Saturday, October 3, 2015

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Middlemarch by George Eliot is an extraordinary novel. The book has so many plot threads, major characters and significant themes that I struggled a bit when it came time to choose the content of this post.  The fact that the novel is so famous and so much has been written about it only exacerbated my difficulties as I strove to say something different about it.

The book’s themes include the role of women in society, an exploration of provincial versus cosmopolitan thinking, the degeneration of marriage and relationships, serious musing on art and aesthetics, fate versus free will and many other topics.

The primary narrative focus, more or less, is on Dorothea Brooke, later Dorothea Casaubon. A pious and strong willed young woman, Dorothea strives for a meaningful life. She endeavors to be the ideal woman. An ideal woman, the narrative reminds us, is someone like St. Theresa who sacrificed her life for Christian ideals.

Dorothea is drawn to and marries the Reverend Edward Casaubon. The Reverend is a religious intellectual. He is a driven man who has devoted his life to completing a monumental treatise called The Key to All Mythologies, which ties ancient mythology with Christianity.  After Casaubon’s death, Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, a young artist, become involved in a romance that is marred by serious social complications

Another plot thread involves Tertius Lydgate. He is a doctor who champions progressive forms of medical care. As the book progresses, he woos and subsequently marries Rosamond Vincy. As Lydgate falls into debt, the couple’s home life becomes acrimonious.

Fred Vincy is Rosamond’s brother. This young man is earnest but irresponsible. His attempted courtship of Mary Garth, another young woman with a strong personality, weaves another thread into the narrative.

As the story progresses, the various plot threads intersect and play important roles in the various themes that are embodied within this book.

There are fans of this novel who contend that it is the finest ever written. While I would not go that far, in my opinion, it is among the finest. It has strong and complex characters, a compelling and interesting plot, fascinating themes, some of which touch upon the most basic and important elements of human existence. I also found Eliot’s writing to be suburb. It is down to earth at times; at other points, it is sublime. All of this combines into a wonderfully brilliant, aesthetic package.

As I do with many complex works, I am going to concentrate on only one of the many interesting aspects of Eliot’s work.

Disintegration of Relationships

In this novel, Eliot masterfully describes how the warmth of love can degenerate over time. The author looks at two separate couples, Dorothea and Reverend Casaubon, and Lydgate and Rosamond.

Dorothea and Casaubon are each impressive and nuanced characters in and of themselves. Their pairing adds intricacy to their respective complexities. Upon meeting Casaubon, Dorothea is immediately drawn to his religious intellect and conviction. Though he is stodgy, bookish and much older than her, Dorothea sees him as a perfect life partner.

The two quickly marry. However, Casaubon’s relative mental isolation and lack of warm emotions, as well as his inability to connect to Dorothea, cause friction. Casaubon’s somewhat understandable jealousy of the budding friendship between Dorothea and Will Ladislaw compounds the problem.

Eliot’s depiction of how the relationship goes from unquestioning love to acrimony is brilliant. Dorothea slowly comes to realize that she is looking for things in Casaubon that he is not giving her. Though one clearly senses that Eliot’s sympathies lie with Dorothea, Casaubon is not portrayed as a monster. In fact, Dorothea is shown to miss certain aspects of his inner self that could have helped ameliorate the couple’s problems had she been sensitive to them.

At one point it is observed,

She was as blind to his inward troubles as he to hers; she had not yet learned those hidden conflicts in her husband which claim our pity. She had not yet listened patiently to his heart-beats, but only felt that her own was beating violently.

Dorothea’s evolution from near worship of Casaubon to a kind of wary cynicism is believable and complex, as well as interesting.

The other couple, Lydgate and Rosamond, is almost as interesting. The pair quickly falls in love and marries. However, with time, rancor develops between the two. Lydgate is a man of scientific curiosity who enjoys experimentation. The materialistic Rosamond soon becomes bored with him and his interests. She begins to flirt with various men. When the two begin to fall into financial difficulties, the narcissistic Rosamond resorts to subterfuge in an effort to thwart Lydgate’s attempts to curtail their expenditures.

As with Dorothea and Casaubon, Eliot adds a lot of complexity to this relationship.  Though the author seems to mostly sympathize with Lydgate, the Doctor is shown to have shortcomings too. He seems completely unable to see things from Rosamond’s point of view and begins every conflict by eschewing all compromise. Though he cannot dominate or control Rosamond, it is clear that he would like to.

Once again, Eliot is at her best when she portrays the erosion of this relationship. The way that Rosamond transforms from a loving bride to an uncaring, deceptive and narcissistic wife is portrayed with great literary skill.

