A Brief Summary of Henry James’ Long Problems

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Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, 1898

I’m ready. I’m going to blab about everything that is wrong with Henry James. Well, not everything, because I haven’t read all his “major” novels yet. There is nothing major, in the Clueless sense of the word, about any of his novels as far as I can perceive. Have you ever heard anyone say “Henry James is my favorite author!” I haven’t. He is remembered for being experimental and an influence for the Modernists, but his own work is, frankly, atrocious. I mean it. I worry about the Modern Era in literature that looms before me. If those goobers read Henry James and thought “Yes! This! The world needs more of this,” I worry about their judgment. The Turn of the Screw is perhaps a perfect microcosm of James’ flaws. Taking this novella as an exemplar, let’s get into the problem with Henry James. Have I typed those last five words before? I may have.

Anyway.

  1. Good concept, executed poorly. A young lady takes a job as a governess to two orphans living on their uncle’s remote country estate. The last governess died under mysterious circumstances. Yes! I am ready for these spooky, haunted children. Come to me, spectral governess. I am waiting. . . for nothing. James doesn’t really pull it off. Similarly, What Maisie Knew takes on the concept of divorce, a fascinating topic for the Late Victorian Era, but James does nothing good with it. In a Portrait of a Lady he tries to write about a modern, independent woman and fails spectacularly. It’s as if he thought of and about creative and interesting topics but failed to think up anything worthwhile when he contemplated them.
  2. Turn of the Screw starts out as a frame story. Visitors at a storm bespattered country estate gather around the fireside to share spooky stories. One claims to have the spookiest story of them all, but he must send away for the manuscript. He reads the manuscript. The novella ends. Right there with the last word of the manuscript. Henry James doesn’t close the frame. There is absolutely no value to the introductory portion. The listeners do not comment on the tale after they hear it. They are simply forgotten. He could have simply started with the governess’ narrative. In fact, BBC radio productions and similarly abridged versions do just that, recognizing that the James’ “frame” is unnecessary and pointless. Come at me. I will fight you on this. Oh wait, no one out there actually cares about Henry James enough to defend him, because he just isn’t good enough to deserve that level of devotion.
  3. He circles meaning like a turkey vulture, not daring to descend and eat until…I don’t know what he’s waiting for, really. Conversations drag on in a way that frustrates rather than builds tension. The governess sees ghosts and wants to know if her charges see them too. Rather than ask them, she talks around the topic page after page until you want to shake her and query the children on her behalf “hey, have you been hanging out with your dead governess?” Similarly, in P of and L Isabell won’t ask if Madame Merle happens to have been impregnated by her husband. Instead, James talks around that for a few hundred pages. In What Maisie Knew, James takes dragging-out-indelicate-conversations-with-children to the limit. The entire novel consists of interminable conversations between Maisie and adults who won’t come out and say “are you aware that your parents are having affairs with other people and that such behavior is wrong?” Speaking of repetitiveness. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hang fire, is apparently an expression that means “pause” and the preceding interlude represents what it feels like to read James’ dialogue, in which he uses that expression about as often as he changes speakers. Just sloppy and annoying. Weak writing by any acknowledged interpretation of the term.

I don’t have anything else to say about this story. I have two more novels “The Ambassador” and “Wings of the Dove” to drag myself through before I can put James behind me and dive into his hopefully more competent proteges. Gosh, I hope those books are better than what came before. Cuz, yikes.

You might like The Turn of the Screw if:

  • you like Uncle Silas. Yeah, you’d have to be into Victorian horror enough to have read Uncle Silas. You’d have to have a specific thing for Victorian horror, regardless of quality. Honestly, Uncle Silas is better.

You might not like The Turn of the Screw if:

  • You like stories that are well-told.

Final thoughts: Look, I get it. You’ve gotten this far, and you still want to know about the poor vulnerable governess and the spooky, haunted children. Me too. Watch the BBC production with Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary from Downton Abbey). It’s not bad.

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Thomas Hardy on Hangmen, Witches, Bootlegging and Bad Marriages

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Wessex Tales, Thomas Hardy, 1888

Honestly, if you are getting tired of reading about Thomas Hardy, you can skip this review. Hardy’s writing is like a resplendent river that smooths the rough rocks in my soul. I can leave no stone unturned in my quest to read all his poetry and prose. There could be a salamander under that rock! But he’s not your favorite author, so you don’t have to read every single review I write about his minor works. And if he is your favorite author: Hi. Let’s be friends.

Wessex Tales is a collection of short stories that were originally published in magazines. Hardy writing short fiction for magazine editors and readers is not the best Hardy. Seeing as how he is my best friend and soulmate even though he died 58 years before I was born, I can tell when he is writing just for the money and not attempting much artistic expression. Wow. The idea that only 58 years separate our lives is mind-bending. What very different worlds we experienced.

