Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot has been proclaimed by more than one writer as the greatest novel in the English language. VirMiddlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot has been proclaimed by more than one writer as the greatest novel in the English language. Virginia Woolf, in her assessment of it, stated that, "the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." Who am I to disagree?
The book marked another glaring gap in my literary education and so I resolved to fill that gap in 2015. There were times during its reading that I thought it might take me the entire year to fulfill my resolution. At more than 800 very wordy pages, it requires a commitment of time and attention.
I had somehow expected the novel to be difficult to get into, as 19th century literature sometimes is, but I was surprised to find that the narrative captured me almost from the first sentence and I was eager to learn just how the story would reveal itself.
Middlemarch is most definitely not a quick and easy read though. Written for a 19th century audience that expected very detailed descriptions and explanations of backgrounds for the characters and plots of the novels they read, George Eliot, I am sure, fully met those expectations with this epic tale.
The action of the novel takes place during 1830-32 in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch in England. It was written more than thirty years after that time and so the author was able to write it as one looking back upon events with the perspective of history. There is an almost bewildering number of characters. The reader sometimes feels that she is making the acquaintance of every single soul in the town, but, in fact, the action focuses on three main characters and it is through them that everything else is revealed.
The central character is Dorothea Brooke, a well-to-do young woman who has been brought up, with her sister Celia, by their uncle Mr. Brooke, who is himself a bit of a comical character. Dorothea is intelligent and highly idealistic and she longs to lead a life of the mind. Her uncle expects her to marry their wealthy, well-respected neighbor, Sir James Chettam, but Dorothea chooses instead an intellectual, a dry pedantic scholar named Edward Casaubon who is several decades older than she. He is not in robust health and the thoroughly predictable happens. He dies some eighteen months after the marriage, leaving Dorothea even more wealthy. But before he dies, he writes a codicil to his will, that states that if Dorothea should marry his young cousin, Will Ladislaw, she will forfeit the estate.
Dorothea had first met Ladislaw on her honeymoon in Italy and there was an instant connection between them, as they talked and found they had many interests in common. Casaubon, a very jealous man, was determined to stop that relationship from developing any further.
Meanwhile, Tertius Lydgate, who was an idealistic young doctor who had modern ideas about reform of the medical profession, had arrived in Middlemarch and was trying to set up a practice and make his way there. Lydgate gets to know the town's financier, Mr. Bulstrode, whom, we slowly learn, has a checkered and secret past. Bulstrode had married into the Vincy family and had a niece, Rosamund Vincy, who was the daughter of the mayor and was considered the town's great beauty. Lydgate was captivated by her appearance, giving scarcely a thought to her character (which was hopelessly shallow and self-centered) and he determined to marry her.
Rosamund had a brother, Fred, who is the third major character through whose eyes we see the "provincial life" revealed. He is university-educated, restless, and irresponsible, supposedly destined for the church (by his family) and thoroughly unhappy about that prospect. He has long - since childhood, in fact - been in love with Mary Garth, daughter of an estate manager and considered by his family to be far beneath him socially and not a suitable wife. Mary returns his feelings but tells him that she will never accept him if he goes into the church - because she knows that he would be miserable in that profession.
As we get to know these characters and all their associations with others in the town, we also get a sense of the issues of the day. We learn something, for example, of the Great Reform Bill that was hotly debated at the time and of the construction of a new mode of transportation, the railways. We also see, through Lydgate and his associations, something of the state of medical science at that time. As the community faces many changes related to these issues, we encounter the deeply reactionary mindset of the settled community, a mindset that is the living definition of "provincial."
It is remarkable that for almost 150 years, Middlemarch has been able to retain its status as one of the masterpieces of English fiction. This is true in spite of some of the quibbles expressed by some reviewers and readers about the ultimate destiny of some of the characters, especially Dorothea, whom the reader comes to identify with so thoroughly and to have such high hopes for. In the end, she subordinates her life and desires to those of the man she loves, Ladislaw. But even though she did not, perhaps, make her own distinctive mark in the world, George Eliot speaks in her final paragraph of her hidden influence:
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Many of us would be happy with such an epitaph. ...more
I don't really do short stories as a general rule. Never been a great fan of the genre. But I was recently reminded that 2014 marks the centennial ofI don't really do short stories as a general rule. Never been a great fan of the genre. But I was recently reminded that 2014 marks the centennial of the publication of what many consider to be the greatest collection of short stories in the English language, Dubliners. Having never read it, I decided there was no time like the present and grabbed it off our bookshelves where it had languished for years. Some members of the family had read it and praised it highly. I was still a bit skeptical.
