My Favorite Novel!

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Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy, 1874

I was nervous the night before I started rereading Far from the Madding Crowd. I felt like a vessel unfit to receive Thomas Hardy’s glorious words. I knew I’d soon be sitting at my computer trying to explain why I love this book so much and I felt unworthy of the task. I’ll try anyway. This is my very favorite book; I must attempt to do it justice.

Hardy’s fourth novel has all the wit, wisdom and cynicism of his later great works, but with more drama and less heartrending tragedy. It’s as if you ordered your insightful literary martini with a dry sense of humor, spiked with a soap opera plot, hold the bitter tears, and add a side order of sweet romance.

The plot concerns a proud, independent young maiden who inherits her uncle’s farm and proceeds to wreak havoc in the neighborhood with her beautiful face. Dear Bathsheba Everdene—yes, her last name was lifted for Katniss Everdeen—doesn’t instigate the havoc. Men just see her face and proceed to destroy their own lives. Hardy loves not a love triangle, but a love square. Three men fall for her: humble shepherd Gabriel Oak, staid middle-aged Farmer Boldwood, and dashing young soldier Frank Troy.

I rate these four characters among the best in the canon. Let me tell you why. But first, just go read it and then come back and see if you agree with me. Discover all this wonder on your own.

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Bathsheba Everdene

I love a proud, independent woman. When she discovers her father’s bailiff stealing from her she dismisses him and instead of hiring another man to run the farm, she decides to do it herself. Shocking! She goes to market. She buys grain and sells sheep. She gets up on the ricks with Gabriel in the middle of the night with lightning flashing all around to protect her harvest from the coming rain.

Bathsheba may be vain, but she is not a flirt. I absolutely love this description of her “From the contours of her figure in its upper part she must have had a beautiful neck and shoulders; but since her infancy nobody had ever seen them. Had she been put into a low dress she would have run and thrust her head into a bush. Yet she was not a shy girl by any means; it was merely her instinct to draw the line dividing the seen from the unseen higher than they do it in the towns.” Early in the progress of the tale Gabriel sees her lay back on her horse with her feet on its neck to avoid a low hanging branch. His infatuation for her began there and so did mine. I dare you to read Hardy’s description of this moment and not fall in love with Bathsheba.

Frank Troy

               This handsome soldier is careless with women. Not a novel character, but one so well described by Hardy that he stands out. He has a changeable nature usually reserved for female characters. He fluctuates from rakish to repentant to rascally and back so easily that he’s quite fascinating.

Farmer Boldwood

               This fucking guy. His progress from steady, predictable bachelor to psychopath is gripping and horrifying. The next farm over is a new place to find a villain. This gentleman farmer slowly turns mad. You pity him and then you loathe him, which is the reverse of how we like to handle psychos these days. What’s most chilling about Boldwood is that you recognize him. He’s every man who feels so entitled to a woman that he’ll wheedle and bully her into being with him out of a sense of obligation. It’s repulsive and compelling to read.

Gabriel Oak

               My favorite. The best. I love him. He does none of the nonsense to Bathsheba that Boldwood does, even though he loves her just as well. His kind, gentle devotion to her is my relationship goal. If you’re drawn to The Office, you might be drawn to Gabriel Oak as a romantic figure. After all, long term love is about making each day easier and better for your partner, not about doing creepy dramatic shit like asking the gravedigger who just opened her grave to put her husband in it to walk away for a bit so you can lay down with her corpse. This is a friendly reminder that Heathcliff is a kidnapper and rapist, not a romantic hero. Gabriel Oak is a romantic hero. Because he takes care of his lady’s sheep. That’s useful and kind. I know, I’m old and practical about love, but whatever. Life happens day by day and so does love. I’d happily spend my days with Gabriel. He can tend my flocks anytime.

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The book is not perfect. The middle is not as strong as the beginning and end. Hardy strays a bit long amid his pleasant rural scenery and his pleasant rustics, but he has almost entirely shed the obnoxious condescension of Under the Greenwood Tree. I don’t mind spending some time on Bathsheba’s farm. Any writer who can make shepherding incidents as dramatic and moving as Hardy can deserves acclaim for his depiction of rural life.

