Tag Archives: classic literature

Wuthering Heights: Where everyone is miserable, always

I’ve decided to finally dive into some more gothic novels because I love the genre and I love weird stories. Since discovering that there’s so much more to the genre than just mysterious moors and manors, I’m curious to broaden my horizons. Of course, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte doesn’t branch out from what I’ve read so far. But after this I will.

A bachelor rents Thrushcross Grange for a year, seeking solitude after an embarrassing sort of fling. His landlord is the mysterious Heathcliff who lives at Wuthering Heights with his miserable daughter-in-law and the son of the former, and now deceased, master. While laid up with a cold, the bachelor convinces his housekeeper, Mrs. Ellen Dean, to relate the history of Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights. She weaves a tale of misery and abuse for everyone involved, starting with Heathcliff’s childhood there with Hindley and Catherine Earnshaw. Though Heathcliff and Catherine loved each other, Catherine ended up choosing to marry Edgar Linton and Heathcliff chose to pursue vicious revenge against everyone who slighted or wronged him, expecting to finally arrive at a place of satisfaction and peace.

I’m not sure I’d even read a synopsis of this book before diving in, I just knew it was a classic and is classified as a gothic novel. I wasn’t prepared for everyone to be awful. It’s actually a quite miserable story, with very little by way of happiness and goodness.

Told by way of a story from the housekeeper, readers don’t quite get inside the characters’ heads and we must realize that everything is colored by the housekeeper’s perception. However, as one who at one point or another loved each primary character, we’re led to believe that she is about as honest a narrator as one could hope for.

Unlike some older novels, this one doesn’t seem to get bogged down as much in wind-swept moor scenes, which helps keep the story moving quite quickly. I kept reading on, expecting some dramatic redemption arc to emerge, but it really didn’t. While I enjoyed the book, it’s definitely not a feel-good book and not the kind of thing to read if you’re already feeling down.

The Iliad: Lots of stabbing, not much else

Reading through classic literature is really hit or miss. Many books that get the title of “classic” are interesting, revolutionary for their time, or simply capture the attention of the masses. But some stories lose their power over time and others definitely lose things in translation. For Homer’s The Iliad, I think it loses a lot when the words are inked onto a page.

The Iliad is the story of the siege of Troy. For nearly a decade the Argive army has wreaked havoc around Troy in retaliation for a Trojan prince spiriting away the beautiful Helen. Apparently they aren’t very good at waging war, if it’s taken 10 years to get around to confronting the walls of Troy, or maybe they got distracted by all the shiny treasure. Either way, as they are ready to attack, the king of the Argives insults his best warrior, Achilles, who refuses the enter into the fighting. As the gods of Olympus pour all their efforts into supporting Troy, only Achilles can turn the tide of the battle.

While I’m familiar with the story surrounding the stealing of Helen, the siege of Troy, Achilles and his grudges, I’d never actually read The Iliad. And something that I read recently prompted me to dig it out of the book boxes (and truthfully, I can’t remember what book made me think it was a good idea). And while reading it brought out some details that are missed or glossed over in movie renditions, it also cast me back to last year, slogging my way through Le Morte d’Arthur. If we cut out all the monotonous passages of who stabbed whom, we’d easily lose two-thirds of the book. And it would be better for it.

I suspect that, in its entirety, The Iliad is at its best when done as a dramatic reading, as Homer would have told it. And for those who would have probably still been able to trace lineage to the warriors involved, all the listing of stabbing would be much more interesting.

The other consideration is the translation. Reading it in a language not the original means there will literally be things lost in translation. Not to mention all the changes between the telling and the writing.

All in all, it’s not a book I’ll be revisiting time and again. While the story has its place in history and academia, once was enough for me. Plus, I thought it would encompass the Trojan horse and Achilles’s death. So, imagine my surprise when it ended with Hector’s funeral games. Apparently The Odyssey is the epic that had all the good action.

In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood is a pretty straightforward presentation of Truman Capote’s research on some brutal murders in 1959. What is less straightforward is all of it. I was confused at first as to why a true crime book would be categorized as fiction. So I Googled it. But before I reveal that, let’s review the book.

In Cold Blood opens with the final day lived by the Clutter family, a father, mother, daughter, and son living in a small town in Kansas. Wealthy and well-liked, the brutal murder of the family came as a shock to the town. Local law enforcement struggled to find motive and leads that could make sense of the crime.

The murderers, meanwhile, were squandering their freedom after their near-perfect crime. A series of foolish mistakes made it possible for them to be tracked and eventually caught. What started as a tenuous case became set in stone when authorities got confessions from the killers.

