Lily Bart, the protagonist of Edith Wharton's stunning first novel, is introduced to the reader as a young woman traveling within high society. While...moreLily Bart, the protagonist of Edith Wharton's stunning first novel, is introduced to the reader as a young woman traveling within high society. While her blood and wealth may place her on the fringe of that society, her "pale" beauty (as it is continuously characterized throughout the novel) elevates her within its ranks. Lily is marriage material. And within Manhattan's high society at the turn of the century, women are meant to marry; and in order to marry women are meant to maintain a reputation of "pale" innocence (indeed, they must).
Lily hesitates to question these two fundamental rules that bind her, save on rare occasion in conversation with Lawrence Selden, the man it seems she would marry if the choice were hers, and who stands far enough outside Lily's circle to critique that circle from an apparent distance. Selden, however, presents Lily with several problems. First, Selden himself is hardly able to separate himself from the rules of Manhattan society, even if he so desired to or so imagined the independence of his perspective. Second, Selden serves as preacher, counselor, and sounding post to Lily with respect to the pitfalls of high society, but while Selden's efforts to take high society off its pedestal strike a chord with Lily, and indeed echo many of her own thoughts, Selden never presents Lily with a viable alternative to the only circle (and the only set of rules) she knows.
The final problem that first emerges from the relationship between Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden is the crux of the novel and the launching point for several shrewd insights Wharton compellingly places within the American cultural dialog, as extant within the novel. Lily couldn't marry Selden if the choice were hers. (And, perhaps ironically, she likely would not, in any case, as Selden lacks the most essential thing men in high society bring to a marriage -- money.)
Like any fully painted character in a great work of fiction, Lily Bart is a woman of substantial intellectual and emotional force. Indeed, given the degree the reader is aware of the goings on inside Lily Bart's head, it can be surprising to step back and remember the novel's narrated in the third person.
Lily, viewed in isolation, is more than situated to grab control of her life if that control were hers to grab. But because she does not live in isolation, control is not hers. Her will is usurped at almost every turn by the societal forces around her; which among other things make her will all but moot. While an argument could be made that Lily has a knack for making choices that reflect upon her poorly, she is defined nonetheless, and far more, by the perceptions of those around her than by any sense of self she seeks to, or by happenstance does, affirmatively present to the world. And in light of the rules that constrain her, her reputation -- never in her hands -- spirals downward as the novel progresses, most often, again, via external rather than internal forces. Absent her reputation intact, that Lily is meant to marry becomes meaningless. Her purpose and place within Manhattan's high society slip from her hands as, trying at least to retain her dignity, she chooses not to act on her own behalf when the opportunities are before her and otherwise, and perhaps always, lacks the choice to act on her own behalf as a byproduct of her social milieu.
The House of Mirth is remarkably tragic. At times, it feels as though too much is going wrong for Lily Bart a little too often. But the totality of the narrative, and Wharton's prose, combat what may be the novel's single shortcoming. Wharton's novel surfaces from many contexts. Two are telling, or at least were to me upon reading The House of Mirth. First, Lily Bart retains her outer beauty throughout the greater part of the novel, despite her internal struggle to maintain a grip in the face of near free fall. Her inner world, as she feels it, and as others perceive it, becomes dark as her "pale" beauty persists. Sadly, her inner life is all but wholly divorced from her outer reality. Thus, in Lily Bart's unfortunate transformation within the novel the saliency of maintaining superficial appearances is brought to the thematic forefront. A theme present in both The House of Mirth and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray -- cast differently, but not without similarities. Second, The House of Mirth shines a bright light of reality upon Transcendentalism. At minimum, Wharton illustrates that self-determination and self-reliance are one thing when you're living in a cabin in the woods, growing beans, and contemplating existence during solitary sojourns around Walden Pond, but quite another in the company of others -- particularly a circle of others fixated upon a set of mores or, more strictly, rules. Reaching further, perhaps, Wharton exposes a stark line between the wherewithal of men and women in American society to "go Thoreau". In other words, The House of Mirth may temper Transcendentalism by portraying the profound influence of the company one keeps on reaching into oneself and, beneath that, the harsh reality of being a woman within that company.