My point is that these stories are just ok. Well, it’s Hardy, so just ok by his standard is still pretty darn good, but if you have read any of his five best novels, you won’t be impressed by these little yarns. The original 1888 publication contained:

  • “The Three Strangers” a cute little tale of mistaken identity. Not bad at all.
  • “The Withered Arm” which is quite good. A spooky, sad witch story that hints at Hardy’s fascination with tragic destiny. I think I’ve mentioned at least twice on this blog how much I love when English authors write about visits to mystic healers. That happens in this story to and it is wonderful, of course. British writers can’t help revealing their secret paganism; and I love it. I won’t tell you anything more about the plot of this one, because I’d rather save it for the next time you and I are hanging out around a campfire.
  • “Fellow Townsmen” which is very much about tragic destiny. Hardy had a lot to say during the 1880s about the silly impulses and motivations that lead people to make unwise marriages and the bitter consequences of those marriages.
  • “Interlopers at the Knapp” has a very different plot, but the exact same theme, only less tragic.
  • “The Distracted Preacher” which we need to talk about in more detail below.

 

“The Distracted Preacher” is my favorite, not for the tale but, for the note Hardy added for a later printing of Wessex Tales. The story concerns a preacher temporarily assigned to a seaside town. Of course, he falls in love with the beautiful widow who provides his lodgings. You would fall in love with her too; she’s badass and adorable. The way Hardy writes about characters falling in love is unmatched so far in English literature, in my opinion. Yes, that includes the Brontë’s and Jane Austen! I do not this not make this statement lightly. At any given moment I am desperately in love with three Thomas Hardy characters.

Anyway, it turns out that Lizzy is involved in a smuggling ring, the naughty wench. Predictably, the preacher asks her to desist smuggling liquor for him and for God and for the sake of her poor, dear conscience. She tells him she simply can’t, because she doesn’t know the king and doesn’t care about his coffers, but she does care about keeping herself and her mother fed and comfortable. Also, she simply couldn’t give up smuggling, because “It stirs up one’s dull life at this time o’ the year, and gives excitement, which I have got so used to now that I should hardly know how to do ‘ithout it. At nights, when the wind blows, instead of being dull and stupid, and not noticing whether it do blow or not, your mind is afield, even if you are not afield yourself; and you are wondering how the chaps are getting on; and you walk up and down the room and look out o’ the window, and then you go out yourself and know your way about as well by night as by day, and have hair-breadth escapes from old Latimer and his fellows, who are too stupid ever to really frighten us and only make us a bit nimble.” Yes, Lizzy. Smuggle to your heart’s content. You don’t need this preacher man. Live your wild life. Don’t wed yourself to the judgmental patriarchy. Except of course, she does. Conventional morality must win in the end. This is still the Victorian Era.

Wait! There’s a great little note from Hardy at the end of the tale. “The ending of this story with the marriage of Lizzy and the minister was almost de riguer in an English magazine at the time of writing. But at this late date, thirty years after, it may not be amiss to give the ending that would have been preferred by the writer to the convention used above. Moreover it corresponds more closely with the true incidents of which the tale is a vague and flickering shadow. Lizzy did not, in fact, marry the preacher, but—much to her credit in the author’s opinion—stuck to Jim the smuggler, and emigrated with him after their marriage, an expatrial step rather forced upon him by his adventurous antecedents.” Ugh. Don’t you love that? I think about the writer that Hardy could have been he wasn’t restricted by the Victorian monomania for morality. The tales he might have told. I think about that at least twice a week. Even if you’re not obsessed with wondering what Hardy might have written in another universe, you might enjoy “The Distracted Preacher,” for the humorous hijinks that the townsfolk get up to whilst attempting to evade the excisemen.

For said later printing, Hardy added some stories to Wessex Tales. They are all fairly forgettable, except for “An Imaginative Woman” in which a married woman poet discovers that the seaside lodgings her family rented for the summer belong to a fellow poet that she admires. She discovers some of his verses written on the walls and becomes so obsessed with him that. . .his likeness is imprinted on the fetus in her womb. . .and her baby looks like this poet even though she never met him. Oh, baby. Victorians sure didn’t understand paternity or inheritance; and they came up with some kooky ways for explaining their children’s weird faces. But yes, they really did believe that if a woman became obsessed with a picture of a man, that image could imprint on her womb. Her brain, like a 3D printer supplied with an image of a man’s face, could produce a reproduction of that face in her womb. Wow. I mean. Wow. You have to love that plotline.

Final Thoughts: “The Withered Arm” and “The Distracted Preacher” are worth a read if you have already read these more important works by Hardy: Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Woodlanders, Jude the Obscure, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Return of the Native and The Hand of Ethelberta. I know no one else feels the way I do about The Hand of Ethelberta, but I stand by that book. It’s top notch. Fight me.

Silly Novels by Robert Louis Stevenson

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Kidnapped and Treasure Island by Robert Luis Stevenson

Warning: I am going to insult Robert Louis Stevenson right now. If you went online today intending to yell at some chick for failing to appreciate Treasure Island, I am that chick; you have come to the right site. @me in the comments.

I love The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I love it so much. Everyone should read it at least three times. See my review of that story here for more on why I respect and adore it. I think that if Stevenson hadn’t written that one little story he would have been entirely forgotten. Nothing else he wrote is good.