A few years ago, I set myself the task of reading Ulysses. It was a long, hard slog, but I made it all the way through to the last glorious chapter, Molly Bloom's soliloquy, and that made it all worthwhile. Well, Dubliners proved to be a much easier, more accessible read, nothing really difficult about it at all. The only thing that caused me to stumble a bit was some of the now archaic language used. It made the stories sometimes seem a bit stilted, but I was always able to understand the meaning.
It is ironic, almost beyond belief really, that a series of British and Irish publishers and printers deemed this book offensive and immoral. It was completed in 1905 and Joyce struggled for almost ten years to find someone who would be willing to publish it. Reading these stories today, they seem so mild. It's very hard to understand what anyone could have considered offensive or immoral about them. But those obviously were very different times.
As I started reading the stories, I found them anachronistic and had difficulty relating to the characters, but the more I read the more I realized that even though these characters lived in the world of a hundred years ago, human nature hasn't changed. The strengths and weaknesses of the Dubliners of the early twentieth century are really not demonstrably different from those of Americans in 2014.
The stories are deceptively simple tales of the everyday lives of ordinary people in Dublin. I recognized some of the characters here who reappeared later in Ulysses. I think that book might have been a bit more understandable if I had read Dubliners first. Ulysses, too, of course, is the story of everyday life. One day - June 16 - in the life of Leopold and Molly Bloom and their compatriots. James Joyce seems to have been fascinated with that subject and with portraying life as it was lived and showing his characters with all their warts.
The Catholic Church and, in particular, its priests play an important role in many of the stories here. Of course, that Church played a major role for both good and ill in the Ireland of the time, and, indeed, still does today. That much has not changed.
There are allusions in some of the stories to the desire for independence and the movement to keep the Irish language alive and vibrant, ideas which would continue to burn brightly and result in a conflagration in the years to come.
The characters are real and their stories are humorous, sometimes brutal, sometimes bawdy, often tragic. Joyce said that his purpose was to write a moral history of Ireland, and I'm certainly not in a position to say that he didn't succeed. It is an unflinching portrayal of a city and a people that he obviously loved.
The stories begin with the death of a priest and death hovers near throughout all of the following stories. Then there is the final story, "The Dead," which some critics will tell you is the best short story written in English. I would certainly agree that the language is amazing and beautiful, as in this last paragraph which describes Gabriel watching the snow at night.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right, snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon the part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Such a simple scene told in simple words, but one must admit, the man could write....more
Most of the reading I've been doing this summer has been of murder mysteries. Noir. Police procedurals. Thrillers. Cozy mysteries. But always with a mMost of the reading I've been doing this summer has been of murder mysteries. Noir. Police procedurals. Thrillers. Cozy mysteries. But always with a murder involved. It was time for a cleansing of my reading palette.
The writers of those mysteries all tailor their craft for the tastes of typical readers (if such animals exist) of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They feature short, pithy, undemanding sentences calculated to keep those pages turning and keep the reader from turning away to any of the other myriad of possible entertainments available to her. They write for a short-attention-span audience, and they are entertaining in their way.
But now, for something completely different.
Anthony Trollope's sentences can in no wise be described as short, pithy, or undemanding. Here is an example from early in the book, where Trollope is describing the warden's habit of playing on an imaginary violincello when he was under emotional stress.
While these vexed him sorely, the passes would be short and slow, and the upper hand would not be seen to work; nay the strings on which it operated would sometimes lie concealed in the musician's pocket, and the instrument on which he played would be beneath his chair; but as his spirit warmed to the subject - as his trusting heart, looking to the bottom of that which vexed him, would see its clear way out, - he would rise to a higher melody, sweep the unseen cords from his neck, down along his waistcoat, and up again to his very ear, create an ecstatic strain of perfect music, audible to himself and to St Cecilia, and not without effect.
Now that is a sentence! And this book is filled with such complicated structures. They demand the reader's full attention. One can't be texting or following Twitter while reading such sentences.
