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 Last of the Mohicans
Series: The Leatherstocking Tales #2
Although this is technically the second in a series, it can be read as a standalone.
Summary: The young British officer Duncan Heyward is charged with escorting the daughters of his superior officer through the American wilderness in the midst of the French and Indian War. When they are abducted by a Huron, he must rely upon the help of the scout Natty Bumppo and his Mohican friends to rescue them.
Review: The Last of the Mohicans can be a little slow, one of those books I only finished reading as quickly as I did because I was required to do so. Cooper enjoys descriptions, particularly of the American landscape, and his detours can interrupt the pacing. During class discussion, it was observed that Natty Bumppo (Hawkeye) often makes his most meditative speeches right in the middle of action. There may be a fierce battle going on to defend his life, but Hawkeye always has time for reflecting and expounding.
The characters, though to some extent types, are all interesting and generally likeable. The one exception is Alice, who as the exemplary white female spends most of her time fainting, cowering, or crying—assuming she is present at all. Her sister Cora, however, is wonderfully spirited and brings a lot of fight and heart to the novel. Hawkeye, Uncas, Chingachgook, and occasionally Heyward conspicuously display masculinity in scenes that make one want to celebrate the American hero, while Magua is a wonderfully complex villain. As some critics have observed, Cooper’s Native American villains are often similar to his heroes; they are good or bad based on whether they are for or against Hawkeye. This makes judging Magua’s actions complicated.
The major theme of the novel is the creation of the American identity, and Cooper explores this in many ways—through race, gender, language, war, etc. His exploration can become complicated, and often contradictory, leaving the reader with a lot to pull apart in what may be a vain attempt to extract the ultimate meaning or conclusion on the matter. Should the Europeans and Native Americans intermarry? Do they share an afterlife? Is one language or culture better than another? The answers to these questions and others appear to be variously yes and no. Perhaps Cooper himself was conflicted and had no resolution. It does, however, provide the reader with a lot of material to ponder.
Overall, this is a fascinating novel that gives a close look into the struggle of forming an American identity in the country’s earliest days. Recommended for those who enjoy adventure stories, history, or nature writing.
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Summary: The young knight of Ivanhoe, disinherited by his father, must prove his worth in order to win the hand of the lovely Saxon princess Rowena. Their lives intersect with a wide cast of characters, including some villainous Normans, a Jew and his beautiful daughter Rebecca, a passionate Knight Templar, King Richard, and the outlaw Locksley.
Review: Even for fans of historical fiction and particularly the Middle Ages, the pacing of Ivanhoe can be a little rough. Scott delights in building atmosphere and showing off his history trivia, so although the book opens with the promise of a tournament, things do not really get exciting until nearly 150 pages in. The pacing continues at this odd pace throughout the novel, though to a smaller degree, as Scott spends more chapters building up to a climatic event than at the event itself.
There are wonderfully exciting scenes in the novel, which is to be expected from a book which has been variously adapted into children’s versions, comic books, and movies. Yet, arguably, excitement is not Scott’s primary concern. Indeed, there is not too much about the plot that is very surprising (beyond an absolutely insane scene near the end, which is hilarious, if not good writing—a note in the Signet edition says to blame the publisher for this).
The focus then, must be on the myriad themes of the novel, including an intense interest in national identity, nation building, cultural identity, the place of the Jew and “others” in English society, chivalry, and women. All these themes are treated seriously and complexly and will provide a lot of material for a thoughtful reader to ponder. Scott seems ahead of his time in promoting ideas of tolerance and modernity, and using a medieval setting to do so!
Ivanhoe will be a slow read for those reading it for fun instead of class, but it should ultimately be a worthwhile one, being both entertaining and profound.
Summary: Victor Frankenstein has devoted his life to the study of science and the mystery of animating matter. When he achieves his goal, however, he finds himself living a nightmare instead of his dream. His creation looks horrifying, a monster, and, perceiving himself to be a social outcast, is determined to enact his revenge on the world and the man who created him by destroying everything Frankensten holds dear.
Review: Frankenstein is one of those classics that I find presents readers with some interesting themes to consider, but which is not necessarily a “good read.” The story opens slowly. Shelley employs letters and a narrative frame in order to introduce Frankenstein’s story of his creation. Because the frame is not particularly entertaining in itself and only emphasizes some of the themes raised in Frankenstein’s narrative instead of introducing its own themes, it seems to be mostly Shelley’s clumsy way of getting Frankenstein into a position where he can tell his story and where it will be recorded.