I just don’t understand what is supposed to be great about Treasure Island or Kidnapped. I found both stories so under-stimulating that I am reviewing them together, because I cannot possibly scrounge up two posts worth of thoughts about these books. There just isn’t much to them. I imagine that some people appreciate the scary pirates in Treasure Island and the romantic highland setting of Kidnapped, but these books are Tom Sawyers they are not Huckleberry Finns. Well, they aren’t even Tom Sawyers, because Tom Sawyer is much funnier. Twain’s writing style is much quirkier and more engaging than Stevenson’s. What I mean by the metaphor is that like Tom Sawyer, Stevenson’s tales of childhood adventure are just that and nothing more. They do not have the emotional or thematic weight of Huck Finn.

Treasure Island concerns a young boy who comes into possession of a treasure map and falls in with a sordid set of pirates in his quest to recover the booty. This novel was wildly popular and influential. Half our silly ideas about pirates come from this book. Treasure maps marked with an X. One-legged pirates. Foul-mouthed parrots. Crazy marooned sailors. All that is very nice and imaginative. I admit the characterization is great. Long John Silver is a very creepy conman. Poor marooned Ben Gunn is simultaneously unpredictable, sympathetic and eerie. However, our protagonist, young Jim Hawkins is a thinly sketched everykid who could be swapped out for the main character of Kidnapped with no discernible difference. They’re just a couple of kids with no character traits in strange circumstances. I guess they’re both resilient and determined, but that describes every kid in every adventure story. I forgot their names immediately after setting down their respective volumes.

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David Balfour is the kid in Kidnapped, which is about getting shanghaied. Were you hoping for a plot less plausible than a kid getting his hands on an actual treasure map? Here you go: David Balfour has recently been orphaned. For some reason, his father died without once mentioning that David is the heir to an estate that is currently occupied by an evil uncle. Everybody has one of those: a secret, evil, rich uncle who lives in a rundown castle on the border of the Scottish Highlands. It’s so plausible that you should call your father right now, if you can, and ask him if he has a rich brother he has never once mentioned. Anyway, it turns out that David is the real heir. His uncle tries to kill him, but David is too clever. So, Evil Uncle enlists the help of a corrupt captain to shanghai David and sell him into indentured servitude in the Carolinas. David manages to avoid this fate through a series of absurd events that leaves him crossing the Highlands with an outlaw named Alan Breck. Breck has a few character traits, thank goodness. Stevenson drew inspiration for the plot and for Breck from real people and one real event, the Appin murder. Although the murder is more of an unnecessary tangent from than a meaningful backdrop for the plot. Briefly, England had just squashed the Jacobite Uprising and were working on further squashing the spirit and culture of the Scotts. Some important fella on the British side was murdered, so the local justice system gathered a biased jury and convicted the closest laird of the murder even though there was no evidence against him and everyone knew he didn’t do it. Think of all a skilled author could do with such an example of injustice in such a romantic time and location. Stevenson has his characters visit the laird who has not been arrested yet, but fears he might be. Then they leave. He never even mentions him again. I only know that he was later falsely convicted and executed because I looked it up.

What a waste.

I could forgive every literary sin I have mentioned if Treasure Island and Kidnapped excelled in one critical element. The most important element for any adventure tale. Pacing. These stories are both approximately 200 pages long, which is so short for a novel from this period. Yet, they both manage to drag on. While reading Kidnapped I found myself bored and feeling no sense of emotional connection to the characters or events. I thought “please just get to part where our two buddies have a fight, one of them almost dies and then they reconcile.” After two more chapters of nothing significant, we got to that exact point. Because every tale of two dudes adventuring together contains that element. David’s near death and Alan’s concern for him was the only moment that elicited an emotional reaction, but it was a weak response, because I’ve experienced it before while watching any number of predictable children’s movies.

Come for me in the comments, RLS fans. I am ready to hear how ignorant and obtuse I am. Make sure to criticize my punctuation while you’re down there.

 Final thoughts: George Eliot published an essay called “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” in which she opines the publication of formulaic, unrealistic novels written by women. (Yeah, George Eliot kind of sucked. More on that when I have fully processed how disappointed I am in her.) She was not alone in this sentiment. I think Treasure Island and Kidnapped belong in a category of Silly Novels by Male Novelists. There’s just not much to them. They are not great novels. If Stevenson hadn’t written Jekyll and Hyde, I don’t think these stories would be read today. They are worth pilfering for inspiration for Pirates of the Caribbean, but that’s it. No other value.

Henry James Was Essentially a Men’s Rights Activist

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The Bostonians, Henry James, 1886

I don’t know why Henry James thought satirizing late Victorian feminism would be a good idea. It wasn’t. The Bostonians, the result of this misguided endeavor, is a truly worthless book. I don’t know who he imagined would want to read it. Maybe Men’s Right’s Activists. I stumbled across a review of this book on what turned out to be an MRA website. That’s the type of book this is.

