Far from the Madding Crowd is the earliest of Hardy’s well known novels, and certainly the most optimistic in tone. Hardy’s works are, generally speakFar from the Madding Crowd is the earliest of Hardy’s well known novels, and certainly the most optimistic in tone. Hardy’s works are, generally speaking, tragedies, and while there are certainly tragic elements to Far from the Madding Crowd, the book remains at its core, a pastoral romance. You might call it ‘Hardy Lite’.
The story follows the contrarian heroine Bathsheba, independent, strong-willed and industrious but also beset by moments of impetuosity, vanity and frivolousness. She comes from humble beginnings, but has the benefit of a good education, and when she unexpectedly inherits a large farming estate in idyllic south-west England she defies expectation and decides not to appoint a steward, insisting upon managing the farm herself. And so youthful, unmarried Bathsheba learns the intricacies of the agricultural cycle, how to haggle the best prices at the grain market and the duties of the landed gentry to the tenants that work their fields.
For all her good sense in managing her farm, Bathsheba’s flaws are exposed when it comes to the question of love. Against the beautifully realised pastoral backdrop, Hardy’s main concerns lie with the relationships Bathsheba forms with her three suitors, reliable farmhand Gabriel Oak, respectable and wealthy Mr. Boldwood and dashing redcoat Sergeant Troy.
Hardy has interesting things to say on friendship, infatuation and meaningful romantic relationships – things which were particularly unusual for Victorian literature. From the beginning of the book, Bathsheba (rejecting what would have been an advantageous proposal) resists being made a man’s possession by marriage. But lust, envy and vanity lead her to exactly that outcome in a rash decision that sees her tied to a man with whom she shares little common ground beyond sexual attraction, and who finds it convenient to blame Bathsheba for all his own failings. It’s difficult not to become quite frustrated by Bathsheba’s immaturity in moments like this - especially when the reader can see the far worthier suitor right under the heroine’s nose - but that’s the journey Hardy sets his protagonist on: the central arc of Far from the Madding Crowd is learning the value of like-mindedness, mutual respect and camaraderie in romance.
Despite having described it as ‘Hardy Lite’ at the outset, I do actually really love Far from the Madding Crowd. It’s the kind of comforting, classic romance that’s nice to return to from time to time. Bathsheba & Gabriel face adversity, but they aren’t crushed by unrelenting social expectation in the way that the protagonists of Jude the Obscure or Tess of the d’Urbervilles are. The Romantic (with a capital ‘R’) influence on Hardy’s writing leaves us with some really sublime depictions of rural life and the connection between man and nature that elevate the narrative out of the realms of mere moral commentary on love and marriage. ...more
'Days to come they rode through the mountains and they crossed at a barren windgap and sat the horses among the rocks and looked out over the country'Days to come they rode through the mountains and they crossed at a barren windgap and sat the horses among the rocks and looked out over the country to the south where the last shadows were running over the land before the wind and the sun to the west lay blood red among the shelving clouds and the distant cordilleras ranged down the terminals of the sky to fade from pale to pale of blue and then to nothing at all.'
Cormac McCarthy's first installment of the Border Trilogy, All the Pretty Horses, is a beautifully drawn, if bleak, Western cowboy tale. McCarthy avoids the failings typical of the genre: there are no white and black-hatted gun-slinging duels at high noon, and nary a tumbleweed in sight. Instead the focus of the novel lies on the roamings of John Grady Cole, a cowboy and horse-wrangler who finds himself displaced from his family's traditional ranching way of life. When the remnants of his family move into town, he and his cousin Lacey Rawlins ride south over the border to find work as vaqueros.
The writing has McCarthy's stamp all over. Punctuation is sparse and narrative action proceeds fairly quickly, without getting bogged down in long elaborative descriptions. The Sierra Madre and the Coahuila plains are drawn in a bold, poetic language which is somehow both straightforward and evocative at the same time. It matches so well the protagonist's uneducated but deeply insightful voice and the spectacular, empty landscapes through which he moves. Perhaps my favourite writing of the book is that where McCarthy is delving in the viscera of man and horse to find some common wild spark or drive to live:
'He'd ride sometimes clear to the upper end of the laguna before the horse would even stop trembling and he spoke constantly to it in spanish in phrases almost biblical repeating again and again the strictures of a yet untabled law. ...While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who's will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions...'
