Friday, December 2, 2016

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

This post contains spoilers.

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a world famous novel. This book, though disturbing in some ways, deserves the fame and accolades that it has garnered. This is the story of a man called Heathcliff and his malignant effects on those around him. It is a brilliantly written atmospheric masterpiece. 

Early in the story, the wealthy Mr. Earnshaw finds the orphaned and abandoned Heathcliff on the streets of Liverpool. He takes him to live with his family on his estate called Wuthering Heights, which is located on the desolate Yorkshire moors. 

The Earnshaw family unit also consists of elder brother Hindley and the tomboyish Catherine. Joseph is a servant who is a religious fanatic and a harsh and unforgiving person. Nelly Dean is also a servant who possesses a strong moral and ethical core (I should mention that there is a school of thought that contends Nelly is, in fact, immoral and that she is actually the true villain of this book. A Google search will yield various versions of this theory.)  Nelly narrates most of the story.

Though Mr. Earnshaw shows Heathcliff love, he dies within a few years. Subsequently, Heathcliff is treated cruelly by Hindley and others. Simultaneously, Catherine and Heathcliff develop a love that can only be described as obsessive. This bond seems to transcend any conception of a conventional relationship and is a major driver of the remaining narrative. 

Like many of the characters in this book, Catherine’s personality can only be described as unconventional. The proper and bookish Edgar Linton is simultaneously courting her. She eventually agrees to marry Linton with the seemingly bizarre intention of using Linton’s financial resources to raise Heathcliff’s standing in life. When Heathcliff discovers the engagement, he flees the area and disappears for several years.

When Heathcliff returns, he finds that Catherine and Linton are married. Heathcliff spends the subsequent decades vengefully destroying both the Lintons and Earnshaws. He reestablishes his connection with Catherine and threatens Edgar. The emotional turmoil helps drive Catherine to her death in childbirth. Simultaneously, he marries Edgar’s sister Isabella and treats her with extreme cruelty. He gains control of Wuthering Heights and, eventually, the Linton properties. In plot developments that are even more sinister, he also gains control of people. Among those that he brings under his yoke are his own estranged son, Linton the Younger; Hindley’s son, Hareton; and the Lintons’ daughter, Catherine the Younger. He strives to destroy all of these people in Machiavellian ways. This leads to great suffering. His manipulative abuse is both physical and mental and makes parts the story difficult to take. 

There are multiple themes contained within these pages, each containing multiple levels of complexity. The characters and their interrelationships are also multifaceted. This book is full of deep yet enigmatic characters. The dynamics of abusive personalities and how they interact with others are explored in all sorts of ways.  Brontë also delves deeply into the themes of destructive love here.  The nature of good and evil is also explored. 

I want to share a few words relating to the theme of culture and literature and how this fits into the worldview that Brontë is trying to portray. Heathcliff has become a monster. Though he is intelligent, in many ways he represents the negation of civilization and learning. Books play an important part in this representation.  At one point he forces Catherine the Younger to live at Wuthering Heights, where he can control her. In one of many acts of cruelty that he perpetuates against her, he destroys her beloved book collection. Books were an important part of Catherine the Younger’s life. They represented hope to her. This act of destruction seems to represent an antagonism between literature and the dark forces that crush hope and also despise learning. 

Later, an important development occurs involving Hareton.  Heathcliff is trying to raise the young man as an illiterate brute, devoid of learning and culture. This fits in perfectly with the contention between malevolence and anti-culture contained in this work. However, there are signs that there is humanity inside Hareton despite his inadequate upbringing.  He is struggling to become literate and is collecting books that he attempts to read. He begins to develop an attraction to Catherine the Younger. At one point, after she mocks his efforts to read classic literature, he responds with hurt and rage and proceeds to destroy his own secret collection of books. 

“He afterwards gathered the books and hurled them on the fire.   I read in his countenance what anguish it was to offer that sacrifice to spleen.   I fancied that as they consumed, he recalled the pleasure they had already imparted, and the triumph and ever-increasing pleasure he had anticipated from them; and I fancied I guessed the incitement to his secret studies also.   He had been content with daily labour and rough animal enjoyments, till Catherine crossed his path.   Shame at her scorn, and hope of her approval, were his first prompters to higher pursuits; and instead of guarding him from one and winning him to the other, his endeavours to raise himself had produced just the contrary result. “

Again, the destruction of books is linked to despair and human failure. By scorning his attempts to better himself, Catherine the Younger has temporally allied herself with the dark forces in the world. Her vitriol is emotionally devastating to Hareton. It translates into the destruction of culture and literature. I think that the above represents the point in the narrative where morality and hope are at their lowest ebb.

