After over a decade of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird sitting on my shelf, my memory of the book faded. "It was a good book that I enjoyed that th...moreAfter over a decade of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird sitting on my shelf, my memory of the book faded. "It was a good book that I enjoyed that they make children read in school" was my vague evaluation, though the words were radiating with a warm, nostalgic feeling. I'm glad I revisited it. To Kill a Mockingbird is refreshingly charming at the same time that it's disarmingly honest and important. Its small cast of characters, with their idiosyncrasies and insecurities, and their secret battles and hidden honor, invite the reader into their world, forcing the reader adopt the story's maxims as the letters on the page spell them out. That the reader who takes a journey with Scout, Boo, Atticus, Tom, or even Mayella is rewarded with new insights and compassion is a testament to the book's message.
The narration of Scout, a young girl who is clever, naive, curious, and rebellious, and who is desperately struggling to make sense of the confusing world around her, works perfectly for a novel about social taboos. Scout relates information about incest, rape, and racism without feeling the need for censorship or moral disclaimers, whereas the narration of a character with just a tad more self-awareness and social propriety--like Jem--would be fettered by feelings of shame and awkward hesitations. Scout's narration, which enables the reader to see the fictional events as they unfold and hear varied and nearly unfiltered perspectives on the events, encourages the reader to leave his/her preconceptions behind, approach the story's events with the innocence of a child, and face social realities--both the painful and the inspirational--with Scout for the very first time.
Scout's childish innocence not only helps the story's narration, but also adds to Lee's rather complex portrayal of issues of race. To Kill a Mockingbird's treatment of issues of race, prejudice, and racism go far beyond the mere "racism is bad" mantra with which my vague recollections of the novel credited it. In a rather short book that is also concerned with issues of family, friendship, class, femininity, and coming of age, Lee touches on the construction of racial identity and community, particularly with Calpurnia's character, who, Scout realizes, lives two different lives, the fear of miscegeny, and the nebulous and uncomfortable position of people of mixed racial heritage in a society preoccupied with racial classification. Scout's character helps convey one of Lee's more prevalent themes: racism is learned. Scout's understanding of social mores is part tabula rasa and part indistinguishing vacuum, ready to pick up and internalize any adage, off-hand remark, or insult that comes her way. Though she does not understand what the epithet aimed at her father, "nigger-lover," means, she takes it as an insult because of the tone with which it is uttered.
Thank goodness she--and the literate world--has Atticus, the man who, with a level head and warm tone, will say "I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody." Over ten years ago, this book struck me as a monument against racism and prejudice. In my second read through, it developed into a novel on parenting, starring Atticus Finch, the parent every child needs. Dependable and predictable, with a few remaining surprises, Atticus is the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, not because he can hold a gun, articulate a closing statement, or even guard a prison, but because he chooses to do what is difficult because it is right and acknowledges the good in others in spite of their best effort to hide it. Atticus does not shelter his children from the world; he instead lets them experience the world, explains its complexities and hypocrisies as well as he can, and then lets them return to the shelter of his love and protection when they need it. An ideal father, Atticus is deliberate in action, moral, quietly courageous, and not afraid of his children's individuality.
One of the worst misconceptions that we can make as readers of To Kill a Mockingbird (and one of the misconceptions that, indeed, seems to flaw the reasoning of many communities that banned the book) is to see it only as an artifact of America's misguided past. (I've read the phrase "back when there was racism" written by my high school students far too many times.) True, To Kill a Mockingbird cannot be removed from the historical context of the thirties--with its Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and economic strife--nor can it be removed from the spirit of the sixties during which it was written; however, Lee's artful novel pleas with even today's readers to gather their inner child, sit on Atticus' knee, and learn his simple yet powerful lessons of love and empathy.
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
"Before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."
"A mob's always made up of people, no matter what."
I wrote this review after my second read through in 2009.(less)
The more I read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the more I am convinced that it is, quite simply, an excellent piece of literature. Fitzgeral...moreThe more I read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the more I am convinced that it is, quite simply, an excellent piece of literature. Fitzgerald's writing is poetic and compact; the elements of his relatively short novel thread together so exquisitely that each sentence, each scene, each moment, plays a vital role in the development of character, plot, and theme. It's truly fantastic. I read some novels for their intriguing characters. I read some novels for their exciting plots. I read some novels for their compelling style or structure. I rarely read novels for their setting. Maybe 1984, Harry Potter, or The Giver. But anyway, some people do. And The Great Gatsby, in one novel, has it all: interesting characters, a plot where the tension mounts until "the shit hits the fan" (a description I used in my second period, much to my later regret), poetic prose and breath-taking or heart-wrenching symbolism, and settings that come alive in their decadence or desperation.
I teach The Great Gatsby unoriginally but appropriately as a novel about the American dream. And it's quite fun to watch how all parts of the novel seem to comment on the American dream. It's even more fun to watch how my students can see it happening.
