Category Archives: Classics
Goodreads: Oliver Twist
Orphaned at birth, Oliver Twist has grown up starved for food and for love. He has nothing more to look forward to in life than an apprenticeship where he can expect the same ill treatment. Alone and scared, Oliver sets off for London, no plan in mind. A boy known as the Artful Dodger promises he can have a home, but Oliver does not realize he will be expected to earn his keep as a pickpocket. Other kindly souls take notice of his plight, however, and thereafter ensues a struggle for Oliver’s very soul.
Oliver Twist has permeated popular culture to such an extent that I thought I had a vague idea of its plot. After all, everyone knows the famous line, “Please, sir, I want some more.” This, combined with snippets I have seen of the musical Oliver! as well references in literary criticism to the thief Fagin, gave me the impression that the book followed Oliver from the workhouse to the streets of London, where he subsequently lived a merry life with a gang of pickpockets led by a singing and dancing leader who was some sort of latter-day Falstaff. What I read was actually much more Dickensian than that.
Oliver Twist was Charles Dickens’s second published novel and his preoccupations with the poor and the unjust laws that keep them so are already clear. Oliver’s mother dies at his birth, so readers can follow him from his early days in the workhouse (where the officials purposely keep the orphans underfed and the local impoverished unprovided for so that they will eventually cease requests for more handouts) to the streets of London where he is introduced to the children who must steal to survive. Dickens has plenty of blame to throw around. He directs most of his biting humor at the government officials, but ordinary people receive personal censure for not extending the kind word or the helping hand that might have saved a child from being forced to sin in order to live. The thieves do not get off free, either, however–the portraits Dickens draws are various, and one or two illustrate characters who delight in, rather than shrink from, the sordid lifestyle they lead.
Readers can never know if some of the characters they meet were once like Oliver–young and innocent and repulsed by the notion of doing wrong even to save themselves. Fagin’s observations about women like Nancy–that they take interest in orphans like Oliver until they go to the bad, so to speak–suggest that some of them were. Thus, even in depicting the thieves in their worst moments, Dickens suggests that they could, they might, be better. He may even seem to hint that society is remiss in offering opportunities of repentance and freedom only to those they deem worthy.
Ultimately, Dickens refuses to romanticize the thieving lifestyle. Nancy may repent, but her desperate cries to save the others fall on deaf ears and she herself does not know how to leave the only life she knows. Fagin tellingly reveals his character when he reveals how he keeps boys in the business–he traps them in their own sense of sin and shame so they feel they can never get out. And, no matter how the boys may delight in the “game”, eventually they will all end up either at the gallows or on a ship to be deported. The group talks about giving it to society when they make their final speeches at their trials, but the gesture is ultimately meaningless, and the readers know it, even if the boys do not.
Of course, Dickens was not above romanticizing a good deal of his book, even if he refused to do it for criminals (excepting, of course, Nancy–Dickens’s requisite angelic woman). The main plot line actually follows the fortunes of Oliver as he falls into various kindly hands and a “mystery” surrounding his birth soon develops. It is not hard to figure out where that mystery is headed–both because the device is familiar and because Dickens is such a careful craftsman. Already in this book he shows his beautiful economy, never wasting a scene or a character. Everything and everyone comes back full circle and readers get a snugly wrapped-up conclusion to reward their interest.
I do not think Oliver Twist is Dickens at his best, even if it seems ever-present in our culture. It does, however, showcase many of the author’s great strengths and talents–his social commentary, his dry humor, and his ridiculous characters. Though it was not what I expected, it certainly was classic Dickens.
Goodreads: The Turn of the Screw
A young governess arrives in the country to take charge of a little girl and her brother, the master’s only order being that she should never disturb him with any reports or complaints. When the ghosts of two dead servants begin to appear, threatening to corrupt the children with their knowledge of evil, the governess thus takes it upon herself to thwart them.
Henry James’s classic novella takes the well-known form of the ghost story and transforms it into something simultaneously more intimate and more terrifying. Neither the governess nor the author ever specifies the exact nature of the evil threatening the children, though both provide enough information for readers to guess. This ambiguity allows the audience the utmost freedom for their imaginations, so that each member can suppose the worst as conceived of in his or her own experience. Far from contenting itself with the types of cheap thrills that might come simply from presenting a ghostly presence wandering through an old house, The Turn of the Screw uses the minds of its readers to create an individualized experience of terror.
Though presented as a ghost story—the typical kind that begins with an audience gathered around a fire at Christmas—The Turn of the Screw invites its readers to consider the terrors it contains as something other than supernatural. No hard evidence exists for the presence of the ghosts in the house and readers may begin to suspect that the governess has a rather overactive imagination. Her conviction, however, cannot remain in doubt and she manages to convey in whispered tones and half-formed sentences the nature of the transgressions she so desperately fears. The tension between the possibility of real evil forces at work in the house and the possibility that an unstable governess is merely projecting those forces creates an even more acute sense of horror—for which is worse and can either be fought?