The Warden was the first in a series of six books which comprise Trollope’s Barchester series, one of the most enduring serial collections of British fiction. It tells the compelling story of a good man, the kindly Mr. Harding, warden of the almshouse in Barchester. Mr. Harding, through no fault of his own, finds himself caught in a maelstrom of publicity over alleged financial misconduct. This was a topical subject because financial misconduct by the Church of England was much in the news at this time.
The national scandal was fueled by a reformer named Bold, who was a friend of Mr. Harding and who was in love with the reverend's daughter, Eleanor. Bold believed that the terms of the will which created the almshouse were not being fairly carried out, that too much of the income was going to the warden while it should have been going to the twelve aged indigent residents of the almshouse. The fact that Mr. Harding was tenderly caring for and supporting the residents was never in question - and was never taken into account by the news stories.
Mr. Bold's assertions came to the attention of the Jupiter, the influential newspaper of the day. Soon the newspaper was editorializing about the warden's alleged malfeasance. The story was taken up by pamphleteers, the National Enquirers or Drudge Reports of the day and it was distorted out of all reason and the warden felt that his reputation was irretrievably blackened.
Anthony Trollope wrote in the Victorian era in England, but one can't help seeing parallels between the media which he describes and the American media of the day. The story of the disgraced warden would have been irresistible manna for the 24-hour cable news networks.
The good and honorable Mr. Harding comes to believe that the charges that he is receiving too much income for the work that he does as warden have some basis in truth, and he sees that the only way out for him to resolve the conflict in his conscience is to resign the post, much to the consternation of his son-in-law and older daughter and other supporters. The only one who supports him in his decision is Eleanor.
And so, he walks away from his profitable post and into a life of genteel poverty, and yet his chronicler says that he "is not an unhappy man." Eleanor marries Bold and, eventually, her sister and brother-in-law are reconciled to the match and they all become friends again.
As for the twelve old men of the almshouse who had dreams of becoming much richer through the efforts of the reformer, they, in fact, became poorer once Mr. Harding left the position of warden, since he had been supplementing their income from his own proceeds. Too late they realized how good they had had it under his benevolent care.
Trollope's rich writing is, in many ways, a comedy of manners reminiscent of Jane Austen. He reveals a society of contrasts between Victorian London and the provincial life of Barchester. His story is one of the power of the press to do both good and evil contrasted against the small but powerful voice of one person's integrity. It is a story of Victorian England that could just as easily be of modern day America. The Warden is as relevant as today's newspaper or the Internet.
And the writing! Oh, the writing! It is just beautiful. I consider my palette to have been thoroughly cleansed.
Earlier this year, I read and enjoyed The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vasquez. That book was based on the germ of an idea from ConradEarlier this year, I read and enjoyed The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vasquez. That book was based on the germ of an idea from Conrad's Nostromo. It was set in the fictional country invented by Conrad for his book. Reading that book made me curious about Nostromo and I added it to my reading list. I hardly knew what I was letting myself in for.
This was a very difficult read for me and it took me a seemingly interminable amount of time to finish it, but I persevered and did manage to read all the way to the end. Part of the difficulty lay in the fact that I read it on my Kindle. It might have been easier with a physical book where I could turn back and reread sections or refer to previous sections with greater ease. As it was, the story was very difficult to get into and I was fully one-third of the way through the book before I began to get a real sense of the story.
One problem that I had with the book was that Nostromo, the main character around whom all the action takes place, is absent from much of the book. We only see him obliquely through the eyes of others, and for long passages he doesn't seem to figure in at all. He is described as the bold and courageous Italian seaman who is a natural-born leader and is admired by everyone. He is incorruptible and undaunted by any challenge, the very model that the inventor of the phrase "paragon of virtue" had in mind.
Nostromo is a hero to the Europeans living in the political upheaval that is Costaguana. When revolution comes, he is the one who saves the day with a dramatic ride. He is also the man chosen to spirit away a load of silver ingots before they can fall into the hands of the "wrong side." He takes them out to sea where they are supposedly lost when the boat sinks, but were they really lost? Well, Nostromo is incorruptible so he wouldn't lie about it, would he?
The revolution is resolved - sort of - and Nostromo slowly begins to build up his wealth until finally he is a very wealthy, as well as respected, man, but then, predictably, it all begins to fall apart. One just knows this isn't going to end well, and (Spoiler alert!) it doesn't.