Later, when the bond between Catherine the Younger and Hareton is being formed, it is books that bring them together. When Catherine gives him the gift of a book, it helps to spark their budding relationship. This relationship is the ultimate driver of hope at the novel’s end. 

After Heathcliff’s death, when sanity has been reestablished in the world, Catherine the Younger is seen helping Hareton to improve his reading. The theme of reading books and yearning being connected to the good and virtuous aspects of the world is complete. 

This book is often compared to Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë’s sister. I thought that Jane Eyre was one of the greatest novels ever written. That work seemed to unify vital themes about humanity and the universe with unparalleled characterization. While I do not hold this novel in as high esteem, it deserves its reputation as a great and important classic. 

I have barley scratched the surface above. Thus, I will be posting at least one additional entry on this work. Brontë has melded so many brilliant elements into this novel that it deserves additional posts. Though disturbing in its depiction of an extremely abusive personality, it is full of ideas, brilliant characters and superb writing to name just a few of its virtues. 

Friday, November 25, 2016

Reading is a Vaccination Against Questionable Ideas

The world is filled with bad ideas and bad belief systems. There are also a lot of valid ideas that are taken too far, or applied when not appropriate.  Though there is enormous variation on what reasonable folks consider bad ideas, there is a consensus among most rational and ethical people that some ideas and ideologies are downright toxic. Nazism and Stalinism are a few clear- cut examples. Though I would add a long list of much less extreme belief systems to the list of belief systems that I fundamentally agree with, this post is not about delimiting which ideologies are better then others.  Instead it is about how reading books, especially a selection of books that include a diversity of ideas, even untenable ideas, can help vaccinate the mind against falling prey to bad ideas or misapplying good ideas.

This concept can work on all sorts of levels. A simple example is illustrated relating to reading about totalitarianism.  Reading history about the rise of Nazism, Stalinism as well lesser know tyrannies can encourage a healthy wariness to certain popular movements with authoritarian undertones. Likewise readng fiction like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty - Four fiction or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We provides us with parables that help keep us keep alert to tyrannical ideologies. Likewise, works such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky Demons can give us insights into less obviously dangerous and less far sweeping fanaticism. In turn reading about Democratic ideals espoused by thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson can provide a strong counterbalance to totalitarian thought. 

Many people, including myself, believe that what is rising  in America is a form if totalitarianism. Much of our arguments are propelled by the above mentioned, and other, books. Some folks disagree with us. I find that some of  best counter arguments are themselves driven by the ideas contained in other books. 

One can take this concept further. Reading books written by a diverse set of thinkers who present us with a smorgasbord of ideas can teach us to reject and question certain ideas from otherwise insightful people who may have certain ideas that we choose not to accept.  Friedrich Nietzsche is a good example of this. I find some of his ideas extremely astute and useful, particularly his criticism of popular culture and conformity of thought. 

However his theory, as spelled out in On the Geneology of Morals, of  “Master and Slave Morality”, where he rejected values such as “Good” and “Pity” and he dismissed the concept of equality are ideas that I do not accept. Armed with a knowledge of thinkers who extolled values that Nietzsche excoriated, ranging from Plato, the writers of The New Testament, René Descartes to modern day theorists such as Steven Pinker, my mind is buttressed with counterarguments. Even if one is in agreement with Nietzsche on this issue, the point remains the same; Knowledge of contrasting viewpoints can prepare us to examine and reject belief systems that otherwise seem appealing. 

Likewise Nietzsche’s critique of morals allows us to examine and apprise all the thinkers that I mentioned above in a different critical light. Even good ideas benefit from examination and critical scrutiny. Acceptance of an idea or belief system is vastly stronger after one has considered counter arguments and still chooses the embrace the criticized system. Just knowing that there are other ideas and belief systems out there can be very valuable. 