The interplay of these two possibilities combines to create a many-layered story that will, unlike a ghost story that must rely solely on the element of surprise, bear rereading. New meanings and nuances jump out in the dialogue even as one progresses through a first reading. To go back through with a knowledge of the story as a whole will undoubtedly unlock even more. It is not hard to understand why critics have delighted in combing through The Turn of the Screw.
Goodreads: The Monk
A Spanish abbot struggles to stay true to his vows when confronted with temptation.
Lewis’s classic Gothic novel may often be predictable, employing heavy foreshadowing and what are now considered Gothic tropes, but it is also captivating, scandalous, insane—I couldn’t look away. The plot mainly follows a young virgin, a nun, and an abbot and chronicles how their worlds collide. Along the way, the author flaunts ghosts, witchcraft, love affairs, rape, and chilling settings ranging from old castles to tombs. Readers will probably see the ending of the story a mile away, but the journey of The Monk is more important than the destination in terms of entertainment.
Spiritually, the destination is critical. So beyond the somewhat voyeuristic nature of the plot, The Monk occasionally assumes an instructive voice and is plainly interested in exploring conceptions of morality. The conclusion is the most directly didactic section of the novel, but the entire work emphasizes and attempts to exemplify that the right decisions are not always black and white and that repentant sinners deserve mercy and forgiveness for their shortcomings. The corrupt titular monk, as well-versed in theology as he is, cannot see this as clearly as other characters, and continuously makes warped moral decisions with the best of “logic.” The unflattering portrayal of the clergy is clear, and the novel implies that strength of heart, purity of intention, and humility are surer paths to heaven than reason or rank.
The majority of the characters are types, existing merely for the scandalous plot to happen to them or for the author to demonstrate various types of morality. Readers are introduced to an unimaginably good and beautiful girl, her garrulous aunt, her rich and chivalrous suitor, etc. Many characters are likeable and mildly interesting, but they are flat and their roles in the story generally clear from the moment they appear on the page. The abbot, however, does undergo very serious moral quandaries and is fairly dynamic.
The Monk is a fantastic example of Gothic literature and just a generally good read. It has stood the test of time and is still able to scandalous and enthrall readers today, combining exciting plotlines with intelligent commentary on ethics and humanity. A recommended read for lovers of classics, Gothic literature, and just good stories.
Content Note: This book is atmospherically dark and addresses many mature themes, often graphically.
Goodreads: This Side of Paradise
Princeton student Amory Blaine dabbles in love and literature.
This Side of Paradise may surprise readers familiar with Fitzgerald’s more widely-read (at least in the classroom) masterpiece The Great Gatsby. A certain aimlessness and meaningless permeate the book, stirring up echoes of a similar tiredness found in The Great Gatsby. Whereas Gatsby presents itself as a tightly-woven story hurtling toward a foregone conclusion, however, This Side of Paradise meanders, sidetracks, jumps. Snippets of poetry, character sketches, and episodic moments combine to create a narrative that seems to mirror the mental state of its protagonist in its desperate desire to be new and exciting, even as it lapses into fragmentary incoherence.
Little to no plot exists, other than Amory Blaine’s occasional forays into literature or love. The book centers instead on its characterizations of Amory, a young man taught to value himself as the pinnacle of excellence in looks, manner, and intelligence despite a distinct lack of evidence that he possesses any unique qualities besides extreme pride and a propensity for idleness. No Nick Carraway exists to act as a glimmer of hope, a rare sign that the country may not to be lost to a younger generation preoccupied with flirting and drinking. Instead, readers are treated to an unflagging depiction of Amory’s aimless movements. More optimistic readers may be sustained by a vague hope that the book will at least end with the boy realizing the futility of his postures, but little in the book itself suggests such a thing.
This Side of Paradise is notable for its unique voice and form, as well as its insightful depiction of a generation lost to its own desire for easy love and easy money. However, like many books of the time period, this one made me feel like I needed something cheerful on standby for when I finished. Though I can admire the book on an intellectual level, on an emotional level, I was left feeling depleted.
In 1984, the world has been divided into three superpowers constantly waging war with each other. Winston Smith, a member of the Party that rules the superpower Oceania, works to erase all mention of a past that might encourage the people to rebel against their masters. In secret, however, he longs for a world that embraces beauty and truth and, slowly, he begins to stretch the boundaries of what he would dare to do in order to live free.
