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.

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The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

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The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches, Mark Twain, 1867

Here he is, ladies and gentleman: Mark Twain.

An author I had not read before I started this project.

That’s not accurate. I read The Prince and The Pauper as a child, but I mostly forgot it. I have not read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. I simply haven’t. That’s why this project exists: to remedy such problems. So, here we go, scratching the surface of Mark Twain’s oeuvre.

Before we get started, can I just say that it this series of photos was not easy to achieve. This frog was difficult to knit. Tossing the frog was good fun. Focusing the camera on the flying frog was near impossible. My wonderful friend, Connor, assisted me. We did our best. Here are some blurry pictures of a “jumping frog.”

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I will not repeat the incredibly long title of Mark Twain’s first collected book of short stories. Suffice it to say that in 1867 he had accumulated enough acclaim as a journalist and short story writer (Wait, stop, that’s what George Saunders is doing. He’s a contemporary Mark Twain. People often ask me which contemporary writers I admire, and George Saunders is in my top three. I just realized he’s doing a Mark Twain thing with his short stories/journalism//children’s stories/brand new novel. I see you, George Saunders, trying to be Mark Twain. You even did travel journalism with that Dubai piece for GQ, which I loved even though I wanted it to condemn Dubai’s capitalism more openly.) to publish a book of satirical journalism and short stories. Whoa, went on a tangent there. If you’re reading this, you are amazing for putting up with the mind-vomitorium response to English literature that is my blog.

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Anyhway, Mark Twain was a funny guy who made fun of everybody. I seriously don’t have anything interesting or profound to say about Mark Twain’s first publication. The things he chose to satirize in this first volume seem…lacking in importance. We like to imagine that our political satirists will change perception, but they just preach to the choir and change nothing. “The Daily Show” doesn’t have the ear of Trump voters. Its only function is to make us laugh. The feeling that our opponents will watch and suddenly understand their own hypocrisy is false and we know it.

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My point is that Twain pokes fun at rustics almost exclusively (oh, shit, we are doing that right now, in the post-election frenzy?) and it seems empty to me. Ok, we are post-the-post-election-frenzy now, but we weren’t when I started writing this review. Yes, Mark Twain is funny. His stories are still quite entertaining. He’s a funny, funny guy. But in this first set of stories, I don’t see his merit as a satirist, unless he was satirizing contemporary journalism, which I haven’t read enough of to understand what he’s satirizing. Seriously, I’m not a history professor, so I have no reason to read lots of late 1800s newspapers. In another life, perhaps I would.

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The title story is a humorous allegory about a gambling man and his trained frog and his hubris. It’s worth a read. At some point, a literature reviewer translated the story into French to back up his claim that Twain’s reputation as a humorist was overblown. Twain translated the French translation back into English, or as he phrased it “clawed [it] into a civilized language once more by, patient, unremunerated toil.” This is all very funny and would probably be funnier if I could fully understand the French translation. Twain’s translation is a bit silly. He pokes fun at French grammar with phrases like “I no me recollect not exactly.” Which is good for a brief chuckle, but the fact that French uses double negatives while English does not is hardly an inexhaustible mine of humor. Twain does drive home his point that his humor is colloquial and untranslatable. Therefore he should not be judged based on a French translation. Fair enough, Mr. Twain, fair enough.

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“The Story of the Bad Little Boy Who Didn’t Come to Grief” refutes childhood boogeyman tales of the horrors that befall boys who behave badly. A boy is naughty, never gets caught, grows up to be “universally respected” and belong “to the Legislature” despite his litany of deplorable crimes. Sound familiar? There’s a funny tale about being ejected from your lodgings because you are trying to learn an instrument. Twain also pokes fun at the parables we teach children. He responds with extreme vitriol to questions submitted to newspapers. There are plenty of funny moments in Twain’s first anthology. There are many other moments as well.

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You might like The Celebrated Jumping Frog and Other Sketches if:

  • honestly, you’d need a scholarly reason to read this entire volume when you could just skip to later and greater works. Just read the title story and move on to Tom Sawyer.

You might not like The Celebrated Jumping Frog and Other Sketches if:

  • I think I covered it already.

Final thoughts: I’m eager to move on to the more acclaimed parts of Twain’s oeuvre. This bit is quite good, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. The Celebrated Jumping Frog is a great story and if you’re dedicated to literature enough to read this blog, you should certainly read those few pages. Seriously, don’t skip it. You can skip the Other Sketches. Download the pdf and read it right now.