There are also cases where valid belief systems run into trouble.  A herd mentality sets in and dissention and contrary views become demonized. For example, lately many have expressed concern that some elements of modern social justice movements are descending into extremism and intolerance of even slightly dissenting views. Dedicated members of these movements themselves have raised some of these apprehensions. Examining this situation from a point of view of someone who has read about historical Left wing overreach, both from Leftist dictatorships and from radical movements, provides a context to question these excesses.  A careful examination, partially through reading, of both Liberal and Conservative ideas yields good ideas from both sides. Such reading can also brings to light criticism of concepts that group pressure might otherwise discourage. Thus I am questioning what I think are some very illiberal trends increasingly emanating out of the Left. I think that that this example is valid regardless what one’s views are on these issues as this concept applies to many other situations. It is that reading helps us to question ideas and belief systems, even if they come from directions that one is usually sympathetic to. 

Being exposed to a wide range of ideas immunizes us in a way. We are not so easily seduced to arguments that appeal to our emotions, focus on limited aspects of truth, or turn insight into dogma. Being well read provides us with armor when delving into the conflicts involving ideas. It also protects us from blindly accepting bad ideas that may be part of otherwise worthy belief systems. 

I have provided just a few examples above. One could write volumes about the value of reading diverse and conflicting opinions. The marketplace of human ideas is as vast as it is rich. A sampling of multiple products from this market provides one with intellectual balance and understanding that cannot be achieved any other way. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

State of Siege

Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States. This post is not about the complex reasons for this unprecedented event in  human history. It is about the potential consequences. 

The operative word here is uncertainty. While I would  consider a Right Wing government a terribly harmful development, if that is the only result of this event I would consider that a consequence of democratic process that one could live with. Though an inexperienced President is also extremely undesirable thing in a dangerous world, I also consider that the price that a democracy sometimes needs to pay. 

We will be lucky if the above were the worst of it. The United States is a military, economic and social power the like of which the world has never seen. Donald Trump, from the best that I can tell is a manipulative abuser. He may be a sociopath. He is an extremely dangerous man. His movement is similarly  malevolent.  

As a result of this event American Democracy is threatened. There is reason to believe that our basic civil liberties may come under siege. Even worse, as he is dangerously reckless and unprepared for the job, we face the increased chance of a nuclear war. Economic chaos and perhaps collapse is another potential consequence of these events. There are numerous other potential horrendous outcomes that may result from this potential calamity. 

In short my nation is threatened. Our global civilization is threatened. Perhaps we are even threatened as a species. Every human being on this planet is threatened. I fear for everyone's future. I fear for everyone I know, and everyone I do not know. 

Up until this time I have been more or less been an optimist about the future of humanity. Though I am not without hope I now fear that my optimism may have been misplaced. I am not unaware of the reliance of post - industrial democracies. I am not unaware of the good that exists in the world. However, at this moment  it seems like those things may become easily overwhelmed. 

At this moment thinking about the future is difficult. I am not sure what the future of this blog holds. Given the current situation it is hard to imagine just going back to blogging about books. Though it is perhaps far fetched, I also am concerned that those who speak out about Trumpism may find their families under threat.

The world seems like very dark place right now.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Several book bloggers read this novel as part of a read-along. The link to our discussion can be found here. The read - along is part of the Witch Week reading event which celebrates fantasy books and authors. More posts that are part of the event can be found hereThanks to Lory at The Emerald City Book Review for hosting.

 I read Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury twice as a teenager, but it has been decades since I had last read this work. I found this to be a superb book the first time that I read it, and I still do.  It works both as a fantastical adventure as well a philosophical romp into the mysteries of life

The story is set in a small American Midwestern town. The protagonists are two 13-year-old boys, William (Will) Halloway and James (Jim) Nightshade. Will’s father, 52-year-old Charles Halloway, the janitor at the local library, also plays a major role in the story. 

Early in the narrative, the boys’ world is disturbed when a traveling carnival comes to town. All sorts of strange and sinister happenings begin to occur. The carnival is owned and staffed by various malevolent characters including Mr. Dark and Mr. Cooger, the two bizarre leaders of the group. The attractions include a strange mirror maze that traps people and shows them images of their older selves, as well as a carousel that is capable of making a person younger or older, depending upon which direction it runs in. These odd attractions play a major part in both the plot and the themes of the book.

Eventually, various town residents begin to disappear or are transformed in ghastly ways. As Will and Jim get closer to the carnival’s mysteries, Mr. Dark and his minions begin to hunt the boys. 