The House of Mirth is one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century.(less)
Most Americans are assigned to read this novel in high school. Few American high schoolers have the wherewithal to appreciate this novel in full. I ce...moreMost Americans are assigned to read this novel in high school. Few American high schoolers have the wherewithal to appreciate this novel in full. I certainly did not. It is on a shortlist of novels that should, every 5 years starting at age 25, return to any American's required reading list.
First things first: The opening of The Great Gatsby -- its first 3-4 pages -- ranks among the best of any novel in the English language, and so too does its ending. Both for their content and for their prose, the latter of which is stunning and near perfect throughout the novel.
As for that between the novel's opening and conclusion, two things first. (1) History is fairly clear that the term "the American Dream" did not exist at the time Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, and regardless it almost certainly did not exist in the popular consciousness. (2) Few great American novelists after Fitzgerald have not attempted to write "the great American novel". Most of these efforts are absurdly long and often tortured. The Great Gatsby, on the other hand, is relatively short, fluid, and of seemingly effortless yet pristine expression. At a point in history where Fitzgerald's express focus could hardly have been a tale regarding "the American dream" per se or the writing of "the great American novel", Fitzgerald nevertheless crafts the definitive tale of "the American Dream", as well as, his successors' endeavors aside, "the great American novel". Period.
In not so many pages, Fitzgerald paints a brilliantly cogent picture of the potential pleasures, joys, and benefits an individual might deem achievable -- uniquely so -- in an America filled with possibilities. Paired with that picture, Fitzgerald besprinkles The Great Gatsby with the numerous pitfalls and evils that both stand as a barrier to what's imagined achievable in America, and threaten to accompany that which is achieved. Neither the quest for, nor (if possible) the achievement of, the American Dream is a thing untainted. Nor, in Fitzgerald's view, can it be.
Fitzgerald, frankly, writes all that need be written on this subject; whatever his successors' ambitions may be. And he writes it in prose so perfect, so impressive, and so beautiful, I occasionally find myself at a loss to name a novel in the English language constructed with greater skill, and apparent ease thereof.
In short: The Great Gatsby is an inimitable wonder of American fiction. And, for lack of a better word, an "application" of the English language that has few equals. The novel is astounding. (less)
An English novel dating from near the end of World War II, Brideshead Revisited is an elaborate and fascinating reminiscence of a time passed. A novel...moreAn English novel dating from near the end of World War II, Brideshead Revisited is an elaborate and fascinating reminiscence of a time passed. A novel told in reverie by eyes looking back.
At the core of the novel is the friendship between Oxford classmates Charles (the narrator) and Sebastian. One thing separates Charles and Sebastian. Class. A ubiquitous theme in the best English novels, portrayed here as well as it is in any counterpart in English fiction. One thing unites them. Affection. Perhaps love. As told by Waugh, in an also rather English manner, rinsed clean in major part of sexual desire, it is a uniquely, and often painfully, powerful tale of an extraordinarily deep emotional bond and attraction between two men. That the telling is largely sexless only further highlights Waugh's near-perfect conveying of what must be viewed as an abiding, subtextually homosexual devotion of one man toward another. The purity of the emotion -- emotion treated in isolation and confinement -- sets forth on the pages of Brideshead Revisited one of the most moving of connections between two characters in Anglo-American fiction.
What ties them together remains steadfast -- through Sebastian's fits and turns, and through Charles' transparent efforts to lead, because he cannot have Sebastian, Sebastian's life.
The effect of Waugh's writing is detailed above. The quality of it is more than worthy of note. Brideshead Revisited is, by Waugh, an expertly wrought piece of craftsmanship. Beautiful, subtle, emotive, and witty. At a minimum.
