My Expectations Were a Bit Greater

misshavisham

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

Advertisements

Betrayed by my Favorite Author: Women Who Hate Women

IMG_6204

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:

IMG_6220

Byron’s Don Juan: Origin of the Rap Battle?

Haidee finding Don Juan

Don Juan, Lord Byron, 1820

In his long poem “Don Juan” Byron reimagines the legendary Latin Lover as a luckless young man, tossed about by circumstance in 1820s Europe. Highly susceptible to feminine charms, he falls in love over and over again. We tend to think of Don Juan as a scheming seducer. Byron turns him into a well-intentioned, affectionate chap who inspires consuming passions in the opposite sex. Those passionate females create a lot of trouble for Juan.

As you might imagine, Don Juan has a number of lovers. Byron describes intimate scenes with more detail than previous poets dared to use. The poem was declared immoral by many critics. Byron’s publisher often hesitated to publish new installments and some of Byron’s friends begged him to stop writing it. However, many of his fellow poets declared it a work of genius and it was popular with the public.

I agree that it has elements of genius. When Byron manages to stay focused on his plot, the poem is amazing. His passages about falling in love are breathtaking. I read from one of them during my brother’s wedding ceremony:

     They look'd up to the sky, whose floating glow
       Spread like a rosy ocean, vast and bright;
     They gazed upon the glittering sea below,
       Whence the broad moon rose circling into sight;
     They heard the wave's splash, and the wind so low,
       And saw each other's dark eyes darting light
     Into each other—and, beholding this,
     Their lips drew near, and clung into a kiss;

     A long, long kiss, a kiss of youth, and love,
       And beauty, all concentrating like rays
     Into one focus, kindled from above;
       Such kisses as belong to early days,
     Where heart, and soul, and sense, in concert move,
       And the blood 's lava, and the pulse a blaze,
     Each kiss a heart-quake,—for a kiss's strength,
     I think, it must be reckon'd by its length.

He really captures the gigantic, encompassing feelings born of little, intimate moments between two people. No?

Byron very successfully describes these things too:

  • The bittersweet feeling of leaving your home behind to go on an adventure.
  • The charms of Middle Eastern women.
  • Don Juan’s courage in battle or when sparring with a lover’s huband/father.
  • Petty jealousies.
  • Scenery.
  • Unhappy marriages.

Haidee finding Don Juan

 

Unfortunately, he grants an enormous number of lines to insulting other poets, insulting social institutions and rambling on about his personal philosophy. I think satire is most effective, not to mention entertaining, when contained within the plot. When Byron directly attacks society, the quality of his poetry diminishes. Fact: philosophy is boring. Don Juan is over 16,000 lines long, but to me it only drags when Byron goes off on philosophical tangents.

Bryon dedicated Don Juan to Robert Southey. Sounds nice, right? I like Southey. Byron didn’t. The caustic, ironic dedication sets the tone for Byron’s other acerbic digressions. Byron’s good friend Shelley escapes his harsh pen, but the Lake Poets take a beating, in verse of course. He tears into Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats. As far as I’m concerned, he can have at Wordsworth, but Coleridge? Keats? Back off Byron; those guys are paragons. At first, the idea of viciously attacking other artists in your genre seemed really odd to me. Also, it’s a precarious perch for Byron, who was far from perfect. Then I thought of rap battles. We certainly have a contemporary equivalent of abusing your artistic competition in rhyme. Let’s pretend that Byron originated the rap battle, shall we?

You might like Don Juan if:

  • you want to read beautiful verse about the misadventures of a dashing young man as he’s tossed across Europe by Lady Fortune.

You might not like Don Juan if:

  • you don’t want to dig through Byron’s philosophy, social commentary and bile to get to the adventure story.

Final thoughts: I loved/hated Don Juan, but mostly I loved it. When it is good, it is very, very good. When it is bad, it is boring. The story is gripping and told so incredibly well, that I got really annoyed with Byron for all his digressions. I am very glad I read it. To me it was worth the long slog. However, I hesitate to recommend it. Realistically, most readers will not have the requisite patience

Washington Irving

 

photoDid you know that Washington Irving was one of the first American prose writers to gain any respect abroad?  British readers condescended to read his book of short stories The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon.  I will review his two most popular and enduring stories Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for you today.  Both stories are set in Dutch communities in the Catskill mountains of New York.  If you haven’t tried to read English literature in chronological order, you may not be able to appreciate how happy a story set in the Americas makes me.  Familiar landscapes!  I am from the Appalachian region in Virginia and Irving’s mention of that mountain chain in his introduction to Rip Van Winkle made my heart sing:

Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson must remember the Catskill Mountains. They are a dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family, and are seen away to the west of the river, swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country. Every change of season, every change of weather, indeed, every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains, and they are regarded by all the good wives, far and near, as perfect barometers. When the weather is fair and settled, they are clothed in blue and purple, and print their bold outlines on the clear evening sky; but sometimes, when the rest of the landscape is cloudless, they will gather a hood of gray vapors about their summits, which, in the last rays of the setting sun, will glow and light up like a crown of glory.