Louisa May Alcott’s Scandalous Romance Novel

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A Long Fatal Love Chase Louisa May Alcott, 1866

Dear readers, kindly join me welcoming the one and only Louisa May Alcott to the blog. She has arrived, ladies and gentlemen. She has arrived. We will arrive at Little Women in short order. But first, we delve into Louisa May’s dark and mysterious early literary life as a writer of scandalous, sensational novels.

Before she wrote Little Women, Alcott authored a smattering of romance novels. It’s not quite what you think. They are a far cry from the throbbing members of contemporary romance writing, but they are passionate and dramatic. When her family encountered some financial struggles, Alcott wrote A Long Fatal Love Chase for a publisher who wanted more of the same. However, he deemed the manuscript too sensational and too long for publication. She edited it, but it was still rejected for its racy content. A Long Fatal Love Chase remained unpublished until 1995.

What makes the novel so scandalous that it had to be locked away for 130 years? Extra-marital sex! Shocking. Well, no, extra-marital sex occurs in previous Victorian novels that weren’t locked away. Adam Bede is far more shocking. The thing is that female characters who engage in extra-marital sex must repent and die of shame immediately. The main character, Rosamond fails to do so. Alcott’s unforgivable authorial decision was to portray a fallen woman as blameless and worthy of our sympathy and attention.

I’m going to tell you the whole plot, because you honestly don’t need to read this one yourself. I have done it for you. Twice. Because I’m thorough.

Young, beautiful Rosamond is trapped in some sort of rocky tower scenario, surrounded by crashing waves, with no company but her grumpy and loveless grandfather. A devilishly handsome stranger named Tempest comes to visit Grampy. Yes, his name is actually Tempest. He looks just like the painting of Mephistopheles hanging in her weird grandfather’s weird horror mansion. Tempest is a rascal and a villain! He lives for pleasure and cares for no one but himself. He is taken with fair Rosamond and wins her grandfather’s consent to their marriage in a poker game. Yep.

Tempest tries to abduct Rosamond in his yacht once, but changes his mind. He sticks around until the innocent maiden falls in love with him. Her choices were Tempest or eternal misery with Grandpa, so of course finally agrees to go away with him. Tempest tries to convince her to live with him unwed, but good Rosamond threatens to throw herself into the sea if he doesn’t either marry her or take her home. She could have drowned herself right then and saved everyone a lot of trouble, because she does end up perishing in that exact stretch of ocean a few years later. Did I give it away? So did the title.

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Tempest arranges a quickie marriage and the two of them experience a year or so of wedded bliss until a mysterious woman shows up and starts making trouble. Turns out she’s Tempest’s actual wife; he’s a bigamist. That charming young boy he keeps around is his son. Instead of dying immediately, Rosamond runs away and tries to hide from Tempest with a French actor. He finds her. She flees. He finds her. She flees. He finds her and so on and so forth.

While Rosamond determinedly evades her stalker, a monk falls in love with her. Yes, a dreamy, heroic monk. Nothing ever happens between them, because he will not forsake his vows and she will not ask him to. They are both so noble and virtuous. Tempest is driven mad with jealousy. He attempts to kill the monk, but he accidentally drowns Rosamond instead. He clutches her corpse and declares that Father Ignatius will never have her. Ignatius, the monk/lover, is sure that he will love no other and that he and Rosamond will join each other in heaven while Tempest burns in hell.

They’ll-be-together-in-heaven is my second least favorite ending for a story. There’s no consolation in that for an atheist. For the record, my absolute least favorite ending is he-may-be-dead-but-at-least-she’s-carrying-his-child.

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What makes the story too scandalous for 1866 is the depiction of Rosamond as innocent, virtuous and pure after she has had sex out of wedlock. How silly Victorian morals were. She was the innocent victim of an immoral man’s trick. She did nothing wrong, but the fact that other characters consider her to be pure and virtuous just could not be tolerated by Victorian society. We just can’t allow a way back into good society for women who have had sex outside of marriage. We simply can’t.

You might like A Long Fatal Love Chase if:

  • you just love Louisa May Alcott and Jo March so much you can’t resist checking it out
  • you need a rest from complex thoughts

You might not like A Long Fatal Love Chase if:

  • you can’t tolerate sentimental writing

Final Thoughts: A Long Fatal Love Chase is not a good work of literature. The language is dramatic and overly adjectived. It’s a bit trite and tawdry, but I’m glad I read it, if for no other reason than because it provides some context for the moments in Little Women when Jo is up in the attic scribbling her stories.

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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