I'd recommend All the Pretty Horses as a good entry point for readers new to Cormac McCarthy's writing. It begins the development of themes of isolation, fate, evil and cruelty which are further expanded McCarthy's later novels, in a familiar action-driven Western narrative without the challenging degrees of violence. However, one compromise McCarthy refuses to make to his audience is use of spanish dialogue. Unlike most authors who might use a sprinkling of foreign dialogue to lend an aura of authenticity to their story, McCarthy relies almost entirely on spanish speech wherever it is historically and culturally accurate to do so- even where significant plot development takes place. Luckily I can make basic sense of conversational spanish, but I imagine a reader with no knowledge of the language would feel quite excluded from certain parts of the narrative.
Once armed with Google translator however, I'd encourage anyone to give this work of immense beauty a try. There are phrases and images that will return to you time and again after you finish the last page and which would reward a second reading....more
From the very beginning of this novel the foolhardiness of the central characters sets them jointly down a path towards certain disaster. And while thFrom the very beginning of this novel the foolhardiness of the central characters sets them jointly down a path towards certain disaster. And while that's more or less the standard course of a tragic plot, I wasn't that much taken in by this one because I had difficulty sympathising with any of the main characters. All four members of the love-quadrangle on Egdon Heath essentially set themselves up to fail from the very beginning and then persist with poor choices over the twelve month period of the story, so I was more inclined to be frustrated than feel sorry for them.
On the positive side, it's probably worth reading The Return of the Native for Hardy's fabulous descriptions of the heathland which plays witness to Clym & Eustacia's follies. This is one of those novels where the physical setting becomes a character in itself, and the catalyst of major events in the plot. Hardy's best prose is saved for the grim, almost prehistoric expanse of ferns and shrubbery....more
Generally, I found The Last September an interesting, pleasant read. Stylistically, it reminded me quite a bit of Virginia Woolf's writing. There's noGenerally, I found The Last September an interesting, pleasant read. Stylistically, it reminded me quite a bit of Virginia Woolf's writing. There's not as much obvious stream of consciousness in the narration, but like Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen uses a fast moving, at times scattered narrative style to replicate the shallow, disconnected interactions of her characters. The world of Danielstown is drawn in vivid, impressionistic imagery- Bowen uses inventive, unexpected metaphors (I particularly liked the brassy bubbles of sound from the dressing gong) but manages to avoid getting bogged down in long descriptive passages.
However, there are several reasons why I found it occassionally frustrating too. If like me, you don't know very much about the Irish Troubles in the 1920s, there's a lot of assumed knowledge in this book. Bowen, very deliberately, only ever suggests or lightly touches upon the political context of the book- I suppose reproducing the way her characters wilfully avoid thinking too deeply about the conceqences of the Anglo occupation of Ireland. While the sort of submerged sense of menace this creates might appeal to some, I really enjoy a thorough exploration of volatile political issues, and Bowen's continual dancing away from the elephant in the room just annoyed me.
The other thing I took issue with was the protagonist- Lois is very hard to get a firm grip on as a character. She's not very explicitly defined and you need to do a lot of reading between the lines. By the end, she seemed to come good, but for the majority of the book she seemed a bit empty and directionless and I found it very difficult to gather up much empathy for her....more
I have a bit of a difficult relationship with all three of the Bronte sisters, and this is probably one of the better novels, in my opinion, that theI have a bit of a difficult relationship with all three of the Bronte sisters, and this is probably one of the better novels, in my opinion, that the three authoresses produced. It still has moments of overblown prose and rather black and white characters- but is much more moderate than something like Wuthering Heights.