Ah, isn’t that lovely?  Irving’s description establishes the Catskills as a place of mysterious beauty.  Later, our main character will have a magical misadventure in these mountains. Rip is something of a loveable layabout.  Everyone in the town loves him, except his shrew of a wife.  Rip Van Winkle is one of the classic henpecked husbands in literature.  Can you feel a feminist rant coming?  Let’s start with a quote:

The great error in Rip’s composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor. It could not be from the want of assiduity or perseverance […] The women of the village, too, used to employ him to run their errands, and to do such little odd jobs as their less obliging husbands would not do for them; in a word, Rip was ready to attend to anybody’s business but his own; but as to doing family duty, and keeping his farm in order, it was impossible.

Imagine with me for a minute that you are a small town wife in the mid-1700s.  You rely on your husband to keep yourself and your children sheltered and fed.  If your husband fails to feed you, you will starve.  There is no divorce.  Now, every day you see your partner in life shuffle off into town with his dog to sit on the bank of the river with his pole all day, but he never brings home a single fish to eat.  He puts up other wives’ barns while your fence falls into disrepair.  Your children run about in rags, because you have no money to clothe them properly and the neighbors laugh at your pathetic, ramshackle farm.  In these circumstances, would you be an affectionate, tender wife?  Would you sing your husband’s praises?  Not even for a second.  You would be a stressed out, angry, exhausted wreck of a person.  You would curse your husband out every day, because every single day that he lolled about not providing for his family, your rage would be renewed in full.  My sympathy lies entirely with the “termagant wife” not with the henpecked husband.  She is stuck in a terrible situation and it’s surprising that she doesn’t just murder him.  Rant over. Well, rant paused.

One day Rip goes off into the Catskills to escape his wife and has a strange encounter with some men wearing old-timey Dutch clothing.  As you probably know, he falls asleep against a tree and wakes up in a strange world.  His beard has famously grown very long.  Unbeknownst to Rip, the American Revolution has come and gone and that lucky dog slept through the whole thing.  Not a bad deal at all for someone of his indolent disposition. Ultimately, Rip Van Winkle is the story of a man who cannot handle the duties and responsibilities in his life. He fails to support his family and he sleeps through the turmoil of war. Loser. However, Rip’s awakening is quite surreal and has captivated the imaginations of readers for hundreds of years.

The Headless Horseman that terrorizes Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a similarly enduring character in American literature.  Briefly, large-nosed, lanky schoolmaster Ichabod Crane lives in the town of Sleepy Hollow.  He is self-interested, and superstitious enough to fear the local legend of the Headless Horseman, the ghost of a decapitated Hessian—German soldier hired by the English army.  Ichabod finds himself competing for the hand of rich and voluptuous Katrina.  His rival is a large, handsome local bully.  Tension and terror ensue.

I thoroughly enjoyed both of these stories.  Irving has a mellow, richly descriptive style and a sly, but good natured humor that made me feel like I was hearing a story told by someone’s funny, clever grandpa.  His characters are unique and so well-defined that they have become legends in their own right in American culture.  Here’s an example of how excellent Irving is with characterization and imagery:

The revenue arising from his school was small, and would have been scarcely sufficient to furnish him with daily bread, for he was a huge feeder, and, though lank, had the dilating powers of an anaconda.

Why do we read, if not to encounter phrases like “dilating powers of an anaconda?”  Ichabod Crane is an Epicurean and an opportunist.  Through his eyes we see the town of Sleepy Hollow as an American Elysium, a land of milk and honey bursting with pastoral delights.  The images Irving conjures up when Ichabod goes to dinner at Katrina’s house are out of control.

You might like these two short stories if:

  • you love America.  Not the nation, but the geographical region.
  • you are like me and excellent descriptions of pastoral scenery really rev your engine.
  • you are interested in American folklore.
  • you like some surrealism, mysticism, humor or horror mixed in with your classic literature.

You might not like these two short stories if:

  • you’re foolish.

Final thoughts: Both of these stories are delightful.  If you haven’t read them or haven’t read them in a while, they are definitely worth your time.  Also, you can read them free online.  Rip Van WinkleThe Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is more fun, so if you’re only going to read one, pick that one.

