains how brutal mob violence aimed at Loyalists was a major consideration for the British to deploy troops in America as well as to continue the war even after a series of defeats.

The above are just a few examples of the many insights contained in this book. It is filled with close examinations into the circumstances as well as the underlying causes of both questionable actions by both sides of the conflict. 

This is a really good book for anyone interested in the American Revolution or in American history in general. Though not as groundbreaking as the author maintains, it is a solid work of history that builds a coherent picture of some of the worst things that happened during The American Revolution.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

This post contains spoilers. 

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray is the story of two young women, Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp. Set during and in the years following the Napoleonic Wars, the narrative covers the marriages and social interactions of these two women. The book is a biting social satire of people and norms. 

Becky is a cynical schemer and very manipulative. She lies, cheats and uses her sexuality to manipulate others. Amelia is a depressive who is innocent and mostly virtuous. Early on, Becky marries Rawdon Crawley, who is irresponsible, not very bright and often behaves unethically. Crawly worships Becky and is easily controlled. Despite his flaws, Rawdon does show some decency. For instance, while Becky is scornful and neglectful of the couple’s son, Rawdon clearly loves the boy and shows him kindness.

Amelia marries George Osborne, who, though not without some good points, is irresponsible and neglectful of her. Many of the male characters are British officers and some of the narrative centers upon the Battle of Waterloo. When George is killed in that clash, the pregnant Amelia plunges into even deeper depression. 

William Dobbin is a friend of George who waits in the background and tries to protect the widowed Amelia and her son Georgy. When he is transferred to India Amelia’s family slides into financial ruin, and Amelia is brought down with them. Eventually the two are reunited. Amelia and Dobbin represent the moral center of the book. 

One striking thing about this novel is the point of view and narration. The narrator refers to himself or herself (At one point the narrator seems to undergo a gender switch) as “I” and occasionally refers to visiting locations in the narrative and meetings with the characters. A Google search of the point of view of this work indicated that this is called first person peripheral.

The narrator is also extremely cynical, sarcastic and may be unreliable. People and conventions are skewered on page after page. Sometimes the attacks are humorous. Sometimes they are serious and sad. People’s vanity, greed, hypocrisy, etc. are all fair game. All of this seems to come naturally because the book is full of vain, greedy and pompous people. Everything, from wealth, aristocracy, the upper classes, the middle classes, the lower classes, men in general, women in general, the legal system and so much more are satirized and/or picked apart. At one point, the hypocrisy within families is examined when going through the Osborne family portraits.

“There was a picture of the family over the mantelpiece, removed thither from the front room after Mrs. Osborne's death— George was on a pony, the elder sister holding him up a bunch of flowers; the younger led by her mother's hand; all with red cheeks and large red mouths, simpering on each other in the approved family-portrait manner. The mother lay underground now, long since forgotten— the sisters and brother had a hundred different interests of their own, and, familiar still, were utterly estranged from each other. Some few score of years afterwards, when all the parties represented are grown old, what bitter satire there is in those flaunting childish family-portraits, with their farce of sentiment and smiling lies, and innocence so self-conscious and self-satisfied.”

This book is full of such passages. The work is thus a sardonic indictment on the foibles of people and society. 

However, all is not negative within these pages. I think that Thackeray provides a clue as to his own worldview when we consider who he does not tear to pieces. The characters and actions of Amelia or Dobbin are never once mocked or criticized. On the contrary, they are talked about in almost reverential tones. Both are shown to possess some flaws, but these flaws are never ridiculed or described in a harsh light. 

At one point Georgy’s upbringing under Amelia is observed,

He had been brought up by a kind, weak, and tender woman, who had no pride about anything but about him, and whose heart was so pure and whose bearing was so meek and humble that she could not but needs be a true lady. She busied herself in gentle offices and quiet duties; if she never said brilliant things, she never spoke or thought unkind ones; guileless and artless, loving and pure, indeed how could our poor little Amelia be other than a real gentlewoman!”