There are so many wonderful quotes in this book. You should read the entire novel, but I will provide this longish quote for your enjoyment.

“At last the eighth day came. The cow had ceased to give milk for that year, and Bathsheba Everdene came up the hill no more. Gabriel had reached a pitch of existence he never could have anticipated a short time before. He liked saying “Bathsheba” as a private enjoyment instead of whistling; turned over his taste to black hair, though he had sworn by brown ever since he was a boy, isolated himself till the space he filled in the public eye was contemptibly small. Love is a possible strength in an actual weakness. Marriage transforms a distraction to a support, the power of which should be, and happily often is, in direct proportion to the imbecility it supplants.”

Hardy would later express a far less positive view of marriage.

You might like Far from the Madding Crowd if:

  • you like a rural story
  • you appreciate wit
  • you appreciate writing aesthetically, but are not opposed to a compelling plot

You might not like Far from the Madding Crowd if:

  • you need your romances a bit more torrid

Final Thoughts: It’s the best book. Go read it! It is fun and beautiful. My favorite.

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My Expectations Were a Bit Greater

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Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, 1861

There are few gracious ways to express distaste or rejection. I learned one from a Cuban house-guest who returned a bowl of Cheerios to my mother, saying “This is very good, but I don’t like it.” What better way to state that something may be excellent, yet not suit your personal taste?

Regarding Great Expectations, I would like to quote William Suarez and say “This is very good, but I don’t like it.” I know I will get comments defending the book, and that’s great. I get far more indignant comments on negative reviews than I get approving comments on positive ones. Which is wonderful. I am glad people love works of classic literature enough to sign up for whatever type of account you need to post a wordpress comment and register their discontent with my discontent. Preach. I’m glad you like Great Expectations and I wish I did too.

Here’s why I should like it:

  • Miss Havisham, withering eternally in her bridal garb, is an iconic, symbolic character of the first order. She is near the top of the list of characters who seize the imagination.
  • The book has all the stylistic elements of Dickens that I love in his other works, including quirky, foible-filled characters, that dark humor, and the trope of the sweet kid whose morality is threatened by corrupt adults.
  • Wemmick’s devotion to his Aged Parent and the whimsical contraptions he devises to entertain the old fellow are delightful, endearing and uplifting.

Here are the personal reasons, particular to me, that I don’t like Great Expectations:

  • I do not enjoy seeing Pip turn his back on the poor, humble people who love him unconditionally in favor of rich, proud Estella and Miss Havisham. I know that this is his flaw and characters should have flaws. I know that this is only part of his character arc. But, he behaves like an avaricious coward for the majority of the book and I don’t get any pleasure out of knowing about him or his exploits. It hurts me to see him turn his back on Joe Gargery. It doesn’t hurt good, it just hurts.
  • The moral of Miss Havisham’s character does not resonate with me, because it’s too obvious. Of course you should not shut yourself up in your crumbling mansion and never see the light of day again. Of course you should not allow the worst thing that ever happened to you become the defining element of your life, thus making yourself a permanent shrine to a temporary pain and exaggerating the weight of the original insult until you blight your own happiness far more effectively than the bloke who jilted you. I don’t need a heavy-handed allegory to teach me that.
  • Pip and Estella are viewed as a classic love story, but I can’t get into it. Given that they are both victims of Miss Havisham’s ridiculous agenda, I concede it’s nice that they could find a type of shelter in each other. But, I fundamentally don’t care about them or their romance. Perhaps Estella’s not responsible for her wretched personality, but she’s still simply the worst. I can’t feel joy at the prospect of anyone being tied to her for life. Pip is slightly more likable, but only slightly. After dragging myself through 300 pages of his spinelessness and greed, I can’t muster up any concern for his marriage prospects.

For the record, I read Great Expectations three times. People I respect said that they love it, so I kept trying to see what they saw, and I came to the conclusion that they were right, Great Expectations is very good. But, I don’t like it.