The plot concerns two cousins who get into a fight over a young woman. Olive Chancellor is a well-to-do Bostonian and very active in the Women’s Movement. She invites her Southern cousin, Basil Ransom to visit. At one of Olive’s meetings they are both introduced to a beautiful young woman named Verena Tarrant who is a talented speaker. They didn’t have Netflix in the 1880s, so the ability to deliver some stirring oration was quite a talent. Olive and Basil become locked in a battle for lovely Verena’s soul.

James depicts Olive as cold and joyless. He shows her the type of disrespect that activists are often shown by assuming that her efforts are more a result of her personality than her convictions. She tries to change people’s behavior because she is an egotistical, controlling nag, not because these behaviors are harmful. She is obsessed with the suffering of women, not because women have truly suffered, but because the more downtrodden they are the greater her glory in lifting them up to a higher life. James continually indicates that he sees no merit in Olive’s cause, equal rights for women, by depicting Olive as someone who believes “whatever is—is wrong” and who would “reform the solar system if she could get a hold of it.” Barf. That attitude is so dismissive. James draws feminists as meddlers who want to reform for reformation’s sake. At no point does he demonstrate respect for the idea that all people should be equal.

That disrespect got him in trouble with the literary community. Nobody was interested in his backwards, even for the time, opinions. One doddering old feminist character, Miss Birdseye, was clearly based on Eliza Peabody, a relative of Nathaniel Hawthorne and friend of the Alcotts. Here’s a segment of James’ description of Ms. Birdseye “she belonged to the Short-Skirts League, as a matter of course; for she belonged to any and every league that had been founded for almost any purpose whatsoever.” Cuz, you know, all these loud women talking about feminism don’t even care about equality, they just like being in a club together. To continue with the quote “this did not prevent her being a confused, entangled, inconsequent, discursive old woman whose charity began at home and ended nowhere, whose credulity kept pace with it, and who knew less about her fellow-creatures, if possible, after fifty years of humanitary zeal, than on the day she had gone into the field to testify against the iniquity of most arrangements.” Also, she’s ugly. Yep, Henry James did just depict humanitarianism as inconsequential. I want that on the record. The scorn in that phrase “iniquity of most arrangements” is at the heart of what makes this book worthless. Who the hell is James talking to? Who does he think his audience is? Society had already acknowledged that arrangements were iniquitous. Mocking that idea will appeal to no one except for reactionary assholes like Basil Ransom.

I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t gotten to the worst part of Ms. Birdseye’s characterization. James states that she is less busy since the end of the Civil Wa, “before that her best hours had been spent in fancying that she was helping some Southern slave to escape. It would have been a nice question whether, in her heart of hearts, for the sake of this excitement, she did not sometimes wish the blacks back in bondage.” Uhhhhhhhhhhh. Where to even start with this one. Yet again, James sees no sincerity in activism. Abolitionists were just in it for the thrills. Now, it is hard to know if James is being dismissive of the efforts of everyone involved in the Underground Railroad or if Ms. Birdseye really did only fancy that she helped slaves escape. Potentially, he could mean that she was so ineffective that she couldn’t bring about an escape. However, he doesn’t have much benefit of the doubt left. So, probably not? The idea that she might wish for the reinstatement of slavery smacks of that dumb philosophical argument that there is no true altruism, because if you feel pleasure when you help someone, you aren’t being truly selfless. I believe it was John Stewart Mill who rolled his eyes hard and said “Wtf do you care if someone who does a good deed feels pleasure? Someone was helped. Someone else felt happy. These are both good things. Shut up, Henry James. What part of feeling good about doing good is objectionable to you, you twisted ratbag?”

This is not to say that feminists and abolitionists are too sacred to be criticized or even mocked. You don’t have to do much digging to find objectionable behavior in either camp. But this is not an instance of one humanitarian holding other humanitarians to a higher standard. This is just one twisted ratbag making fun of people for promoting equality. Yes, the people that these characters are based on were not the intersectional heroes we wish for. However, that’s not what James is lampooning. He’s not mocking them for doing a bad job of striving for equality. He’s just mocking them. The Bostonians was published serially. James’ depiction of Ms. Birdseye was so poorly received that he had to change direction and write a touching death scene for her near the end of the novel.

Woof. 1,000 words already. I’ve covered the first 5% of the book. We need to talk about Basil. He is a Southern gentleman who lost his family fortune when his slaves were freed. Basil has such reactionary political opinions that he cannot get them published. A newspaper editor rejects his “paper on the rights of minorities” because his “doctrines were about three hundred years behind the age; doubtless some magazine of the sixteenth century would have been very happy to print them.” So, Olive and Basil are both ideologues. Basil has the upper hand in their fight for Verena, because he is charming and persuasive, while Olive is the incarnation of an MRAer’s mental picture of a feminist. Basil falls in love with Verena and wants to rescue her from the taint of public life, because women should be hidden away at home. Doing some baking.

