Read on DailyLit in 197 parts, over 9 months or so because some days I just had to repeatedly click here to receive the next installment immediately....moreRead on DailyLit in 197 parts, over 9 months or so because some days I just had to repeatedly click here to receive the next installment immediately. I didn't think it would pick up at first, but then they were all in the country at Christmas and I got all excited.
I'd never read Virginia Woolf before, though I bought To the Lighthouse once and even read the start of Mrs. Dalloway. I even liked it. This book, though, is real early Virginia Woolf which means it is disguised as a regular novel. Even within that frame, though, she displays exactly how well she knows people, and already it's scary.
The conventional love-stories format meant I didn't at all expect the turn it took as the main character struggled with female identity and independent thought in 1919 and this is all much more eloquent in the book. This theme was thrilling, though, and the highlight of the novel. Her articulation of her characters' ideas and mistakes is shimmering with insight, several surprising scenes, and sincere feminist need. And I'm glad I know this now!
(Ed. 01/11 - The more I think about this, the more I really liked it. I'd like to read it again.)(less)
I will probably never manage to read this book again so I thought maybe I should write what I remember. It was one of those reading experiences where...moreI will probably never manage to read this book again so I thought maybe I should write what I remember. It was one of those reading experiences where I remember lots of moments sitting and reading it. It took a while, the better part of a year I think.
What made it so difficult to read was being so immensely psychological that practically every sentence needed time to properly land in my brain and resonate. Impact, impact, impact. It's terrifyingly insightful. Lessing is merciless while exploring the women's sexual and familial lives, mental breaks, and lost political hope.
Tellingly, I have a paragraph of notes I took while I read it (I never do that) and they are incoherent now: "Children of a man who doesn't love you." "Sex: making room for him when he doesn't deserve it." "Calling yourself free and love when you are buying, sheltering, effacing." That's kind of how it felt to read.
I worked hard to get a grasp of the existential feminist need in the book and it was meaningful. Though, Lessing doesn't accept that; this edition includes her 1971 introduction about the book's unintentional involvement in "the sex war" and "Women's Liberation," except this is not "the right way" to read it.
Appropriately, my used copy crumbled all to pieces as I got to the end.(less)
I tried the November read-along thing last year but I was reading less and didn't make it far. I started this year's on Election Day and finished last...moreI tried the November read-along thing last year but I was reading less and didn't make it far. I started this year's on Election Day and finished last night on the second of two terrible subway rides. I'm ahead of Defective Yeti, who's also behind, so it's not so much a social reading experience but I'm glad I did.
Like everybody I had a slight foreknowledge before beginning the book. I knew the language was considered a prize of literature, and it is, and I thought I'd like it and I usually did. I loved the adjectives the most. Too many of them, and describing things they shouldn't describe. Real awesome.
I was surprised to discover that pretty much everything else I knew about the story is of the milieu of Part I, the ache and suburbia. I didn't know there was a Part II at all, in content. It's interesting the road story hasn't entered the popular conscience the way backyard sunbathing scenes have, as far as I can tell.
Story-wise the book continually lost me as it went on. I started out accepting it wholeheartedly, and I thought that maybe the theme of the glorification of a plain child could go somewhere I respected, but it lost me the more it became about his consequences.
It was such a good read, though, and I think several of the passages are staying in my head forever. (Bike riding, tennis playing, after the argument in the rain.)
Read via DailyLit in 47 parts. (Edmund Gosse and William Archer translation.) I read this in college in a very bad class, and I was curious about NYC'...moreRead via DailyLit in 47 parts. (Edmund Gosse and William Archer translation.) I read this in college in a very bad class, and I was curious about NYC's new revival so it was time for a reread. Thank goodness! I only remembered what happens at the end, and not at all why.
This read was much more thought-provoking. And somehow, though it is key, I didn't recall the theme of Hedda's pregnancy at all. (It was a really bad class.) And that's not a spoiled revelation; though she only (barely) admits it near the end, everyone else knows this in the first scene. Everyone scrutinizes her body and her expected future, but no one other than the audience acknowledges her unhappiness, and the oncoming child, and her opportunity to destroy the "child" of her only comrade. I just read a review of the current production that cites Hedda as being "evil" and I was shocked, because, what else is a proportionate response to the pain of her mistake.
The other new idea to me was the significant but brief description of her youth with her militant father, as his compatriot and sidekick. The General Gabler, giving his name to her and the play's title. The qualities of the father passed to the daughter, they rode side by side and shared guns, but doomed with a female life, Hedda's only adulthood can be marrying a useless bore. She can say of her pending family, "it is killing me," but in the end that's just not accurate enough.
(3 stars for the public domain translation, but 5 stars forev.)(less)
I don't really know what to say. To me, old novels sometimes feel too emotionally remote, usually the fault of the conservative st...moreFive thousand stars.
I don't really know what to say. To me, old novels sometimes feel too emotionally remote, usually the fault of the conservative style imposed on them, but this was one of the most emotionally vibrant things I've ever read. Maggie was such a vivid character that every page she's on feels true. And yet, it's such a novel, with themes so richly built. Because of Shannon's numerous discussions of it for many years, I knew most of the ending before starting, but that only made it even richer. The symbolism is effortless and perfect and needed. (And is it really possible people don't like the ending?)
It was a really visceral read: lots of face-clasping and jaw-dropping. Maggie says some of the truest things I've ever seen in fiction, and it's wonderful. Eliot's omniscience says the rest of them. I was stunned how sharp the commentary was, painful and real. She seems to have known everything. So I felt kind of silly for a while; why didn't I listen to Shannon and read it when this happened to her? But really, it doesn't matter, because reading this felt like it was written especially for me to read in my life right now. Which is how your favorite books always make you feel, right? (It's official. I changed my GoodReads relationship status to "Favorite books: The Mill on the Floss.")
Not every page thrilled me to pieces. The aunts remained annoying throughout; I guess I didn't find them as great a foil as they're supposed to be. My interest slackened a little during some of Tom's sections. But I think it is really obvious to point out: Basically my criticism is, "Maggie Tulliver is so outstanding that I longed for her in every chapter that wasn't all about her." Which, really, is not a criticism at all. It's not like it's shortsighted to write a protagonist so good a reader can't stand to be away from her. (I especially think we should have gotten to see as much of Maggie in school as we did Tom. But still: not seriously concerned.)
Though I purchased a copy as I neared the end so I could always have it, I read it all via DailyLit in 242 parts over two months. One of the things I like most about reading through DailyLit emails is that though most pages can be deleted after they're read, emails with passages I really like I save instead. Just in case. (I think this is the same kind of thing that makes people underline or dog-ear pages in real books, but I've never been able to do that.) So in my email right now I have 5 saved pages of Night and Day, 1 page of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and 110 pages of The Mill on the Floss. For a little perspective.
Speaking of the right text for the moment. You got it, Brooklyn.
I recently moved to Brooklyn (again), and I figured reading this was a good way to wel...moreSpeaking of the right text for the moment. You got it, Brooklyn.
I recently moved to Brooklyn (again), and I figured reading this was a good way to welcome myself. I'm glad I did that. I never read it as a child, though I couldn't say why.
And I don't know what happened, but I found myself feeling so sad whenever I started reading that I stopped and took a break for a while, which I have never done ever before with a book. I read other serious books all the time. So it was strange.
Essentially the problem went away the older Francie got, therefore the better bolstered she grew to the world and her sharp observations of it. She is rather wonderfully sentimental her whole life, but as a really little kid her highs and lows are just crushing. When no one wants to play with her; when she sees the free piano in their house AND HUGS IT and can't HUG IT ENOUGH; when she has to take the pretty doll, she just can't stand it, she can't stand it. I about died.