You might like Great Expectations if:

  • you’re any literature lover but me.

You might not like Great Expectations if:

  • your tastes are remarkably similar to mine.

Final Thoughts: Bring it on. Tell me why I’m wrong and crazy. I already concede that I’m in the wrong for not liking this book, but I’m more than happy for you to

Silas Marner: A Fireside Read to Warm Your Hearth and Heart

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Silas Marner, George Eliot, 1861

In the novella Silas Marner, George Eliot merges realism and fairy tale. Unlike most European folk tales, the story begins in a Grimm place and ends up somewhere homey and heartwarming.

The title character is an archetypal outcast, a weaver who, through the treachery of a close friend, is cut off from any avenue to human affection. Eliot describes his severely limited existence as the execution of weaving jobs and the accumulation of money repeated incessantly.

When a half orphaned, half abandoned child wanders into his home, Marner finds new purpose and his life becomes entwined with local families.

Silas Marner is a tale of second chances. Eliot posits that whether you’re screwed up or you’ve been screwed over, transformation and redemption are possible, uncomfortable and infinitely rewarding.

As in all her work Eliot is at her best when describing the English countryside and at her worst when condescendingly stereotyping its people. I could read page after page of her describing a flat, featureless stretch of land, but my eyes roll when she generalizes the characteristics of farmers. Her patronizing tone has some purpose in this novel, so it’s more bearable than in Adam Bede

Ultimately, Eliot creates a great deal of sympathy for a seemingly unlovable loner and the wastrel aristocrats he inadvertently becomes involved with. The book starts off a little slow, but my enjoyment increased with every page. Who doesn’t like a fairy tale re-imagined in contemporary times (granted contemporary for Eliot meant mid-1800s)?

You might like Silas Marner if:

  • you’re fond of outcasts
  • it would do you good to read a story of redemption
  • you’re fond of fairy tales

You might not like Silas Marner if:

  • you prefer tragic endings

Final Thoughts:

Silas Marner is an uplifting read, which is rare in the English canon. Authors usually chose to show how a character’s flaws lead to misfortune. Whereas, Eliot starts with unfortunate and flawed characters and shows how their choices lead to their redemption. I like it. It’s nice to read a story with an uncommon plot and an uncommon emotional arc. This is a great, short read for cozy autumn or winter evenings. I might have just convinced myself to read it again soon.

Betrayed by my Favorite Author: Women Who Hate Women

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Adam Bede, George Eliot, 1859

Before I started this project, I considered George Eliot my favorite Victorian author on the strength of Middlemarch alone. She dethroned herself with the rest of her body of work. Yes, she. If you’re not familiar, George Eliot is the nom-de-plume of Mary Ann Evans. When I was assigned to read Middlemarch for a college course, I loved it. I will discuss that special novel when we come to it in this endeavor. Just know that there’s one metaphor that compares women’s native passions and energies to a river whose force diminishes as it breaks upon the rocks of all the other crap people expect from us.

Having read only Middlemarch, I saw Eliot as a feminist author who fought back against the stereotype of female characters whose only concerns are hair ribbons and marrying rich. A Mill on the Floss mostly confirmed this opinion. Then I came to Adam Bede.

Let me tell you how Eliot betrayed me and all women in Adam Bede. There is a character, Bartle Massey, who exists only to spew misogynist nonsense. Every line of his dialogue cut me. Not because a male character hates women, but because my beloved George Eliot wrote and published those lines. She put those horrible thoughts into the world for others to chuckle at. I will not comb through the text to find his most egregiously hateful statements, because reading even one makes my shoulders tense up. So, here’s the first one I could find:

“I must give [my dog] her supper too, confound her! Though she’ll do nothing with it but nourish those unnecessary babbies. That’s the way with these women—they’ve got no head-pieces to nourish, and so their food all runs either to fat or to brats.”