Long story short, Verena chooses Basil, because I don’t know, the innate superiority of men? James depicts her as young and impressionable. She only became involved in the Women’s Movement, because of her father’s influence. She sways from one influence to another. James cannot conceive of a young woman who genuinely believes in equal rights or has any convictions whatsoever that won’t fly out of her silly little head as soon as someone mildly persuasive starts talking to her. Verena is clay to be molded by the stronger characters; “it was in her nature to be easily submissive, to like being overborn.”  Which describes exactly zero of the young advocates I know. Although, I can’t claim that a prominent feminist falling in love with an anti-feminist troll and losing her way is absolutely unrealistic. Remember Laci Green, the feminist, sex-positive youtuber who “reached out to the other side,” started dating an anti-feminist troll and immediately started tweeting transphobia? It can happen.

But do we need a novel about it? No.

We have to talk about the book’s queerness. There is an obvious implication that Olive is in love with Verena. They live together, an arrangement that lead to the coining of the term “Boston marriage” meaning a same-sex couple that live together ostensibly as platonic friends, but who are really romantically involved. I can understand how even a tacit acknowledgement of the existence of same-sex relationships during this era is significant, but this book is not the queer classic you deserve. Not by any stretch. James promotes the stereotype of homosexual love as the corruption of malleable young person by a misguided older lover. I don’t need it. You don’t need it. It’s trash and I don’t want to think about it anymore.

You might like The Bostonians if:

  • You’re a Men’s Rights Activist or whatever they’re calling themselves now.

You might not like The Bostonians if:

  • See above.

Final thoughts: Barf.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!

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The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Luis Stevenson, 1886

I LOVE THIS BOOK. If you have never read it, go read it three times. If you haven’t read it in the past month, go reread it right now.

Ok, we’re back from reading Jekyll and Hyde? Excellent. Isn’t it perfect? There are so few truly great horror stories from this time period, but J and H has it all. The writing is atmospheric and spooky like an old house in a horror flick. The plot is intriguing and well-conceived. This is not one of those early horror stories that seems great, because later artists repurposed and improved the concept. Jekyll and Hyde is an excellent piece of writing, especially thematically. The allegory is clear, but complicated enough that many possible interpretations are valid. Most impressively, Stevenson maintains a level of focus throughout the novella that wordy Victorians with their 600 page tomes rarely achieved. Every line is purposeful. Stevenson continually pings little flecks of meaning at the reader that reinforce the mood and the theme.

I love how Stevenson hides nuggets like “something eminently human beaconed from his eye” in the second sentence of the story, which is merely introducing the lawyer, Mr. Utterson. I get a little shiver from that fragment, because I know something not eminently human will appear later in the tale. So clever. I can’t handle how great that detail is. You know what, Nabokov wrote that good readers “fondle the details” of good fiction; so let’s do that. You don’t need a summary of the characters or plot of this one. It’s too famous for that. Let’s get into some details.

Utterson is worried about his friend Jekyll’s connection to the odious Mr. Hyde, but does not want to pry because, as his friend Mr. Enfield states it “You start a question and it’s like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of a hill; and away the stone goes, starting others; and presently some bland old bird (the last you would have thought of) is knocked on the head in his own back garden and the family have to change their name.” Such a quaint way to introduce the idea that proper, refined, well-regarded families are harboring dark secrets. Secrets that their friends would rather not know. Gentlemen are willingly looking away from the dark side of their fellows’ natures.

The maid states that moments before she witnesses Hyde committing a violent murder, she was enjoying a lovely moonlit night and “never had she felt more at peace with all men or felt more kindly of the world.” I just love that. By transforming himself into Hyde, by indulging the evil tendencies of his nature, Jekyll violates not just laws of nature, but the social contract. This romantic maid has her sense of peace and goodness permanently disturbed by witnessing a moment of pure evil. Jekyll has broken her faith in mankind, just as he has broken the unspoken compact shared by Victorians to repress their forbidden desires.

It seems so appropriate that this allegory about repression should come near the end of the Victorian Era. It fits nicely with our image of Victorians as tight-lipped, pleasureless and obsessed with respectability. Jekyll is driven to create his alter-ego, because he has never been able to reconcile his desire for pleasure with his need to maintain a gentile public face. He was already living a double life and felt a “morbid sense of shame” at his secret pleasures. Sex and drugs, right? I’m not sure what else it could be. Gambling, perhaps. General drunken carousing. I guess that’s beside the point. Jekyll has a dual nature, but feels that “both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I labored, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering.” Oh, there’s so much in there. I love that Stevenson wrote “eye of day” rather than “light of day” to emphasize the watchful eye of society. He suggests that to get along in society one had to divide one’s true self into one acceptable public aspect and one hidden sinner. Go ahead and pause to think about the aspects of your true nature you’ve had to hide away so that you could feel accepted. Really, the duality of public versus private is more interesting than that of good versus evil. What we hide from the eye of day is rarely a desire to harm others. Call me naïve, but I think there’s enough room in society to indulge self-serving tendencies, that the part of ourselves we hide is not destructive or evil. What we hide is a failure or lack of desire to fulfill a role society wants from us. We hide emotions that others don’t want to see. Anger, depression, not wanting to do our gender roles. That’s the secret self we hide. Not evil. I know my Mr. Hyde doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He’s just a vulnerable Goth who doesn’t want to wear a bra. I think. Anyway, I didn’t mean to spin off in that direction. There’s just so much scope in this novella.