Capote drew on many first-person interviews as his primary sources for anything he didn’t witness himself. The book is engaging, showing simultaneously the investigation by authorities and the careless behaviors of the criminals before they were caught. It’s well written and comes across as a professionally done true crime story.

To find it in fiction, then, made me wonder why. One quick search revealed a never-published manuscript written by one of the convicted murderers that, 50 years later, posed some questions about Capote’s writing and why he never mentioned it in his own book (popular suspicion is because he was involved in some shady business that ensured it was never published).

To me, this could be it’s own investigative book (maybe it is, I should search that, too). It also highlights that turning a profit on tragedy isn’t anything new, probably wasn’t anything new in the 1960s, either. And while people pick apart the brains of criminals, we seem much less interested in the motives behind the people who display more socially acceptable cold-blooded tendencies.

It was an interesting read, and I’m curious how schools that include it on required reading lists deal with the discrepancies and the questions. For any true crime junkie who hasn’t already been there, it seems like In Cold Blood could have quite the rabbit hole to keep you entertained for quite some time.

The Great Gatsby

DSC00834Yes, this is actually my first time reading this book. I managed to never have to pick it apart for school, but still felt like I was missing out by not reading it.

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, looks at the American dream and lost love. Jay Gatsby is a secretive young man living extravagantly in a huge mansion. He has nurtured his young love for Daisy Buchanan for years, biding his time until he can reveal himself to her. Believing she will forsake her husband and cling to her lost lover, Gatsby has committed his recent years to building a life Daisy can’t refuse. Everything falls apart, however, when he reveals himself to Daisy and Daisy’s husband, Tom.

Whether a comment on the impossibility of regaining what’s been lost or a comment on the comfort of familiarity over impulsive desire, Fitzgerald writes a compelling story. Though no one is really an upstanding character, you start to feel a little bit for them, recognizing the ways they’ve trapped themselves in their circumstances and the feeling of doing all you can but still being unable to make a change.

Gatsby’s life of chasing the one thing he lost, believing that it will give him ultimate happiness, is certainly relatable, and comes with a warning that people and things change. What may have made you happy before isn’t necessarily what will make you happy now. Looking back isn’t the way to move forward.

Sometimes I think it’s impossible to read classic books without getting into an analytical mindset, at least to a degree. Perhaps it’s just that so many of them were purposely written as commentary, whereas a lot of books today are entertainment (and I’m OK with that). Sometimes you want a book that makes you think, and sometimes you want a book that takes you to another place altogether. The Great Gatsby does a little bit of both.

1984

I realize I’m late to the party with this book, but better late than never, right?

George Orwell’s 1984 is known as a sort of prophetic look at the future, and if you’ve read it you know how scarily relevant it is to our time.

DSC00593

Winston Smith is a Party man. He follows the rules and performs the mental gymnastics required to accept contradictions without staying conscious of them and accepts that the Party is looking out for the greater good. But then he makes an impulsive purchase–a blank journal from a shop in the slums–and Winston’s once-easy life becomes complicated. Winston starts remembering and questioning, the first steps that lead him down a path of rebellion against the Party and all it stands for. Winston knows that he will be caught and killed, it’s just a question of when. But what he didn’t count on was the Party’s commitment to absolutely breaking him first, to eradicating everything individual and contrary from his very soul.

This book is intense, there’s no way around it. It contains some triggering scenes, like when Winston imagines raping and killing a young Party woman. And while it’s easy to sit back and scoff at the idea of “doublethink”–accepting contradictory information and not allowing yourself to consciously recognize the contradiction and in fact believing there is no contradiction–a glance at the world today shows that this is something our society is quite good at.

Reading through the processes of Orwell’s Party and how they control their population is eerily similar to the kinds of manipulations one can see seeping into society (but then, there’s nothing new under the sun, right? I’m sure Orwell saw plenty of it in his time, as well).

Though it was occasionally a slog to get through, for the most part the story moved quickly toward it’s inevitable conclusion. It also seems to be a kind of commentary on revolutionary action. Winston and Julia think they are being so rebellious fighting against the Party and breaking the rules. Yet their actions have little to no affect outside their own lives. At the same time, they recognize that true change will only come when a fire is lit within the people as a whole, and they know even if they work toward true change, it won’t be seen in their lifetime (and not just because they know they are doomed from the start).

All in all, a thought-provoking book that makes you really think about the things you’re being told and the motives behind the people in charge. In America, we say the government is for the people by the people, and yet the Party in Orwell’s world would make those same claims. It’s not enough to say it, it must be acted upon.