Do you not feel betrayed? How could George Eliot write that? I mean, fuck. I like to think I’m a pretty savvy reader, and I found no evidence that his dialogue was meant to be satirical. What’s worse, he serves no purpose in the novel other than as a mouthpiece for hate. Really. His only other role is moral support for the title character, a function which could easily have been served by at least two other characters. Seriously, if I were to draw you a diagram of the plot, and I’d be happy to do so, this joker’s name would appear nowhere, because he’s inconsequential.

Her portrayal of female characters is problematic as well. First we have Hetty Sorrel, a pretty young girl who is so astoundingly vain and empty headed that she manages to ruin or nearly ruin the lives of everyone near her. Then there’s Lizbeth Bede who destroys the happiness of the men around her by constantly whinging about trifles. And there’s Mrs. Poyser who also cannot stop complaining. Lastly, we have Dinah Morris, a Methodist preacher. Now, that’s pretty cool. A lady doing manstuff. Well, until she gets married and the Methodist church decides women shouldn’t preach because they’re dumb dumbs who do more harm than good. So, George Eliot provided us with stereotypes of female vanity and shrewishness elevated to the point of ruinous destruction.

Why? Why would she do this to me? I loved her so much and she stabbed me right in the feminism. I can’t help but think that Eliot was trying to throw her audience off the scent of her true identity or assert her membership in some male club by bashing women. Which sucks. That just sucks. Just don’t do that “I am a woman, but I’m not like other women. They’re the worst,” crap. Hey, George Eliot, are you a woman? Yes. Are you awesome? Yes. Therefore women are awesome. You’re not a special miracle; you’re evidence that all women have the ability to be insightful, eloquent artists, given the chance.

Listen, I am going to forgive George Eliot. What she did to me as a female reader of female authors really stings. But, every feminist takes a tumble at some point. We all screw up. Standing up to existing powers is exhausting and tricky. She redeemed herself with Middlemarch and I will apply its soothing balm to my psyche.

I don’t forgive Adam Bede, though. I have more problems with it. I find the characters flat, either wholly good or wholly sinful.

Victorians loved descriptions of quaint rustic scenes. Eliot provided them. Her tone in doing so comes off as extremely condescending to me. I slogged through her descriptions of country dinners with a grimace on my face. Then there’s this thing that happened that I just can’t stomach. Spoilers coming in the next paragraph.

Ok. Adam Bede is this strong, sexy carpenter. He’s tall, handsome, hardworking, good at everything, and wise in a quaint rustic way. Everybody in his whole town loves him. His younger brother, Seth, is a less awesome version of Adam. He’s a great guy, but no one really cares about him, because they’re too busy being impressed by Adam. Seth is in love with Dinah Morris. She looks like an angel. She’s so good and pure. She’s just so much better than other women that he could never love anyone but her. But Dinah only loves Jesus. She tells Seth that he’s just the kind of guy she would marry if she was going to marry anyone, but God wants her to blah blah blah not get married and help people yadda yadda.  (When people talk about Christianity, it sounds like the adults in Charlie Brown to me.) The plot proceeds. It’s a doozy. Hardships are endured. Christiany whomp-whomp sounds are made. Dinah falls in love with Adam. Adam finds that he loves her too.

Now, that all seems believable to me. I’m sure brothers have both fallen in love with the same woman. No doubt, a man has married a woman who rejected the proposal of his brother. What I don’t believe is Seth’s attitude about it. Seth, the poor dear, tells Adam that he loves being around Dinah so much that if he can’t marry her, he’s happy to be a bachelor forever and have her near him as a sister. Nope! Zero. That has never happened. If Seth had moved on and married someone else and regarded his feelings for Dinah as misguided puppy love, I would believe that he would condone the marriage. But, I cannot believe that any person would ever be ok with their brother marrying the one person they feel they could ever love. Just no. The last person to be ok with their brother marrying their one true love would be a younger brother who has spent his whole life in his brother’s shadow.