The characters are complex and realistic, but are still able to allegorically stand for, or at least represent, entire social classes. Which is amazing. Fitzgerald has effectively created an allegory of social classes, yet instead of filling it with flat, predictable characters like "Prudence" and "Strength," he fills it with real people. Gatsby is an interesting character. At once mysterious, incredible, and vulnerable, he's a character that the reader, like Nick, can easily empathize with but less easily accept. Daisy is so weak that at times I hate her. But I think she hates herself too, which gives my righteous feminist wrath a bitter taste. Nick, the eyes through which we see the tale, is interesting himself. He's always on the sidelines, but always complacent in the events of the novel, though he criticizes them later (in spite of his claim to never judge). Myrtle, Tom, George... They really are all fantastically drawn.
The symbolism is genius: eyes, green lights, cars. All well executed. There is a biting humor throughout the narration--I love the party scenes, where women greet each other with screams of joy (even though they don't know each other's names) and where men are introduced as "Mr. Mumble"--that is quite enjoyable. And the last few paragraphs are... simply amazing. (I was about to quote them, but realized it might be too spoilery. But seriously, amazing.)(less)
“I have seen it discussed - is it good? Who cares. It's not like you get a new Harry Potter book every day, you have to treasure this shit. I don't sl...more“I have seen it discussed - is it good? Who cares. It's not like you get a new Harry Potter book every day, you have to treasure this shit. I don't slink home from the solar eclipse and be like, well, I've seen more invigorating natural phenomena” (Tycho, penny-arcade.com). Tycho pretty much summed up the glory of J.K. Rowling’s newest record-breaking release, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. While the novel is not my favorite in the amazing adventures of Harry, Ron, Hermione, et al., it still kicked major ass.
(While I’m trying my very best to be vague, I’m now including this spoiler warning, just in case you’re really, really anal about that sort of thing.)
First, I have to get my one problem with the book out there. If I’m completely honest with myself, I have to admit that Rowling spent 870 pages just to tell us a bit of information about Harry that many fans, like myself, have likely already assumed. I mean, I’m sure she introduced concepts, characters, and clues that are vital to the septology, but honestly, compared to any other of her five books, this one, I think, was just kinda filler. Nonetheless, Rowling’s filler is far more interesting and entertaining than many authors’ masterpieces, so who’s complaining? Not me. And this is why:
While most of Rowling’s other novels are lauded for their plots, which are intricate and intense, this novel has to get props for its amazing characterization. While I’ve always loved Rowling’s true to life, dynamic, round, characters (Hermione is my idol), they just shined in this book. Old, sometimes dismissed, characters stole the spotlight. Hermione was, even more so than before, super cool, powerful, and quick thinking. Fred and George are sure to impress any reader with their delightful dialogue, incredible inventions, and show stopping schemes. I was never a Weasley twins fan, but I have been converted! Neville surprises even those readers that were itching for him to triumph. Ginny’s new conversational skills (as she is finally able to talk around Harry) reveal another super-skilled Weasley: in magical ability, determination, bravery, and fraudulence.
The new characters Rowling introduced are also superb. I’m sure everyone knows a person like Luna Lovegood, who is often overlooked, yet oh so important and loyal. Her off the wall, dreamy dialogue is hilarious. And Professor Umbridge… Wow. Who’d have thought that Rowling could create a teacher that I hated more than Snape or Trelawny? But she did an expert job at it.
Rowling’s astonishing understanding of adolescence shines through in her fifth novel, which respectfully pokes fun at early dating and all too accurately captures teenage angst in Harry’s annoying attitude.
Her fifth novel also contains what I think will be some of the most memorable scenes of Harry’s Hogwarts days. I will often chuckle and wonder at the twin’s final Hogwart’s exploit. And I think that every time I read Harry’s latest dialogue with Dumbledore, it will bring a tear to my eye.
Speaking of that latest conversation, it is from there that I get this novel’s quote:
“Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young” (Dumbledore).
All in all, Rowling has indeed unleashed another phenomenon. (less)
**spoiler alert** I always feel the need to academically justify my admiration of Jane Austen. So before I get to the greatest reason for my love of P...more**spoiler alert** I always feel the need to academically justify my admiration of Jane Austen. So before I get to the greatest reason for my love of Pride and Prejudice, allow me to take a moment to mention her elegant prose, satirical wit, understanding of human nature, comical and unforgettable characters (*cough* Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins *cough*), fantastic opening line, consistent and critical portrayal of social mores, enlivening of the female point of view, and intelligent treatment of a revolutionary shift in the British view of marriage. Now, to the clincher: Pride and Prejudice is the greatest fictional love story I have ever encountered. Its vivid presentation of a relationship gradually built on mutual understanding, respect and admiration, and--yes--playful banter speaks brilliantly to my understanding of love.