One last little thought. I appreciate Mr. Hyde being smaller and younger than Dr. Jekyll. The evil side of Jekyll’s nature is not as developed as his full self. So, it is shorter and younger. That’s such a great sci-fi-esque detail. So good.

You might like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if:

  • You like a good horror story.
  • You like a good story of any variety.

You might not like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if:

  • I cannot think of a reason.

Final thoughts: Is it a cautionary tale about the peril of letting your dark side out or is it about the danger of squashing an aspect of your true self? I dunno. Both. It’s everything. So good.

What does Huck Finn Mean in 2019?

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1885IMG_7415

I am feeling anxious. Huckleberry Finn is an intimidating book to write about. It’s a simple story with a complicated maelstrom of moral implications at its heart.  Mark Twain forbade contemplation of that moral center by printing the following notice before the text of Huck Finn “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

I guess I’m going to be banished and shot by Mark Twain’s undyingly facetious ghost, because the novel clearly has a plot and one that hinges upon the moral development of the title character. Perhaps Twain is correct in declaring that the book does not have one clear purpose or moral lesson. He did not write it to promote a cause as Anna Sewell did in writing Black Beauty or Harriet Beecher Stowe did with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. However, Huck Finn is absolutely about morality. Huck continually debates the ethics of his decisions. The tension between Huck’s impulses and what he has learned about right and wrong from his haphazard upbringing drives the humor, the plot and the thematic thrust of the novel. Fundamentally, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is about the moral development of a child in a morally corrupt society. Twain asks us to consider the consequences of trying to teach ethics to young people when our way of living is inherently cruel. My mind spins thinking about the potential applications of this question today.

Let’s set that aside for a moment and treat Huck Finn like any other book. Time to get into the good, the bad and the ugly of Mark Twain’s best piece of writing.

The Ugly:

  • Jim is a stereotype and that flat-out sucks. Forever. There are far too many jokes at the expense of Jim’s intelligence. He is gullible, ignorant and superstitious. I already know that there are no very bright characters in the book and that plenty of the white characters are superstitious too. Do not show up in the comments with that observation. The problem is that Jim is the most superstitious, the least intelligent and the most ignorant character in the book. Also, jokes at the expense of oppressed people have a greater negative effect than jokes at the expense of impowered people. We already know this. Jim does have redeeming qualities. He is the bravest and the kindest character in the novel. But what matters here is that Twain consciously offered the world a book that defied expectations. It depicted “low” language and behavior. It is about a child, but it does not instruct children to behave like conventionally good Victorian lads and lasses. This was all very outside the norm and unexpected. At the same time he chose to offer white people the stereotyped depiction of American slaves that was comfortable and very popular at this time. He could and should have made a different choice and the book is forever tainted. For the love of all good and decent things, do not respond to this paragraph with a comment about considering the historical context or climate. I HAVE CONSIDERED IT. I consider it all the time. Every day for the past ten—approximately—years of my life, I have been considering the historical context of classic literature. It has been considered. It will be further considered. I swear. Don’t come at me with that. Someone always does.

 

The Good:

  • Firstly, “good” is a weak word for the strengths of this novel. It has elements of absolute greatness. Duh. We all know that already, because it’s on the top of the mystical Great American Novel list.

 

  • Huckleberry Finn is one of the purest, most charming and most honest characters in all of literature. He tries to do what’s right when it’s convenient to him, which is a perfectly accurate depiction of childhood morality. Writing the adventures of a partially civilized child was such a brilliant idea on Twain’s part. Huck’s love of freedom and loathing for Victorian restrictions is relatable and interesting.

 

  • The setting is brilliant. Twain explores the iconic Mississippi river lifestyle that he grew up in. We get to encounter weirder and wilder characters than we see in any previous English-language novel. By the way, reviewers though the novel was crass, low trash because of the misbehavior and rough language depicted. I’m not talking about the n-word. They opposed the swearing and the fact that Huck scratches his itches. Hahahahahaha. How the standards for obscenity have changed.

 

  • Do I need to talk about Twain’s use of dialect? Everyone with any exposure to American literature has heard someone gush about the style of Huckleberry Finn. It’s unique and groundbreaking. You already know.

 

  • Jim’s depiction is troubling, there is no getting around that. But the relationship between Huck and Jim is still heartwarming and effective. This poor urchin flees from his abusive father into the not precisely care, but companionship of a runaway slave and these two lowest members of the Southern social structure find true and unjudging friendship in each other. It’s a beautiful and romantic concept that Twain did not execute perfectly. So, give him credit for trying, if you so wish, or you can despise him for his stereotyped depiction of Jim. There is no right way to feel about this novel. I’m certainly not going to tell you how to react to it. Your reactions are your own and they are valid, unless you’re a terrible person.