It's not even a very sad book, is the thing. It's an impeccably classic coming-of-age book, with everything that goes inside one, but it isn't deeply tragic. Francie's life is difficult (and hungry), and she absorbs a lot of grief, but she gets a lot of triumphs by overcoming it. She learns to be a really, really good person, in a world that's usually too cold for her. And half the novel's purpose seems to be the detailing of its setting (1910's Williamsburg), and filling it with shops and people and realness, not just the experiences of one girl. My expectation was always that this book is an idyllic time capsule about the good old days, but it's actually about being poor, and being surrounded by realistically iffy people.
Interestingly, for a book about a girl, almost all the people in it are adults. I really loved that. Instead of keeping her feelings about Francie's growing up to herself, the author put them all in a wide range of grown-ups who are watching her for different reasons. We learn so much about her family history, her aunts' lives, her parents' relationship. There's a lot of frankness about sex and death and birth. Altogether the scope goes far beyond the small distractions of childhood, unlike a lot of books of this kind. Her mother Katie is the second strongest character here, and is so complex she's sometimes difficult to love. ("She exchanged her tenderness for capability.") My very favorite was Aunt Sissy, and her naive way of standing up for things. I think her lucky, cunning intimidation of Francie's mean teacher was my favorite.
Francie's pursuits when she gets older are so lovely. She becomes interested in playwriting, which was almost too much for me, it's so sweet. There's a little conflict while she's learning about writing stories that are darker and truer than adults generally encourage little girls to write. At one point she finds she's writing fantasy to mask these themes, while still writing about hunger, and she gives up and feels she's failed. But I actually really like what she did, and I wished the lesson was that she could have victory this way.
When she's older, she gets in a complicated situation being stuck between work and high school, and throws herself into full-time jobs. These make her grow up, but instead of giving up her other ambitions she basically hacks her way into college, and any other kind of classes she can find and pay for. And it's awesome. I wished this part of the book were even longer, because it brought out so many interesting experiences and changes for her. Instead it kind of breaks down into chapters of paragraph-long vignettes for a while, and I'm not sure why. At some point the book shows that it kind of lacks unity, and that's a little disappointing. It's so close to having it all.
I also totally hated Lee right from the start. But I wasn't sure if I was supposed to. I was happy that the ending didn't involve a direct tie to a boy.
Francie's emotional relationship with Brooklyn through the book is completely great. There's a lot of exalting its gruff openness and crumbly nature. I like when she defends New Yorkese linguistically to her brother ("'Here in Brooklyn stood is like the past tense of stay'") because I feel totally the same way. There's a lot of sweet comments about the borough's universality (which is more true than ever, where I live). I love when her dad takes her up to have a view of the neighborhood and city and she tells him, "'It's pretty the same way pictures of in-the-country are pretty.'" Perfect.
Side note that this edition is kind of disappointing. The afterword is full of inaccuracies quite irritating to someone just having finished the book, and the illustrations are weird and... uh, bad. With the exception of the iconic little fire escape design on all the chapter numbers. I like that. But that dude cannot draw people, I'm sorry.
It seems what this book is famous for is its bygone definition of Englishness, but to me the relationships were enchanting and vivid, and that's what...moreIt seems what this book is famous for is its bygone definition of Englishness, but to me the relationships were enchanting and vivid, and that's what held me. Their contrast with the ornate settings created such a rich whirlwind picture of visiting the world at the time. (The story is in many more places than just the titular estate; there's lots of travel). Some of the words from the book resonated as themes themselves, "thwarted", "the forerunner". They've kept me thinking. And it surprised me; I didn't expect it to end for the reasons it did. When war is coming at the end, you know that's bad enough.
My favorite part, I suppose not surprisingly, was the chapter in the huge storm on the ocean liner. It is miraculous and perfectly dramatic. What it brings about is so touching and, I guess, I just seem to really, really like a machina of water in a novel. Sue me please.
Thanks to Evan, for the birthday present.
By the way, what a terrible movie-related book cover. It is really unsightly. (Though the Everyman edition within is of course lovely.) So unlikable that my friend brought over a new dustjacket from work, which is what's on the shelf now.(less)
So, I am just reading this. Is that legal? It kind of doesn't seem legal. Like I need to submit my resume first. But I'm just going to read it and tha...moreSo, I am just reading this. Is that legal? It kind of doesn't seem legal. Like I need to submit my resume first. But I'm just going to read it and that's what I'm doing.
Also, 320 editions on GoodReads and not the one I'm reading? Unfair. JUSTICE! It's a theme. I think.
Oh my god book! You're over! I thought we might die together.
You earned a 3.5 really, book, because this was a good thing to read. I learned to put aside the prejudices that kept me from reading it for 12 years. For example, it is actually quite easy to read, with almost no crazy prosaic dreamscapes where the symbolism claws your eyes out. (I like my symbolism a little gentler.) Several of the philosophical conclusions and personal attitudes hit home. I liked that there are a couple of important women in it, because I thought that it would pretty much be a man book. His sister Dounia is the smartest character, though, and Sonia has some of the best scenes although she is also more the type of idolized woman who does show up in man books.
It is a city book, which makes you imagine visiting its city (St. Petersburg), but through a time machine. It is the best history lesson I've had on 19th-century Russia (meaning, I've had none), and it interested me to learn a bit on the side. Particularly about the 1861 emancipation of the serfs, which I'd never heard of in my life but is an enormous fact. It is only mentioned two or three times in the book, but I think there are clues that this and related social changes -- specific immigrant groups, and economic shifts -- were a critical piece of Dostoevsky's writing in 1866. He saw his country as a real place, where real consequences included real Siberia, and real people could wind up unfathomably rudderless, and he meant it all for a novel.
I am rounding the stars down, though, because sometimes there was too much muddle. The clarification of Rodion's motives weaved in and out, and sometimes I just forgot, or I wondered if the book forgot that it was about this guy and his crime, remember, from the title? And though often the symptoms of his bleak rock-bottom are extremely relatable, other times I could not help but think, Cheer up, emo Raskolnikov! I also really did think I would be reading it forever. I was pretty ready for it to be finished well before it was, and the last 50 pages were Sisyphean. I am going to read about 10 really really short books after this so I feel productive again.
Let's have a sidebar on this Bantam Classic edition that I got at the first regional Barnes & Noble near Milwaukee in high school. I'll start with the cover, which I have looked at for the last decade and concluded that this serious book with its severe title was about an old man with a receding hairline and weathered face. Fact: Raskolnikov is 23, and he hasn't even managed to finish a college degree yet. That is a world of difference, in outlook. Also, the back copy promises "a terrifying murder mystery" and "a fascinating detective thriller". And I understand where you are coming from, Bantam Classic, that you shouldn't say, for example, "ponderous novel with a murder, and a detective," but maybe do. The binding broke while I read the first half, and actually I always kind of like it when a book falls apart as I finish it. It usually only happens to the books that earn it, and it did open itself onto the most memorable scene, so thank you.(less)
Rebecca is a wonderful character, and it was lovely rooting for her and watching her succeed. The book...moreRead via DailyLit in 89 parts over three months.
Rebecca is a wonderful character, and it was lovely rooting for her and watching her succeed. The book's voice is so sweet, and I liked that it was funny too. I liked to imagine the author who could write a description like "eyes as big as cartwheels."
I appreciated, of course, how very heavily Wiggin seems to have been influenced by The Mill on the Floss. That was a really nice surprise, and lucky for me to read them in this order. There are multiple allusions to that book here, such as:
"It is coming, Emmie," she said presently; "do you remember in The Mill on the Floss, when Maggie Tulliver closed the golden gates of childhood behind her?"
In a lot of ways, Rebecca is Maggie, given another chance. She is far less heartbreaking, though, which is a good thing because I think a heart can only handle one Maggie Tulliver.
I was so impressed by the adults in the book. Rebecca's story is so bright, but the adults influencing her surroundings are given skillful little shades of back-story, a paragraph or so to describe what has shaped them, and it's often very sad. It makes Rebecca's setting very realistic. Her aunt Jane's wisps of backstory on the battlefield are absolutely breathtaking. And I love the introduction of the missionaries in the middle, and her mentorship with her English teacher, whose outlook is shockingly no-nonsense. Sometimes it's easy to assume old books like this cast nothing but gauzy parochial characters, particularly for children, but this book absolutely doesn't.