Frankenstein

Frankenstein

Frankenstein's monster murdering his wife.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, 1818

I am glad Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.  Without Frankenstein the book there would be no “Frankenstein” movie, no “Bride of Frankenstein,” no “Young Frankenstein.”  I shudder to think of my childhood without “The Addams Family” in all its formats.  What I’m getting at is this: when Mary Shelley literally dreamed up Frankenstein and his monster she generated concepts that captivated the imagination of other writers.  Those writers took her ideas and transformed them into the mad scientists and their reanimated inventions that have become so ingrained in our culture.  What Mary Shelley did not do when she produced Frankenstein was write a good book.

I want to enjoy Frankenstein.  I really do, but I have so many problems with it. I will enumerate them in detail.

Style

Shelley kills herself with clauses. Her prose is no fun, because she interjects so many clauses that her meaning becomes convoluted. Her odd syntax also interrupts the flow of her sentences to the point that I sometimes got so irritated that I wanted to throw the book across the room. Take for example this abject failure of a sentence:

I returned home, not disappointed, for I have said that I have long considered those authors useless who reprobated; but I returned, not at all the more inclined to recur to those studies in any shape.

Agh! I guess if you read it a few times you begin to make some sense of it, but it doesn’t get any more enjoyable with multiple readings.

There are a few lovely little phrases buried in Frankenstein. I even found this one sentence that is acceptable in its entirety: I had worked hard for two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body.

 

Plausibility and the Monster

If it’s going to bother you that I expect some measure of plausibility from this early 19th century pillar of sci-fi and horror, go ahead and skip this section. Also, spoiler alert, I guess. I am going to divulge much of the plot before the end of this post.

I know that we must suspend our disbelief to enjoy most literature. I am really good at suspending my disbelief. For example, I am absolutely ok with Frankenstein using electricity to give life to inanimate flesh. What Shelley never explains is why he needs to “prepare a frame for it, with all its intricacies of fibres, muscles and veins.” Why doesn’t he just take a recently deceased corpse and electrify that? Well, Jesus brought the dead back to life and we simply can’t go around giving mortals the sacred abilities of Christ, you know? Also, this is horror. If you can think of a reason, however flimsy, for your character to poke around in cemeteries, you better let him do it. If he stitches corpses together, even better.

So far I am willing to accept that Frankenstein steals sinews from corpses to create a human body from scratch, more or less, and brings the body to life using lightning. What I cannot believe is that the creature he made was so jacked up ugly that he could not be tolerated in human society. Victor Frankenstein spends months hunched over his creation, laboring over every minute detail, but fails to notice that his creation is so vile looking that people will start trying to murder it the instant they see it. Really?

Understand that Shelley’s original Frankenstein monster is not the shambling, lovable dunce you know from movies and TV. He is faster, taller and stronger than humans. He learns the English language in a couple of months. And not just “me hungry” either. Frankenstein’s monster uses language far above the comprehension level of the average American adult. (Sorry, average American adult. It’s not you; it’s our political system!) Here is an example of Frankenstein’s verbal abilities: “Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us.” Clause-y, but impressive for someone who used to be corpse parts. So, Victor Frankenstein is capable of turning a junk heap of dead bodies into a super smart super human. The monster has a unique identity.  He is not a pre-existing person brought back to life. Implicitly, Victor Frankenstein built a human brain. He    built    a    human   brain.    But he couldn’t make cheekbones? He couldn’t slap some soft, smooth skin on this guy? If only he had given him a handsome face! Frankenstein’s monster is only a monster because he isn’t good looking.

Victor Frankenstein

Victor Frankenstein’s first big mistake is that he neglects to make his creation pleasing to the eye. Now, let me explain to other ways in which dear Victor is a useless, negligent git. Bear in mind that Shelley frequently cues the reader to pity rather than condemn Victor for his faults. Shelley seems to offer the understanding that Victor’s only error was scientific hubris, not the million other errors he makes throughout the book.