One of the reasons why I think the happy ending of this work is so much more fulfilling than the other Austen endings is that the novel presents us with a marriage of equals. Certainly Elizabeth is not as wealthy as Darcy, but, unlike some of Austen's other protagonists, like Emma or Northanger Abbey's Catherine, who "need" to be coupled with fatherly men who offer worldly wisdom and guidance, Elizabeth is not a woman who needs condescension. When Darcy attempts to stoop to her level and propose, there is no Lizzy there. It is only by the end of the novel when both characters are overcome with admiration for one another and seeking to be more deserving of their potential lover--with Elizabeth aware of her weak tendency to prejudge and Darcy overcoming his pride to act in a more gentlemanly manner--that their union will be a success. Both characters must grow in their understanding of themselves and their lovers before they deserve one another, and in doing so--in struggling against preconceptions, misunderstandings, and differences of class--they have become not only worthy of their happy ending, but capable of success in it. Pride and Prejudice indeed appeals to me emotionally, but what sets it apart from most romances is that I don't worry what will happen once the glass slipper is off and an unscheduled day looms before our couple. They love each other: Elizabeth will be charming and Darcy will be dignified and they'll walk through Pemberley admiring nature before they curl up on the couch, order Netflix, and call it a delightful day.
I admire Pride and Prejudice so much that this review does not do it justice. Bah.
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
"To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love."(less)
So much, in both our world and Middle Earth, rests on the shoulders of Bilbo Baggins, the reluctant adventurer of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. But whi...moreSo much, in both our world and Middle Earth, rests on the shoulders of Bilbo Baggins, the reluctant adventurer of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. But while Bilbo was reluctant to journey into the unknown, Tolkien effortlessly lures his happy reader into an epic adventure with his loveable characters, witty charm, and incredible world. Okay, maybe not effortlessly. Definitely not effortlessly. The man created a new world, language, species, (some argue literary genre)… that’s effort. But very worthwhile.
As a bookstore employee working through the first two Lord of the Rings movie releases, I watched customer after customer insist on starting in the trilogy and just skipping over The Hobbit. They were foolish. The Hobbit, I think, is vital to the trilogy, to an understanding of the One Ring, of Gandalf, of Bilbo, elves, dwarves, orcs… So if you’re gonna read the trilogy, add a bonus one.
This review will highlight Tolkien’s enchanting narrative style. Though his narrative is third person, the narrator seems to have a concern, love, and interest in his/her subject. The narrator’s amicable approach to Tolkien’s characters and world easily rubs off on his reader. The narrator is self-aware and acknowledged his/her role in the story telling process, taking time to address the audience, or comment on a situation, noting that he/she would not want to be in such a nasty predicament, or something of that sort. Tolkien creates this narrator masterfully, as it comes across as charming, but not corny. I looked for examples to include in here but found none that could adequately demonstrate what I’m talking about. Taken out of the stylistic context, they just don’t quite work.
Quotes make the world go ‘round:
“You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” (That was the narrator. It kinda shows what I’m talking about. Here he/she’s addressing the reader.)
“So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their ending!” (Bilbo).
If you want to read a “classic,” but don’t want to work too hard, Animal Farm, by George Orwell, is the book for you. Unlike the other novel he is fam...moreIf you want to read a “classic,” but don’t want to work too hard, Animal Farm, by George Orwell, is the book for you. Unlike the other novel he is famous for, 1984, Animal Farm is a quick and easy read, a “fairy story.” Nevertheless, it maintains a strong stance against government propaganda and increased government control, making it an interesting read.
Obviously the links between the Animal Farm and the rise of Communism in the Soviet Union is key to the story. I was afraid that much of it would be over my head, but Orwell makes the analogous relationship crystal clear, and I was surprised at the number of links I made between the society on the farm and in the early Soviet Union. Although the Soviet Union has fallen, I maintain that Animal Farm is still a powerful novel, as Orwell does not limit his story to that of the Soviet Union, but makes it a tale that gives insight into the danger that too much power can cause in any society or government structure.
As the story was practically an allegory, the plot and characters became less important than the ideas they represented. Consequently, the plot wasn’t riveting and the characters didn’t quite steal my heart. I did grow rather fond of Boxer, the constantly devoted and naïve horse, and I was very pleased with the way that Orwell used his lovable character to shove his point right in the reader’s face.
I unfortunately did not find any stirring quotes in this story. Despite the fact that I had numerous sections underlined, none of the quotes seem to demand a place in this review, so you’ll simply have to go without.