If that were not sufficient testament to the greatness of this novel, Sebastian's childlike affection for his teddy bear Aloysius is a clever and, frankly, odd plot insertion, the delight of which is, by my mind, unparalleled in Anglo-American fiction.
Although a 1961 novel about a young couple that departs Manhattan for the Connecticut suburbs -- reminding one on its face, maybe, of numerous short s...moreAlthough a 1961 novel about a young couple that departs Manhattan for the Connecticut suburbs -- reminding one on its face, maybe, of numerous short stories of John Cheever (and told with the same keen sense observation) and Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (with which it shares an acerbic humor) -- Revolutionary Road has surprising contemporary resonance. Many readers will find they are not unlike, or they know people not unlike, Yates' protagonists Frank and April Wheeler. People like, for instance, the following: the lawyer who wants to be a novelist; the bartender who wants to be an actress; the consultant who wants to be a food critic; the advertising associate who wants to be an artist; the mother who dreads a life in the home.
In Revolutionary Road, as in life, two questions must be asked of such individuals. In no particular order: (1) are they selling short their dreams of being something, someone else; and (2) are their dreams the pie-in-the-sky fantasies of dreamers who couldn't cut it if they tried?
Yates addresses both in the story of Frank Wheeler -- a businessman plodding along in run-of-the-mill Manhattan skyscraper territory -- and April Wheeler -- a housewife who once thought she could be, and still wonders whether she could have been, an actress. Together, the couple strike out, but not without hesitation, for the 'burbs -- assuming that their Manhattan "sophistication" will make them "better" than their Connecticut neighbors, and that settling for a grassy pied-à-terre will spark an already faltering marriage.
The Wheelers were deeply unsatisfied with their lots in life, and with each other, before they moved to Connecticut. The move changes little. Individually, they still feel something is missing. Frank's dreams of success in business are going nowhere. April daydreams at home, with the help of more than a little liquor, about opportunities she feels she left behind in Manhattan. Pipe dreams for both? Or attainable dreams left to the wayside by stagnation and discontent? Yates suggests the possibility of either, in a narrative that's both sympathetic toward the emptiness in the Wheelers lives and, with plentiful dark humor, critical of the lives they've made for themselves and their illusions of the lives to which they believe they're entitled.
Multiple plot turns shouldn't be given away, save to say characters in a novel, like people in life, who are down, often look to various external things as means of solace. And, in a story that shapes up like this, there's going to be some tragedy along the way.
Many readers will identify with the characters. Perhaps in a discomfiting way. But it keeps the reader tuned in. As does Yates' sharp writing and calculatedly paced storytelling. Revolutionary Road is one of the more remarkable achievements in 20th Century American fiction. (less)
Tales of the City is not great literature. That's not what Maupin's aiming for. In what is the first and best book in a six-part series constructed fr...moreTales of the City is not great literature. That's not what Maupin's aiming for. In what is the first and best book in a six-part series constructed from a serial column in the San Francisco Chronicle, Tales of the City is smart, guilty entertainment at its best. It's a soap opera. But like, say, Six Feet Under, Tales of the City purports to be little more than a creative and intelligent soap opera. Taken as such, it is a delight. Vivid characters. A setting -- San Francisco -- that Maupin gives an almost pop-up book feel. And addictive storytelling. Tales of the City is an escapist read. And itself an exercise in escapism -- using what San Francisco represents in the popular imagination to open wide a world of freedom and possibility within its pages, and without.(less)
Perhaps no novel in the English language portrays with more insight, feeling, and sympathy the complex relationship between two very different, yet in...morePerhaps no novel in the English language portrays with more insight, feeling, and sympathy the complex relationship between two very different, yet inextricably linked, characters. Whatever the larger messages of the novel may be, it has always been this relationship alone that's been the core of the novel for me. Though concisely told, it is told convincingly and completely. The central characters jump to life from the page. Their story is captivating through every word of the novel. And, ultimately, the relationship explored is astoundingly moving without being sentimental. Of Mice and Men may be the only novel that has brought me to tears.(less)
I am not sure whether this novel is so perfect I should wish Wilde had written more, or whether this novel is so perfect I should be grateful it stand...moreI am not sure whether this novel is so perfect I should wish Wilde had written more, or whether this novel is so perfect I should be grateful it stands alone.