I really wanted to like this book, but I just found it tedious in the extreme. Although the overall story appealed to me, I could never really get engaged in it. One thing is certain: Any future Conrad that I read will be from a physical paper book. I think this old-fashioned writer is probably best read in old-fashioned form. ...more
Emma Woodhouse is a self-centered and self-important snob who believes she knows what is best for all who are in her circle. She is a shameless matchmEmma Woodhouse is a self-centered and self-important snob who believes she knows what is best for all who are in her circle. She is a shameless matchmaker who, having succeeded (she thinks) once with her governess and friend Miss Taylor, is now set to put the world to rights.
Emma means well, really, but she has little comprehension of the ways of the world and little understanding of human nature and human frailty. Her efforts are doomed to failure. How fortunate then that she has people who are looking out for her and who love her in spite of her faults.
Jane doesn't really make clear to me just why people love this interfering busybody in spite of her faults, other than the fact that she is young and pretty. And rich. Being rich always helps, I guess.
Anyway, she takes a local orphan, Harriet Smith, in hand and determines to make her into something. Harriet, it seems, is the illegitimate child of some unknown benefactor who has paid for her education and rearing. Emma imagines him to be a nobleman and sets out to find a husband for Harriet who is worthy of a nobleman's daughter. The fact that Harriet seems very much attached to a local farmer, Mr. Martin, is of no importance to Emma's schemes.
Emma tries to match Harriet with one likely neighbor after another but all the matches go awry and finally it seems that Harriet will match herself to Mr. Knightley. Which should make Emma happy, but, suddenly, she discovers that it doesn't and that she herself has feelings for Mr. Knightley.
Jane Austen, of course, excels in these complicated tales of manners and misadventures. She even manages to make the insensitive Emma if not lovable at least tolerable - especially once she gets her comeuppance!
The novel goes on a little long. That is the only mark against it in my estimation, but how can I dare to criticize the sainted Jane? ...more
Persuasion was the last of Jane Austen's major works to be published. It was published in 1818, after her death. It is also the last of her books thatPersuasion was the last of Jane Austen's major works to be published. It was published in 1818, after her death. It is also the last of her books that I read in my own personal "Jane Austen Reading Plan." I didn't read all the others in the order of their publication. I read Pride and Prejudice first, just because that was the story that I was familiar with and the one that I loved. It's still the one that I love, more or less on a par with Sense and Sensibility, but I would rate Persuasion next in my Austen pantheon, maybe along with Northanger Abbey. Then Emma and, last and least, Mansfield Park.
This book has all the familiar Austen characters: the pompous and proud man; the silly woman obsessed with her own ills; the social climbers; the good and decent people who try to do right but are misunderstood and sometimes misunderstanding; the stalwart gentleman whose intentions and prospects are misjudged; the self-centered popinjay whose only concerns are his own pleasures; and, of course, at the center of it all, the woman who is pulled in different directions by the demands of society and the whispers of her own heart.
Anne Elliot is the center of it all this time. She is the middle daughter of a pompous spendthrift whose ideas of his own and his family's standing in the world far exceed reality. Anne has reached the almost middle-age of 27. Seven years before, she had been engaged to a man named Wentworth, but her family and, more importantly, her dead mother's best friend, Mrs. Russell, had persuaded her against the match, because they believed that her beloved, a sailor, had few prospects in the world and was an unworthy suitor.
The Napoleonic War ensued and has now ended and Anne's former suitor has prospered. He is now Captain Wentworth, a man of five-and-twenty thousand, a veritable fortune, and he has now returned to the society of which Anne and her family are a part. The two must inevitably meet again. What will be the result? Is Captain Wentworth now married or are his affections engaged elsewhere? What of Anne? Does she remain constant in her feelings for this man whose love she once spurned because of the persuasion of others? Will she now yield to the persuasion of her own heart?
Well, if you know Jane Austen, you probably already know the answers to all those questions.
Jane was, above all, a woman of her times. Times when women were proscribed from any honorable profession except wife and mother - or spinster aunt. Jane wrote about women who struggled to make lives for themselves within those boundaries, as she herself did. She wrote, of course, in the language of her times, an English which seems stilted to us today. It is a language which knew no contractions, a language which never settled for a shilling word when a pound word would do. Some find the language off-putting. I find it lovely.