I was really pleased that Rebecca didn't get married at the end. She didn't not get married, and we pretty much know who is going to marry her, but it was nice to have the ending be all about her. I expected a promise of marriage to be the making of Rebecca's perfect adult happiness, but instead that happiness comes from her family and her own realizations, and that is very gratifying. I think Wiggin really knew what she was doing there.
Before I began the book, I read that Jack London, of all people, had written a fan letter to Wiggin to say, "May I thank you for Rebecca?", as a war correspondent in Manchuria 1904. I never quite forgot it as I read the book -- the idea of a children's book reaching that improbably far, and then also to us, is extraordinary.(less)
I was intimidated by beginning this book for a long time, but once I did I was really pleased with it. It was much more reachable than I'd feared, and...moreI was intimidated by beginning this book for a long time, but once I did I was really pleased with it. It was much more reachable than I'd feared, and I enjoyed it a lot. It managed to surprise me, too, because it changes so suddenly in the middle, but I think the first half was what I liked best. The drifting thoughts among this group of people are so, so good.
Then the middle section about the house that really is about nothing -- nothing at all is going on and pretty much no one is there -- is weird, but wow some of those sentences, the writing was beautiful. The drifting form returns at the end, and there are some really amazing insights, but it didn't feel as magical as the beginning and I lost a little patience. The depiction of the moody, harsh parent and the siblings united, though, was something.
One of the stars in this rating belongs entirely to the line,
"Nature has but little clay like that of which she moulded you."
which may be my favorite sentence I've read. My other favorite passage was near the end, when Cam describes visiting the men in the study when she is "all in a muddle". I also liked the girls' names a lot: Prue, Minta. And I wished we'd seen more than a paragraph of Nancy, because Nancy was sort of hilarious.
My ISBN apparently matches this edition, but what I actually read looks like this. Chris's mom bought it for me at the Niantic Book Barn in 2005, possibly because I may have read somewhere it is Rennie Sparks's favorite book. Well, that's me for you.(less)
Read via DailyLit in 145 parts over about 5 months. Took a break for a while, but read the last 30 or so at once over the weekend. I love clickin' tha...moreRead via DailyLit in 145 parts over about 5 months. Took a break for a while, but read the last 30 or so at once over the weekend. I love clickin' that "send next installment" link, oh I do.
Now that I'm done giggling over the subtitle on a German edition I just saw: Sitten in der Provinz, let's be serious.
I didn't grow too attached to this book, but I still really liked reading it. The public domain version (I can't find the translation info) is extremely readable, and Flaubert's style is so clear and attentive. So much of the description in the narrative is wonderful, the settings all extremely knowable. In general the author's view became the most compelling aspect: this book basically seems to be about people being tragically stupid. No one here is very nice, nor worthy of niceness, and though that's a little depressing, it's not without truth. Flaubert's eye is merciless, and still he seems to pity the fools.
Even though she's for the most part greatly unsympathetic, Emma never stops being interesting to read about. Her first intoxications with luxury and sensual living make a lot of sense, as does her boredom with her marriage, and her relationship with Leon (both times) is actually rather likable. Her relationship with Rodolphe, in between, wasn't as good -- he's plain smarmy, but it started to be sort of exciting, and then it was over. As her problems piled up with the debts and the secondary characters, I didn't feel so interested, but I guess this book isn't really about the plot.
Like ok, how about we talk about Charles. Oh Charles. Mr. Bovary. I think you were my favorite character. Because Charles: you suck so much, you are actually kind of cute. It's just pathetic. You're the FAIL cat. On and on you go, being so very dumb, so very oblivious, and so very bad at parenting, money, and your job. Oh my gosh you're the worst doctor. The horrible episode with the stable boy and his amputation. So disastrously embarrassing, it was almost funny. But not exactly.
(Sidebar: the old-fashioned medical terms actually add a lot throughout the book; it was worth looking them up to see exactly how wrong or just plain grim they all are.)
By the end, I didn't think that I'd cared very much for the book, because I wasn't quite sure what its purpose really was. But it managed to make that very clear in the last few sections, and I was pleasantly surprised. Even though it is awfully depressing, the long horrible death scene (SO LONG), and the pitiful responses of everyone. The message is pretty clear. Folks are a letdown. And luxury is sort of a joke.
My second date with my new best friend George Eliot. I didn't love it like I loved The Mill on the Floss, which is fine. I'm not sure that I want to...moreMy second date with my new best friend George Eliot. I didn't love it like I loved The Mill on the Floss, which is fine. I'm not sure that I want to love all things that way.
I'm rounding up the rating here because though it was a much more difficult read, I have near as much awe for what she is capable of. The thing that I find in George Eliot, and in almost nothing else, is a telling of the truth that sounds like a magic, definitive lesson. Her statements are just and perfect. And in both books, the conflicts have somehow made me feel the story touches my life deeply. As an adult, I find very few stories strong enough to reach there.
Here, she brings across important thinking about duty and debt and trust, belonging and home, self-interest on a macro level. The truth of some conclusions on those subjects were painful to read. I will need to revisit these thoughts. And parentage seems to be important here -- I noticed there are four father figures in the book: Romola's, her husband's, her godfather, and her converter and "father" Savonarola. The comparison between them is not explicitly drawn, but I paid it attention anyway. In the end, Romola herself seems to belong on that list symbolically as well. It's a good ending.
But. Very long stretches of this book are very hard to read. I felt exasperated by the entire first half. 50% of a pretty long book is a lot of distaste, so some more balanced presentation of character insight would have been good for me. I felt like I waited forever to see what Romola was like, and why the book is named after her. And something about the style in which Eliot delivers the bulk of the setting -- the history lessons, the political goings-on, the inhabitants and aspect of Florence at the turn of the 16th century -- just did not go, for me. I did not befriend it. It was far, far too dry and exact to enjoy.
Which is ok, actually; that is just my reading. But it was strange feeling the parts of the book I really valued were often being eclipsed by her accuracy. And yet, it is perfectly right for her to have worked so hard to achieve it, and that's the way it should be.
Picked up a 1973 Feminist Press copy of the story at the closing month sale at Skyline Books in NYC. I also reread it on DailyLit, in 2008:
Actual c...morePicked up a 1973 Feminist Press copy of the story at the closing month sale at Skyline Books in NYC. I also reread it on DailyLit, in 2008:
"Meg did you ever read 'The Yellow Wallpaper' in high school?" "Yes!" "Cool, well you should read it again!" "Is that the one where she walks into the ocean?"
I did like the story in high school and I revisited it via DailyLit over lunch today. DO THIS.
I was stunned (again) how good it is. It's terrifying! And makes its feminist thesis perfectly clear while also being tragic and ominous. Coming from so far away as 1892, it's incredible to think what Gilman must have been like.(less)
**spoiler alert** I picked this copy up at the closing month sale at Skyline Books in NYC.
So this is my "last" gap book in my "Major Novels of George...more**spoiler alert** I picked this copy up at the closing month sale at Skyline Books in NYC.
So this is my "last" gap book in my "Major Novels of George Eliot" subjective quest of the winter. Silas Marner is popular and Felix Holt is long, and someday soon I'll read both. But having taken a glance at some lit crit, I think I've covered the works I'm most likely to encounter SPOILERS about if I read any. Which is uh, what was actually most important to me, in this quest.
Speaking of spoilers, I think this is the rare book I can't write about at all without the filter on.
It's partly because: very little in this book happens as I expected it to happen. Which isn't bad. But also, sometimes, I wondered why. Which is a new feeling for me, reading Eliot. In my opinion, George Eliot writes novels that are perfect. This actually doesn't mean I always jaw-drop love them, but it means that everything they are is exactly as it should be to become the richest, rightest story. It will stay and stay with you.