The story is dreamlike and surreal. There is an alternate sense of wonder at the Universe itself and an ominous sense of evil and malice coming from the carnival and from the people associated with it. Bradbury’s prose is often poetic throughout his works. That is very true here. 

What I love about Bradbury’s writing is encapsulated in the below quotation.  When the boys enter the library, their sense of wonder is described. 

“Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. Listen! and you heard ten thousand people screaming so high only dogs feathered their ears. A million folk ran toting cannons, sharpening guillotines; Chinese, four abreast, marched on forever. Invisible, silent, yes, but Jim and Will had the gift of ears and noses as well as the gift of tongues. This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered. Up front was the desk where the nice old lady. Miss Watriss, purple-stamped your books, but down off away were Tibet and Antarctica, the Congo. There went Miss Wills, the other librarian, through Outer Mongolia, calmly toting fragments of Peiping and Yokohama and the Celebes. Way down the third book corridor, an oldish man whispered his broom along in the dark, mounding the fallen spices....”

I am aware that some find Bradbury’s style not to their liking, but the above exemplifies why I like his writing.  I find it both whimsical and serious at the same time. This prose seems poetic. The above quotation also illustrates Bradbury’s wonder and awe of books and what they contain. The way that the above is connected to Charles, who is the “oldish man,” is also elegant. 

The book is also full of philosophical and metaphysical musings that come both from the 3rd person narration and characters. Charles Halloway is the book’s philosopher and seems to be the voice of Bradbury. 

I first read this book way back when I was around the age of Will and Jim. I particularly related to the world that the boys came from. The setting is of the book is similar to that in which I grew up in. I am now three years short of Charles’s age. One of the major themes of this work also centers upon aging. Thus, the experience of rereading this book now, is striking for me. 

The themes of life, death, aging, happiness, good and evil are examined in all sorts of complex ways within this work. Like many good books of this sort, I could explore the characters, themes and philosophy in a series of blog posts.

I want to devote a few words to the examination of the nature of good. In this passage, Charles Halloway speculates on the origin of goodness and love in humanity. 

“I suppose one night hundreds of thousands of years ago in a cave by a night fire when one of those shaggy men wakened to gaze over the banked coals at his woman, his children, and thought of their being cold, dead, gone forever. Then he must have wept. And he put out his hand in the night to the woman who must die some day and to the children who must follow her. And for a little bit next morning, he treated them somewhat better, for he saw that they, like himself, had the seed of night in them. He felt that seed like slime in his pulse, splitting, making more against the day they would multiply his body into darkness. So that man, the first one, knew what we know now: our hour is short, eternity is long. With this knowledge came pity and mercy, so we spared others for the later, more intricate, more mysterious benefits of love.” 

In the above quote, several themes that are repeated multiple times in this book are encapsulated. First, the idea that goodness and love originate with empathy is illustrated here. Also, it is the specter of death that motivates us to be good. The despair driven by the potential end of life generates positive emotions, such as pity and mercy and, in the end, love.

Later on these ideas are further developed in several passages. At one point Charles observes, 

“we share this billion-mile-an-hour ride. We have common cause against the night. You start with little common causes.

I think that Bradbury is on to something here. Though not the sole source of human goodness, empathy towards others is, in my opinion, one of the key components to human virtue. As Stephen Pinker pointed out in his The Better Angels of Our Nature, peoples’ tendency to become more empathetic to one another is one of the leading factors driving humanity’s improvement. 

Similar explorations of evil, as well as of aging, the power of books, life and death are also contained within these pages. This book is full of ideas.  

This novel is a modern fable. On one level, it is an atmospheric and poetic adventure tale of young boys encountering supernatural horror. On another level, it is a philosophical journey into life and the Universe. I have only scratched the surface on the philosophical musings above. It is a tale that can be enjoyed and pondered by readers of all ages. As the story concerns itself with time and aging, readers who experienced it while young might find it particularly enlightening if, like myself, they read it again when older. It is ultimately, a fantastic book. 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

Written in 1962, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Though not for everyone, in my opinion this book deserves the accolades that it has received.   The work covers both the events leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, as well as the early months of the conflict. 

The early chapters in the book cover the diplomatic and political situation prior to the war’s outbreak. In some ways, this book is a character-based history, as it focuses on various members of the European Royalty, politicians and generals. A clear but selective picture of the diplomatic and political maneuverings prior to the war is presented. The later chapters are an account of the military and political developments that occurred during the first months of the conflict. Though the book covers action in both the Mediterranean and along the eastern front, the majority of its words are dedicated to events that occurred on the western front. 

