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.

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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.

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.

A Country Doctor is not the Book about Women Doctors that You Deserve

 

img_7352A Country Doctor, Sarah Orne Jewett, 1883

I had such high hopes for A Country Doctor by Sarah Orne Jewett. It’s about a Victorian lady doctor! Hooray! And it is set in Maine, where I currently live. And it’s written by a woman. I was so ready to love it.

But it just isn’t good.

Firstly, there is a grand total of one, just one, pitiful sad lonely one scene in which our hero Nan—or whatever, I finished reading this book today and I already forgot the main character’s name, but we’ll call her Nan. I’m 90% sure it’s Nan.—actually practices medicine. Just that one scene. She relocates a man’s shoulder. Which is probably not the medical term for fixing a dislocated shoulder. I don’t care about this book enough to look up medical terms.

The beautiful, eerie, shimmering spirit of a good book haunts this novel, but Sarah OJ tragically murdered it. I want to know about the fiery, wild spirit of the young girl who would grow up to defy society and become a doctor. Unfortunately, OJ just hints at Nan’s wild youth through long and tedious conversations that adults have about her. Ugh. Imagine if Little Women or Anne of Green Gables was just conversations among adults and the scrapes the girls get themselves into were never directly narrated. I thought I was done with long conversations about the politics of Victorian medicine when I finished Middlemarch, but I guess not.

OJ focuses most of her wordcount on Nan’s peculiar family history. Nan’s mother was an uppity farm girl who married above her station. Mom’s in-laws were cruel. Dad died young. Mom took to drink and tuberculosis. After contemplating doing away with herself and her young child, the drunk, consumptive Momma delivers the child to her grandmother before expiring from her illnesses. Mom asks the attendant country doctor to look after her child. Her own mother is standing right there, but she asks the doctor to take on this random baby. Apparently, that was something you could do in the 1880s.

In time grandma passes away and the doctor takes little Nan to his own home. She takes to medicine. Thus commences the debate as old as women in the work place “can she have it all.” Obviously, in the 19th century a woman could not have a job and a husband. Obviously, a man appears and falls in love with Nan. Spoiler: she loves him too, but decides she is unsuited to marriage and that her one duty is to become a doctor. The shoulder relocation scene occurs during their brief courtship. Which means that the only example OJ gives of her protagonist’s medical prowess serves to demonstrate the effect of that skill on young men who wish to marry her. Nothing to do with personal accomplishment or utility to the greater good, just “what will the boys think?”

We know from the title of the book that Nan is going to choose medicine over men, so OJ’s attentiveness to this crisis in Nan’s life has no urgency. Her actual medical career serves as an epilogue to the central question of will she choose marriage or a career. Granted, this is an important topic to see inaugurated in literature. Sadly, Sarah Orne Jewett threw Can-She-Have-It-All a rather inept debutante ball.

My favorite part of the novel was the moment when two wives discuss how much easier cooking is with their newfangled stoves while their husbands discuss how much they miss the old-fashioned stoves. Too true, OJ. Too true. Often, men don’t understand how much work the women are doing to keep the house in order.

OJ’s most profound moment lies in Nan’s assertions that she is unfit for marriage. While it is unfortunate that her relatives cannot simply accept that she’d rather be a doctor than a wife, OJ takes some time to consider the idea that not all women are suited to being wives, home makers or mothers. Men at that time could choose whether they wanted to be husbands and fathers. However, women without independent means had no choice but marriage. When marriage is your only choice, marriage is not truly consensual. Neither is the sex within that marriage.

You might like A Country Doctor if:

  • You need it for your Ph.D. thesis on Victorian women in literature.

You might not like A Country Doctor if:

  • I think I laid that out for you already.

Final Thoughts: The topic and the themes of this novel are all I could ask for, but the execution is poor. I would be very interested in reading a history of women in medicine, though. Fascinating topic.