You know that thing that often happens when you read someone's first novel, and you notice all the things that are first-novely about it? And they give you reservations but you also forgive them. I guess the writer I least expected this feeling from is George Eliot, but this is how I felt through nearly the whole book. The carpenters speak always in carpentry metaphors; the farmers speak always in farming metaphors. Like simple country folk! Would you like to read a six-page description of a room or person each time one is visited? This is the book for you! There are also about ten too many harsh digs at women that... maybe used to seem funny or true, or just like evidence that the author was a man.
I acknowledge my response there is unusual, because this book was and is incredibly loved, and was the standard against which all the author's other books were compared. Its strength of atmosphere is one of the things most loved about it. Hear the peasants speak! See the squires dance! Imagine yourself really there, in the dairy! See Hetty's beautiful, pink, round, beautiful roundness and pinkness. This transporting description is a beloved trait of the novel. Victoria loved it so much she commissioned royal paintings of its scenes:
And it is all that, but much of it is also the kind of reading that makes high schoolers never want to touch a book again in their lives.
Anyway, it does have an undoubted power once, as such high schoolers would say, shit gets real. Because it does, and all of the frank hardness that George Eliot cultivates in the rest of her novels is there, too. The situation becomes uncomfortable quite fast, and you know the crushings will come. The ones that come down are huge. Almost too huge? I was setting up in my mind the slow, long crushing of Eliot's other conflicts, but this one works very very differently. It's made me feel odd, because part of me has this uncharacteristically conservative feeling that this story is too much, too loud and on the nose, that I prefer the more interpersonal disasters later in her works, with all the little boats.
(A helpful flowchart I made)
But then, Hetty runs away and everything changes. The first chapter of her wandering, when Eliot manages to have us understand that Hetty's realized she's pregnant, is amazing and frightening. I was talking about it and was asked, "How do you discover that's what the situation is, if the author's not allowed to say anything about sex or pregnancy?" and I couldn't exactly answer. You just know. Hetty's horror and panic is just that real, that it couldn't be anything else. The chapter is named "The Hidden Dread" for goodness sake.
We knew that this was going on. We knew what Arthur was in denial about. We knew that he lied to Adam, in love with Hetty, when Adam asks if she "can never be my wife." I didn't know where it would lead. I thought, actually, that Hetty would be Adam's wife -- that the three of them would have to live with the situation they'd put themselves into, and Arthur would inherit his position as the squire, and everything would be totes awkward and horrible.
I knew a baby would be born. I knew the baby would become dead. But a reader is kind of blindsided by this still -- we leave Hetty to her hungry wandering, and then the details of what happens do not emerge for a while. She's in prison, she won't speak. Others speak her story for her. Some woman she stayed with witnesses the birth, and mostly sounds as if she's just peeved her sleep was disturbed. Someone found its body and gives testimony that Hetty looked like a wild beggar.
The baby is always called "it." By everyone. This was actually the most powerful thing, maybe? Because I know it was so deliberate to write it that way. In real life, they wouldn't speak that way. It would be a he or a she, a person. Doing this to the baby in this story makes the story be about Hetty. It's extremely unsettling, making you feel how not existing the child is, and yet feel extremely strong for Hetty at the same time.
I think it almost is just too hard to believe that what happens with her trial and sentencing could really be happening. It's almost too unbelievable to make a good story. Of course, the problem with that is that it's plenty real. It happened enough. I read that George Eliot heard this story as a teenager from her aunt (a model of Dinah), who counseled a girl going to the gallows like this. There's a story of a woman sentenced to hang for child murder in Edinburgh, 1728, who did, and lived. Hetty is every teenage girl leaving her newborn in the bathroom trash at school, it's just, then she's sentenced to die for it.
The fact that she is saved from this is almost meaningless, it seems. Everything this book is comes from this part of the novel, from what Hetty undergoes in these events. It's telling us about having to live with our actions and inactions, and how our innocence is lost. Hetty's innocence is lost in ignorance and selfishness, by becoming a fool. Adam's innocence is lost when he sees he is foolish for believing in hers. Their regret and shame change them into new people. Both of them feel that they won't be able to ever get over it, and they are sort of justified in this.
Oddly, though, Hetty is technically spared her death sentence, but she is not spared in the rest of the story. (The fact that a whole section is still left after Hetty's trial reminded me of there being a whole section of Anna Karenina left after her death.) It's just Adam who gets to keep going, and become happy.
I'm really glad I read this, because these novels are able to keep going and make new lives within their readers, too. I should probably rate this higher, because I think my feelings for it are going to prove very fluid with time. We're going to have to visit again.(less)
I've had this copy since high school, but I've never read the whole thing before now. I think I'd read the first act, and seen the start of the movie,...moreI've had this copy since high school, but I've never read the whole thing before now. I think I'd read the first act, and seen the start of the movie, and I knew about the ending, but the pieces weren't properly pieced before this read.
So this was a good choice, very good choice. First act is great, second act is better. (Third act's ok.) Right in the middle, this turns so scary. Oh it's scary. The dark threat in a really good play, oh that's so good. When the "Violence! Violence!" struck up I caught my breath a little. (Also, "The mousy girl screams 'Violence! Violence!'" is a song lyric I had not placed.)
I liked George's mental break much more than Martha's, here. (And Honey's, as mentioned, isn't bad.) Martha's going-crazy monologues in Act III really did not work super great on the page for me. Whereas George's psycho ragey meltdown is amazing, amazing throughout but particularly in Act II, he's just talking evil circles around everyone, everyone every second. So detached, yet so ready to go. Albee describes a "hideous elation," which, wow. His creepy tangly backstory too. 5 stars, Act II. Maybe 500.
I'm leaving this at 4 stars though because the ending wasn't fabulous for me. I felt it didn't do very much. It got very manic for a very long time, and in a way, I felt, that drowned out its big secret. It's true I knew already where that was going, but I guess I felt that if the emphasis wasn't really on the reveal then it must be on the mania, and that was kind of all over the place. And I wanted a better sense of what's going on really, outside this crazy house, what happens after this night. Anything? Maybe not anything. I really wish I knew.
Anyway what I really have to contribute is how in my imagination Honey was played by Alison Brie. It was always her. Yeah I know, you're totally welcome. Just giving back to the universe a little. Good work.
I can tell I'm gonna be pulled to reread this someday.(less)
I've had this for a long time. I first attempted to read it in 2003, when I was hanging out at The Space one day while Chris had a keyboard lesson. I...moreI've had this for a long time. I first attempted to read it in 2003, when I was hanging out at The Space one day while Chris had a keyboard lesson. I made it to page 5. My bookmark was still in there.
It's a deceptively small book. I thought it would go somewhat quickly because of its length, but of course the style is very dense, and moreover that terrible pace took hold that happens when I'm not too interested in reading something. I won't read something else, since I want to finish, but I don't really read it either, since I don't love it, so... that's no help. And so it took absolutely forever.
Anyway, I thought I'd like it more. A lot more. I enjoyed and got a lot from two of her other books in the past couple years. Since this is the most famous I thought it would have the most to offer, but it really seems to be appreciated more as an art piece than a novel that feels amazing to read. A classic to write essays about: let's identify the flower motif, let's count the bells of the clock.* Pretty and poised and no fun. Too much the properties of the title character, I guess.
* (It was pretty awesome when she called the strokes of the clock "irrevocable.")
The problem is basically that no one here feels interesting or meaningful, even when their meaning is obvious. With all the points of view in such a famously omniscient narrative, you'd think someone would not be boring. But they all were boring. They all made me want the next person to show up. And that's a huge disappointment. In Night and Day, her characters were perfectly placed vessels for her authorial insight, and in To the Lighthouse, everything was so beautiful that every long moment with every person landed. And Mrs. Dalloway is chock full of this same insight -- I marked dozens of pages that said something fabulous -- but for the most part all of this was just Virginia Woolf being brilliant, and had little to do with whatever was there in the novel at that point. With some exceptions, these wonderful notes belonged much more to the author than to any person or place in the book, like she could have said them anywhere.