A vicious cycle is illustrated. As Lydgate’s troubles mount, Rosamond reacts with less sympathy and more criticism. Thus, Lydgate begins to confide in her less and less and begins to keep things from her. As Rosamond realizes this, she becomes even more embittered.

There are many common themes shared by both of these relationships. Each involves two people who have trouble understanding each other’s feelings. Even if one looks at Dorothea and Lydgate as the more sympathetic members of the marriages, each of them has trouble understanding the inner life of their respective mates.

Both relationships begin warmly and gradually degenerate into misunderstandings, lost opportunities to connect, selfishness, etc. All this is portrayed believably and with complexity. The flaws in these relationships tie into what seems to be a major theme of this novel, that is, the harmful effects of people not being able to see things from other people’s point of view.

These two marriages end up in very bad states indeed. In contrast to what one would likely expect in a novel set in modern times, divorce was not an option for these characters. This changes the entire dynamic of the situation. In the world of the nineteenth century, there is no escape from the other person. Obviously this has an effect upon the feelings and the behaviors of the characters.

At one point, Lydgate contemplates the bad direction that his relationship with his wife is going in and is apprehensive as to the result of further deterioration.

It was as if a fracture in delicate crystal had begun, and he was afraid of any movement that might make it fatal. His marriage would be a mere piece of bitter irony if they could not go on loving each other.

When Dorothea and Lydgate actually talk, a moment of understanding comes to Dorothea when she realizes that Lydgate and herself have shared some common experiences in regard to their relationships. When it dawns on her that Lydgate’s experiences with matrimony in some ways have paralleled her own, Dorothea reacts,

“Dorothea felt her heart beginning to beat faster. Had he that sorrow too?”

Eliot’s depiction of these relationships heading into trouble is simply brilliant. They are believable, complex, and while at times painful to read about, have great aesthetic value. This is but one of many reasons that Middlemarch is truly a great novel.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Late Walk - Poem by Robert Frost

When I go up through the mowing field,
The headless aftermath,
Smooth-laid like thatch with the heavy dew,
Half closes the garden path.

And when I come to the garden ground,
The whir of sober birds
Up from the tangle of withered weeds
Is sadder than any words

A tree beside the wall stands bare,
But a leaf that lingered brown,
Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought,
Comes softly rattling down.

I end not far from my going forth
By picking the faded blue
Of the last remaining aster flower
To carry again to you.

Robert Frost has always been a favorite of mine. His poems are such a popular subject of study in the American education system that some folks might find him a little passé. Contrary to this view, I would argue that the reason that he is so popular is a function of the enormous aesthetic value of his works.

As I have been rereading some of his poems, I had some thoughts that I wanted to share about “A Late Walk Poem.”

I find this verse to be extremely poignant. Obviously, it represents the decline of life. Frost presents us with the imagery of a harvested field, birds migrating ahead of the approaching winter, withered weeds and a bare tree. There is a reference to sadness.

I think that the imagery and words here are very effective. When I read this I can almost smell the scent of autumn in the air and feel the chilled air against my skin. The best of poets is capable in eliciting such memories for me.

The last few lines of this work make it very distinctive. The aster flower often represents love and enchantment. It is the one flower remaining. It seems that the voice of the poem is experiencing decline and may be nearing the end, but his love and sense of enchantment is still intact.

In the midst of the darkness of decline and death, there is love and human connection. This is a bittersweet reference, however. The flower seems to represent the last of the positive emotions. In some ways, this adds to the sadness of verse.

This level of pathos surrounding death and loss seems to me to be common in Frost’s work. The poet has such a way when he describes the grayness that seems inherent in life. Frost is not a nihilist, he values love and other positive emotions, as is illustrated in this poem. In his work, however, it is apparent that all things in life are marked by the shadow that death and loss brings to everyone.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn

The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn is an essential book for anyone interested in the American Revolution or in the history of government in general. First published in 1968, this book is profoundly important in understanding the key intellectual roots and issues related to the Revolution and the founding of the American State and Federal Governments. The version of the book that I read had more recent material added by the author. Folks who I know in academia tell me that this book is required reading for many history students. There is good reason for this.

To comprehend the basis of this work, it is important to understand the role that pamphleteers played in the intellectual conversation and discourse of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century English and Colonial societies. Pamphlets, ranging from a few pages to dozens of pages long, were essentially essays that were circulated throughout English and Colonial society.

