Tag Archives: classics

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.

Matilda

One thing I love about Roald Dahl is that he writes fun, easy books, but uses fantastic vocabulary. It’s just the right amount of challenge for young kids, especially those who want to learn some new and fancy words.

Matilda is exactly that young child, a young gifted girl whose parents don’t care one whit (in fact, today we’d call them abusive, so if you’re sensitive to that, consider this your trigger warning). After teaching herself to read and devouring tons of library books, Matilda finally finds herself in school way above all her fellow 5 and a half year olds. But the frightening headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, refuses to let Matilda move beyond her age group.

Desperate for a challenge and wanting to help her teacher, Miss Honey, Matilda uses her cleverness to concoct a plan to rid the school of the wretched Trunchbull and give Miss Honey the good things she deserves.

As I said, this is a fun book and easy to read, but does deal with some difficult moments of verbal abuse (and physical, I suppose, through the Trunchbull’s outrageous behaviors). Matilda is a smart, if sassy, child, and I suppose I can see now why my mother didn’t want that rubbing off on me as a kid.

Dahl’s characters all celebrate kindness (even Matilda, despite her mischief) and correcting wrongs. Those who are mean get their due, and the good guys win in the end. Sometimes it’s nice to read stories adhering to that simple guideline. And if that allows for some mischief committed in the name of the greater and common good, so much the better!

Matilda is a great book for all ages, though you may need to set some boundaries if you’re littles are inclined to mischief and sass.

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.

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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…

Lord of the Flies

Being homeschooled means I missed quite a few classic required reads, so now I’m taking some time to try to catch up. Because when you find it for 10 cents, why not?

Let me just say, I went into William Goulding’s Lord of the Flies with little knowledge of what it was about, other than kids on a island. Let me tell you, it was wild and I wasn’t really prepared for it.

The book starts right in, giving the reader little to no context for what’s going on. You have to piece it together as you go. A plane full of boys crashes on a deserted island, and the boys must figure out how to survive. They elect Ralph as their leader and things go well for a while. But when Jack, Ralphs only real rival, decides he doesn’t like Ralph’s leadership style, the groups splits up and things begin to breakdown.

By the time the boys are finally rescued, they’ve survived a series of traumatic events, leaving them all changed.

I was confused at first, trying to figure out the context for the story. It wasn’t apparent, right off, whether the plane crashed or just dumped them. Also relatively unclear was the time the book was set in. These aren’t huge things, but they help orient the reader.

However, once the story got going, it moved quickly. Ralph’s character represents logic and rationality and Jack’s character is very much impulse and feelings, rather a classic case of super-ego and id, without an ego to balance them. In the end, it’s a fight between Ralph, who wants to be rescued, and Jack, who is focused on the joys of wild abandon and no consequences.

I wasn’t prepared for several of the plot twists, though I see how the author uses them to explore what makes a man.

All in all, it was a quick, enjoyable read, and I definitely see how you could get a lot of discussion out of it.

The Color Purple

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, but I don’t think it was quite what I got.

The story starts out as a series of prayers written to God by a 14-year-old girl who has no one else to turn to. Abused at home and threatened with silence, Celie is unable to do anything but keep quiet and try to protect her sister from their father.

Over the course of the years, Celie finds herself married off to an older man with three children, unloved and unwanted and isolated from her sister, Nettie, the only person she believes ever loved her. Nettie herself escapes the nightmare of their childhood by joining up with a minister and his family and going on a missionary journey to Africa. Though kept separate for many years, the sisters finally reconnect through letters, holding on to the hope of being reunited in person one day.

The Color Purple is a very intense read. It deals with a lot of heavy subjects, including molestation and abuse. It provides a snapshot into the life of a woman who doesn’t know how to escape, doesn’t have the help to escape, and a society that more or less condones the actions a man might take against his wife and/or children. But it’s also a story about the slow empowerment of the same woman, as she realizes she can be more than who she always was.

Walker uses spelling and language fitting for her character, who was never able to finish school. It draws you deeper into the story, forgetting that you’re not quite sure how much time is passing. The combination of fitting style and letters makes the story personal, more so than if it were written in a traditional novel style, I think.

The Color Purple is definitely not a book for everyone. For many people, it may be extremely triggering. However, it’s still an excellent book, moving and evocative. You’re there with Celie, feeling her fear, her confusion, and a whole lot of anger at what she’s been through.

Northanger Abbey and other stories

It’s been a while (a long while) since I’ve read any Jane Austen, but it’s one of the things on my list of classics/required reading to catch up on. I grabbed Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon on one of my book binges and moved it closer to the top of the stack.

In Northanger Abbey, Austen starts with a scathing description of Catherine Morland, a young woman from a small town who doesn’t have quite the same accomplishments as her richer counterparts. But when she’s invited to go to Bath with a neighbor, she’s catapulted into a whole new world. Catherine makes friends quickly and is invited to visit Northanger Abbey with her friends, the Tilneys, where Catherine gets the chance to impress Henry Tilney.

Lady Susan is a short story in letter format, outlining the exploits of Lady Susan Vernon, a reckless flirt who is concerned only with enjoying herself, regardless of who might be hurt.

The Watsons and Sanditon are short, unfinished pieces. The Watsons is a story about young Emma Watson, who is chosen among her sisters to join the Edwards’ in attending the society season after being away for many years. Sanditon follows the the story of the Parkers, a family living in a more reclusive coastal town, always on the lookout for new, wealthy families to visit and improve their society.

If I’d known when I started the book that the last two stories were unfinished, I might have just let it sit. While not as bad as some unfinished works, in terms of building the story and leaving you hanging, it’s always a bummer to not have the ending.

Full of wit and sometimes snide commentary, Austen’s writing is a fun, if laborious, break from contemporary stories. And even if they are a bit repetitive in storyline, Austen’s writing makes it fun to read, and you can’t help getting attached to the characters.

I do love reading the classics (as much as I love reading pretty much everything else). Pretty soon, I’ll have finished up my book buying binge haul, and I’ll start in on the library list I’ve got.

Bleak House

I’ve always enjoyed Charles Dickens’ writing, and ever since I watched the show Dickensian a few years ago, Bleak House has been on my list to read. It was one of the few character sets and plots in the show I didn’t recognize.

Bleak House follows the story of several young people, Esther, Ada, and Richard, wards of John Jarndyce. Ada and Richard, cousins, have a stake in the never-ending suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which quickly draws Richard in with its promise of fortune. Meanwhile, Esther discovers the truth about her past and the family she never knew. When a well-known solicitor is murdered, everything comes to light in the hunt for the murderer.

Filled with various subplots, colorful characters, love and mystery, Bleak House is a Dickens masterpiece, even if it can occasionally be tricky to follow along. It’s a mixture of love story and intrigue, with Ada and Richard quickly falling in love, and several of the lawyers/solicitors digging into the secrets of Lady Deadlock and Esther.

Bleak House has a lot going on, not surprising since it’s 800 pages long. But it’s worth the read, even if it takes a while to get through.