Also, I always thought it ended really, really differently.
The only place I loved any of these people was during the rich memories the characters share of their time at the summer home on the beach when they were young. Their recollections of their passionate friendships and silently tender moments, and the shorthand of shared knowledge that Woolf imparts them with, it's lovely every time. I was always happy to go back there with them and it's evocative to read. The pain of loving that time in your life more than any other time in your life, and the pain that it then changes forever. In certain ways it could be argued that this is the most important part of the book, therefore I should like the book, but... it's not, really.
So I didn't like it much. I doubt I'd like to reread it. But I'm adding a star for all the good things that get said here regardless. Because I like it that way.(less)
I think a lot of people find a way to leviathan-ize this book. For me, its symbolic battle emerged when I was supposed to read it in college and faile...moreI think a lot of people find a way to leviathan-ize this book. For me, its symbolic battle emerged when I was supposed to read it in college and failed to. For a while there I was failing to read anything at all, and I prescribed myself this book several times as a cure-by-fire of a kind. Harsh medicine, and it never worked. This year was the fourth time I tried to read it. That is a lot of times! I need a punch-card!
The thing was, people love this. In college, a classmate said: This book is changing my life with every chapter. And I thought, wow. I need that. That’s what I need.
The problem... is that I literally don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t know what they’re talking about! What part of the chapter about what to do with a sperm whale’s head changed your life? I honestly want to know. I think I would really dig it if a chapter about what to do with a sperm whale’s head changed my life! Or a chapter about what to do with a right whale’s head. It’s different, you know. Give it to me, I want that. What the hell is the matter.
Well, what I decided the matter is, is that for a great American novel... it’s sort of not much of one. It is a work of art, as it is a work of character and thematic exposition. But I 100% confess that I mistakenly sat down for this book thinking I was getting a big fat novel: sequential chapters, lots of contemplating the sea and fighting of whales and moving about and hefty metaphor, but ultimately a linear story about Ishmael the person, and the incredible problem of this ship’s final voyage. This is not so. For 100 pages, it is, and I enjoyed this beginning very much. Ishmael’s finding his way to the job on the Pequod is interesting, sad, funny, and full of portent in itself. We see people, we see land, we see impact. But once the ship gets out to sea... we see nothing.
In between here and the end, there are but three kinds of chapters, each self-contained:
1) Ishmael tells us facts about whales and whaling, 60%. 2) The Pequod hunts a whale, 5%. 3) The Pequod meets another ship at sea, 5%.
Of these, I always enjoyed the last. Strange and sad things always occurred around these meetings. By far, by far, my favorite chapter of the whole voyage is Chapter 81, “The Pequod Meets The Virgin.” The two crews compete to kill a crippled, elderly whale, and its death is full of sadness and beauty. I folded nearly every page of it. (How they found so many harpoons inside him, concealed by healing.)
But then it would end. Then Ishmael would talk about something else that he thinks we need to know, such as whether a whale’s skin is its skin or its blubber is its skin, and really, I don’t want to know. Strangely, I wanted more detail, but of another sort. I thought that three years at sea would feel like three years, and not just in the “is this over yet” sense. I thought that I would know more the feeling of the sea, the pasttimes of the men, the change in their spirits and in their larder. How is it possible to write so much book with so little reality and people? When the men do talk together (or to themselves, heaven help us) they sound desperately stilted, and when they do something onboard it seems unimportant and strange. Unfortunately, reality and character are what I love in a book, and I just did not get along with this one.
To me, the main pleasure throughout was: Mocking Ishmael’s Sincerity. Because Ishmael is not entirely unamusing! He is, for one thing, a shitty sailor. It’s probably partly a narrative device to render him slightly omnipresent, but it isn’t all that often that we even know what the hell Ishmael is doing on this ship, let alone in this scene. Whenever he mentions what he’s doing, it’s to confess that he’s doing a bad job: he’s dozing off while on lookout and thinking dreamy thoughts about the horizon, or he’s not concentrating on rope-winding because he’s mostly sitting there thinking about how Queequeg on the other end is the representation of fate and free will itself. (view spoiler)[He even survives, at the end, solely because he fell the hell out of the boat! (hide spoiler)] He was probably reciting a poem in his head.
I liked his bizarre, misfit type, though. I liked that he didn’t belong there. He goes to sea to stave off suicidal depression, he tells us -- an interesting way to prevent oneself from jumping in the Hudson River, that -- and like many literary heroes in this strait, he’s overthinking, a lot. He’s needy and picky. He won’t sail out of New Bedford because it’s not authentic enough; he’ll only depart from Nantucket. He talks like he’s a scholar, though we don’t know if he really is. He clearly is not a rugged man. He doesn’t seem to have any connections to any family or women or friends, and thus gets completely swept away by, for instance, the glory of his mate Queequeg. Which, if you think about it, I really hope Queequeg even likes the poor guy back. We don’t know! They don’t really hang out after their famous night in bed together. We only know how he is adored. Everything for Ishmael is one-sided, and unfulfilled.
Essentially Ishmael struck me as the kind of pretentious kid you run into today at hippie colleges (of which I attended one myself), who wants to take a year off and become a fisherman in Alaska, who chooses to live a life other people have no way out of, chiefly because he wants comrades. Today he would have gone to Evergreen, made his own deodorant, and lectured everyone about why we are unenlightened slaves to the man. He is the kid from Into the Wild. The real tragedy of Moby Dick is that Ishmael missed Nietzsche by a hair.
And he is, for another thing, full of crap! The way he writes things that he’s “researched” exhaustively and has “experienced” firsthand and therefore sloppily promises that a thing is “true,” it’s just weird, and unreliable. He’s only maybe 20% wrong about things -- things like the scientific definition of a whale, of which he makes up his own -- but that’s still plenty, and just enough to screw with what you think of everything he tells you is nonfiction. He gives strange asides about later in life having native friends in Peru, or of remote island chiefs, who just happen to adore his stories and give him many gifts. He may have even invented the name Ishmael, if you consider the first line. It’s an interesting challenge. However, this obfuscation never actually makes it anywhere, never matters if it’s right or wrong, and takes up at least 80% of the bulk of the book, and that’s so much.
It’s so much, so oblique, in such volume. The language is genuinely hard to read, and I love reading. I’ve read old books since I was a child, but this feels as if it’s written on purpose to be difficult. It may be a generic problem of the era -- the book is dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne! -- but honestly I’d often finish a ten-line sentence and circle back to find the beginning again, just wanting to have some idea at all of what it is saying. It made me feel bad! I can read. Isn’t that the prerequisite here? Did I need to submit my AP exam scores first? Sometimes, something incredibly beautiful is said, that could never be said any other way. (Of the horizon: “the fond, throbbing trust, the loving alarms, with which the poor bride gave her bosom away.”) But the rest of the time.
Another problem of the era in the text is that parts of it are very hard to read in other ways: There’s some very cruel racism in the book. On the one hand, Melville is cultivating a multinational cast and making the case that whalers are one of the first diverse teams of equals in the modern world, and this was an idea I found quite interesting. But then, you have the scene where the “old black” cook is brought out and teased and degraded, or a dozen others, with Pip the black boy who loses his mind, Ahab’s mysterious prophet Fedallah, or any other exchange one of the tribal sailors is in. Honestly, calling Queequeg a cannibal is the least of the worries.
And to be perfectly frank, language-wise, there is a problem with sperm. Ishmael talks so much about sperm that every bad joke you’ve ever heard about homoeroticism in this book comes true. The bursting point for me (sorry) came when I read Chapter 94, "A Squeeze of the Hand," while on a subway train, and steam almost came out my ears while failing to contain my laughter, while Ishmael expresses his ecstasy for squeezing sperm. There are many exclamation points about it. I crack up just remembering. “Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever!” Ishmael, just... no kidding.