All of Victor Frankenstein’s mistakes:

  • Victor bestows life on his creation without noticing that it is horrifying to look at.
  • Victor is so fixated on bringing his creature to life, that he doesn’t have a plan in place for handling his creature once it is alive. Most of Frankenstein’s problems stem from this initial lack of foresight.
  • He doesn’t tell anyone what he is working on. No scientist has ever completed an experiment, especially a large scale experiment, without consulting other scientists. That’s just not how it works. Also, Victor is working on something potentially dangerous and feels no need to warn anybody that he may be releasing a powerful psychopath on the world.
  • When he sees his horrifying creature brought to life, he passes out of consciousness and into a nervous condition that incapacitates him for MONTHS. The monster is left to just wander freely, doing whatever pops into its brand new brain. He sets this creature loose, without providing for its safety or happiness. It goes on to have a really terrible experience while out in the world and develops some serious rage problems. As you would if you were born a horribly disfigured orphan that no one loved.
  • When Victor finally comes to, he doesn’t tell anyone what he has done.  He doesn’t try to find his monster.
  • The monster murders Victor’s little brother. An innocent young woman is suspected of the crime. Victor thinks that no one will believe him if he tells them about his monster. Instead of trying to make them believe, he just lets them execute that poor lady.  Come on! That has to rank among the shittiest things that a literary character has ever done.
  • The monster murders pretty much everyone else in his family. Instead of fighting back, Victor has more nervous fits. Just loses consciousness for extended periods of time, exactly like the storied heroes of lore. Precisely the kind of thing Hercules or Sir Lancelot would do when troubled.
  • The monster asks Victor to create a mate for him. Victor refuses. I won’t say that he absolutely should have created another “monster,” but this is an example of his continued rejection of his responsibility to provide a reasonable life for his creation.
  • He’s oblivious to the very clear indication that the monster plans on killing Victor’s bride on their wedding night.

I could keep going, but I think I covered the most important parts. I am not a fan of Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein. I get the feeling that she wants me to admire him, but I think he’s an ineffectual, reprehensible dummy. By abdicating responsibility for his actions, he unleashes a maelstrom of tragedy on anyone around him.

You might like Frankenstein if:

  • you are writing a thesis on the origin of genre literature.

You might not like Frankenstein if:

  • See above.

Final thougts: I am going to come right out and say it: Mary Shelley made it into the canon based on the strength of other artists. Without her husband she probably wouldn’t have been published in the first place. Without “Frankenstein” the movie, Frankenstein the book would be long forgotten. That’s just my opinion, man.

Persuasion

1

Persuasion, Jane Austen, 1818

Here it is, the last Jane Austen novel on the list.  Persuasion is the last book that Jane Austen wrote.  It was published posthumously very shortly after her death at age 41.  Some scholars consider it her most autobiographical book, because the love interest is a sailor, just like Jane’s real life love interest.  Our leading lady, Anne Elliot, is the younger daughter of an aristocrat who possesses more land and ostentatious pride than sense.  Anne, however, is a mellow, obedient, sensible young woman who tries to rein in her father and sister’s excessive spending. She fails because those swine don’t appreciate her pearls of wisdom or her pearlescent personality for that matter.  Anne is mortified by her relation’s lack of grace.  They are imperious and awkward socially, and their extreme sense of entitlement prevents them from doing anything to prevent their financial ruin.  Only Lady Russel, the bosom companion of Anne’s deceased mother, recognizes Anne’s true value.

Persuasion holds no surprises for the Jane Austen fan.  It contains the typical Austen elements:

  • the frivolous relatives of Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park paired with an obedient, sensible, long-suffering daughter; Jane and Fanny respectively and Elinor from Sense and Sensibility.
  •  the silly, flirtatious, social-climbing rivals of S+S, P+P and Mansfield.
  • the disposal of said rivals in unexpected marriages.
  • the delayed romance of every Austen novel except Northanger Abbey.
  • the chronic misunderstanding between lovers caused by social conventions that require women in particular to be extremely reserved.
  • a moral about the consequences of abstract elements of human nature.

The abstract element in question is persuasion or being persuadable.  At a tender age, Anne allows Lady Russel and her father to dissuade her from marrying Captain Frank Wentworth, a dashing young sailor.  They object to Wentworth’s lack of name or fortune.  Anne would have married him for love and with hope and faith that he would improve his circumstances by distinguishing himself in the Royal Navy.  He does earn fame and fortune and turns up in Anne’s part of the country again.  Tension ensues.

Anne is a serene character and the tone of Persuasion is correspondingly tranquil.  I found it a bit dull at first.  Austen spends a good while setting up the Elliot family dynamic and describing the personalities found in their neighborhood before the men arrive.  This being said, I was happy with the pacing overall.  The novel has a maturity not found in Austen’s earlier work in terms of tone, material, plot and even character.  Anne is the only Austen heroine past her prime marrying off years.

I suppose I should summarize my feelings about Jane Austen now.  That’s a large unwieldy task, though.  I reviewed all six of her novels on this blog, so if you want my thoughts on her, they are available.  Instead here is my ranking of her books from my favorite to my least favorite:

Pride and Prejudice

Northanger Abbey

Persuasion

Emma

Sense and Sensibility

Mansfield Park

 

You might like Persuasion if:

  • you love Austen.
  • you are ready for a heroine who is out of her teens.
  • you like a maritime setting.