This book is full of information and is extremely interesting to read. Yet, there seems to be gaps in the picture that Tuchman presents. I would not classify this as a comprehensive history of the outbreak of the First World War. Tuchman tends to focus on certain aspects of important events and omit others. This seems to be the result of her trying to illustrate particular themes that she deems important. Thus, this book is best viewed as the examination of particular events and themes.

For instance, regarding the causes and events leading up to the Ottoman Empire’s entry into the war, Tuchman devotes many pages to the German Warships’ Goeben and Breslau’s voyage and diplomatic/military mission to the Ottoman Empire in 1914.  This event is extremely interesting, and it is of great historical importance. It played a key role relating to the Ottoman’s entry into the war. Yet, the author provides scant information on the political events within the Ottoman government beyond that relating to the German ships and their mission. An understanding of these political maneuverings seems instrumental in understanding how and why the Ottomans entered the conflict. Such omissions exist elsewhere in this history. 

It is clear that instead of a comprehensive history, Tuchman is attempting to highlight particular points that are both interesting and important. With all of that, she accomplished her goal brilliantly. 

A good example of the many exceptional points in the narrative is highlighted in the account of one small incident that occurred at the war’s onset. When the German ambassador delivered his country’s declaration of war to the Russian minister, both men initially traded angry words. However, they both quickly came to the realization that monumental and terrible events were beginning and attempted to comfort one another. 

“The curses of the nations will be upon you!” Sazonov exclaimed. “We are defending our honor,” the German ambassador replied. “Your honor was not involved. But there is a divine justice.” “That’s true,” and muttering, “a divine justice, a divine justice,” Pourtalès staggered to the window, leaned against it, and burst into tears. “So this is the end of my mission,” he said when he could speak. Sazonov patted him on the shoulder, they embraced, and Pourtalès stumbled to the door, which he could hardly open with a trembling hand, and went out, murmuring, “Goodbye, goodbye.””

Another significant point about this book is that it is approximately half military history. I read a lot of this sort of history book when I was younger. Though I generally stay away from such works these days, I found these parts to be interesting and, at times, riveting. The fact that they were well written and understandable helped a lot. With that, if the movements of armies and ships are the kind of history that one would rather stay away from, this book may not be the best choice. 

The writing is often suburb. This high quality prose melds very well with the themes that Tuchman chooses to highlight. In the book’s opening lines, she describes the last gathering of European Royalty before the war at the funeral of Edward VII. This assembly was symbolic of the end of the era that the war brought.

“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens— four dowager and three regnant— and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and of its kind the last. “

This is a great history book. It is reflective of the author’s view of events. Her view is illustrated with insight, intelligence and in a convincing way. It paints a strong and coherent picture of many events that set the stage for this terrible conflict. If one does not mind a good chunk of military history mixed with a general history, this will be an informative and enjoyable read for anyone interested in this subject. 

I also read Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century which I found to be excellent. My commentary on that book is here.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a famous novel about the darkness that pervades both the outer world as well as the inner mind of humans. This is a short, dense novella that is full of ideas. Though the narrative is relatively straightforward, it is a story that is full of symbolism as well as philosophical and psychological musings.

Charles Marlow tells the story in first-person narration. The protagonist is a steamboat captain hired by a company that is involved in the ivory trade in the Congo during the late nineteenth century. Marlow is taking a steamboat up river. His ultimate destination is a remote trading station headed by Station Manager, Mr. Kurtz. The mysterious Kurtz is admired by the various people that Marlow encounters in both England and in the Congo. Both early and late in the story, Kurtz is portrayed as man of enormous talents and charisma who elicits near worship in people. 

As he proceeds with his journey, Marlowe is exposed to the horrors of Colonialism that include slave labor as well as indigenous people starved, beaten and worked to death. All in one passage, the European passengers of Marlowe’s steamboat unleash murderous gunfire upon a mass of helpless Congolese who have conglomerated on shore. 

When Marlow reaches Kurtz’s station, he discovers that the Station Manager has developed a messianic following among the locals. There are indications that Kurtz has led his followers to commit atrocities in their quest for ivory. Both the Europeans and the Congolese present at the station seem to worship Kurtz as a kind of god. 