I did often appreciate the book thematically, as you must. I think it is intended to discuss how a brave person should deal with pain. The white whales of your life, you must choose to mourn or chase. There is some serious meaning to Ishmael’s lostness, and to Ahab’s mental health. (The brief moments acknowledging that Ahab should really have been prevented from captaining a new voyage in the state he was in seemed very shocking and contemporary to me.) But ultimately, I didn’t retrieve enough value from the excess. It’s gory work.
Strangely, one of my favorite things was the small half-page Epilogue. It is concise, symbolic, and perfect. It is 30 chapters’ worth of thought and feeling. And though it makes a beautiful last note, I wished that I hadn’t had to wait so long.
Anyway, book, I got ya.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Editing 4/5/13: Updating the rating -- Middlemarch, I can't stay mad at you! .
This is probably going to take me the rest of the year to read, but I'm h...moreEditing 4/5/13: Updating the rating -- Middlemarch, I can't stay mad at you! .
This is probably going to take me the rest of the year to read, but I'm hoping that it is "the right text for the moment." .
Ok first of all, I can't believe I read this in only 7 weeks. That's gold-medal championship reading, for me! And of course, it means that at many times, it was a great pleasure. Somewhere roughly halfway through, I had a good week or two just gobbling the chapters right up.
Stillllll. You know what I did here? I rounded it down. Ugh I knowww. I'm the worst. It's not right. But there it is, that's all the stars I got in my little sack for today. This may not have really been a 3-star read, fairly, but I think in some ways it's going to sit on my shelf forever as a 3-star book. I can't explain. But I'll try.
Honestly, the problem may have been that I already love George Eliot. I already know that she produces sharp insight and an immense depth of both criticism and empathy for her characters, which are just brilliant skills for a novelist, and I adore them. But so far, where I've loved these qualities the most is in the first novel I read, which also brings with it such overwhelming feelings I thought that I would just claw my face off. (And still feel that way every time I revisit it. How is my face still attached??)
And that's not what's going on here in Middlemarch. Which is ok. I perceive that it's doing something different, and that's fine. I looked forward to reading her most famous book partly because I had a dim idea of what Dorothea's conflicts are in it, and because I presumed that the feeling in this work must be the greatest. But frankly, its greatness is for other reasons, and a bit like when I read Mrs. Dalloway recently (though not as frustratingly), it reads a little bit like English class.
You stand back and admire this book more than you fall to the bottom of a well with it. And the second thing is my favorite thing when I read. I prefer irrevocably dropping into wells to soberly observing, oh what a grand scope of setting, each character is the center of their own story, two protagonists carrying through, though honestly only one has a lot to say and it's the one I like less. And is that a poetic medical metaphor I see?
I do admire a lot here. The basic idea, wherein she begins her book with the courtships and marriages of these characters rather than ending the book there, is good. In fact I was a bit impatient waiting for the terrible marriages to mount. Oh, so terrible, these marriages! Yes! Let the illusion of happiness disintegrate before my eyes! But still... it's pat, to a point. The conflicts are rendered in extremely rich detail, but nothing surprises you.
And though the scope is impressive, carrying so many characters as well as (mildly) threading them through current events, there is always the problem of wishing more time was spent with the characters you like best, instead. Lydgate, I wanted him to shut up a while, oh just take a break with your professional quandaries, gracious. Dorothea, I wanted to hear from her every day. One of the best parts of the book takes place during the outstanding disappointment of Dorothea's honeymoon, and this was just perfect, and what I wished the whole book was like. Her every thought (as well as that of her husband's) is fleshed out with cutting realism, and it's marvelous. All the time spent in less interesting thoughts (such as Lydgate's confused career politics) just made me antsy.
Similarly, the peripheral characters went both ways. Clearly the most incredible work is done on Rosamond, who marries Lydgate and makes just about the worst wife of all time. Eliot spares not one gram of Rosamond's conniving selfishness and perceived blamelessness, and it is just damning, and amazing. I'd have been pleased to read even more about her. Interestingly, she isn't so much a villain to the story (despite ruining a ton of things), as a straightforward portrait all her own. I also liked her goony brother Fred, mostly for the way he constantly screws up his relationship with the excellent Mary Garth and is somehow always forgiven for it. (He really shouldn't be.) The Garth family rules, and I loved all the time spent with them. Mary and Fred probably gave me the most pause for thought of anyone that isn't Dorothea.
Dorothea, though... I couldn't love her well enough. I understood her best when she was with other people, often poorly relating to them, but I was rarely moved by her as described on her own. I appreciate deeply her search for her cause, but really the "St. Theresa of Nothing" theme falls away, despite her attempts to sacrifice. And after I finished this, I went to look at Romola again, and happened across a passage describing her similar conflict in so much the same exact speech and tone as Dorothea's that it left me with some distaste. I don't think an author's wrong to repeatedly explore a certain strong feeling, but it made me less impressed with what I did get from Middlemarch.
And the major conflicts aside, there is some boring nonsense in the storylines that we have to spend a lot of time with. Fred's inheritance, Bulstrode's scandal, Will's apparent connection to basically everybody by the end. Lydgate's denial and battle with his debts was a good path, but didn't actually sting as much as I thought it should. (I read that he and Rosamond may have been conceived as a latter-day Bovary, but that aspect didn't have quite the element of total downfall as in the original.) Also I really, really, really didn't want to spend 100 pages debating for whom Lydgate would cast his vote for hospital chaplain. Like really not in the slightest. Maybe it wasn't literally 100 pages, but boy it read like it. Which is a nutshell that works.
Still and all I marked about 50 pages that said something excellent, and I'll reread them all. One of the best showed up in the first few scenes, an admonishment from James: "'You give up from some high, generous motive.'" Ouch.
But my favorite, I think: "There are natures in which, if they love us, we are conscious of having a sort of baptism and consecration: they bind us over to rectitude and purity by their pure belief about us."
I've read that line over dozens of times already. That is the right text for the moment. So. I'm not giving up on George Eliot anytime ever.(less)
**spoiler alert** Found a copy of this on the street in Brooklyn. Next to a garbage can, but nonetheless. I see more books laid out in Fort Greene tha...more**spoiler alert** Found a copy of this on the street in Brooklyn. Next to a garbage can, but nonetheless. I see more books laid out in Fort Greene than anywhere ever, I swear.
So, should we talk about how everybody seems to have read this in high school? And how, according to everyone I've ever heard from and everyone I went to school with, we hated it? Even I hated it, and I was the only person who ever liked the books from class. I didn't mind. I remember being kind of grateful to Ethan Frome for giving me a way to relate to my peers! What a joyful week this was! Also we watched the Liam Neeson movie in class, and that was funny.
All I can think of is that this gets assigned to students simply because it is 80 pages long. That is its single recommending trait for a teenager. The things I enjoyed about it now are all rather different than the things I enjoyed about books when I was younger. The book is so slight that its surface scenario -- solemn adults full of regret, bitterness, and cold -- is pretty much what you get. Wharton brings a lot to the table, but I'd never buy this for a teenager for Christmas, and I'd prefer not to assign it to one either.
To my surprise, though, I liked it so much this time. What you're basically walking into in this book is an examination of the epic stuckness of Ethan, and the surprise that wrests him into turmoil over it. I found I had a lot of sympathy for this. It's something, watching him struggle to form a plan at the end of the book, and finding that you agree with him, and then he turns his decision around, and you also agree with him.
I like that the book jumps right in. When the backstory finally begins, Ethan is already in love with Mattie, his wife's cousin, and everyone already almost knows. (By the end they still just almost know.) And it's strange, as a love story, to explore the ways that a person who's fallen in love inside a trap will still seek tender moments and blare beams of feeling from his eyes. It's oddly romantic nonetheless, and emotionally at least, these parts are written with an immense realness I could recognize. I loved those moments and felt them through, though you know it's indulgent for you both. One wants the night that Zeena's away to last forever the same as they do, just to see what happens, just to see. The restraint is almost damnable.