You might not like Persuasion if:

  • you are bored of/by Austen.

Final thoughts: I liked it.

Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen, 1817

Catherine Morland starts life as a plain, tomboyish child not at all suited to the life of a romantic heroine.  Nevertheless, she blossoms into a not unattractive young woman with a “mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is.”  In this precarious state of naiveté she sets off for Bath to be introduced to society.  Sounds like every single previous novel with a female main character, huh?  Well, yes, excepting Austen’s other books.  The most common premise for early English novels is the young woman’s first season in town, an excellent setting in which to portray the corrupting and confusing influence of society on the female character.  Austen typically breaks away from this model to focus on familial relationships, typically in a rural setting.  Think about it, all of Austen’s other characters have experience in society prior to the time when Austen begins chronicling their stories.  In Northanger Abbey she uses this more common premise in order to parody other novelists.

When Catherine arrives in Bath she starts reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, my least favorite book in the history of literature!  Austen continually contrasts her relatively mundane and realistic character, setting and plot with the exaggerated romanticism of Udolpho and other Gothic literature.  Catherine becomes so obsessed with Udolpho that she interprets her surroundings as if they were part of a Gothic mystery.  She expects danger at every turn.  She even begins to suspect that the father of the young man she admires is a villain on par with Montoni of Udolpho.  Her absurd fantasies almost ruin her chances with the young man in question.

Northanger Abbey is not Jane Austen’s most popular novel, probably because the narrative relies on knowledge of a book that most modern readers have not read.  I found Northanger Abbey simply delightful.  The element of satire adds complexity and extra humor to Austen’s work.  It is really funny to see a literary heroine get so swept up by the ideas and ideals of another novel that she almost ruins the plot of her own book.  The constant contrast between the Gothic literary tradition and Austen’s own literary style serves to highlight Austen’s merit.  I love that she interrupts her narrative to give a spirited defense of the novel form.  In Austen’s time it was perfectly acceptable for a young lady to read poetry, but novels were considered trifling and perhaps even dangerous.  She defends Catherine’s habit of reading novels by saying “if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?”  A bit rich, considering that Austen is raking fellow lady novelist Ann Radcliffe over the coals, but a cute statement nonetheless.

Northanger Abbey stands out to me, because in it Austen comes closest to social commentary.  In her other novels she delineates the flaws in her characters and explains how their upbringing allowed their undesirable traits to emerge and flourish.  The blame falls soundly on the parents every time.  Emma is vain and self-important, because her father is over-indulgent.  Lydia Bennet is silly and boy-crazy, because her mother is silly and boy-crazy.  Fanny is unassuming, because she is treated as a second class member of her own family.  Austen does not aim her arrows directly at the effete, indulgent Regency society very often, but in Nothanger Abbey she constructs the argument (if you look for it) that Catherine is so very silly, because social norms prevent her from accumulating any wisdom.  Well, that might be a bit of a stretch, but she fairly clearly demonstrates that the social practice of “retirement from the world” for young women, makes them silly.

Thank goodness an author finally makes that connection.  All the naïve, bumbling Charlotte Temples, Evelinas and Catherines get into trouble, because they have no experience of the world. Early English novelists just loved to show how dangerous entering society is for a young woman.  Well, duh!  If you were shut away from people for your entire youth, it would be dangerous to send you to a debutante ball.  People have to learn how to interpret human behavior.  If women are locked away from men, they will have no idea who is a decent, reasonable person and who is philanderer or potential murderer.  It’s not shocking that Catherine can’t tell fiction from reality.  There’s almost no reality in her life.  Experience makes humans wise and she has had no experiences.  She comes off as incredibly foolish, but is it really surprising that someone who was only allowed to experience the world through books would interpret their surroundings as if they were the setting of a novel?  I think not.

You might like Northanger Abbey if:

  • you have read Mysteries of Udolpho or at least one Gothic novel written before 1820.
  • you love Jane Austen.
  • you like satire.
  • you like meta-fiction.

You might not like Northanger Abbey if:

  • you haven’t read Mysteries of Udolpho or at least one Gothic novel written before 1820.
  • you just can’t stand it when the author inserts her own voice and opinions into the narrative.  I must insert my voice here to give the opinion that readers everywhere should ditch this particular pet peeve.

Final thoughts: Northanger Abbey is an atypical Austen novel, which I like.  I rank it second after Pride and Prejudice.