I would recommend Animal Farm. Its language and plot is very simple and you’ll fly through its pages, but the ideas that Orwell presents are worth much more than the time it takes to read the short novel. (less)
I wish I could be one of those people that reads a "classic," dislikes it, and then declares her distaste to the world with conviction. Instead, I rea...moreI wish I could be one of those people that reads a "classic," dislikes it, and then declares her distaste to the world with conviction. Instead, I read a "classic," dislike it, and assume that I missed something. The whole practice makes me a bit ashamed since I seem to be giving far too much credit to the fictionalized caricatures of wealthy, erudite white men who sat in smoky libraries swirling brandy and compiling the canon. On the other hand, I suppose it could be a healthy Socratic stance: I'm just acknowledging my ignorance and waiting for someone to explain the book to me. Anyway, I don't especially like Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It's a bit unnerving. As a result, this review will be a list of scattered thoughts rather than any sort of structured argument.
One of my main problems with Huck Finn is that it's so episodic. I like novels that act like novels, with a primary plot around which most action revolves and then subplots. Sure, Huck Finn has a primary plot--the escape of Huck from his father and Jim from slavery, as well as Huck's coming of age--but the river leads them to a whole lot of loosely related exploits that seem to serve Twain's satirical purpose but do not gratify my centralized-storyline desires. I'm too much of a goal-oriented reader to enjoy such episodes. However, I did enjoy Tristram Shandy on my second read, so maybe there's hope for Huck Finn in my... fourth(?) read.
Also working against Huck Finn is that I teach it to my AP students in between the beautifully dense Scarlet Letter and the artistically masterful Woman Warrior. It just doesn't hold up to me. I appreciate that I'm showing them a wide scope of "good" literature, but, most of them, like me, read Huck Finn in junior high, and I can't help but wonder if that's where it belongs.
Now my review's getting too negative. It's interesting to look at Huck Finn as the American bildungsroman because I think it sheds light on cultural differences between America and, let's say, Dicken's Great Britain. Whereas the Dickens emerging adult protagonist usually confronts the truth about his life and the harshness (but indefatigable goodness) of humanity and the world in the city, Huck's generally only distracted by (the idiocy of) society and has his greatest moments of insight in the wilderness. There's definitely a streak of American Romanticism and frontier lust in that--and perhaps a large helping of Twain's cynicism. I also liked reading Huck Finn in conjunction with Twain's "On the Decay of the Art of Lying" (which I love). It establishes a sort of moral compass in evaluating Huck's clever stories in contrast to, perhaps, the King and Duke's schemes.
Perhaps my main problem with Huck Finn is that I want it to be more revolutionary. Twain famously asserts that readers shouldn't look for a moral in his text and he clearly didn't want to get all preachy like Miss Watson, but I wanted more. By the end (spoilers ahead), Jim is freed not because of his own agency or Huck's moral development or the sanctuary of the freed states, but because of Southern slavery law and practice. And one of the innocents of the story--albeit the self-serving, annoying one, Tom Sawyer--sees nothing wrong with purchasing Jim's person temporarily for a little bit of fun. However, I have to say that Huck's internal conflict over helping Jim escape when he has been raised to view Jim as property, particularly in the "You Can't Pray a Lie" chapter, pretty much makes it all worthwhile. The chapter is so credible and poignant that perhaps it was better than a revolution. (less)
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring is an outstanding start to an epic tale. Unfortunately for those who thrust themselves into all five-hundr...moreJ.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring is an outstanding start to an epic tale. Unfortunately for those who thrust themselves into all five-hundred or so pages of it, it is just that: a start. For those who are able to embrace the necessary introductory ramblings, the book, I’m sure, is quite rewarding; however, I found myself driven by my own stubbornness to get through it, with the promise that The Two Towers and The Return of the King would be my reward.
Not that The Fellowship of the Ring is without merit. A look into Tolkien’s amazingly detailed and amicable Middle Earth is always a reward in itself, and his first installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy carries within its very tattered covers (in my case) some Middle Earth jewels: the jovial, mysterious Tom Bombadil; enchanting elves and elven lore; the lovely Lothlorien… The list, I am sure, would be much longer had I not finished the book a month and a half ago, only to have memories of it blend inescapably with memories of the now-completed The Two Towers.
Overall, I wasn’t impressed with the characterization in The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien made Sam extremely endearing, and I fell in love with his character. The character Strider, or Aragorn, was also well established and rounded as mysterious, strong, clever, intelligent, powerful, awesome… Unfortunately, I distinctly remember not feeling the other characters: Gimli was the just dwarf who fell in love with Elven culture, Legolas was just the elf, and Frodo was just the ring bearer. This fault, however, is greatly amended in The Two Towers, as each character blooms into a lovable, round personae. I’m sure that most of my difficulty with the first book’s characters is that I expected them to burst fully-formed from the pages as if they were Athena bursting from Zeus’ head, echoing those characters I saw in the movie. I now realize, however, that the first movie drew from character traits exposed in all three of The Lord of the Rings installments to create their on-screen characters. So readers just have to wait it out to get to know Tolkien’s lovable cast, which is more realistic anyhow.
And, of course, it’s quote time:
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us” (Galdalf).