Star-crossed Astronomers

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I love Thomas Hardy for so many reasons. Lately, I have been particularly admiring the surprising behavior of his female characters. Even in the Late Victorian Era, women in literature are mostly predictable. They obey their fathers and husbands. They almost always do the right thing, and by “right” I mean socially acceptable. When faced with adversity, Hardy’s heroines do not follow convention. Here are some of the surprising things they do:

  • when Bathsheba must fire her steward, she doesn’t hire another man to help her; she runs her farm herself.
  • one young lady marries a rich old aristocrat instead of her handsome, poor, young lover. Instead of pining away of misery when the old bag turns out to be immoral and controlling, she takes charge and reforms him.
  • when Grace’s adulterer husband returns from months away with his mistress, she doesn’t take him back, but runs off to be with her own lover.
  • Lady Constantine, the heroine of the novel I am reviewing today, is abandoned by her husband. She’s lonely and bored. Does she humbly pine away, spending her nights knitting socks for charity? Nope! She finds herself a hot young country lad. When her husband finally croaks, she DOES NOT marry her lover.

Women simply do not behave like this in novels by other authors. I love it! Hardy is the only Victorian author I have found who allows his female characters to act in their own interest without losing his or the reader’s sympathy. He’s the best. Let’s get back to the romance at hand.

These lovers just can’t uncross their stars.

Thomas Hardy starts with a 28-year-old woman whose horrible husband has abandoned her to go on safari. Due to a truly stupid vow he pried from her, she musn’t go into society or have any fun while he’s away. He’s been away for years. Bored out of her skull, Lady Constantine decides she’d like to survey her estate from the top of a column that was built to commemorate her husband’s grandpa who died in “The American War.” Gotcha, Grandpa. Stay on your side of the Atlantic.

Lady Constantine discovers a handsome young astronomer using her column to study the stars. “Hey, boy, hey” says Lady Inconstantine. She falls in love and begins wooing him several months before a letter arrives bearing the news of her husband’s timely death. Gasp! Horrors! An older woman a younger man! How can a young man be expected to love an older woman when her beauty will fade long before his?

Oh wait, before we proceed I must mention that the astronomical cherub’s name is Swithin St Cleeve. Swithin. I didn’t even know that was a name. Thomas Hardy, you champion.

This set up is just fine. Well, perhaps not. I’m here for the abandoned aristocrat finding a young swain on her property and seducing him. Why not? Well, because she’s taking advantage of his inexperience? That is a plausible interpretation of the situation. Hardy goes to some effort to establish that she is the wooer, but that Swithin loves her and consents to the wooing. An eight-year difference in the other direction wouldn’t have been noteworthy. I don’t know. One should not seduce inexperienced young things. True enough.

The other flaw in the design is Hardy’s contrast between the enormity of the universe and the insignificance of earthly romance. He succeeds in making the central tension in the novel seem insignificant.

Next, Hardy unveils a series of ludicrous misadventures. They marry, but the marriage is invalidated, because her husband is not dead! Except he is dead! He just didn’t die before they got married. And a host of other implausible inconveniences and strange mishaps interfere with our two insignificant lovers.

Just when our heroine selflessly decides to send her young fella away to pursue his career unencumbered by a renewal of their falsified vows, she discovers that she is pregnant. Of course, Hardy could not use such a scandalous word, but he gets his point across. Swithin has wandered beyond the reach of letter or telegram. In her desperation, Lady Constantine marries the pompous bishop who has been courting her and passes the baby off as his. Nothing this shocking has happened in the history of English literature. Thomas Hardy don’t give af. I so very much wish I could read the novels this gent would have written if fully unfettered by what Victorian’s considered printable. As it was Two on a Tower caused quite a stir, particularly because Lady Constantine’s dupe was a bishop.

How dare you impugn the bishopry? 

Thomas Hardy did dare. He wrote a host of implausible circumstances leading to the conception of this child, but many children were conceived out of wedlock and even today women marry men other than the father of their child before the birth of said child. Hardy’s bit of scandal is a bit of realism buried in a surfeit of silliness. I do see hints of the Tragic Destiny that characterizes his later and greatest works. The emotional and moral question of the novel is “how social restrictions can lead an otherwise virtuous woman into shameful circumstances.” This question lies at the heart of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s best works. Well, that’s just as far as I can remember. I haven’t read them in years and I wouldn’t be surprised if Far from the Madding Crowd conquers Tess in my heart. Anyway, the point is:

You may like Two in a Tower if:

  • you’re a cougar

You may not like Two in a Tower if:

  • life is too short for the minor works of major authors

Final Thoughts: This book is just ok. Not bad. Not perfect. The subject matter is certainly unique and scandalous for its time. I can’t say this is Hardy’s best work.