Let’s look at a parallel fictional example. Lady Edith and Lady Mary. Edith lives in Mary’s shadow. Edith was in love with cousin Whatshisface, the one who died on the Titanic. Mary was supposed to marry him to save the family fortune. Was Edith ok with this? No. She was resentful and so desperate for this dude’s affection that she thought a burnt-faced conman was said dead cousin and kind of fell in love with that weirdo. That was a stupid plot element, but it illustrates my point. Also, Edith fell for other people, because it is unnatural to just never seek out human affection again when the first person you’re into doesn’t feel the same way about you. Unnatural.

I do not generally need faithful realism in a work of fiction. However, I just could not buy into the ending of Adam Bede. George Eliot wants me to believe that Adam marrying Dinah and Seth living as their sad bachelor brother is a happy ending. Nope. My gut churned when Dinah and Adam fell in love. Everybody in that situation needed to find someone else to love. I get that these characters don’t often get out of their small town, but…. Just don’t marry the one person your little brother has ever loved. Just don’t. Please. Don’t.

I should mention that something very controversial happens in this book. Not just Victorian controversial, every time period controversial. Well, I can’t speak to what offended cavepeople, but if anything did, probably this thing would. So, it’s not exactly boring. Also, Eliot is a great writer. Every unlikable element of Adam Bede is beautifully written.

You might like Adam Bede if:

  • you are not a feminist
  • you’re a feminist who’s pretty good at shaking off misogynist statements
  • you like George Eliot’s other novels
  • I mean, it’s a well-written book. If the stuff I mentioned wouldn’t bother you and you generally like Victorian fiction, it’s a pretty darn good book. I hope you do read it and like it. It’s not for me, but I’d be perfectly happy to hear that someone else enjoyed it.

You might not like Adam Bede if:

  • the Bartle Massey quote above made your gorge rise.

Final Thoughts: My final thought is a message for Bartle Massey:

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North and South, or Love and Capitalism, or Obedience and Hell No, Not Gonna

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North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell, 1855

If you read my recent review of Ruth, you already know that Elizabeth Gaskell has no time for correct, moral Victorian thinking. True to form, in North and South, Gaskell depicts characters who refuse to conform. Rascally rebels with hearts of gold. They do the right thing by their own moral standards. Yay! Fun! No, not fun. Social scorn, loss of status, risk to self and family. But, fun for the reader!

Can we talk for a minute about Elizabeth Gaskell’s treatment within the canon? Do you read the introductions to classic novels? I’ll be honest, I usually read the first couple of paragraphs and skim the rest. Some fool named Alan Sutton wrote these sentences for his introduction to the Pocket Classics edition of Lois the Witch and Other Stories “Mrs. Gaskell (1810-1865) was first and foremost a woman of her time, a lady of Victorian expansiveness. She was not a brilliant, nor a passionate novelist like George Eliot or Charlotte Bronte, but an intelligent, compassionate and enthusiastic woman, whose life centered around her family.” Barf. Barf. Barf. Just barfed in my mouth a little. Excuse me Alan Sutton, but did you really create a dichotomy between women with families and brilliant authors? Really? Bronte and Eliot are passionate, but Gaskell is only enthusiastic? Probably because she was spending all her emotions on her children and husband. Ugh. Pardon me, I need to pause to roll my eyes several times.

Elizabeth Gaskell published under the name Mrs. Gaskell. Bronte and Eliot published under male pseudonyms. Bronte and Eliot did not have conventional families. Does it not seem like this is why Mr. Sutton chooses to relegate Gaskell to some lower tier of writer? Dickens had about 27 children, but judging by his grand position in the canon, had plenty of brilliance and passion left over for his novels. I could write pages about the utter worthlessness of those two sentences. Instead I will say this: I have now read all of Gaskell’s major works and all but one by her contemporary, George Eliot. Middlemarch by Eliot is perhaps my favorite Victorian novel, but I generally prefer Gaskell to Eliot. Yeah, I said it. In Ruth and North and South Gaskell bravely and PASSIONATELY skewers conventional Victorian morality. Meanwhile, Eliot wastes pages upon page of Adam Bede and Silas Marner in affectionate, but incredibly patronizing depictions of charming, rural, simple, superstitious country folk. Her condescending tone rubs my fur the wrong way and is frankly tiresome. I really never thought I would find a Victorian author I preferred to Eliot, but I did and it’s Elizabeth Gaskell.