“The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves” (Goldberry).
All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken, A light from the shadows shall spring; Renewed shall be blade that was broken, The crownless again shall be king, (Aragorn’s name).
“A hunted man sometimes wearies of distrust and longs for friendship” (Aragorn). I’ll be your friend Aragorn!
“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens” (Gimli).
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater” (Haldir).
As a necessary installment of The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Rings is to be lauded. And I therefore praise it with the knowledge that the best is yet to come. (less)
When I realized I would be teaching William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to my new Honors English I class, my first thought was, I hope it's better...moreWhen I realized I would be teaching William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to my new Honors English I class, my first thought was, I hope it's better than I remember it. I'd read Romeo and Juliet before--any self-respecting English literature student must--but it had never really impressed me. This is where, in a more felicitous introduction, I would have my reversal and write something like, "But this time it did!" Unfortunately, it didn't.
Is Shakespeare really to blame when the story he made famous grows so famous that its very plot becomes a frustrating cliche?
Knowing the plot like a childhood lullaby, I wanted to find something more on this reread. Each time I read Macbeth or Hamlet or even Julius Caesar (on good days)--other plays I've taught--I find cool patterns or psychological studies or gender issues or something. Something to teach my honors-level students to really delve deeply into a text and its implications. I came out of Romeo and Juliet with an uninspired reading and prosaic lesson plan (oxymorons, paradoxes, and puns to cover Shakespeare's self-indulgent semantic masturbation in the early acts [don't worry, I didn't call it that to my freshmen], Romeo as a Petrarchan lover, the complexity of Juliet's decision compounded by her role as an upperclass woman girl, fate, haste, youth, blah blah blah... I even touched on Romeo and Juliet as the predecessor of bromance films, with one emotionally-aware male protagonist and a group of insensitive, drinking, womanizing friends). Even if the inadequacies are in the reader rather than the writer, I'm still leaving the play untouched (which, I suppose, is better than how most characters leave Verona).
"True, I talk of dreams, / Which are the children of an idle brain, / Begot of nothing but vain fantasy, / Which is as this of substance as the air."
"Conceit, more rich in matter than in words, / Brags of his substance, not of ornament."
"Adversity's sweet milk, philosophy"
"My short date of breath / Is not so long as is a tedious tale."(less)
Victor Hugo’s outstanding novel Les Miserables is without a doubt, one of the most beautiful, touching, and thought provoking books I have ever read....moreVictor Hugo’s outstanding novel Les Miserables is without a doubt, one of the most beautiful, touching, and thought provoking books I have ever read. Les Miserables captures the vibrancy of France during the tumultuous early nineteenth century by following the interwoven stories of powerful characters: the delightful and the disdainful, the downtrodden and the unjust, the villains and the saints, and proves that goodness may radiate brilliantly from those from whom it is least expected: from the miserable.
It is important to me that the first aspect of Hugo’s work that I praise be Jean Valjean, the story’s protagonist, and now one of my favorite characters of all time. Many characters that encounter Jean dub him a saint—and justly so—as humility, goodness, love, and kindness flourish his every action. What makes him so incredible, however, is that Hugo allows his reader to see Jean struggle in his pursuit of goodness, painstakingly emptying his soul of all selfishness and ill will, thus creating in Jean an inspiration. He is a model of goodness, a simple man—obviously a fallible man—who, touched by the kindness of another, begins to answer to something greater than himself. Absolutely beautiful.
Another extremely beautiful aspect of Les Miserables is Hugo’s portrayal of love. Just as in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo presents the various shades of love with the accuracy and delicacy of a philosopher and an artist. The selfless, sacrificing love a of mother for her child between Fantine and Cosette; the all-important, life-giving love of a “father” for his child between Jean and Cosette; the always present, all-forgiving love of a grandfather for his grandson between Gillenormand and Marius; the innocent, passionate love of young lovers between Cossete and Marius… Hugo’s presentation of the various, always powerful, forms of love throughout his novel left me speechless, sobbing, giggling, doting, and always moved.
Hugo’s examination of criminal justice, primarily through his presentation of Javert’s relentless pursuit of Jean, leaves his reader not only questioning institutionalized justice in Hugo’s time and in contemporary times, but also questioning and redefining preconceived notions of guilt, culpability, justice, incarceration, and reform. Prison, in Jean’s case, made his condition worse. In prison, he became the crime for which he was jailed. Even after he was completely free and reformed, his person was still tainted and shamed by his past incarceration. Is it not the same now? How then, can prison encourage reform in prisoners? It was only after Jean was shown respect and love that he was able to give it. Where is the respect in a dingy jail cell? Where is the love behind locked doors?
The greatest wonder of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is that after reading an 1463 page novel, I feel tired and tried, but not because of the relentless barricade of words and the exhausting turning of pages, but because I feel as if I have wondered the streets of Paris with his lively characters, felt their greatest joys and deepest pains, and grown because of it.