Such passages are common within the novel concerning both Amelia and Dobbin. I think that in these words, Thackeray is telling us what he finds moral and decent in the world. In a book filled with arrogant and prideful characters, I think that it is significant that Amelia’s humility is championed. In the end, the book is illustrating a terribly capricious world full of greed, hypocrisy and lies. A few good people, who seem to be almost beyond reproach, exist as an island against these ills. 

There is a lot going on in this book. I have barely scratched the surface above. There are major characters and subplots that I have not even mentioned. It is full of interesting ideas and themes. It has much to say about the world. It is also full of interesting characters. The plot is often engrossing, and the writing is excellent. The prose ranges from the hilarious to the poignant. This novel deserves to be called a classic. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

William Gibson's Neuromancer: On Prescience and Cultural Impact

My General commentary in this book is here.

Neuromancer by William Gibson has proven to be both a prophetic and influential work. While Gibson inevitably got some things wrong, (he completely missed wireless technology) he got so much right. The depiction of the Matrix anticipated the Internet. This alone gives this book special distinction.  On the cultural end, this novel predicted that people involved with digital technology would earn social approval within popular culture, or in more common terms, it predicted that digital technology and those who were skilled at manipulating it could be considered “cool.”  In the mid 1980s, this seemed like such an unusual concept. I remember thinking this the first time that I read this book.  Today, so much technology is considered “trendy.” Video games and the people who play them are often seen as hip and cool. Other groups, such as hackers and online social groups, are often romanticized. Gibson’s prediction that tech culture would become socially popular may have turned out to be the most prescient aspect of this work.  The question arises: How much of this did Gibson predict versus how much did Gibson’s vision of the future actually shaped what is now a kind of “Techno –Cool?”  From its initial publication, this book has been popular with young people and people interested and involved with technology. By influencing these people, Gibson may have actually helped to create this new kind of “cool.”

This was one of the first, perhaps the very first, books of the “cyberpunk” genre. As such, it has had an enormous impact on science fiction that has come since. Gibson painted a picture of a dark world that was dominated by digital technology as well as powerful and malevolent corporations, and one that was full of hip and colorful characters. I have read few other cyberpunk books, and although I am sure that there are some that are some very good ones out there, the books that I have read seemed to be pale imitations of this novel.

The character of Molly seems to be a template for so many characters that came after. These days, science fiction and young adult books, as well as films, often depict assertive female characters who are physically attractive, technically competent and also exhibit fighting prowess These characters are often depicted as cool and trendy. Molly is all of these things. To some extent, these female characters have become something of a cliché.

These attributes are on display in Molly’s first meeting with Case. It involves her taking him by force.

“My name’s Molly. I’m collecting you for the man I work for. Just wants to talk, is all. Nobody wants to hurt you.” “That’s good.” “ ’Cept I do hurt people sometimes,. I guess it’s just the way I’m wired.” She wore tight black gloveleather jeans and a bulky black jacket cut from some matte fabric that seemed to absorb light. “If I put this dartgun away, will you be easy, Case? You look like you like to take stupid chances.” “Hey, I’m very easy. I’m a pushover, no problem.” “That’s fine, man…Because you try to fuck around with me, you’ll be taking one of the stupidest chances of your whole life.” She held out her hands, palms up, the white fingers slightly spread, and with a barely audible click, ten double-edged, four centimeter scalpel blades slid from their housings beneath the burgundy nails. She smiled. The blades slowly withdrew.”

Molly is not as sanitized or toned down as many of her imitations are.  She shows more than just physical prowess. She is a trained killer. Her violence is not always directed at malicious characters. Though she has a code of ethics, her morality is questionable at best. It seems few books dare to take their protagonist as far as Gibson went with Molly.