I leave Jane now with some regret, but I feel richer for having known her through her six wonderful books. I don't begrudge a moment of my time reading them - not even of Mansfield Park. ...more
Not halfway through this book (which seemed to go on forever), I was thinking that what poor little Fanny Price needed in her life was an Emma WoodhouNot halfway through this book (which seemed to go on forever), I was thinking that what poor little Fanny Price needed in her life was an Emma Woodhouse to take her in hand and give her some substance and direction. Alas, no Emma appeared, and Fanny wandered through these pages, a pale and wan presence with little to recommend her.
I could not like Fanny. Indeed, she is pitiable and pathetic, but not especially likable. Truth to tell, there is not a single character in this book that I really liked. They are finely drawn, as are all Austen's characters, and perhaps in the time they were written and for the audience they were written, there might have been things to admire or feelings with which the reader could sympathize. It is hard to see how a modern reader could find them so.
Fanny Price is the daughter of the poorest of three sisters - the sister who made a disadvantageous marriage and was subsequently lumbered with nine children. The poor sister appeals to her other two siblings for help with her children and a plan is devised for Fanny, the oldest daughter of the poor family, to go and live with the richest of the three sisters' families, the Bertrams.
Fanny goes to live at Mansfield Park, the Bertrams' home, where she is treated with offhand kindness by her Aunt Bertram but as a very poor and undeserving relation by just about everybody else including her Aunt Norris, everyone's worst nightmare of an aunt. The exception to this poor treatment is the second son of the family, Edmund, who goes out of his way to be kind to Fanny and to be her friend and confidante. Consequently, of course, the ten-year-old Fanny falls in love with him and never falls out again.
This is essentially a novel of manners, the manners of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and is an explication of the rigid standards of conduct which must be adhered to in order for one to be acceptable to "society". I have enjoyed the other Austen novels that I have read which are, similarly, looking glasses reflecting that time and place, but this one was just too tedious and precious for even my patience and longsuffering nature as a reader. I read it to the very end where everyone finally received their comeuppance, but I had long since ceased to care. ...more
What can I possibly say about "Sense and Sensibility" that hasn't already been said a hundred times before? The story is too well-known to even requirWhat can I possibly say about "Sense and Sensibility" that hasn't already been said a hundred times before? The story is too well-known to even require a synopsis.
Although I had never read the book, I have seen the Emma Thompson movie several times and it is fairly faithful to the book. I loved that movie and it is firmly entrenched in my brain, so much so that, as I read the book, I heard the dialogue spoken in the voices of Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Hugh Laurie, etc. It made for an interesting experience.
One reads Jane Austen for her keen observations of human nature, her humor, for her exposition of the role of women in the society in which she lived, and especially for the beauty of her language. As that language flows over one's consciousness and rolls off the tip of the brain, one can only despair that the state of the language has fallen so far in the two hundred years since the literary works of Austen.
"Sense and Sensibility" was, of course, the first published work of Austen and was the story of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor (sense) and Marianne (sensibility). She went on to write a considerable set of literary works that would be the pride of any writer and she holds a well-earned spot in the pantheon of English literature greats. "Sense and Sensibility" alone might have been enough to ensure that spot. It is an almost perfect book. The only false note, at least in my estimation, was Willoughby's visit to Cleveland when Marianne was seriously ill. I think that Austen just could not bear to have Willoughby so completely a scoundrel and wanted to give him a chance to redeem himself. But his conversation with Elinor shows him truly to be just as selfish and self-absorbed as ever, despite his professed feelings for Marianne, and, as far as I was concerned, it could have been omitted. But that is a small quibble.
This is a wonderful book. There is so much richness here. It is as relevant today as it was in the early 1800s. Having stood the test of time, it has earned the label "classic." ...more
My project of reading all the major Austen works this year continues. It had floundered a bit with the last book of hers that I read, "Mansfield Park"My project of reading all the major Austen works this year continues. It had floundered a bit with the last book of hers that I read, "Mansfield Park". I found the book's characters distasteful and hard to like and was not anxious to try another. But my daughter urged me to read "Northanger Abbey" which she had just read and liked, and so I reluctantly picked it up - and found it very hard to put down again.
I found this book to be everything that "Mansfield Park" was not, at least for me. The characters here are engaging and likable and one wishes for them to live "happily ever after".