Poor, Sick Thomas Hardy Writes a Real Clunker

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A Laodicean, Thomas Hardy, 1881

I am reading a biography of my favorite author, Thomas Hardy, concurrently with reading his books. Before the author mentions any plot elements, I stop reading the biography and switch to the novel. No spoilers. When I finished reading A Laodicean, I thought “why is this book so bad?” Turns out there’s a very good reason.

After accepting an advance from Harpers to publish his next novel in installments, Thomas Hardy became very ill. He was an invalid for many months. Hardy could not afford to lose the money, so he dictated the novel to his wife from his sickbed. This is why we should not work when we’re sick. Bad novels. No, contagion is why we shouldn’t work when we’re sick, but also A Laodicean.

Laodicean means lukewarm or undecided especially in terms of religion. Our heroine, Paula Power, is first seen by our peeping tom of a hero, George Somerset, when she is about to be baptized into her late father’s Protestant faith. At the last second, she greatly disappoints the minister by refusing to enter the dark pool of baptismal water. This minster later becomes…not important to the plot at all, even though he professes to think of Paula as a daughter. I think Thomas Hardy, in his illness, forgot the poor fellow.

The theme of A Laodicean is less about Paula’s religious doubt and more about her wavering between the old and the new. Her father was a wealthy railroad engineer and designer. Upon his death he left her in possession of a castle formerly owned by the still local De Stancy family. Paula seems to be an independent woman, a representative of modernity. Yet, she yearns for the legitimacy of being an aristocrat. If she were a De Stancy no one would question her actions, such as the renovation of the crumbling castle.

Predictably, given that Hardy trained as an architect, our young hero is an aspiring architect. He falls in love with Paula and pretends to be interested in sketching the castle for professional purposes, wink wink. He is clearly superior to the architect Paula was planning on using for the restoration.

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All seems well.  Our hero will get the gig and enter into close, love-inducing proximity with our girl Paula. Enter a young scamp named Dare. Hardy rarely used his first name and I’ve already forgotten it. Anyway, this mysterious villain thwarts George Somerset at every turn. He’s very clever at it. But why does he want to? Turns out he is the illegitimate son of Captain De Stancy. Gasp! He wants to see his father restored to their ancestral home. More importantly he wants to get his hands on Paula’s fortune.

Paula favors George, but she feels badly about her family taking over the home that the De Stancy’s occupied for hundreds of years. Dare is so good at making other people look bad, that after a long chase across the Continent she renounces George and engages herself to De Stancy. At the last minute the truth of Dare’s deceptions and his identity is revealed to Paula. She calls off the wedding and reverses the Continental chase, pursuing Somerset this time. After a long and tantalizing ordeal, she finds him, they make up and they get married. A resentful Dare burns down castle De Stancy.

George sanguinely suggests that this is a good thing. Now they can build a new home with modern amenities. His bride agrees for two seconds before proclaiming “but I wish I had my castle and I wish you were a De Stancy.”

I can see the makings of a good concept swirling around in there. I’m sure Hardy was going to make a brilliant point about the tension between progress and tradition. Technology and the newly rich may be taking over, but social status does not come so swiftly. My American brain is dumbfounded by the insistent clinging of the British people to the oppressive tradition of aristocracy. Why don’t they just get rid of their royals? Because everyone wants to dream about being a princess, I guess. Paula Power lives in a castle. She can buy anything she wants and marry whomever she pleases. Hardy was perhaps too ill to illustrate what more Paula could attain as a member of the gentry, so it seems like she’s hankering after nothing more than words and ideas. The point falls a bit flat.

Dare is an interesting character. He is smart, but corrupt and ruthless. He feels entitled to better treatment as the last of the De Stancy line, and he manipulates everyone around him to achieve this aim, including his own unowned father. The tricks he pulls on Somerset are entertaining and heartrending to read. The iniquity!