Later, Case observes Molly going on the attack,

“The right attitude; it was something he could sense, something he could have seen in the posture of another cowboy leaning into a deck, fingers flying across the board. She had it: the thing, the moves. And she’d pulled it all together for her entrance. Pulled it together around the pain in her leg and marched down 3Jane’s stairs like she owned the place, elbow of her gun arm at her hip, forearm up, wrist relaxed, swaying the muzzle of the fletcher with the studied nonchalance of a Regency duelist. It was a performance. It was like the culmination of a lifetime’s observation of martial arts tapes, cheap ones, the kind Case had grown up on. For a few seconds, he knew, she  was every bad-ass hero, Sony Mao in the old Shaw videos, Mickey Chiba, the whole lineage back to Lee and Eastwood. She was walking it the way she talked it. “

The above passages paint a picture of “cool and tough” action. Yet, the text seems to question from where these images and ideas originated. Are we just glorifying something we learned from television, films and fictional characters?  What impact do books and films have on our psyches? This passage highlights some of the complexities of this book and of Molly’s character.  It is not just a futuristic action story about “bad-ass” characters. Gibson questions the origin and the validity of these concepts.

As I noted in my original post, I first read this book shortly after it was first published. At the time, it seemed original but in some ways also unusual. Rereading it now, when many of its concepts have become commonplace in both fiction and in real life, it is an enlightening experience. This book has held up very well over the years. It is still very much worth the read.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Neuromancer by William Gibson

I first read William Gibson's Neuromancer sometime during the 1980s, a few years after its 1984 publication. This book is considered a science-fiction classic and is often cited as the first “cyberpunk” novel. Upon rereading it decades later, I found this book to be an extraordinary work of speculative fiction. 

Set in what seems to be the late twenty-first century, Gibson paints a picture of a highly technical and dark world. This book was prophetic as it predicted many of the aspects of the digital revolution. A key aspect to Gibson’s universe is “The Matrix” (The film called The Matrix, made after the publication of this book, explored some similar concepts as this book but is otherwise unrelated to this novel.) This fictional digital construct is a virtual reality, cyberspace world that represents all the world’s computers and the linkages between them. People can access the Matrix by connecting electrodes to their brains. The Matrix is similar to today’s Internet in many ways. It is different in that it is mostly used for high-level commerce and military applications. Various people navigate this virtual world. “Console Cowboys” are hackers who use the Matrix to break into computer systems and for other illicit purposes. There exists something called “Black Ice,” which are security systems that can cause real injury and death to console cowboys when they try to hack into computer systems. 

Gibson’s world is full of illicit activity both in cyberspace and in the real world. Various individuals, gangs, criminal organizations, corporations and other groups deal in contraband, drugs, pirated and illegal computer programs and data, etc. Many people have surgical modifications that allow them to directly connect their brains to the digital world, improve their fighting abilities, enhance attractiveness, etc. The author has created an entire “hip” culture that the book’s characters operate in. I find that Gibson correctly anticipated many present day online movements and groups, and technical related slang.

Case is the book’s main character. He is a console cowboy. He is recruited by a mysterious man named Armitage for some kind of big, undisclosed hacking job. Molly is a young woman who is also in Armitage’s employment. She is a soldier of fortune/mercenary type who has retractable knives in her fingernails as well as other enhancements to make her formidable and dangerous. Molly and Case quickly become romantically involved.

Gibson’s prose is dense and full of descriptions. He manages to describe technical objects and subjects in an almost poetic way. This is one of this novel’s great strengths. This is exemplified by the book’s somewhat famous opening line,

"THE SKY ABOVE the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." (For my younger readers who might not know, before the modern “blue screen,” empty television channels had an odd, varying, gray look).

Later Case observes the debris of society rotting in a decrepit building,

They stood in a clearing, dense tangles of junk rising on either side…The junk looked like something that had grown there, a fungus of twisted metal and plastic. He could pick out individual objects, but then they seemed to blur back into the mass: the guts of a television so old it was studded with the glass stumps of vacuum tubes, a crumpled dish antenna, a brown fiber canister stuffed with corroded lengths of alloy tubing. An enormous pile of old magazines had cascaded into the open area, flesh of lost summers staring blindly up as he followed her back through a narrow canyon of impacted scrap. “

In Gibson’s world, high technology and decayed industrialism exist side by side. The above quotation also reminds me of some of the descriptions of industrial decay found in Charles Dickens’s novels. I wrote a little bit about those descriptions in David Copperfield here. The concept of technology and industrialism, leading and relating to decay, is not a new one. I am not contending that Gibson is as great of a  prose writer as Dickens was. However, I think that Dickens may have provided some of the intellectual and aesthetic roots for Gibson. 