The subject matter is surprisingly modern for a book published in 1848- unhappy marriages, domestic abuse, drunkards and infidelity. This is probably the earliest example I can think of, that very deliberately expresses the plight of married women, who were little more than their husbands' possessions in the eyes of society. It's quite refreshing to see the tightlaced Victorians behaving badly and to know, that despite all that propriety, there were some contemporaries willing to discuss the intricacies of a bad marriage....more
Despite being only 60-something pages, this is a curiously complex book with a lot of very fine detail jammed between its flyleaves. The quality of thDespite being only 60-something pages, this is a curiously complex book with a lot of very fine detail jammed between its flyleaves. The quality of the prose is incredible, especially considering English was Conrad's third language, and layered with metaphors. The symbolism that runs through the narrative is so pervasive I suspect I could read this many times over and still be discovering new facets to Conrad's recreation of the Belgian Congo.
The narrative structure of the story is at times difficult, and I can understand how it might put some off. The reader 'hears' the story via an unnamed sailor, who listens to another sailor's, Marlow, reminiscences of his experiences in the Congo. Because the narrative is essentially a dictation of Marlow's tale, in the beginning there's a bit of slippage between the two narrators, and the ubiquitous speech marks around every paragraph can get confusing. It's a very similar structure to Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which may not be mere coincidence, given the subject matter Conrad and Coleridge were both dealing with.
The themes Conrad develops in Heart of Darkness are, as the title suggests, bleak, violent and somewhat terrifying. The novella is largely informed by Conrad's personal experiences as captain of a steamer plying the Congo river and his horror at the atrocities perpetrated in the name of colonialism clearly shows through. As Marlow journeys deeper into the unmapped jungles of Africa, he descends deeper into the psyche of man and finds there brutality, greed and ultimately, one's fear of the savagery lurking within themselves.
And the preceding are all reasons why Conrad is considered one of the greatest writers in the English language- but I just can't bring myself to give this five stars because there are certain elements of the book which have not aged well and feel out of step with 21st century sentiments. Firstly, like many white men writing (even sympathetically) of black victims of colonisation, there seems to be a subtle but significant failure to recognise fellow humanity in the victims of colonialism. Secondly, there's a definite teleolgical agenda in Conrad's juxtaposition of the European 'civilisation' versus African 'savagery'. Chinua Achebe wrote about racism and Heart of Darkness far more eloquently than I, so if you're interested have a read of his essay An Image of Africa. Lastly, a few of Conrad's comments about women will raise feminists' eyebrows. Nevertheless, if you keep in mind the ways in which Heart of Darkness is quite an extraordinary book for its time, there's still a wealth to enjoy and ponder over....more
The nicest thing about One Day in the Life is the indomitable optimism of the protagonist in the face of pretty much the worst conditions imaginable.The nicest thing about One Day in the Life is the indomitable optimism of the protagonist in the face of pretty much the worst conditions imaginable. There's not a lot of deep and meaningful theme development, but it still tells a good story and the protagonist is hard not to like. Also very informative- even though the book is just a 24hr glimpse into the gulag system, it's a very thorough chronicle....more
Ignatius J. O'Reilly is disgusting- on so many levels. He's slovenly, crude, pompous, conceited, lazy, obese, manipulative, sneaky and pathetic. And yIgnatius J. O'Reilly is disgusting- on so many levels. He's slovenly, crude, pompous, conceited, lazy, obese, manipulative, sneaky and pathetic. And yet his adventures in French Quarter New Orleans and his encounters with its many eccentric inhabitants are hilarious.
Almost every character in the book is a parody of themselves and ridiculed hard by John Kennedy Toole, but there's enough of a grain of truth in their neurotic histrionics that you can't help but be fascinated by them and sympathise with them. Ignatius's scathing observations of a world he finds utterly lacking in 'theology and geometry' are simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny in their absurdity and ever so slightly tragic, because you cant help but suspect that this ridiculous man just might be onto something....more
Generally I've found novels set in 19th century Australia pretty bland, but this was quirky, interesting and peopled by wonderfully realised characterGenerally I've found novels set in 19th century Australia pretty bland, but this was quirky, interesting and peopled by wonderfully realised characters. Carey works through themes as varied as faith, the emergence of natural sciences, love, the absurd, gender roles and colonialism as he weaves together the stories of his protagonists Oscar and Lucinda. I thought the plot was brilliantly original and contained some of the most vivid, memorable imagery that I can recall reading- Carey's description of Lucinda's glass church floating down the Bellingen river was a real high point!...more