There is a very large dose of heavyhanded symbolism throughout this whole book, and I kind of just decided to glide past it. The points get made well enough in the setting and characterization. The frame structure is also somewhat heavyhanded, though it allows us to know the story's real ending. I wondered a bit too if Wharton was trying a little too hard to write "down," the everyman tragedy of the country poor. The language, professions, and possessions of all of Starkfield's residents are written with the extreme precision that sometimes can come from being very authentic in an "up with people!" kind of way. I get a whiff of this, too, from Wharton's own introduction. I must read more of her soon, and I may alleviate that concern by doing so, but I can't be sure.
But from what I know of Wharton's usual choices, driving characters to the bleakest possible conclusion is not unusual. Though I'd read this before, I'd actually misremembered the ending, and assumed from the foreshadowing that Mattie dies in the accident. Indeed, what happens is worse. Wharton's portrayal of frigid Zeena is pitiless from the start, and Ethan shows more than a few flashes of dark selfishness throughout for all his earnest hopes. (His excitement for "mastery" is particularly unappetizing). But having everyone pretty much end up the same way is as bleak as can be. The book's moments of joy are so very dim.
(If we want to be honest about heavyhanded symbolism, I actually liked noticing the realistic emphasis on how, like, one single candle is ever lit in a room at a time. They are always in the dark and the cold. That'd be bad enough if you're happy, jeez.)
Actually, I worry that this in fact is the real reason students have to read this book all the time. It might look like an easy teach, and some English classes have a way of ripping out a significant wisp and nailing it to a wall. The abandoned copy that I found has three students' names written inside the cover, and one of them -- Patti! -- also underlined and wrote notes for her class throughout. Patti definitely tried, but sometimes they are as blunt as underlining a phrase about colors and writing "SIGNIFICANT!" in the margin. It just made me glad that I never had Patti's teacher.
(My little sister's succint review from high school: "LEAVE YOUR WIFE AND STOP SLEDDING.")
I'm very glad I reread this, though, with a taste for existential romance. It works, it really does.
And, ok. I kind of want to watch the Liam Neeson movie again.(less)
Aw. I should've posted this on lottery day, June 27th! So close!
Okay so, when I was having my little Shirley Jackson love-fest last month, I was think...moreAw. I should've posted this on lottery day, June 27th! So close!
Okay so, when I was having my little Shirley Jackson love-fest last month, I was thinking: how silly that "The Lottery" has managed to completely slip by me. It takes ten minutes to read. Shouldn't I be curious? So I read it. (Rather wonderfully, the original New Yorker issue is available to browse in their online archive without a subscription, and I read it right there.)
The story itself is so slight, it's hard for me to get terrifically excited about it, even though I like it. It's so short! Deliberately, nothing even happens until the last couple of lines. It's the kind of story that looks like it was so easy to write, that anyone should think "sure, I could have written that," except, no we couldn't. Its place in literature is much more interesting to me than the finale of the actual story, as a story so popular that nearly everyone has read it (my schools never used it, but that appears uncommon) or knows it as a cultural touchstone. Referencing it is an easy shorthand for subversive criticism of conformity.
But I'm always interested in context. What about its writer, and what did people say? Well! I AM GLAD I ASKED. Because as soon as I started looking, "The Lottery" started showing all sorts of edges way sharper and more interesting than the fictional ones in the story.
At the New Yorker, where this was published in 1948, they got… some letters. More than any other story ever has. From polite inquiry to hate mail and canceled subscriptions, all of them demands for explanation: what was this actually about? The ambiguity of a short little allegorical story was driving people nuts. In the polite letters, you can practically hear the nervous laughter, in Jackson's words "wide-eyed, shocked innocence," the self-conscious promise of the privileged that you couldn't possibly mean us. ("Not all men!") It offended them, but they didn't know why.
Mainly, they said: I don't think so. Why would a thing like this be done to someone if they had done nothing to deserve it? (And, curiously: what state is it they do this in?) The denial behind their asking is just amazing to me. It sounds as if — in 1948!! — they cannot think of one single time a society of people has ever acted unjustly (and, also, seem to imply that if someone could just deserve it, this would be fine!). They found the concept ridiculous, and — what I think makes it incredible — they wanted her to know it.
(My personal favorite letter: (view spoiler)["I wish Mrs. Hutchinson had been queen for a day or something nice like that before they stoned the poor frightened creature." (hide spoiler)])
(Yup I just spoiler-spaced the most anthologized story in English, I got respect.)
No matter the reason, all the letters have a tone of disapproval, as if Shirley Jackson had broken a tacit agreement with society and its unmentionables. So, she published a short explanation in the SF Chronicle (which had made a front-page story "begging to know what the story meant.") Unfortunately, she was honest: it was about them.
Shirley Jackson wrote a fantastic essay about all of this, "Biography of a Story." It's really funny, but also wildly troubling. She's just an ordinary lady, she says, who writes stories while her baby rests. It just came to her. And then her agent didn't get it, but sold it on. And then the editor of the New Yorker didn't get it, but published it. Then, clearly, the readers spoke up (and never stopped, as long as she lived).
And then South Africa banned it.
Okay. Actually, I went searching pretty hard to find primary sources for this fact, but I don't really know how to do that. I want to, because it is mentioned a lot without citation, like I just did. But there is a heartbeat to this, you can tell! This otherwise rather fantastic Wikipedia list sources me to a book Introduction that doesn't mention it at all. This one does mention it, but is again just anecdotal, with only the authority of being written by Jackson's husband. And that's as long a thread as I can get.
Fabulously, fabulously, the New Yorker piece on the "Lottery" letters quotes from one letter written by the father of Ursula K. Le Guin. I love — LOVE — this connection, because first of all it's funny, and secondly, I know I'm not the first to see Le Guin's story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" as a descendant of "The Lottery." Her father, an anthropologist, objected in part because Jackson did not sociologically justify her idea: what has led this society to form and carry on this unbelievable event? (Funny, that is how I feel about The Hunger Games — another descendant, at a minimum!)
Jackson termed it a "brutal ancient rite," and the story makes one indication that the lottery is a sacrificial harvest ritual — which also reminded me of The Wicker Man movies (both the good one, and the hilarious one). But I like this man's response so much, because it too spills over into anger, alongside its educated argument. It too is saying: prove to me that people do things this way. You must be wrong. I know about these things. No, no way.
It may be undermining something about the story to place it in the dystopian family, even at the head of it — because, as Jackson pointed out, what's so galling here is the notion that it takes place in our own town, yesterday — but it's there all the same. The New Yorker's editor predicted it would "become a classic in some category" — unable, apparently, to actually name one.
I'm rating this a star higher than I really feel for the story, because I learned so much afterward. For both the good and bad… I'm impressed.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Russians! They have so many feelings! I never knew it was true!
I really like this thing where I hit one epic per summer off the "before I die" list. A...moreRussians! They have so many feelings! I never knew it was true!
I really like this thing where I hit one epic per summer off the "before I die" list. Anna Karenina isn't something I'd have decided to read right now if a friend hadn't suggested we try it, but if not now, when? (drea warned: "There is probably not a lot about sperm." Glory be.)
It's true that calling this book Anna Kareninais like calling Middlemarch "Dorothea Brooke." (Dorothea at least shows up before page 50 of her book.) It isn't a book about her, but her story is its strongest beat. The way she changes and the things that happen to her are the most interesting. And it is, in my opinion, legitimately romantic. When she and Vronksy come together there is a table-sweeping feeling that is both fantasy and real. From the first, (view spoiler)[when Vronsky follows her to Petersburg and presents himself at the train station, (hide spoiler)] they know that they are twisting their lives out of shape for this, and the inevitability bonds them ecstatically. The sharp shock of love is there. (view spoiler)[I was so happy, throughout, that they stayed in love. A hundred misunderstandings could've driven them apart, but that is not the way it ultimately comes about. The way they end up on the wrong page is not petty. (hide spoiler)] And the way that people in love betray each other in little pieces -- loyally, while remaining in love -- is also there. Victories of happiness aren't pure, however much I so want to believe them.