Case and Molly are extremely flawed protagonists. Both have murdered people. They are not sociopaths as they do feel regret for the actions that they have committed that have hurt others. They are both fairly complex characters. 

Case’s and Molly’s questionable ethics add complexity to their depictions. Molly exudes a kind of cool and tough persona that still holds up over the years. Case’s surfing of the Matrix, including his effort to break into systems and his encounters with Black Ice, is both interesting and exciting to read about. Thus, Gibson’s work is dark, but it is also entertaining. 

There is a lot to the plot. Space travel, artificial intelligence, bioengineering and even a space colony of Rastafarians are all integrated into the story. Though some of this sounds far fetched, Gibson has created a believable world. The characters, plot and fictional environment fit together seamlessly. If many of the elements of this book seem familiar to readers and viewers of twenty-first century science fiction and young adult books, it should be remembered that this novel introduced many of these elements for the first time.

I should mention that there are sequels to this book as well as a fair number of short stories. Some of the short stories were published prior to this book. I have read the sequels as well as most or all of the short stories. I remember thinking that most of these works were very good.

This book manages to be dark and fun at the same time. I have highlighted Gibson’s prose style above. There is so much more to this work than I have mentioned here. There are interesting themes involving humans and technology, the search for identity and a lot more. The book also has a lot to say about humankind’s future, morality and other big issues. Thus, I am going to post at least one more entry on this work. This is tough and gritty science fiction that still resonates more then 30 years after its first publication.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe, was written in 1794. However, the book is set in the late seventeenth century. This novel is often called the first gothic novel. I found it to be a fun and entertaining story.

Emily St. Aubert is a young French girl raised in the countryside. She is close to her father, Monsieur St. Aubert, who is philosophical, wise and kind. While on a trip they meet a young man, Sue Valancourt Brown. Valancourt is a kindred spirit to Emily and her father as he who appreciates beauty and virtue in the same ways that they do. Emily and he begin to fall in love. 

When Emily’s father dies, Emily is placed under the guardianship of her aunt Madame Cheron and her husband Montoni. Madame Cheron is self-centered and controlling, and she scorns nature and the ethical, virtue-based belief system that Emily values. Montoni is amoral, scheming and eventually shows himself to be a violent criminal. Much of the plot involves itself in Madame Cheron and Montoni trying to separate Emily from Valancourt and attempting to marry her off to vacuous noblemen, while at the same time scheming to steal Emily’s estate. Emily is dragged to Venice and eventually to Udolpho, a castle that Montoni owns in the Italian Mountains. 

There is more to the plot as Emily eventually escapes Udolpho and encounters new but related mysteries and drama in both France and Italy. My version of this book was over 700 pages long so there is a lot of plot contained in its pages. 

This book is full of grandiose descriptions. Sometimes these descriptions go on for pages and pages. Natural landscapes are described in detail and their beauty extolled. There is a connection between these descriptions and the book’s themes of spiritual fulfillment and natural beauty. The city of Venice is described as an almost magical place filled with palaces and gondoliers that fill the scene with lights and music. The segment of the book that takes place in the castle is full of passages that occur at night, describing the labyrinth of rooms, passages, stairways, etc. 

The descriptions of Castle Udolpho, as well as several other castle-like structures, are also well written and atmospheric. One gets the impression that the interiors of these buildings are enormous. Many words are devoted to describing passages, staircases, tombs, etc. These passages give the book a kind of atmospheric, spooky and fun feel. This work seems to have been very influential on centuries of gothic stories and films.

The characters are generally not complex. Emily and her father and are virtuous, kind and wise. Valancourt shows a few flaws that are, at the most, minor. Montoni, his cohorts and various other characters are villainous, self-centered and uncaring.

This book is far from perfect. The number of “mysteries” multiplies so much and is left to sit for so many hundreds of pages that I lost interest in finding the answers to some. Parts of the book are overdramatic and silly. Valancourt in particular, though virtuous, is wildly melodramatic. However, these over-the-top aspects are sometimes humorous and enjoyable. The story includes a fair number of tangential episodes that add little value, so the length of the book seems excessive. In the end, however, the fun and originality of the novel outweighed all of these negatives for me. 