The writing conveys a sense of ominousness. The story and themes of this work are fairly well known and have been written about extensively. It is an examination of the darkness within humankind. As is often the case with literary journeys, Marlowe’s trek up the river is symbolic of a journey into the worst aspects of the human soul. The themes of cultish personality, death and Colonialism are also explored within this work.

So much has already been said about this book. I want to write a few words on a specific and particular aspect of it.  Throughout the novella, images of jungle and natural world are common and play an important part that relates to the story’s themes.

Within this tale, the natural world plays a constant and ominous presence. It clearly reflects the darkness and near impenetrability of the dark angle of human nature. At times, it almost seems like a character in and of itself. 

When Marlowe first arrives in the region he observes the coast of West Africa. As he sails alongside it he observes, 

“Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you— smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, 'Come and find out.' This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness. The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist. The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam. Here and there grayish-whitish specks showed up, clustered inside the white surf, with a flag flying above them perhaps. Settlements some centuries old, and still no bigger than pin-heads on the untouched expanse of their background. “

Coasts, as they are observed from ships, are given human characteristics here. They sometimes are smiling, frowning, mean, savage, and they even whisper. The particular coast that Marlow is observing exudes “monotonous grimness.” What I think is most important here is how human settlements are described as ”specks” and “pin – heads.” The symbolism seems to play a key part here. If the landscape represents the darkness and grimness in human existence, our efforts at building the pieces of civilization within it seem like insignificant specks. 

Later on, the forest takes on even more menacing characteristics,

The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence. And it moved not.

Here we have the contrasting image of nature that is unmoving, but at the same time, a “riotous invasion.” Perhaps this is how Conrad sees the evil in the souls of people. That evil is quiet and unchanging, but it affects the world like a “rioting invasion.” “Little men” are swept out of existence before it. 

The above quotations are just two examples, among many, of a threatening landscape that is capable of crushing humanity. Such a landscape seems to be a mirror upon the worst aspects of the human psyche.

There is so much more to this short tale than I have touched on above. The images and symbolism relating to the jungle are only a small part of a very rich piece of literature. This book was surprisingly dark for its time. Within its pages, it still has a lot to tell us about the darker nature of human beings. 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

This post contains spoilers.

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope is the first of The Palliser Novels series. This is another book that I loved by Trollope. Like several of the author’s books, the narrative covers parallel, but interrelated, stories.

The book’s main protagonist, Alice Vavasor, is flawed but fascinating. Alice’s marital engagements and subsequent breaking of them comprises the novel’s main thread. The book opens several years after she has ended an engagement with her cousin, George Vavasor. George is a volatile young man. Though he eventfully descends into complete perniciousness, upon the book’s opening, he is not without some positive character traits. George’s sister, Kate, plays an important role as Alice’s confidante and an early advocate for Alice’s and her brother’s engagement. 

At the story’s beginning, Alice is now engaged to John Grey, a man of high status and decency. However, he finds it difficult to express his genuine emotions. Over the course of the tale, Alice is persuaded to break her engagement with Grey and once again becomes betrothed to George Vavasor. George slowly descends into the dark depths of spite, greed, rage and violence. At one point, he physically assaults his sister Kate. As his personality spirals out of control, so does his relationship with Alice.

Another subplot involves Lady Glencora. Before the events of the novel, Glencora fell in love with Burgo Fitzgerald. Burgo lacks the social status and wealth of Glencora. He is also irresponsible and immature. Their subsequent engagement is broken up by wealthy and powerful family remembers. Glencora goes on to marry the stiff, but socially acceptable, Plantagenet Palliser. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Glencora stills pines for Burgo and eventually toys with plans to run away with him. However, as the plot develops, in typical Trollope style, we find that Plantagenet is not without his virtues. 

A third subplot involves the clownish Mr. Cheesacre and Captain Bellfield in competition for the affections of Alice’s aunt, Mrs. Greenow. This thread is mostly humorous, but Trollope’s characters always manage to show complexity and exhibit real emotion, and this segment of the story is no exception. 

I have previously read Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series. This book was darker. It included themes of violence, suicide, tragically failed love affairs and characters’ descent into moral degeneracy. Along with these darker notes comes additional complexity. Even sympathetic characters commonly engage in questionable acts, with Alice’s tendency to enter in and out of engagements being a prime example.