Bailyn writes,

“These pamphlets form part of the vast body of English polemical and journalistic literature in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries to which the greatest men of letters contributed”

These tracts were produced in droves by English and Colonial writers. They covered social, religious and political issues. They ranged from serious analyses of issues, to biting parody, to scathing personal attacks. The author goes on to describe them,

“Explanatory as well as declarative, and expressive of the beliefs, attitudes, and motivations as well as the professed goals of those who led and supported the Revolution, the pamphlets are the distinct literature of the revolution.”

The writers varied from common middle class folks to some of the greatest minds of the time including David Hume, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, to name just a few. Some pamphlets themselves were famous, Paine’s Common Sense being a notable example. Pamphleteers would often engage in “conversations” and “arguments,” one writer responding to another, who would respond in turn, and so forth.

Bailyn conducted meticulous research on tens of thousands of these documents. As a result, he yielded great results. He references dozens of these works within this book. The author mines multiple intellectual threads that fueled not only the rebellion, but also the thinking that led to the eventual construction of the American Constitution.

Multiple subjects are covered in extreme detail, ranging from any government’s right to tax, individual rights, balance of governmental powers, religion and government, and slavery, to name just a few. Most of these ideas and controversies dated back to before the English Civil War. Bailyn picks these threads up via the various pamphlets that addressed them. The evolution of relevant ideas is often followed for over a century, as they were eventually taken up by Colonial thinkers, who in turn shaped them through the American War for Independence and up to the ratification of the United States Constitution.

This book is detailed and digs into many of these ideologies and issues in great depth. It is instrumental in furthering the understanding of the Revolution as well as of the history of government itself. Many concepts and conflicts pertaining to current day democracies were formulated during this period and will be familiar to anyone who now follows current events and politics. It is striking just how many of these issues are still relevant and debated today. Issues such as the power of government, Federal verses local control, taxes, etc. are still hotly contested in the twenty-first century.

I must mention the current debate in America between those who contend that the American Revolution was driven by Christian Ideals verses those who contend that Enlightenment Secular Ideals drove it. While this issue is not directly addressed in this work, this book makes it clear that both played a part in all sorts of complex ways. Reading this book has made me understand how the entire premise of the debate is untenable.

Bailyn’s writing can be somewhat dry at times. Also, a basic knowledge of the American Revolution, The United States Constitution, English history especially as it pertains to the Magna Carter, The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution will be extremely helpful for prospective readers. As a result of the above, this book might bore those who are just casually interested in these subjects. Thus, I would recommend this work only to the very interested. For those who have such a strong interest in these topics however, this book is a gold mine.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Just Talking About Books

I recently read and blogged about James Joyce’s Ulysses. My commentary on that book is here. The particular entry on Joyce’s work ended up just a little different from my typical posts. As my comprehension of that novel was so much below my usual level, I chose to devote four or five paragraphs of my post to my personal impressions of the reading experience itself. Though I have posted in similar ways on a few other occasions, this does not reflect my usual blogging style. I should note that I subsequently rounded out this particular entry with some commentary on various aspects of the novel, thus making the commentary a little less centered upon myself.

For a moment as I was formulating the post, I questioned myself, is this the way to write about a book? I am wary of analyzing books from too personal of a view. I often eschew doing so. I believe that too much personal bias gets in the way of understanding what an author is trying to say. Though I did not venture into the territory of “I liked this character” or “I related to that character,” I was writing mostly about my own reading comprehension and what I got out of the book in relation to my own limitations in understanding.

Then I asked myself, is this train of thought taking the idea of blogging too seriously? This thought in turn expanded to thinking about the entire nature of my blog and of what I want to accomplish with it.

I realize that I am not engaged in literary criticism, but what exactly am I doing? I cannot pretend to be conducting serious analysis. I am not qualified to do so, and one look at my commentary indicates that I am not formally doing this. In fact, when I look back at many of my posts, it turns out that to some degree, at least, I commonly incorporate my own experiences in my commentary. Yet, at the same time, albeit in an amateurish way, I do apply some aspects of criticism to my writing.

Of course, what I am doing, plain and simple, is talking about books. With that, part of the way that I like to talk about books is to include some unprofessional form of literary criticism. I liken this to participating in a local sports league. One does not need to be a professional or even a very good athlete to enjoy playing a sport.

So do I need to adhere to strict rules regarding criticism? Of course I do not. I do not want to restrict myself in any way like that. Nor would my unqualified efforts stand up to such a serious approach. As I allude to above, blogging about books, for me, is about sharing thoughts and ideas. Whatever thoughts and ideas seem interesting to me at the time of writing is what I write about. Why not occasionally think about and share my personal impressions of various works based upon my own biases, including likeability of characters?

Yet, sometimes I like to dabble into such slightly more formal territory. Ironically for me, it adds to the fun. One beautiful thing about having one’s own blog is that there are no rules. So I can write posts in so many different ways.