I could tell that this book was published serially and written for money. It seems that Hardy did not have the wherewithal to develop the side characters, subplots and depth of meaning that typify his better novels. I quickly grew tired of the repetition of a small set of ideas. He was dragging out a scanty creative effort in order to get that paycheck from Harpers. Poor thing.

Ultimately, book centers on the wooing of Paula by Somerset and De Stancy. He wallows in the minutiae of their attempts to win her. It gets quite dull. Often their efforts are manipulative and icky. Both suitors use guilt freely. This is a type of courtship that is not fun to read about and Hardy spends at least one hundred too many pages detailing it.

Final Thoughts: I’m so grateful for modern medicine. Hardy suffered for months from a urinary tract infection. I wish I could go back in time and give him some anti-biotics. Then maybe this would have been a good book.

Henry James and the Myth of the Independent Woman

portrait of a ladyThe Portrait of a Lady, Henry James, 1881

I half enjoyed this book. Which is to say, I enjoyed half of it. The first half.  Then it went off the rails. I suspected this might happen. When a writer describes a female character as intelligent and independent, I get a bit excited, but I’m also apprehensive. So many writers directly characterize a woman this way, then proceed to depict dimwitted and passive behavior from this supposedly brilliant and forceful woman. They want you to think “gee, these situations are so complex and demanding that even a smart, strong woman has lost her way.” Instead, I think: don’t make claims about characters that you have no intention of substantiating!

Even our beloved Jane Austen is guilty of this disappointing deception. She describes Lizzy Bennet as quick and decisive, but during the slightest crisis, Lizzy just cannot decide what to do. The turning point between her and Darcy is the moment when she’s befuddled, and Darcy charges off on a horse, knowing exactly what to do. Because what this sharp, intelligent woman needed all along was a man to swoop in to make decisions and act on her behalf.

Back to the book at hand. Henry James tells us that Isabel Archer is an independent, intellectual woman. Brimful of ideas. Capable of startling action. At the beginning she seems quite quirky. He introduces her brilliantly, as a young woman so unconventional she’s more interested in introducing herself to dogs than to her own relatives. This is the Victorian Era, when propriety required one to announce one’s presence as a guest in someone’s home before playing with their dogs.

Isabel’s strange, cold-blooded aunt snatched her from Albany to England, where she meets her ailing uncle and his invalid son, Ralph in their English country estate, Gardencourt. Isabel is such a success in England, that several suitable suitors propose to her and she turns them down. James doesn’t provide any real substantive reason for her refusals, which is fine. You don’t need a reason to not marry anyone, Isabel. You do you. When she refuses a wealthy aristocrat, her cousin and uncle think she’s so original, they’d love to see what surprising thing she’d do if she had enough money to make what she wanted out of her life. So, Ralph and the dying uncle conspire to leave the bulk of the uncle’s money to Isabel. At this point the novel goes sour.

Previous to her windfall, I bought into Isabel’s character. I too, was excited to see what she would make of her life. The characterization of the family at Gardencourt is subtle. There are worlds of detail to analyze. Just the first half of the novel contains enough material for several Ph.D. theses on self-perception versus reality. It’s great. I was riding high on the wave of expectation James builds around Isabel. I was enjoying the prose. Then it all came tumbling down.

As I passed the half-way point, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the discrepancy between Isabel’s characterization and her behavior. James says she’s intelligent, but I think she says “I don’t understand you” more than she says anything else. She’s supposed to be intellectual, but she doesn’t engage in any intellectual activities. She does refuse to marry an aristocrat when everyone expects her to take such a fabulous opportunity, but that is the one independent thing she does. She spends the rest of the book being extraordinarily passive. It is so disappointing to me that Henry James decided to write about an intelligent and independent woman, but couldn’t come up with anything intelligent for her to do or say. She’s supposed to be so fascinating and modern, but the one concern he has with her is “who will she marry and what will the consequences be?” Just like every other woman in the history of novels. I wanted her to start a political movement or build a hospital or at the very least become a painter or dancer or just do something interesting. One interesting thing. Well, I would have liked for her to do a lifetime of interesting things, but I didn’t get one out of Henry James. Not one.