If this is her intention, the transition from the frame to Frankenstein’s tale is still awkward. Frankenstein’s story is in chapters, which are all presumably in a very long letter that someone else is writing. The jump from recognizable letters into narrative and back into letters is disconcerting, drawing readers out of Frankenstein’s story. I am, in general, not a fan of narrative frames, but this is one of the most attention-grabbing frames I have encountered.
Frankenstein’s story, once one can get into it, is intriguing, but certainly not the horror-filled version that has been put onto screen. Here, the monster is somewhat civilized, just looking for love. The scary part is not that the monster is going to come for you, the reader, or destroy the world at large. Indeed, only Frankenstein himself has much to fear, as the monster is primarily bent on destroying his life. What is scary for Shelley, then, is not violence or even the “unknown;” it is having to watch terrible things happen, being unable to prevent them, and even being in some way responsible for them. It is being in the shoes of Frankenstein himself, and not just an observer, that is horrifying.
So, in short, this is not a scary reading experience. Nor is it a particularly realistic one. Even ignoring the part where Frankenstein manages to create life, too much of the story is implausible and contrived. Everyone just happens to be in the right spot at the right moment for important plot issues to develop. For example, the monster learns to read by looking through a crack in a wall, where a family just happens to have taken in a foreigner who needs to learn to read. Really? Kudos to Shelley for realizing she ought to offer an explanation for things like this, such as how the monster learns (instead of creating him with the intelligence of a wise middle-aged man from the start), but I personally find too much of her explanations ridiculous.
The interest, then, for me, must be theme-wise because not much of it comes from the plot. Shelly essentially suggests that knowledge can be dangerous. How much knowledge, and what type of knowledge is open for interpretation, but I personally see the story as a warning about going “too far,” rather than one criticizing all searches for knowledge. Shelley did, after all, come from an intellectual family and was clearly interested in science and literature herself. The story also suggests that, as a balance to knowledge, one should build strong bonds with family and community in order to stay grounded and connected to things (people) that are truly important.
The book is worth reading for its exploration of what constitutes “science gone wrong” and how personally responsible each of us might be for that, as well as for its influence on later horror stories and science fiction. It is unlikely to do much for readers looking to be personally terrified or to experience a wild and surprising plot.
Summary: Aubrey is excited to begin his Grand Tour with the mysterious and charming Lord Ruthven, until he learns his travelling companion is responsible for the seduction and ruin of several respectable young women. He parts company with him in disgust, but soon discovers the situation is worse than he thought; Lord Ruthven matches perfectly the Greek folkloric descriptions of a vampire.
Written as part of the ghost-story contest during which Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein.
Review: Although technically a horror story, John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” does not frighten readers with sudden plot twists or unexpected revelations. Instead, readers experience dread by watching a series of terrible events unfold that they already know must happen but which they can do nothing to stop. This experience mirrors that of the young protagonist Aubrey, who suffers watching as a vampire destroys those he holds dear, thereby allowing a certain degree of sympathy for Aubrey.
Polidori’s version of the vampire—a man who is simultaneously charming yet irrevocably outcast from society, who can calmly calculate and execute cruelties in order to further his self-interests—is in fact a terrible creature. Polidori’s presentation within “The Vampyre” will not raise fear; his story does not sound “real” enough to give any readers nightmares, even in spite of attempts to put them partially in Aubrey’s place. Yet Polidori’s ideas are horrifying and worth some consideration. One might conclude, for instance, that monstrosity is not something that comes with one’s nature, but is instead the choices one makes in reaction to one’s nature. There is certainly no indication within the story that the vampire must seduce and execute young women, only that he must do so if he would like to continue his abnormally long life.
“The Vampyre,” then, is not particularly good entertainment, not if one is in search of a deliciously creepy tale. It is, however, interesting in its portrayal of vampires, both within the work itself and because the story exercised a significant influence over later depictions of vampires. Best read by those looking to learn more about the Gothic genre or the origins of vampires, and not by those seeking thrills.
Summary: A young man in Paris falls in love with a kept woman who decides she might be able to forget her past and begin a new life in order to love him in return.
Review: Camille is a very moving and beautiful love story between a pair of lovers who are perfect for each other but doomed by social expectations to be kept apart. When the story begins, their feelings seem as though they could be only infatuation. Armand is obsessed with Marguerite because he thinks she is beautiful. Marguerite tolerates Armand because he knows some of her friends, and then because he expresses pity for her in her sickness. Over time, however, the two develop a meaningful relationship and make sacrifices for each other’s happiness that express their love more strongly than words ever could.