In many ways, 1984 acts more like a platform for George Orwell’s concerns than it does as a story. Winston Smith proves likeable enough and his predicament is certainly horrifying, but the momentum of the plot breaks just when readers might have expected it to be approaching its climax. At this point Orwell provides his readers with whole chapters allegedly taken from the handbook of a secret society dedicated to taking down the Party. Though a rebel handbook sounds exciting, in execution it proves nothing more than a lengthy explanation of the motivations and strategies of the Party—it is Orwell speaking, not the society. Subsequent events likewise show the hand of the author guiding the characters, feeding them dialogue, and generally inserting himself into what otherwise might have been a much more engrossing story.
Arguably, 1984 achieves its purpose just as well—if not better—through these techniques. Orwell clearly wants his readers to think about topics like censorship, propaganda, government oversight, and manipulation of others achieved through language, then apply it to their own world. To create a secondary world so believable that readers lose sight of their own would cause them to miss the warnings Orwell gives about the danger in which they themselves live. He seems to have been relatively successful, given that articles and reporters routinely reference Big Brother when talking about the current prevalence of security cameras, Internet data collection, etc.
To think about 1984 only in terms of privacy, however, is to miss the nuances of its vision. The real horror of the book lies not in the ability of the Party to monitor every movement and utterance of its members, but in the people’s acceptance of, and even desire for, this oversight. At the time the story takes place, readers can easily understand why the tenets of the Party have become so engrained in the characters that they can suppose themselves to be thinking autonomously—they have little to no access to outside opinions and thus have no choice but to think along Party lines. Party control is so absolute that its methods seem to readers obvious, and thus theoretically possible to combat. Orwell, however, clearly means to suggest that something similar is happening in his own world, and, if so, its advance is more insidious.
Though it presents a gloomy vision of the future of the world (if it continues in the course Orwell sees it following),1984 is ultimately a celebration of the beauty and power of the human spirit. Rebellion against those who would censor free speech and stifle creativity, passion, and curiosity need not successful in order to be worthwhile. The fact that one man in Orwell’s world dares to attempt to forge his own path means everything even when it seems to mean nothing.
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Goodreads: To the Lighthouse
To the Lighthouse follows the fortunes of a family and their friends as time passes.
Like Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse focuses on perceptions, presenting events and individuals through the eyes of the characters. Episodes and characters alike are depicted in fragmented ways, one person perhaps musing on them, another character describing them in progress, and yet another reflecting on what might have occurred if he or she had been present. The book often gives the feeling that it approaches a situation only to pull back, much like the waves breaking upon the shore.
Indeed, the entire novel has a fluid-like quality. Readers merge in and out of the consciousnesses of various characters, the limits between thoughts, occurrences, fact and fiction not always clearly marked. Time passes and things seem the same, yet different. Throughout, the characters struggle to the bridge the gaps and barriers that separate them, but often seem to find themselves lost in the sea of emotions that swirls around them.
Though an understated novel, To the Lighthouse proves quite powerful in its understanding of human nature. It does not need to rely on an action-packed plot because the attempts of the characters to understand one another and to find peace is a gripping enough struggle by itself. Readers will find themselves entranced until the very last page.
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Goodreads: Mrs. Dalloway
As Clarissa Dalloway prepares for a party, the inhabitants of London go about their daily lives. An old lover returns from India. A World War I veteran suffers the aftershocks of battle. A history teacher reflects on her old life and her new religion. The lives and thoughts of the characters intersect to form a portrait of postwar Britain.
Mrs. Dalloway eschews plot in order to focus on the ways in which thought and reflection shape the world around us. On the outside, it appears that very little happens within the novel; the book simply follows various characters throughout a day on which Mrs. Dalloway prepares to give a party. Within, however, the characters go through turmoil, reliving the past, contemplating the future, and attempting to make sense of their present.
Few definitive facts stand out. Rather, Woolf presents the unfolding of events and the depiction of individuals through the eyes of her characters. Thus, Mrs. Dalloway’s estimation of her character and her values stands juxtaposed with the assessments of her husband, a former lover, her daughter’s friend, and more. Readers begin to see that the world, for the characters, is often colored more by their perceptions than what really is.
Experimental in nature, Mrs. Dalloway will appeal to readers who enjoy modern authors and stream-of-conscious methods. Those accustomed to tightly knit plots and neat endings may find less to attract them, but Mrs. Dalloway remains a modern classic and well worth a read, at least once.
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Goodreads: Manhattan Transfer
John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer presents early twentieth century New York City as a place of high hopes, frustrated passions, and exhausted potential. It describes a variety of characters from all social classes through a series of short episodes, all mixed together to create a sense of the tumultuous passions and obsessions that drive the inhabitants of the city to seek happiness wherever they can—in fame, wealth, drink, or sex. Though the majority of the characters seem never to find the peace they seek, a latent hope remains—that this is the land of opportunity and that anything can happen tomorrow.