I put my conclusion before my quotes simply because I found so many of them that I’m not sure anyone other than myself will read through them. They’re good ones though…
“Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is guilty in not providing universal free education, and it must answer for the night it produces. If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness” (Bishop Myriel).
“We may be indifferent to the death penalty and not declare ourselves, either way so long as we have not seen a guillotine with our own eyes. But when we do, the shock is violent, and we are compelled to choose sides, for or against.”
“Be careful how you think of the dead. Don’t think of what might have been. Look steadfastly and you will see the living glory of your beloved dead in the heights of heaven” (Bishop Myriel).
“The most beautiful of altars… is the soul of an unhappy man who is comforted and thanks God” (Bishop Myriel).
“The beautiful is as useful as the useful… Perhaps more so” (Bishop Myriel).
“Unless God protects a house, they who guard it watch in vain” (Bishop Myriel).
“Have no fear of robbers or murderers. They are external dangers, petty dangers. We should fear ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers; vices the real murderers. The great dangers are within us. Why worry about what threatens are heads or our purses? Let us think instead of what threatens our souls” (Bishop Myriel).
“Man has one tyrant, Ignorance” (conventionist).
“To destroy abuses is not enough; habits must also be changed. The windmill has gone, but the wind is still there” (conventionist).
“The judge speaks in the name of justice, the priest in the name of pity, which is only a more exalted justice” (Bishop Myriel).
“Yes, the brutalities of justice are called revolutions. When they are over, men recognize that the human race has been harshly treated but that it has moved forward” (conventionist).
“In passing, we might say that success is a hideous thing. Its false similarity to merit deceives men.”
“Liberation is not deliverance. A convict may leave prison behind but not his sentence.”
“Pride, the fortress of evil in man.”
“There are no bad herbs, and no bad men; there are only bad cultivators” (Jean Valjean).
“The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved: loved for ourselves—say rather, loved in spite of ourselves.”
“The highest duty is to think of others” (Jean Valjean).
“Diamonds are found only in the dark bowels of the earth; truths are found only in the depths of thought.”
“If you wish to understand what Revolution is, call it Progress; and if you wish to understand what Progress is, call it Tomorrow.”
“There is something more terrible than a hell of suffering—a hell of boredom.”
“To see and to show, even these are not enough. Philosophy should be energy; it should find its aim and effect in the improvement of mankind.”
“Thought is the true triumph of the soul.”
“A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is a visible labor and there is an invisible labor. To meditate is to labor; to think is to act. Fold arms work, clasped hands perform, a gaze fixed on heaven work.”
“Those who pray always are necessary to those who never pray.”
“The delight we inspire in others has this enchanting peculiarity that, far from being diminished like every other reflection, it returns to us more radiant than ever.”
“All the generous sunrays of society spring from the science, letters, the arts, and education.”
“There is a way of falling into error while on the road of truth… a sort of willful implicit faith that swallow[s:] everything whole.”
“Between the logic of the Revolution and its philosophy, there is this difference—that its logic could conclude in war, while its philosophy could only end in peace.”
“The good must be innocent.”
“All civilized nations offer the thinker this circumstance for his admiration: war; but war, civilized war, exhausts and sums up every form of banditry.”
“Life, misfortunes, isolation, abandonment, poverty, are battlefields that have their heroes; obscure heroes, sometimes greater than the illustrious heroes.”
“The soul helps the body, and at certain moments raises it. It is the only bird that sustains its cage.”
“Destroy the cave Ignorance, and you destroy the mole Crime.”
“Courage does not fear crime, and honesty does not fear authority.”
“This conflict between right and fact has endured since the origins of society. To bring the duel to an end, to consolidate the pure ideal with the human reality, to make the right peacefully interpenetrate the fact, and the fact the right, this is the work of the wise.”
“The soul that loves and suffers is in the sublime state.”
“To diminish the number of the dark, to increase the number of the luminous, there is the aim. That is why we cry: education, knowledge! To learn to read is to kindle a fire: every syllable spelled sparkles... But whoever says light does not necessarily say joy. There is suffering in the light; and excess burns. Flame is hostile to the wing. To burn and yet to fly, this is the miracle of genius.”
“For where there is no more hope, song remains.”
“As with stomachs, we should pity minds that do not eat. If there is anything more poignant than a body agonizing for want of bread, it is a soul dying of hunger for light.”
“Our civilization, the work of twenty centuries, is at once their monster and their prodigy; it is worth saving. It will be saved. To relieve it is already a great deal; to enlighten it is something more.”
“Take from the whispers of two lovers the melody that springs from the soul and accompanies them like a lyre, what remains is only a shadow. You say, What! Is that all? Yes, childish things, repetitions, laughter about nothing, useless things, absurdities, and that is deepest and most sublime in the world! The only things worth being said and listened to.”