Catherine Morland is the 17 year-old-daughter of a very large family of Morlands. Her family's neighbors, the Allens, a childless pair, invite her to go with them on a jaunt of several weeks to Bath. Her parents assent and she happily sets off with them.
Once in Bath, however, she finds that since she knows no one there, it is very hard to take part in the society. Very soon, though, she meets and dances with Henry Tilney and her heart is lost forever. She also meets Isabella Thorpe who tries to match her with her brother John, a rather odious character, who Catherine cannot like, especially since her heart has already been claimed by another. At the same time, Isabella tries to match herself with Catherine's brother with greater success.
In time, Henry Tilney's sister also becomes Catherine's friend and invites her to visit for some weeks at the family home, Northanger Abbey, and so begins a series of misunderstandings and misdirections worthy of any sitcom - or, indeed, of any Shakespeare comedy.
Catherine is a naive and suggestible sort with a great weakness for gothic novels. She sees Northanger Abbey as a setting for such a story and her imagination runs amok.
This is a delightful book, another exploration into the manners of late 18th/early 19th century English society, as only Austen can do it. I found myself smiling my way through it and even sometime laughing out loud at the human foibles exposed. I fear we haven't improved much in 200 years. ...more
Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour Of which vertu engendred is
Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour Of which vertu engendred is the flour, Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth Inspired hath in every holt and heeth The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne Hath in the Ram his half cours y-ronne And smale foweles maken melodye, That slepen al the nyght with open yë (So priketh hem nature in hir corages), Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes; And specially from every shires ende Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende...
How many of us spent part of our freshman year in college learning that prologue to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English and then struggling to recite it for our English literature professor? Surprisingly, although I can't always remember what I did last week, I can still remember much of that prologue that I learned all of those long years ago.
I think it is the lyricism, the lilting cadence of the thing, that makes it so memorable. That was a feature of the Middle English in which Chaucer wrote. This week, I read a modern English translation by David Wright for Oxford World's Classics of the entire work and I felt it had that same quality of lyricism. It seemed very true to the original.
In college, I read the excerpts that were required reading for my literature class, but I had never read the work in its entirety. Several books that I have read this year, both fiction and nonfiction, have dealt with this period in history, and, in particular, Barbara Tuchman's excellent A Distant Mirror about the 14th century made several references to Chaucer and to his masterwork. It piqued my interest and made me decide to read the whole thing.
The setting of the tales is that a group of diverse pilgrims are about to make their way from Southwark to Canterbury Cathedral to worship at the site where Archbishop Thomas Becket had been murdered. To amuse themselves along the way, they agree to a competition in which each will tell a story. At the end, the teller of the story which is judged best will receive a free meal at the Tabard Inn back in Southwark, the meal to be paid for by the other pilgrims. Among the pilgrims is Chaucer who records the tales.
Many of the pilgrims are officials of the Church or are in some way tied to the Church and Chaucer is unsparing in his depiction of these characters. They are mostly venal, greedy, often licentious beings who are completely devoid of Jesus' empathy for the poor and downtrodden.
Especially are they devoid of any empathy or understanding for the lives of women. Perhaps because I am a woman, I was particularly and acutely sensitive to the portrayal of the women in the tales. For the most part, they are either idealized, chaste, saintly beings, an image worshiped by chivalric knights, or else they are complete bawds, living only for the pleasures of the bed. If they are married - and almost all of them are - their chief goal in life is to make a cuckold of their husbands. The married men in the party who tell tales of wives depict them as harridans, as violent creatures who cheat and beat their husbands and get their comeuppance in the end.
One wonders why Chaucer's tales so characterized women. Was he simply reporting the common themes of the day? Were his cartoonish portrayals of women his sly and satirical way of making a point, somewhat like Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal? Was he, in short, a 14th century feminist trying to bring change to a world view that was totally hostile to women?
Incidentally, Barbara Tuchman, whose book pointed out the similarities between the 14th century and our own time, would likely be quick to see the analogy between the Church's attitude toward women in the 14th century and the Church's attitude toward women today. Not much progress there, I'm afraid.
The 14th century was, of course, a God-obsessed period and nearly all of the tales relate in some way to the Bible or theology. My two favorites among the stories, though, were mostly free of such associations.
"The Wife of Bath's Tale" introduces us to a woman who has buried five husbands and is on the lookout for a sixth! She may be as close to being liberated as a 14th century woman could be and she has a joy in life and a bawdy sense of humor which is totally infectious. I loved the Wife of Bath!