Jamaica Inn

Ever since I read Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, I’ve been wanting to read more by her. The depth of story and characters is excellent, and the gothic feel of her stories is reminiscent of other classics, but Du Maurier’s books tend to be a little easier to get through.

DSC00591Jamaica Inn starts with the death of Mary Yellan’s mother and Mary’s subsequent journey to live with her Aunt Patience at the remote Jamaica Inn, run by her uncle Joss Merlyn. Mary’s memory of her vibrant, enthusiastic aunt come crashing down when Mary arrives at the inn–despite being warned off– and finds a nervous shell of the woman she knew. Joss Merlyn is a hard man, and Mary soon realizes that she would have been better off heeding the warnings and staying away from Jamaica Inn. Though she doesn’t know what it is, exactly, there is darkness that makes itself at home there, and soon Mary is caught up in the middle of it.

A strong woman in her own right, Mary clings to her moral high ground as best as she can, but finds herself uncharacteristically tempted by a dark and handsome stranger she knows she cannot trust. Somehow, Mary finds herself quite in love and unsure of how to proceed.

Du Maurier is definitely a must-read author for fans of Jane Eyre, Northanger Abbey, and other classic stories. I’d say even fans of Wilkie Collins would find Du Maurier enjoyable. Her characters are real–they aren’t perfect, nor are the villains purely evil. Du Maurier writes her characters with soft spots and rough edges and the reader may find themselves understanding even the character they hate, or raging against the character they love.

The descriptions Du Maurier writes add greatly to the story, as well. Both scene-setting descriptions, as well as inner thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. As a writer myself, I know the pressure one can feel to make sure chunks of text are broken up by dialogue, and I’ll admit I have to be quite conscious about it, or else I’ll boogie write (right, sorry) along with description and inner monologues and scene setting, and then remember my characters have to speak, too. So I appreciate authors who show skill at using descriptions etc., to move the story along and avoid leaving the reader feeling bogged down.

I’m very excited to know that I have many more books to go before exhausting her writings, including some autobiographical work, which I’m really interested in. Now if I  could just get to the library…

Jane Eyre

I don’t remember how old I was when I got Jane Eyre as a birthday present. I think maybe 12. I remember it was a birthday party at a park, and my aunt had put it in a bag that said “Have a phat birthday” or something like that. And I remember thinking it was weird, but cool.

Fast forward several years and I’m somewhere in my teens reading it for the first time, probably 15 or 16, when I got on my classic literature kick. And I still think the illustrations are weird and cool.

Fast forward another 10 years, and it’s mid-October (yes, these blog posts are written in advance. Sometimes even more than a month in advance), and I’m scrounging through my books looking for anything remotely creepy to read in an effort to be festive. I know Jane Eyre isn’t really creepy (though, secreted lunatics always make stories a little bit creepy), but the illustrations have always stuck with me, and so, Jane Eyre made the cut. Plus, I had very limited options.

I remembered most of the general plot of Charlotte Brontë’s work, but I had events out of order in my mind, so I was glad to read it again.

Jane is an orphan, and we meet her living with an aunt and cousins who dislike her, simply because she is poor, orphaned, and not one of them. It’s not long before Jane is sent off to boarding school, where she is much better off. Upon completion of her schooling, Jane advertises for and accepts a position as a governess, and flourishes in the position, teaching a young French orphan in a large mansion.

But Jane finds herself falling for her usually-absent employer, who, upon meeting Jane, seems to take up residence in Thornfield Hall. But not everything is as it seems, and just when Jane is in the cusp of achieving happiness, everything falls to pieces, and she steals away in the wee hours of the morning, looking to put herself back together. Alone, penniless, and without friends or family, all seems hopeless for Jane, until the kindness of a stranger sets in motion a second rise to happiness Jane never dreamed would be hers.

The first thing to note about this book is that it is a classic, which means, it can be a slog to get through. Modern novels don’t contain nearly as much soliloquizing as the classics. And yet, this very thing is often what gives classic novels their unique voice.

With everything that happens to poor Jane, it seems like Brontë took to heart the suggestion to constantly make things worse for the character. And yet, it moves the story along, and shows the character of Jane in a way that is more believable than a character description.

What makes this such a good story, I think, is that Jane suffers abuse upon abuse, and yet still holds herself to such standards that she will not take happiness where it isn’t moral to do so, perhaps because she is so used to having little to no happiness at all. Jane’s character is an interesting case study of how seeking approval can become an obsession when approval is rarely given.