There are so many fascinating charters and themes within this novel. I am tempted to write in detail about several. I find that the characters are even more multifaceted then they were in The Chronicles of Barsetshire. This is saying a lot. The interaction of these characters adds to the plot’s sophistication, and it is a joy to read.

Though there are multiple directions that one can go when pondering this work, I want to devote a few words to Trollope’s examination of the men of this era. This novel delves into the subjects of repressed emotions and actions as well as their wilder and darker personality traits in all sorts of interesting ways.  In its depiction of men, it is in some ways contrarian to many other works of this era. 

Early in the narrative, Trollope seems to mislead the reader bit. Based entirely upon Alice’s temporarily negative thoughts, as well as Kate’s negative statements about him, one suspects that Grey is cold and emotionless. He is indeed, like several other male characters, very reserved and not expressive of his feelings. However, as the story proceeds, we begin to discover that deep inside he experiences real emotions, including great pain when Alice breaks off the engagement.

The passage where he reads news that Alice is engaged to George Vavasor is very illustrative, 

“I have said that he read Alice's letter with an agony of sorrow; as he sat with it in his hand he suffered as, probably, he had never suffered before. But there was nothing in his countenance to show that he was in pain.”

At another point, he is contemplating the effects of bowing out of Alice’s life. Again, we are shown how the tendency to conceal his feelings is built into him, 

“Undoubtedly, had he satisfied himself that Alice's happiness demanded such a sacrifice of himself, he would have made it, and made it without a word of complaint. The blow would not have prostrated him, but the bruise would have remained on his heart, indelible, not to be healed but by death. He would have submitted, and no man would have seen that he had been injured. “

We see something similar, though not as strong, in Plantagenet. Early on, he is portrayed as dull, unaware of the feelings of others and polite, but at the same time a little callous. Yet, Trollope does what he does so well, and Plantagenet is humanized. After being told by his wife that she does not love him, he makes a great sacrifice for her as he gives up his cherished career. He proceeds to behave nobly and without malice towards her. We find that he does love Glencora, though he shows it with difficulty. Yet even at this point of the narrative, Trollope does not gloss over his flaws, they are just shown to coexist with what are significant virtues. 

In contrast to John and Plantagenet, the personas of George and Burgo can be described as Byronic. They are romantic, attractive and have virtues, yet they have a sense of darkness about them. They are troubled and defiant. Vavasor is vengeful. Both cause understandable worry in the loved ones of the women that they are engaged to. With that, as it seems that in most Victorian novels, the virtues of such characters win out and they establish successful relationships with female protagonists. Something very unusual happens in this book, however. Unlike the fate of most such characters in literature, these two men experience moral collapse that they do not recover from. The last that we see of both men is their downward spirals into degeneracy and failure. 

The stereotypical Victorian images of the cold, emotionless and privileged man is shown to be superficial in this book. Likewise, Trollope attacks the cliché of the dark Byronic character as being not so bad or as being redeemable. In fact, these troubled men are worse than how they are initially perceived. 

I think that there are two ways to look at this. In one way, we can say that Trollope is defending the conventional men that society bestows its approval upon. We can also say that the author is reaffirming society’s distrust of the troubled and moody, but charming, outsider. This is a conservative view.  Yet, as an author who often rises to defend other, often less empowered, groups, such as women, those who rebel against arranged marriages, etc., in his other books, we can also look at this story as Trollope rebelling against false and clichéd stereotypes of socially acceptable men. 

Lest I paint too simplistic of a picture here, this is Trollope. He throws much ambiguity into the situation. Plantagenet, and to a lesser degree Grey, are shown in a critical light for being too repressed and, at times, repressive toward those around them. The men with darker personalities, especially Burgo, are portrayed at times, as possessing humanity, charm and other virtues.  The world that benefits the privileged men is also seen in a critical light. For instance, there is real pathos shown when Lady Glencora reveals how her initially loveless marriage with Palliser was arraigned. The relatives who scheme to break up and arrange engagements to support their social system are portrayed in a harsh light. 

There is a lot more to this book than I have touched on above.  These themes are just a small part of many that are included within these pages. The role of women and women’s independence is explored. This novel is also an insightful critique of politics that is still relevant today. It is a well-written story that includes a fair amount of Trollope’s witty meta-fiction. The book is full of interesting characters who interact in fascinating ways. I highly recommend this work to anyone who enjoys the literature of this time period.