“The mob is traitor to the people.”
“The writer doubles and triples his style when silence is imposed by a master over the people.”
“But no sword is simple. Every blade has two edges; he who wounds with one wounds himself with the other.”
“Love one another. Be foolish about it. Love is the foolishness of men, and the wisdom of God” (Gillenormand).
“It is nothing to die; it is horrible not to live” (Jean Valjean). (less)
I have officially been wooed by nineteenth century French literature. First Dumas and now this. I just finished reading Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of...moreI have officially been wooed by nineteenth century French literature. First Dumas and now this. I just finished reading Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and it was fantastic. The characters, the themes, the literary structures… Ahhh… *swoons*
Before I proclaim my love affair with Victor Hugo, I have to mention some negatives. First off: very, very difficult book to get into. I struggled through at least the first hundred pages, and I’m not that hard to please. Secondly, up until this point, I had always thought that abridged novels were ridiculous. How could the editors take parts out and still have the story make sense? Upon reading unabridged Hugo, I understand. The man had complete chapters devoted to discussing the history of Paris or the history of the cathedral, and while I admit that it was a clever way to show off his knowledge and spread his political ideals, it was not what I bargained for.
The novel would have been more accurately titled “The Archdeacon of Notre Dame.” (Frollo was not a judge as in the Disney movie. They just tried to secularize him to an equivalent position.) I argue that Frollo was the protagonist. The story spent most of its time with him: his internal struggle, his plotting. And his character was fantastic! He was underhanded, but I pitied him. He was pathetic, but I feared him. He did evil, but I loved him. Frollo was not simply a powerful villain; he was a dynamic, complex character that, at times, the reader could really sympathize with.
The other characters in the novel were equally impressive. Esmeralda’s sweet, strong innocence (she was only sixteen) and foolish devotion to Phoebus is heart wrenching. Quasimodo’s strength of body and heart is awe-inspiring. Phoebus’ selfish arrogance is antagonizing. The minor characters, from the old heckling woman, to the foolish young Frollo (the Archdeacon’s brother), to the rambling philosopher, create a motley portrait of a fascinating world.
Hugo’s occasional comments on society cannot go unnoted. I especially enjoyed one episode where Quasimodo was being questioned in court. In the novel, unlike in the Disney movie, Quasimodo is deaf, so, as he is being questioned, he tries to anticipate the judge’s questions and answer them accordingly. The irony is that the judge was doing the same thing. Hugo created a deaf judge. Beautiful. Anyway, a funny scene ensued, and Hugo made his point.
The best part of the story (maybe, there were just so many good ones) was likely Hugo’s portrayal of love. Love was everywhere: the inexplicable love Frollo had for his useless brother, the love that caused Frollo to accept Quasimodo, the love that broke a mother’s heart at the loss of her daughter, the faithful love that sent Quasimodo to Frollo with his tail between his legs… But the most stunning and provocative of all was the comparison of the three men who “loved” Esmeralda: one man, “loving” her so much that he wanted to possess her; one man, “loving” her for the moment, until another girl came along; and one man “loving” her so much that she went before everything: before his desire to be with her, before his desire to have her, before his own desire to live. *swoons again* Awesome book…
When I started reading it, everyone felt the need to warn me that it didn’t end like the Disney movie. I was afraid. I was scared that after stringing me along, Hugo was going to kill it at the end. Don’t worry: he doesn’t. The end is moving and beautiful and fitting and so what if it’s not Disney: it’s great.
And, to further please the happy reader, there were a million good quotes. Here you go:
“Oh, love!... That is to be two, and yet one. A man and a woman joined, as into an ange; that is heaven!” (Esmeralda).
“Great edifices, like great mountains, are the work of the ages.”
“He found that man needs affection, that life without a warming love is but a dry wheel, creaking and grating as it turns.”
“Alas! The small thing shall bring down the great things; a tooth triumphs over a whole carcass. The rat of the Nile destroys the crocodile, the swordfish kills the whale; the book will kill the edifice” (Frollo).
“It is to this setting sun that we look for a new dawn.”
“Spira, spera.” (“Breathe, hope.”)
“For love is like a tree; it grows of itself; it send its roots deep into our being, and often continues to grow green over a heart in ruins.”
“What man orders… Circumstances disorder” (Frollo).
“Everyone knows that great wealth is not acquired by letters, and that the most accomplished writers have not always a warm hearth in wintertime. The lawyers take all the wheat for themselves and leave nothing by chaff for the other learned professions” (Gringoire, the philosopher).
“A lighted candle never attracts one gnat only.”
“That’s life… It’s often our best friends who make us fall” (Gringoire).
“The human voice is music to the human ear.”