That being said, Sally Shuttleworth wrote an introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of North and South that gives Gaskell her due. Shuttleworth examines the complexity of the gender, class, and community tensions depicted in the book. It’s a great introduction written by a person capable of seeing past the “Mrs” in Mrs. Gaskell. Shuttleworth is worth a million Suttons. Honestly, if you are interested in the 1,000 merits of Elizabeth Gaskell or North and South, you should pick up a copy and read Shuttleworth’s intro. It’s better than anything that I am about to write.

Let’s get back to business. The heroine of North and South is Margaret Hale. The daughter of a clergyman, Margaret is used to being about the highest ranking person in her tiny town in the south of England. Her father, the novel’s first rebel, resigns from his job, because he objects to some point of doctrine that the Church of England insists he must preach. His little family cannot understand why Mr. Hale must take this stand against the Church, but he feels he must. So, the Hales relocate from the green and sunny South to the smoky, industrial northern town of Milton. Margaret hates it. In fact, she’s a bit haughty and repulsed by the squalid environment and filthy, unmannered masses. Accustomed to deferential treatment, Margaret is frightened by the loud, boisterous crowds in Milton. She actually gets catcalled, “You may well smile, my lass; many a one would smile to have such a bonny face.” Yep, telling scared women to smile is at least as old as the 1850s.

Despite her initial revulsion, Margaret’s heart warms to the workers. She makes friends with a particular family and sees that their wages do not meet their basic needs. Margaret starts feeling very socialist and pro-union when she sees sick and starving Milton families. This feeling creates complications for M, because she must interact socially with the mill owner, Mr. Thornton. Sparks fly. Thornton is a self-made capitalist fatcat. Margaret is an uppity wannabe aristocrat who scorns trade. They really dislike each other, in a classic romcom way where they can’t stop thinking about each other and despite their better judgment feel certain tingles in certain unspeakable regions.

I really love Margaret, partially because she speaks angrily to capitalists at dinner parties just like me. The romance with Thornton is imperfect to me. He’s extra manly, somewhat scary, and uncompassionate. But, the heart wants what it wants. The romance is extra complicated, because Margaret sides with the workers who go on strike, wanting better wages from Thornton. As you can imagine, this drives Thornton crazy, in a sexy way.

You might like North and South if:

  • you loath capitalism.
  • you ruin social events by loudly loathing capitalism.
  • you secretly want to stop loathing capitalism and marry a petrochemical engineer. (Is that a type of engineer?)

You might not like North and South if:

  • you love Ayn Rand.

Final Thoughts: I loved it. The more I think about it, the more I love it. All hail Margaret Hale! Speak truth to power, Victorian heroines, speak truth to power.

Checkout My Moby Dick Pics

Call me Ishmael.

Call me Ishmael.

Moby Dick, Herman Melville, 1851

I did it! I read Moby Dick. It took me four attempts. On the first three I only made it about four chapters in; that’s how painfully boring this book is. Stop freaking out, Melville enthusiasts. I promise to say some nice things about the book before I’m done.

Moby Dick is often called “one of the greatest adventure stories of all time.” I think it’s time for this book to get a more honest blurb. Really, only about 20% of the words in this novel are dedicated to the adventure of searching for the white whale, and that’s a generous estimate. An appropriate blurb for the other 80% of the book is “every single thought Herman Melville ever had about sperm whales.” Seriously, it’s like Herman Melville had a bad break up with sperm whales and wrote down all his obsessive, post-breakup thoughts. 600 pages of “sperm whales are so beautiful and so evil.”