(view spoiler)[Probably the scholarly, interesting thing here is noticing that Anna's un-marriage makes her unhappy as well as the marriage she left. Of course, she is being thematically punished, too, Bovary-style. But she is ultimately no freer this way. (hide spoiler)] Self, and not marriage, is Anna's enemy. Trying to get her needs met leaves her utterly stranded. In some ways her meltdown is so strong, it's one of those books that can give you a depressive breakdown right along with hers. (And, okay, the week I read Part 7 was a bad week.) But I did not expect to feel for her the way that I did, for her thinking to seem so clear and full and sad. Her bitter anger is as frighteningly relatable as her mild denial. The ending is just truly devastating. I cried on my lunch break.
This surprised me, because my reservations about Tolstoy made me suspect that his characters' actions would feel cool and remote, but at least as far as Anna is concerned, this is untrue. Because Tolstoy, surprisingly, gets an awful lot about emotions and relationships with deep accuracy. I underestimated the gentleman. As a great compliment, I found his style reminded me of George Eliot (though in my opinion Eliot is sharper by half). They're interested in the same thing: what happens in a living marriage, and why. How it looks on the outside, what they choose, what they want, and what they don't even realize motivates them. This is as psychologically crisp as my favorite of Eliot's writing, but their authorial perspectives are what differ: according to the Introduction here, Tolstoy seems to have come to care for Anna only reluctantly. (In early drafts, she was even ugly! Gasp!) Insightful is not the same as wise, and I did not believe in Tolstoy's unconditional empathy.
Actually, this book and Middlemarch are even alike in structure. (I just Googled: they were basically published at the exact same time, which is kind of amazing.) Middlemarch's famous double narrative is similarly done with two couples here, though I can't decide if for Tolstoy this is deliberate. It more seems that he just couldn't help writing about Levin, though his book was supposed to be about someone else. It's actually totally amazing that the book isn't named Konstantin Levin, because Levin is the character given all the revelations about life and the world, all the positive growth and changes, all the salvation. Tolstoy wouldn't share a drop of it with Anna, so instead, he invented a character exactly like himself. How much easier it is, to sympathize with yourself!
So no surprise, Levin is a constant pain in the ass. But to give due credit, his weaknesses are as key as his eventual triumphs. Tolstoy may be writing his mirror, but he doesn't spare Levin bucketfuls of foolishness. He is emo and ungenerous and jealous and ignorant, aside from being our moral hero. I suppose this makes him realistic or well-rounded to some readers. It is true; I think everyone knows a Levin. (And he is exhausting.) In the text, his defects are sometimes actually funny, or actually humiliating, and even, sometimes, actually sweet. His relationship with Kitty has some surprisingly affectionate moments and even flirtatious, intimate ones (view spoiler)[(when she BITES HIS FINGER OMG ha ha) (hide spoiler)]. I rather liked that. UNFORTUNATELY, he is stupid to her way too much, and stupid to the world way too much. His whole thing for the whole book is finding ways of rationalizing his selfishness in lofty, institutional ways. (view spoiler)[In the end, Tolstoy writes him a grand change of heart, but one that mysteriously sounds... exactly like his previous state of heart, only with God in. Talk about the ultimate self-exculpation. (hide spoiler)]
If the book were taking curtain calls, I guess the next bow would be Vronsky, but I am not terribly interested in Vronsky. (Vronk-a-donk, as I always seem to type it.) Many readers seem to despise him, but really I didn't. He didn't interest me, either. I liked his destructive romantic gestures, for the purposes of the fiction, and the way he ends up. As an individual he didn't matter a lot to me. The same goes for the other men, Karenin and Stiva. They serve their purposes, as Anna's husband and brother. Karenin seems mostly to be there as a stodgy, cross roadblock. Stiva's importance mostly seems to be in the novel's opening, which is concerned with the revelation of his own adultery. Non-spoiler: IT RESOLVES A LITTLE DIFFERENTLY, than it does for his sister.
But there are two more women in the book who set quite deliberate contrasts to Anna. Kitty is frustrating, because while she's genuinely nice, and grows confident and mature through the novel, her personhood is also really thin. (view spoiler)[Tolstoy basically pushes the "marriage has perfected my life" button for the rest of her characterization. She is a perfect wife; she is made wise by the mysteries of childbearing; she is then a perfect mother. That's not a real character, and her unimportance is proven when multiple mentions are made of a postpartum illness that we do not see at all. When was that? Was it serious? Doesn't matter. (hide spoiler)] Her sister Dolly is a lot more interesting, and when we spent time with her I liked it a lot. Tolstoy has a surprising amount of empathy for the immobility of Dolly's life, with too many children and an undevoted husband, and one of my favorite sections was her visit to Anna, looking in at a different life with a little envy. (view spoiler)[She feels inadequate and uncool, and like she has to fake having fun with the rich people, but is warm to Anna until she reveals something personal to Dolly. Oddly, it's birth control, which Dolly has never heard of, and which sets her world a bit upside down. To cover her regret, she 180s to disapprove Anna's unnatural life. (hide spoiler)]
I think Tolstoy was pleased to have these women on board, countering Anna's life. It's a bit like his need to have Levin as a second protagonist: he couldn't let her speak for herself. This way is risk-free. If he didn't use the innocent to take focus away, what might readers think? But it profits, in a way, because by and large all of these characters have a psychological realness that is special, whether you like them or not. I don't think Tolstoy's stroke is unequivocally masterful, but he's no dummy. He's interested in people. He's also, though, not above judging them.
Also, Levin's dog gets internal monologue. So silly. \m/
Generally, I had some disappointment in the long scenes after the example set by the early horserace scene. (view spoiler)[That scene is so long, and I thought dull, and then it ends so unexpectedly with a horrible mistake that breaks a horse's back, and it's shot. (hide spoiler)] It's such a good way to use this scene -- long in detail, spending a long time in the head of a character, and then a shock of consequences. It throws the character way off, and the reader along a different trajectory, realizing. But it's a bad precedent because later, all kinds of drawn-out things happen, and very little results from them. Things I prayed would have a stunning, emotional outcome include: mowing grass, voting, political discussions.
I would have welcomed a footnote about the titles of the nobility, i.e. wtf everyone's a princess. At first my under-educated western eyes thought, "Oooh, a prince!" But quite soon I changed my tune to, "WHY IS LITERALLY EVERY ONE A PRINCE." Far from being an actual child of the royal leader, you've got princes for miles, as it was a pretty basic title for the aristocracy. Ok. Learned something! But does grow kind of redundant in the text, after a while. I guess I'm just less interested if you're not a special prince.
I am glad that I read the Translator's Note at the front -- though, I confess, I read it after finishing the book. Sidebar: I only read Prefaces or Introductions or what have you at the end. I think because I only read for fun, I really dislike someone telling me about the important scenes before they impress me. Indeed, the ending is utterly apparent on the first page of the Preface in this edition, which would've annoyed me hugely. (view spoiler)[Of course I knew an outline -- pretty sure she dies, I think it's suicide, I think there's a train, but (hide spoiler)] I knew I wanted the moment to come out just as written by the author, not by a scholar.
Anyway, the Translator's Note explains something that, ignorantly, I'd thought was careless translation: Tolstoy wrote in a way that uses Russian words repetitively, and Pevear & Volokhonsky made a choice to emulate this with English. I'm not certain that it sounds less redundant in the original, but at times some sentences here do. It's slightly distracting, but at least is more enigmatic as a deliberate choice. Overall, I enjoyed the reading a lot, and it's a really pleasant translation.
And may I have a prize because I never got confused about who anybody was no matter how many names they got called, people!
So. Which one next year?["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)