Just a wonderful sample of the jewels contained in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The novel was difficult, but well worth the effort. I’m just sitting here in awe of it. I can’t write any more. (less)
I enjoyed this (my third or fourth?) reading of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations the most. In all likelihood, my enjoyment stemmed from the immense...moreI enjoyed this (my third or fourth?) reading of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations the most. In all likelihood, my enjoyment stemmed from the immense relief I felt at escaping from Modernist novels; I did read this directly after my misguided venture into James Joyce's Ulysses. It could be that I've grown or matured since last time. But, in all seriousness, it's probably because this the first time reading Great Expectations that I was able to truly appreciate Pip as a protagonist.
I realized that as I read Dickens various bildungsroman novels, his heroes tend to travel through the narrative as silhouettes of young men, with generically handsome, but naive faces. Of course, they all have their distinguishing characteristics: Nicholas Nickleby is emotional and impulsive, David Copperfield is "blind," and Oliver Twist... has that strange ethereal glow. But they are pretty much silhouettes that the reader can inhabit (as the author often did) and grow with throughout the tale. Pip is different. He is a fully developed character whose arrogance, snobbery, and pretensions made me want to distance myself from him. What I realized this time around was that, as repulsive as he often was, Pip is so easy to relate to. In his most shameful moments, he is so human. I begrudged him his faults because, in some indirect way, I have shared them. My replusion was also tempered by the fact that the older Pip narrating the story was exceedingly ashamed and guilty of his younger self. It's a situation that is more uncomfortable but also more realistic than the common "if I knew then what I know now" retrospective narration.
Place Pip among a cast of heartwarming and humorous characters (the uneducated but heroic Joe and Wemmick, who separates his business life and his private life to the extreme, especially stand out) in an entangled plot that begs questions about the moral supremacy of the upper class, the formation of identity, the dangers of love and dreams, and the proper role of parenthood, and you have a quality novel. As anyone might expect of <3 Charles Dickens <3.
(I have to admit that, as I read, I sometimes couldn't help but picture scenes from the South Park parody of Great Expectations.)
"So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of people whom me most despise."
"It is a principle of his that no man who was not a true gentleman at heart, ever was, since the world began, a true gentleman in manner."
"For, there was something very comfortable in having plenty of stationary." (Why don't I have post-its with this quote on them?)(less)
My primary goal when I'm teaching A Tale of Two Cities to my sophomores is to make them realize that Charles Dickens didn't write creaky, dusty long n...moreMy primary goal when I'm teaching A Tale of Two Cities to my sophomores is to make them realize that Charles Dickens didn't write creaky, dusty long novels that teachers embraced as a twisted rite of passage for teenagers. Instead, I want them them to understand why Dickens was one of the most popular writers in England and America during his time. I want them to see the book as the suspenseful, comedic, and sentimental piece of entertainment that it is. Because, while A Tale of Two Cities is masterfully written with sly humor, densely meaningful descriptions, a cast of quirky characters only Dickens could create, an endless series of telling binaries and foils, and relevant social commentary about the French Revolution as well as Dickens' time, it is also simply a damn good story. By a damn good storyteller.
I have a difficult time writing reviews about books that I adore because, when I'm not reading them, I hug them too closely to be very critical. (BTW - I frequently hug A Tale of Two Cities in front of my students... and write Charles Dickens' name with hearts around it... They think I'm crazy, but it intrigues some of them just enough to make them doubt the derisive comments of upperclassmen.) I reluctantly admit that Dickens does oversimplify the causes of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror; however, in doing so, he successfully captures the spirit of a tumultuous period and helps readers sympathize with characters on every side of the developing conflict. I also think that the characters of Roger Cly and John Barsad get a bit messy and may have worked better as a single character. Perhaps the confusion is a result of serialization restructuring. But, really, I read A Tale of Two Cities like a costumed Lord of the Rings fan at a movie premier. I cheer when my favorite characters enter scenes and I knowingly laugh when Dickens cleverly foreshadows future events.
Though I don't think that A Tale of Two Cities is Dickens' best novel--that title I would reserve for either Bleak House or David Copperfield--I do agree with Dickens, who claims that it was his best story. It is artfully written. Dickens introduces a cast of characters, sprawled across two nations and spanning varied social classes and political affiliations, and then effortlessly weaves their stories and secrets together in a masterful way. The Modernist movement painstakingly forced literature to reflect the ambiguities and uncertainties of the real world and that's great, but sometimes it is a real joy to read a story that ends with such magnificent closure. All mysteries are solved and everything makes sense. It is beautiful.
(I have to admit that I was overjoyed when a group of my fifth period girls persistently voiced their disdain for Dickens' angel in the house Lucie and backed Madame Defarge. I think they may have created a Madame Defarge myspace, actually. Oh how the times have changed.)
"Ms. R--, you got me." "What?" "At the beginning of this book, you said you would get some of us. And that we would love it. You got me." I didn't get you G--. Charles Dickens did. I just introduced you.
"A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other."(less)