Wilde was an aesthete? This is a work of aestheticism? Hardly. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a gripping and sincere morality tale, told with beauty, and about beauty, but ultimately driven by the quasi-Gothic nightmare that rests beneath all that is beautiful in the book and all that is said about the pursuit of beauty by its primary characters.
Wilde's writing is beautiful. Anything of beauty within the mise en scène is captured by Wilde and depicted with beauty. Dorian Gray is beauty in human form. His friend Basil Hallward, a painter, sees Dorian's beauty and is driven to portray it on canvas. Per Dorian's wish, he will remain beautiful, and Basil's portrait will bear the ravages of his soul. Basil's homoerotic fascination with Dorian, and its expression in his portrait of Dorian, will unwittingly lead to tragedy. Through Basil, Dorian befriends Lord Henry Wotton, who impresses upon Dorian the ideal of beauty. And, beyond that, the joy of beauty. Of seeking out that which pleases the senses. Of hedonism. A means of existence Dorian takes at its purest. Hedonism regardless the price. Personal pleasure above all else. Eventually the cost of such a life, and the sins Dorian commits in the name of it, come grossly to light, in what is in many ways the simplest of tales of right and wrong.
Why is the novel so good if it's, arguably, so simple? Several reasons. Dorian's wish is not a foreign concept to men of any age. Lord Wotton's philosophy is captivating and, in many ways, persuasive. Beauty pleases man. All man has by way of understanding the world is his senses. All that triggers them and satisfies them (or more) is the best man can take from the world. Wilde knows. When (and when not) feeding the reader a compelling philosophy of beauty, he feeds the reader via the beauty of his prose. Quite literally, Wilde's writing pleases the senses. Multiple senses, in fact. The eye in its words. But more than the eye, as Wilde's eye, and his treatment of the world within the novel, reaches beyond it.
That the beauty of the writing is on par with the views on aesthetics put forth in the novel as a counterbalance to its moral substance makes this a novel only Wilde could have written. There may be better prose in Anglo-American fiction (or not). No such prose, however, is as striking and of such calculated elegance and allure as Wilde's. The novel's abounding beauty provides the force that animates its theme of false beauty. That abounding beauty is Wilde's particular gift, and the heart of one of the best novels in the Anglo-American canon.(less)
Flaubert's protagonist Frédéric Moreau is not a likable character. Connected in various ways to characters variously connected to the French Revolutio...moreFlaubert's protagonist Frédéric Moreau is not a likable character. Connected in various ways to characters variously connected to the French Revolution of 1848, Frédéric, like most of the novel's other characters, is a distant, dispassionate observer of the political upheaval around him. Frédéric, like most of the novel's other characters, does however pay scrupulous attention to his own fleeting needs, whether love, sex, money, status, or otherwise.
At the core of the novel is Frédéric's obsession and relationship with an older, married woman, Madame Arnoux. While Frédéric's infatuation long appears the idealistic heart of the novel, untainted by the people and goings-on surrounding it, reality has a way of bringing it back to earth: short on idealism; short on heart.
Flaubert is not without sympathy for his characters. He simply refuses to romanticize a single one; instead laying their very real frailties and flaws bare. All the while, Flaubert writes with a mind to detail in his prose that astounds and that, in its own right, tells a better part of the story by giving the reader insight as to where the characters' actual attentions (and intentions) are, despite any self-serving claims to the contrary.
Sentimental Education is numerous novels in one. A coming of age tale. A romance. A history. And a tale of politics. It is ultimately a send-up of Parisian society, flowing through each of these settings, as Flaubert denies his characters an easy place in any one aspect of the narrative, but artfully focuses on the ease with which his characters fall victim to their own selfishness.(less)