The unwavering belief in the opportunities of tomorrow creates a sort of poignancy that overlies the work. Readers know, or suspect, that the characters cannot achieve personal fulfillment through a series of adulterous affairs or even a higher bank account, that, though the characters always think, “This time it is real,” “This time my luck will change,” what they chase is not found in a woman’s arms or in the gleam of gold. Ultimately, the characters are chasing a sense of self-worth and the reassurance that they have not wasted their lives. They want to know that they are not as hollow as the men and women around them, that they are not unworthy because no one will hire them, that they are not worthless because they work jobs they hate.
The determination of the characters to continue striving after this sense of self-worth even though they do not know where to find it seems to capture what Dos Passos sees as the spirit of America. Life might be meaningless and people shallow or empty or cruel, but the inhabitants of New York refuse to accept it. Trapped in a society that values wealth and pleasure above all else, the characters outwardly conform because it is all they know, but inwardly they rebel because they want something better. Manhattan Transfer suggests that the striving is worthwhile, even if it is futile.
Goodreads: Heart of Darkness
Charles Marlow has dreamed of travelling through Africa ever since he saw the blank spaces on the map as a young boy. Employment as a transporter of ivory in the Congo gives him the opportunity of a lifetime but, as he journeys deeper into the continent in search of a famed procurer of ivory, Marlow begins to witness the dark side of colonialism.
Heart of Darkness takes readers on a journey to the heart of Africa, building up a suspense as intense as that which troubles the narrator as he sets forth to find a famed procurer of ivory whose influence over both the native people and the colonists has reached almost supernatural heights. The atrocities Marlow witnesses on his journey bear testimony to the destructive greed of the colonists; the continent is littered with wasted parts and wasted human lives, everything done to ensure “progress” while, in fact, very little is done at all. As the story progresses, a heavy gloom seems to settle over the narrator, cursing his mission.
Though the story works to uncover the evil of colonialism, however, it does so by focusing, not on the effects onthe native peoples, but on the effects on the colonists. Although Marlow witnesses dozens of Africans worked to death and left to die alone, as well as other such atrocities, he remains somewhat detached from these men—one wonders how much he views them as men at all. His language throughout the narrative remains somewhat contemptuous of the Africans and one begins to suspect that Conrad’s real concern lies more with the witnesses of violence than on the victims. White men, it seems, either become brutes or madmen when they venture into the Congo.
Conrad’s work remains, however, an important commentary on the effects of colonialism. Though its themes may seem heavy and, indeed, many of the scenes it narrates are calculated to inspire horror, Marlow retains enough of his sense of humanity to prevent the book from falling into complete despair. In the end, though, the humanity of the men perpetrating the crimes in the names of advancement may be the most horrifying aspect of all.
Goodreads: The Sun Also Rises
American Jakes Barnes and a circle of his expatriate friends take a vacation to Spain.
Hemingway’s depiction of the “Lost Generation” bears many similarities to the careless society illustrated by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. Composed of a group of American and British expatriates who travel from Paris to Spain, the characters spend their days getting drunk and sleeping around, often creating chaos through their inability to control themselves. Their conversations, short and repetitive, sometimes reveal their hidden emotions and the intricacies of their relationships through what is left unsaid. More often, however, words seem drawn from the characters through a lack of anything else to do—a constant back-and-forth about where to drink and when and what and whether one should bathe before getting a drink fills the pages with a sort of pointless sound that may make the reader want to throw the book across the room. Reading about a group of characters so wasteful and thoughtless is, quite simply, an extremely unpleasant experience.
Protagonist Jake Barnes serves as the story’s Nick Carraway—an honest enough man who tries to treat others halfway decently and who works to earn his vacation. He thus stands in contrast to friends, some of whom are bankrupt and seem to expect others to foot their bill, some who have affairs casually and find themselves dismayed when the other party forms a real attachment, all of whom seem to exist simply to find fun and experience pleasure at the expense of others. Even among themselves they can hardly stop hurling insults and quarrelling. The real tension lies not in the destruction they tend to leave in their wake, but in the influence they exert over Jake. As the book progresses, the clarity of Jake’s moral position begins to waver as he adopts the behavior of his set.
In the end, Jake has to choose between retaining and friends and rebuilding the life his friends have shattered. The moral struggle is an interesting one, but reaching the point of decision is painful. Reading about characters who have not the least consideration for the people around them can prove unexpectedly draining. After finishing The Sun Also Rises, readers may want to have a light, fun book on hand to restore their faith in humanity.