 

  • So much biting satire. Twain goes after the hypocrisy of Southern institutions, customs and ideas with incisive humor. I particularly like blows he strikes at:

Southerners (I always leave the first R out of that word and get autocorrected) who oppose enfranchisement. He delivers a tirade against votes for black people from the lips of the vilest character in the book, making him seem like such an idiot for holding this belief.

Mob justice.

Hattfield-and-McCoyesque rivalries. This part is mostly satirical, but ultimately moving. His depiction of Huck’s trauma from witnessing pointless loss of life rings true and is very effective.

 

The Bad:

  • You don’t have to take my word for it, Hemmingway had the same thoughts about the ending of Huckleberry Finn. He thought the book was the best novel yet written, but he also wrote that the end “devolves into little more than minstrel-show satire and broad comedy.” Truth. Hemmingway said a lot of unfair, unkind things about a lot of people, but this one is accurate. When Jim is captured and Tom Sawyer puts him through a series of ridiculous trials meant to replicate the experiences of the Count of Monte Cristo among other famous literary captives, the narrative swings hard into frankly worthless territory. This part is hard to read. I am staunchly opposed to corporal punishment, but I wanted to leap into the pages and throttle Tom Sawyer. A man’s life is at stake! This is serious. Stop playing around, you idiot. Yes, there’s a twist; I know. The same invectives can be hurled at Twain, though. He arrives at the critical moment in the text. Huck must finally decide if he will actively help Jim escape—yes, he has been doing that all along, but he found ways to rationalize it—and Twain is occupied with silliness inherited from his lesser word The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It’s a problem.

 

  • The n-word. The word is uncomfortable to read. I didn’t read this book when I was a child, because I was too uncomfortable with this word. I will write more below on whether I think the book is appropriate for school children. However, I think the use of the n-word is not a reason to toss this book aside and never read it. That was the word used at the time. Of course Twain uses it. He is depicting the language and culture of his youth. I’m not suggesting that you should feel comfortable with it. It’s a horrible word with a horrible history. However, I think it is ok to sit in that discomfort for the space of 300 page long novel, if you’re white. That word is part of a history that we wish we could forget, but that we must remember to face the legacy of slavery that persists to this day.

On to the question of whether Huck Finn is appropriate for a school curriculum. I have thought about this a lot and discussed it with educators. Obviously, I don’t think it should be banned, because banning books is harmful and ridiculous. I think that this novel could be an excellent teaching tool in the right hands. Twain was trying to write and anti-racist book and missed the mark by a mile. That’s a great opportunity to get students talking about how to be an ally. However, I think this text could do a lot of harm in the wrong hands. It’s hard to know how a group of students will respond to it. I can understand not wanting your child or your child’s schoolmates exposed to the stereotypes and language contained in the novel. Also, no student of color should be forced to confront the triggering language in this book. Of course, if a student is going to read any book from this time period, non-fiction slave narratives are much more important than Huckleberry Finn. Every single person who spends more than six months in this country should be required to read A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas or Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Nobody needs to read Huck Finn. It’s optional.

I must return to the moral maelstrom before I’m done. Throughout his time with Jim, Huckleberry struggles to resolve his desire to stay with Jim and his sense that it is wrong to help a slave escape. This tension is the heart of Huck’s character and the heart of the novel. Huck feels that he is mistreating Ms. Watson by not returning Jim to her, “What did that poor old woman ever do to you that you could treat her so mean?” Ms. Watson had been kinder to Huck than anyone else in his life to this point and here he is, depriving her of her chattel. There are other valid interpretations of this ethical quandary, but it seems to me that Twain is skewering the idea that morality could exist in the slave-owning South. Ms. Watson, who tries to instill religion in Huck, represents Southern morality, yet Huck’s sense of obligation to her is what leads him to consider the reprehensible act of returning Jim to bondage. When he decides to reveal Jim’s location he feels “washed clean of sin for the first time” and when his loyalty and affection for Jim triumph and change his mind he says, “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell” and “take up wickedness again.”  That is the sense of right in wrong instilled in this child by his morally bankrupt society. That is the level of corruption inherent in slavery. Huckleberry’s position outside the confines of “respectable” Southern society allows him to behave in a way that is truly moral, despite his moral training. Twain demonstrates the hypocrisy of Southern religiosity during this time and the impossibility of teaching morality to a child when your life is founded on cruelty. His depiction of Jim undermines this message, and of course my interpretation is colored by my own beliefs, but that is the weighty moral nugget I see at the center of this book.

 

Final Thoughts: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a comfortable book, but it does deserve consideration as a Great American Novel. America is not uncomplicated. We don’t deserve an uncomplicated, ethically pure Great Novel. I’m worried that my review may come off as too favorable, given the problems with Huck Finn. Those problems are serious, and no amount of stylistic merit or literary innovation can remove the sin of racism from this book. Nothing balances that out.