The story sets up several contrasts. Emily’s father has “disengaged himself from the world” to live a rural and peaceful life. This is also true of several other sympathetic characters in the narrative. Folks who have separated themselves from worldly society are noble and calm. In contrast, those engaged with the world act malevolently. There is also an interesting contrast between art and the beauty of nature, 

At one point Emily compares an opera performance to an ocean scene that she recently viewed, 

“It was near midnight before they withdrew to the opera, where Emily was not so charmed but that, when she remembered the scene she had just quitted, she felt how infinitely inferior all the splendour of art is to the sublimity of nature. Her heart was not now affected, tears of admiration did not start to her eyes, as when she viewed the vast expanse of ocean, the grandeur of the heavens, and listened to the rolling waters, and to the faint music that, at intervals, mingled with their roar. Remembering these, the scene before her faded into insignificance. “

The book is also full of picturesque passages describing the grandeur of forests, mountains, rivers, oceans, etc. The narrative champions the natural world and couples nature with virtue.

One of the reasons that I read this book was that I have read that it is parodied in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the last Austen novel that I have not yet read. I wanted to read this work first. 

Though not a brilliant work, this is certainly worth the read. This novel is fun and atmospheric. It was also very influential on centuries of literature and film that came after. Though not complex, the characters are enjoyable to read about. In the end, this work was a very pleasant reading experience. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome, a novella written by Edith Wharton, was first published in 1911. The title character of the story is a young farmer and lumber mill owner who lives in an isolated part of Vermont. As Frome’s story unfolds, the reader learns that the story’s protagonist is barely keeping his head above water. He is also stuck in a loveless marriage. His wife, Zeena, is cold, self - centered, and is a hypochondriac who uses her illness to manipulate others.  Zeena’s cousin Mattie, orphaned and destitute, has come to live with the Fromes. Though their relationship is unconsummated, Mattie and Ethan have fallen in love. When Zeena decides to send Mattie away, the pair are plunged into deep despair.

This is a curious story. As it takes place during a northern New England winter, it is filled with descriptions of a snowy and cold environment. It is also a dark tale.  Ethan is normally unhappy, and the events of the story drive him into desperation and gloom. The ending is odd and contains some surprising developments.

This book is filled with pathos. The passages during which Mattie and Ethan develop their attraction as well as those where they believe that they are going to be parted are tenderly and masterfully written.

At one point Ethan thinks about kissing Mattie,

"He knew that most young men made nothing at all of giving a pretty girl a kiss, and he remembered that the night before, when he had put his arm about Mattie, she had not resisted. But that had been out-of-doors, under the open irresponsible night. Now, in the warm lamplit room, with all its ancient implications of conformity and order, she seemed infinitely farther away from him and more unapproachable."

Though short, this novella is full of ideas and contains a fascinating plot and characters.  Much can be written about it. There is something that this tale has in common with other Wharton books that I have read, such as House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, in that it is a brilliant examination of a person who is trapped due to social and economic bounds. Ethan is in a miserable position, and he has come to despise Zeena. The story recounts how he made a terrible mistake when he proposed to her. He did so mostly to avoid loneliness. His dream of becoming an engineer has disappeared. He has fallen in love with Mattie, who is not only going to be torn from him, but who is going to be sent into a dire situation.

As he considers every option open to him, he realizes that there is apparently no way out. Zeena has him boxed in at home. He contemplates running away with Mattie, but he is stymied by multiple financial as well as ethical constraints. At one point he thinks,

"The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders handcuffing a convict. There was no way out—none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished."

The above quotation perfectly describes the situation that Ethan is in, it perfectly describes the plot of this book, and it perfectly illustrates what how skilled a writer Wharton is. The metaphors of the prison warden as well as the finality of Ethan’s situation are the expressions of a great writer.

There is so much to this short book that I have not touched on.  Many words have been written about its characters and story. Wharton had a knack for describing people caught in bad situations as well as the negative emotions that go along with them. Anyone who likes Wharton or stories about relationships is likely to get a lot out of this book.