Some people really love Moby Dick. At least that’s what they tell me. I have a hard time believing it though. You would have to be passionately interested in 19th century whaling to have a good time while reading this novel. There are chapters dedicated to every part of the body of the sperm whale. There are chapters dedicated to every part of the boat used to hunt the sperm whale. I would rate my interest in 19th century whaling at about a 16 out of 100. I am interested in whales and I would like to know more about their biology, but not from Ishmael, who is an idiot.  One of the first things he says about the sperm whale is that it’s definitely a fish. He argues against Karl Linnaeus’ assertion that whales are mammals. Karl Linnaeus was a prominent biologist whose work is arguably just as important to contemporary biology as that of Charles Darwin. I would be interested in reading Linnaeus’ thoughts on whale anatomy, but I don’t care even a little about Ishmael’s. Melville dedicates more words to this topic than any other in Moby Dick, which leaves me wondering why on earth anyone likes this book. I’ll do my best to guess.

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Buried deep in Ishmael’s ramblings lie some little gems of literary merit. I will enumerate them for you:

  • The bromance between Ishmael and Queequeg. The unlikely friendship between the supposedly savage Pacific Island cannibal and the New England sailor is very endearing. There are actually three noble savages onboard the Pequod: Tashtego, a tall, sexy Native American, Dagoo, a brawny, lionine African, and tattooed Queequeg. They are all spoken of with admiration. However, Queequeg is the only one of the three with whom Ishmael forms a genuine friendship. Tashtego and Dagoo are admired for their physical form and whaling skill. They don’t break out of the noble savage thought cage.
  • The adventure parts are scary and exciting. . .and repulsive. So much whale gore spurting into the ocean, making the waves red and foamy. Yuck.
  • Poor, creepy, haunted Pip.
  • Melville can be silly. There are some bits of hilarity to be found if you’re patient enough to wade through all the whale carcasses to find them. For example, at one point the oil, or sperm, from a slaughtered whale has crystalized and the crew has to manually squish it back to its liquid form. Ishmael describes that process thusly:

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my collaborators’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much to say,–Oh, my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm forever!

I mean, that’s pretty great. Maybe worth reading all of Moby Dick for. Maybe.

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The last thing we need to talk about is Ahab. What a weirdo. I never managed to regard him with the filial loyalty and respect that his crew feels for him. They describe him as “noble” a number of times. Perhaps he was once, but his mind has been twisted by the loneliness or violence of whaling or something. Now he’s just a weirdo. All his dramatic speeches seem really silly to me. Get a grip, dude; you’re seeking revenge for an insult perpetrated by a whale. A whale. It’s not your enemy; it’s just an animal, you psycho. Chill out. Don’t ruin the lives of your entire crew. Oops, too late, you got everyone killed. . .because you couldn’t forgive a whale. That sucks. Ahab sucks.

There are some dramatic moments in this adventure story, but the whole thing seems ludicrous to me.

You might like Moby Dick if

  • you just can’t get enough inaccurate Victorian science.
  • you just can’t get enough information about whaling in the 1840s.
  • you are reading a severely abridged version.

You might not like Moby Dick if:

  • the complicated and sometimes loathsome racial relations will upset you.
  • the gory details of hunting and butchering whales will upset you.
  • you are not a whaling enthusiast.

Final thoughts: Look, if you want to read Moby Dick, best of luck to you. I recommend skipping most of the chapters.

Your High School English Teacher Should Apologize for Making You Read The Scarlett Letter

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Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, 1850 (with some continued mention of The House of the Seven Gables)

I’m going to try to be Fair and Balanced like Fox News in this review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s major novel. In other words, I am going to launch into a highly biased rant against Hawthorne’s many flaws whilst ignoring the perspective of anyone whose tastes, opinions and values may differ from mine.

I kid; I kid. I wanted to loathe Hawthorne, but certain elements of The Scarlet Letter reversed the tide of my affections. I will explain. First, some background information about the book:

Hawthorne wrote about New England. He was particularly interested in the Puritans and their cultural legacy. He had a relative who convicted “witches” in Salem, a judge who never expressed regret for his actions.  Both of these novels have a strange vein of magic running through them. Is it or isn’t it magic? Are we superstitious or are we skeptics? Was my ancestor an evil man who sent innocents to the gallows, or was he a hero who eradicated witchcraft from Salem? Hawthorne seems to toy with these questions, but his novels ultimately express a belief in magic and witches, in my opinion.