My second favorite story was "The Nun's Priest's Tale" perhaps because some of my favorite animals are chickens. This story is a retelling of a popular Middle Ages parable about the rooster and the fox. In this case, it's the tale of Chantecleer and his favorite hen Pertelote and the dastardly fox Renard. The priest does manage to get in a dig at women in that it is Pertelote's advice which causes her beloved Chantecleer to be caught by the fox. Never fear, though. As always in these stories, the rooster outfoxes the fox!
This was a wonderful read. It really stands up well over the six centuries since its writing. The bawdy, irreverent tone is not so different from something you might see on late-night television today. I'm not sure if that is such a wonderful recommendation, but I guess what I mean to say is, the world really hasn't changed much since Chaucer's time. He and his other pilgrims would fit right in today. ...more
This is a weird little book. Now, I have never read any of C. S. Lewis's fantasy works that serve the cause of Christianity, so maybe, in fact, this iThis is a weird little book. Now, I have never read any of C. S. Lewis's fantasy works that serve the cause of Christianity, so maybe, in fact, this is right in the mainstream of those other works, but, to me, this was just a far-out and contrived piece of literature that didn't seem to have much real purpose.
Okay, the premise is that Screwtape, a senior devil in the service of Satan, is writing this series of letters to his beloved (?) nephew, Wormwood, who is something of an apprentice in the art of tempting a human "patient." Screwtape gives him a constant stream of advice about how to be more effective and how to get around all of the Enemy's (God's) defenses of his subject - who is a Christian. Perhaps it is because I do not find such creatures as Screwtape and Wormwood believable that I found this religious fantasy very rough going.
But wait a minute - maybe it was unbelievable because I have my own Wormwood on my shoulder whispering false advice in my ear and maybe he's being guided by his own Screwtape. Hmmm... ...more
As a teenager reading the Tarzan books back in the '60s, I wanted to be Jane and go live in the jungle with the strong, silent Tarzan. Tarzan was an aAs a teenager reading the Tarzan books back in the '60s, I wanted to be Jane and go live in the jungle with the strong, silent Tarzan. Tarzan was an adventure that took me completely out of my time and place and set my imagination free. It was a hoot! ...more
When I first encountered Beowulf in a freshman English lit class in college many years ago, I was astounded. Who knew that humans could write such talWhen I first encountered Beowulf in a freshman English lit class in college many years ago, I was astounded. Who knew that humans could write such tales that could survive for hundreds of years? (Yes, I was pretty naive and ignorant.)
The wonderful poet Seamus Heaney has taken this ancient Anglo-Saxon tale and breathed new life into it with his own unique poetic sense and voice. The characters of Beowulf and his companions, and especially the character of Grendel, came to life for me on these pages as never before.
It is a story of human emotions - fear, pride, love - and, of course, of courage. It is an action tale in the hands of a master story-teller - the original author(s) and Heaney. Even if you suffered through Beowulf in college, I can almost guarantee that you will enjoy it in this translation. ...more
This was one of the most difficult books I've ever tried to read. I found myself reading and rereading sentences, paragraphs, pages even, trying to diThis was one of the most difficult books I've ever tried to read. I found myself reading and rereading sentences, paragraphs, pages even, trying to discern the meaning of the words.
All the literate world, of course, knows well the structure of the book. It is the tale of one day in the life of Leopold Bloom of Dublin, told within the format of the 20 year travels of Odysseus from the battles of Troy back to his home, Ithaca. It is divided into 18 "episodes." Each episode, in a sense, stands on its own, but, taken as a whole, they offer a complete portrait of a man. It is scatalogical, rude, sometimes downright offensive, but it bubbles with life.
Throughout my reading of the book, I always felt two (or more!) steps behind the author. Occasionally, I would be reading along and suddenly a light bulb would come on - over something I had read a couple of chapters, or episodes, before.
Yes, it was difficult to read and I'm sure I missed a lot that a more perceptive reader might have derived from the book. I think I was rather testy and hard to live with during the reading, because I was so often thinking about the book and puzzling over what I had read.
And then came Molly's solliquoy and all of a sudden everything fell into place. The lights came on, the bells sounded and at last I could say, "Yes, yes and yes! It is a great book! Its reputation is not overstated."