Isabel does end up marrying someone and he’s terrible. This is in the second part of the novel when things fall apart. James doesn’t really explain why she marries this man. Far after the fact of their marriage he offers the small illumination that he appeared smart and poor, so he seemed like a worthy person to share her newfound wealth with. Poor Isabel was projecting. He’s not what he appeared. Their marriage makes her miserable. She finds out a terrible secret about him. That’s the whole story. A woman inherits wealth unexpectedly and makes an unfortunate marriage. Her husband has a scandalous secret, which I guessed immediately upon his introduction to the story. James’ hints are beyond heavy-handed.

Early on I liked James’ prose and I liked the richness of his depictions of Isabel’s thoughts. However, there are so many elements of this novel, reputedly his best, that seem objectively bad to me. Objective is not quite the right word. We cannot measure the quality of prose objectively. Yet, there is a consensus about “strong writing” and “weak writing” and so much of this is not strong. If a creative writing class were to workshop this novel here’s the criticism James would have to absorb:

  • the narrator’s description of characters does not match their behavior
  • Isabel’s husband’s characterization is weak. He completely demoralizes his wife, but I’m not sure how. How exactly the marriage falls apart is never described. This is a problem, because their relationship is the crux of the story.
  • So much showing, very little telling. It’s almost as if the writer is afraid that he cannot write human behavior effectively, so he describes it instead of demonstrating it.
  • Please, please break up your paragraphs. There are so many long, long paragraphs that include perfectly natural places to break into a second paragraph.
  • There are several passages that read like sitcom phone conversations, where you can only hear one speaker, so they repeat the other speaker’s dialogue in the form of a question. For example, “Her husband has a very bad manner. Did I enjoy my trip to America? Why should I have enjoyed it? I didn’t go for my pleasure.” This is unnatural and I don’t see any reason to do it, when it’s just as easy to break the paragraph.
  • I struggle with the pacing. The first 250 pages give Isabel’s thoughts in such detail, but then her most critical decisions are not explained and there are huge gaps in time that seem unjustified.
  • So much of what the narrator states needs to be unpacked. I’ll give one glaring example “he had neither innocence nor weakness, so he had no practical philosophy.” I’m not sure what that really means. But more importantly, if you want us to believe that he has no innocence, have him do something that betrays a worldliness and lack of innocence. If you want us to believe he has no weakness, give us a scene that demonstrates this. What does it even mean that he has no practical philosophy? Have some faith in your readers. Write human behavior and let them interpret it. These characters rarely do anything. They just sit around having their feelings described. I read 500 pages about these characters, but I couldn’t give you an example of a typical behavior for any one of them, because there is so little actual behavior in the novel.
  • It seems obvious that Isabel’s husband is very controlling of women, because of how controlling he is of his daughter. If you want us to believe that Isabel is intelligent, she should have picked up on that.
  • If you want us to believe that Isabel is independent, she needs to be less passive and devoted to her horrible husband. What exactly is so modern and interesting about this woman whose sense of propriety trumps her need for personal happiness? Why do we end with her going back to her husband?

I could keep going. It seems to me that the only reason Henry James is in the cannon is his detailed description of characters’ conflicting thoughts. I’ve read that this influenced modernists like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and I believe that. However, I strongly believe that we should be honest when someone makes art that is bad, but contains a spark of an idea that other artists took and made into good art. That’s what Henry James is shaping up to be. I still have, sigh, three more books by him to read.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention that there is an interesting and independent-minded woman in the book. It isn’t Isabel, it’s her friend Henrietta Stackpole, a feminist journalist. This book should have been about her. But I guess she’s not a “lady” in his mind, because he uses her for . . . comic relief? Well, no, the book is mostly humorless, but Henrietta does seem to be the butt of a joke somehow. James doesn’t take her seriously. He should. She’s everything he claims his main character is.

Final thoughts:

There are so many good late Victorian novels on the theme of marriage as a prison for women. Better on every level. Nearly anything by Thomas Hardy, George Elliot’s Middlemarch. Anne Bronte wrote a novel about a woman who leaves her abusive husband 53 years earlier. The Portrait of a Lady is insufficient, as a work of art and as a social statement. Fail.