Every American high school student is forced to read The Scarlet Letter, so I am sure that you remember that it’s about Hester Prynne, a woman who sleeps with her pastor after her husband disappears. She gets caught, because she gets pregnant, and she is forced by her strict, Puritan community to wear a scarlet “A” for adulteress on her clothing. She never gives up the identity of her lover.

I don’t have a problem with Hawthorne’s plots. The presentation is awful, though. In both novels, Hawthorne withholds the most interesting elements of his story. In The House of the Seven Gables, Clifford and his cousin have a secret drama that ruined Clifford’s, health, psychology and reputation. Instead of telling the reader about that, Hawthorne talks for about 15 pages about chickens. Just the stuff that chickens do in the yard. 15 pages. Yes, their behavior is a metaphor for some stuff, some stuff that the reader has already internalized and does not need to spend 15 pages thinking about, especially not in the form of an overlong chicken allegory.

Let’s think about the plot of The Scarlet Letter. Here are the plot elements:

  • A Puritan woman’s husband disappears into the wilderness for two years.
  • She has an affair with her reverend.
  • She gets pregnant.
  • She gets convicted of adultery.
  • She hides the identity of her lover.
  • Her husband returns.
  • He asks her to keep their relation to each other concealed.
  • Her husband moves in with her lover and torments his guilty conscious.
  • Her lover is super tormented by his religious guilt.

I would say that 1, 2 and 3 are the most interesting elements of this plot. 7 and 8 are the least interesting. Be honest, would you rather read about religious guilt or forbidden romance? Forbidden romance, obviously. As an irreligious person, I could not empathize with Reverend Dimmesdale’s guilt.

In fact, religious guilt is my absolute least favorite literary theme. So boring. Stop tormenting yourself and become an ubermensch! Obviously, his obligation is not to God or his flock. His obligation is to his child and the woman he impregnated. Run away! Make a life! Forget your guilt, it helps no one! Don’t waste your life feeling shitty about loving a very lovable woman. Dummy. Reverend Dumbsdale.

That rant really got away from me. My point was that Hawthorne dedicates zero pages to the romance between Hester and Dimmesdale and 150 pages to their feelings of sinfulness and guilt. Waste of their time and waste of my time as a reader.

Hawthorne’s management of his pacing in The House is equally bad. He moves in a Brownian motion between a small set of ideas: Phoebe is youthful and pure, Hepzibah is dour, Clifford is feeble and loves beauty, the Pyncheon bloodline is degenerating, the sins of the fathers are blah blah blah. He ping pongs back and forth between these few ideas with no sense of urgency or forward movement.

Rant over! Here’s what I love about Hawthorne: Hester Prynne. Hester Prynne! Based on my (exhaustive) knowledge of English literature, I think that Hester Prynne is the first woman in literature whose virtue is divorced from her sexual purity. Hawthornes depicts his fallen woman as admirable, which just doesn’t happen in other books. (Except maybe Nancy in Oliver Twist, who I also love.) I really loved Hester and wanted her to escape from her life of shame, which she never does.

If you think about it, Hawthorne’s ideas of women are feminist. He suggests that Hester would have been a “prophetess” of sorts if she hadn’t lived in such a judgmental society. He makes it clear that she’s the most badass person in her tiny, hater-filled town. He demonstrates that shaming people for their sexual behavior is unproductive, hypocritical and cruel. That’s a good thing for an author to do.

You might like The Scarlet Letter if:

  • you sympathize with women who are publicly punished for their harmless private behavior.
  • you are anti-slut-shaming.

You might not like The Scarlet Letter if:

  • well, there are a lot of reasons, but you should probably just read it. Everybody else has and you don’t want to be uncultured do you? No, you don’t. You want to be buttermilk. Not just regular milk. Because you want to make good cornbread.

Final thoughts: I really didn’t enjoy or understand The Scarlet Letter in high school, but I’m glad I revisited it. Hawthorne’s style might be yawn worthy, but Hester Prynne is a literary heroine of the first order.