I can summarize a book and give my opinion on it. I can hone in on a book’s main point and agree, disagree or take a neutral stand on it. I can focus on a particular theme, passage or character and analyze that. I can just talk about how a book affected me, how I felt about it or what I learned from it. From time to time, I have found it worthwhile to employ all these approaches.

Since likability or relatability of characters or plot developments is not something that I usually find very interesting, I will very rarely incorporate such musings in a post. However, I reserve the right to do so, especially if I find a noteworthy angle to that chain of reasoning.

I love blogging about books. I love sharing my thoughts on reading and other issues. An eclectic approach, not just in my choice of books, but also to the way that I approach the discussion of a tome, seems to work very well for me. It has added to the joy and fun that writing and sharing ideas concerning books entails. There really are no rules. After all, I am just talking about books.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Thanks to Adam over at The Roof Beam Reader for hosting this years Austen in August Reading event. Be sure to check out this post for lots of great posts on all things Jane Austen.

My commentary contains major spoilers.

Persuasion by Jane Austen is a revered classic that lives up to its reputation. The plot centers around Anne Elliot. The activities and interactions of Anne, her family and her friends make up the plot. The prospects for marriage of Anne, and other characters as well, drive much of the narrative.

Anne is in her late twenties and has not yet married. Years earlier, under pressure from her family and friends, Anne had broken off an engagement with Captain Frederick Wentworth. When Wentworth returns to the scene, the stage is set for much of the drama that comprises the book.

Like many great works, there is much to ponder here. One of the major sources of interest is the state of Anne’s personality and psyche. She is surrounded by people who undervalue her and who do not appreciate her virtues.  She is often used and put upon. Her father, Sir Walter Elliot, and sisters are narcissistic and often behaved childishly. Her one friend who seems to appreciate her, Lady Russell, had unfortunately given Anne some very bad romantic advice when she urged Anne to break off her engagement with Wentworth.

I think that there is something dark and melancholy going on in Anne’s psyche. In today’s world she might be said to be suffering from depression. Perhaps, because her personality is in some ways understated, she is someone who does not outwardly display strong emotions. This inner sadness is easily missed by both the other characters in the novel as well as by its readers.  Perhaps this despondency would be overlooked even in today’s world due to the fact that Anne seems to be such an inward thinker. Quiet people sometimes hide their melancholia deep within their soul. In my opinion, Austen has portrayed this brilliantly here.

The state of Anne’s mind seems to be a function of several factors. She is surrounded by people who are of lesser substance than her. They undervalue substantive ideas, reading, real emotions and ethical behavior. At times in the narrative, one gets the sense that they are draining her.

In a striking passage, Anne’s father and sister enter a room where a cheerful gathering is taking place.

“the door was thrown open for Sir Walter and Miss Elliot, whose entrance seemed to give a general chill. Anne felt an instant oppression, and wherever she looked saw symptoms of the same. The comfort, the freedom, the gaiety of the room was over, hushed into cold composure, determined silence, or insipid talk, to meet the heartless elegance of her father and sister. How mortifying to feel that it was so! “

It is clear that Wentworth was the love of Anne’s life. Before his return, however, he had faded into the past. The one missed opportunity for a special human connection seems to hang around Anne’s neck like an albatross.

At one point, a walk with friends is described. As befitting her mood and perhaps her general position in the social connections of the book, it is observed,

“Anne's object was, not to be in the way of anybody”

As the walk proceeds, the symbolism and imagery of autumn seem to come into play in an important way.

from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves, and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which had drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling”

It seems that autumn, “that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind,” has been ingrained into Anne.

At another point, Anne realizes that though she is a talented musician, her family and friends disregard her abilities, but there is poignant allusion of a past when one person, Wentworth, did not diminish her,

Excepting one short period of her life, she had never, since the age of fourteen, never since the loss of her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to, or encouraged by any just appreciation or real taste” [Emphasis mine]

Notably, as the book ends, Anne and Wentworth are happily married, but there still seems to be that hint of dread in Anne’s soul.  There is the prospect that Wentworth might be called back to active duty and thus away from the household.

This subtle sadness inherent in Anna’s character has helped make this my favorite Jane Austen book thus far. I hade previously read Emma, my commentary being  here, and Pride and Prejudice my commentary being here and here.

There is a lot more to this book. It is full of Austen’s dry humor, keen insights into human relations, dynamic characters and an entertaining and fun plot. The writing is outstanding. I highly recommend this work for anyone who is even remotely interested in this type of novel. It is simply one of the best of its kind.