There was no chance that Twain, raised in mid-19th century Missouri, was going to write an inoffensive book about that time and place. He did write the only novel about the slave-owning South written by someone who experienced it. Now, I could be wrong about that. Probably some other such novel exists, but I can’t find them. Generally, slavery was too indelicate a subject for Victorian publishers. Twain was only able to find a publisher for Huckleberry Finn after he’d established himself as a literary celebrity. The literary canon is nearly silent when it comes to slavery. This book has value for its uniqueness if for nothing else. At the risk of being repetitive, I’ll close by saying again that of course non-fiction slave narratives are much more valuable and important than this novel. You should read three of those before you read or reread Huck Finn.

Hardy on Surviving Toxic Patriarchs

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The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy, 1885

Are you getting tired of Thomas Hardy yet? I’m not!

The Mayor of Casterbridge is Hardy’s take on the Greek tragic hero archetype. I loved Ancient Greek drama in high school and college. At age thirty-something, I found on my first read through that I have no time for an aggressive patriarch whose fits of pique threaten to destroy the lives of everyone he encounters. Gee, I wonder why I’m feeling particularly frustrated by that personality-type?

I couldn’t enjoy the book the first time through, because I was so aggravated by Michael Henchard’s string of selfish, destructive actions. I was too pissed off to have any fun. However, on my second read—I read pretty much every deserving novel at least twice before posting about it—I knew what was coming. No longer shocked and surprised by the protagonist’s behavior, I was free to expend my mental energy on admiring Hardy’s handiwork.

It’s a good’un, folks. I love a twisty, curvy, complicated plot and The Mayor of Casterbridge sure has one. I’ve always found the descriptors “plot driven” and “character driven” too facile. Sure, “plot driven” can be used to mean a novel is all action with weak characterization. However, a story can have a great plot and great characterization. I think Victorian readers would be baffled by that supposed dichotomy, because all good Victorian novels focus heavily on character development AND have compelling plots. The Mayor of Casterbridge takes the reader on quite a ride, plotwise, but every turn is propelled by the beautifully elaborated characters.

I almost don’t want to tell you a single other thing about this book. It’s so great; you should discover everything for yourself. I can’t even describe the relationships between the characters without misleading you or giving something away. After some contemplation I’ve decided to try to tell you a few key things.

Michael Henchard begins as a grumpy man with too little money, too great a fondness for alcohol, a wife and a daughter. He commits a spectacularly strange act that separates him from said wife and child. Many years later, they reappear and discover that he has risen from a lowly hay-trusser to a position of such wealth and influence that he has become the mayor of Casterbridge. Hardy describes this semi-agricultural and semi-urban town so masterfully that I have profound feelings about the bridges, the market days, the villagers who carouse at the secret pub, all of it. I’m not kidding about the bridges. If you read this book, you will have strong emotions about the bridges of Casterbridge.

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Henchard has a foil in the character of Donald Farfrae, a young Scottish fellow he hires to help him manage his grain business. Farfrae is everything Henchard is not: forgiving, reasonable, thoughtful. Henchard soon torpedoes their friendship because of jealousy. That’s all I’m going to say about that. Oops, one more. Hardy establishes that Farfrae is indisputably the better man of the two, yet they both commit the same disastrous mistake: undervaluing Henchard’s daughter, Elizabeth-Jane.

Oh, Elizabeth-Jane. My queen. She’s a steady woman, whose impoverished childhood instilled a keen sense that injustice and suffering are inherent to human existence. Yet, she is compassionate and selfless. She aspires to refine herself, not so that she can make an entrance in society, but to attain a greater degree of personal dignity, something she lacked in her early life. She attempts to do this by reading rigorously. Do you see why I love her? Here is just a snippet of her lovely characterization “Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness […] But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who deserved much more.” I could cry. My only criticism of this book is that I could have used so much more Elizabeth-Jane.

There are other actors in the cast, but I won’t go into it further. Just know that Hardy puts them all in such intense and odd, yet plausible situations. If you can get past what a jerk Henchard is, and I think you can, you will enjoy seeing these characters react to their fascinating circumstances.

Just as a bonus, this book contains my favorite Brit Lit trope: someone goes out into the wilds to consult a mystic. Love it. Hardy, of course, describes this character with his typical incisive wit. Ostensibly god-fearing Anglicans, his clients put on a show of not truly believing in his prophetic powers. “Whenever they consulted him they did it ‘for a fancy.’ When they paid him they said ‘Just a trifle for Christmas,’ or ‘Candlemas,’ as the case may be. He would have preferred more honesty in his clients, and less sham ridicule; but fundamental belief consoled him for superficial irony. As stated, he was enabled to live; people supported him with their backs turned. He was sometimes astonished that men could profess so little and believe so much at his house, when at church they professed so much and believed so little.” I cackled at that one. Got ‘em.

You might enjoy The Mayor of Casterbridge if:

  • you like things that are good

You might not enjoy The Mayor of Casterbridge if:

  • you have no time for stories about toxic patriarchs. Which is how I felt at first, but I realized that the story isn’t just about him. It’s about the way that he fails to destroy anyone but himself. It’s about the way that the people around him endure his toxicity and remain compassionate, giving people. True to themselves to the end. That’s a story worth reading. In these trying times.

Final Thoughts: The more I think about this book, the more I love it. It is considered one of Hardy’s masterpieces for good reason.