Dumas portrays Marguerite with great compassion, showing that kept women have hearts and feelings and are people, too. Despite their evident wealth and endless parties and operas, their lives are often hard. And one of the things they can never have is true love. The men who come to see them love only themselves. If the women fall in love, they are never believed, and their lifestyles cannot be supported by the income of only one man. They cannot be faithful if they want to be.
Marguerite tries to break her cycle, and gives up much to start a new life with Armand. Only society, and sometimes Armand himself, stand in her way. Camille is a book about love and freedom, told with beautiful words and deeds. Modern romances rarely come close to portraying something as moving and absolutely real.
The Secret is a collection of some of Brontë’s juvenilia published by Hesperus Press. Selections include “The Secret,” “Lily Hart,” “Albion and Marina,” “The Rivals,” “The Bridal” and “A Peep into a Picture Book.” This review discusses only “The Secret.”
Summary: The Marchioness Marian is living happily with her husband until her former governess, Miss Foxley, arrives in Verdopolis. Knowing the woman’s negative effects on his wife’s emotions, the Marquis forbids Marian to speak with her, but she disobeys. At their meeting, Miss Foxley dredges up secrets from Marian’s past and tells her she must leave the Marquis. Marian has a week to decide what to do, and she cannot consult her husband.
Review: Charlotte Brontë wrote remarkable works of literature, but readers looking for the same quality of writing in this story will be disappointed. “The Secret” is from her juvenilia and her talents were still developing. The tale’s value lies more in the glimpse it gives of Brontë’s literary growth than in any particular merit.
As Sally Vickers notes in her foreward, it is interesting to see that Brontë (who will adopt the pen name Currer Bell for her published works) is in her youth already experimenting with a male narrative voice; the story is told by the brother of the Marquis. Vickers, however, fails to comment on the success of this experimentation. The prose is overly ornate but does not recommend itself as either particularly masculine or feminine. The insertion of a few derogatory comments on the nature of women (which come across as somewhat forced) are the best indicators that the author might be male, but can bear little witness to the gender of the narrator since it is other characters who speak them: “Well, women are the most incomprehensible creature on earth; sometimes you seem to be possessed of considerable sense and discernment, and then again you commit acts and utter speeches which argue great weakness, if not a total deprivation, of intellect” (26). Read the rest of this entry
Summary: A linen weaver named Silas Marner only found comfort in his growing hoard of gold after he was forced to leave his home because he was unfairly accused of theft. But then his money disappears. Only when an abandoned child wanders into his home does he begin to find meaning in his life again.
Silas Marner is, plot-wise, an uncomplicated book. There are no unexpected twists, no extraneous characters or tales. When a chapter begins and a “mysterious” figure is introduced, the reader knows immediately who the character is and what his or her function will be. Silas Marner is not about action or being literarily clever (although it is very well-written). In her afterword in the Signet edition, Kathryn Huggins likens the book to a folktale; if one defines a folktale as a straightforward story with a message applicable to all listeners (or readers), I agree.
Silas Marner addresses what is important in life. Two main characters, Silas and Godfrey Cass, play the primary roles in revealing the secret. One is poor, and one is rich. One is older and unmarried; one is young and in love. Together they show that what Eliot is trying to convey is something everyone needs to hear, regardless of his or her personal characters. Godfrey and Silas both find redemption. They both reconcile with what they have done in the past. They both learn that relationships are far more important than money.
The book is not overly simple, however. The characters are not types, and the setting is not “someplace” far away. Silas Marner is movingly realistic, sometimes bleak and sometimes hopeful. It explores humans and their capacity, rather than boxing and attempting to explain far too much. This is definitely a classic worth reading.
First Published: 1861
Summary: Huckleberry Finn fakes his own murder and then runs away down in the Mississippi River, in order to avoid living with either his drunkard father or with the Widow Douglas, who is attempting to civilize him. Along the way, the runaway slave Jim joins him, and the two travel together and have various adventures.
Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a rollicking boy’s adventure full of mad escapades and all types of mischief that Huck and later Tom dream up. The story features episode after episode of extraordinary action and is populated by an impossible cast of characters, including thieves, scoundrels, and murderers, with just a smattering of truly virtuous characters to remind Huck and the readers that good does exist in the world. It was clearly written with fun in mind. Beyond the surface, however, lie issues one might not expect to find in what can be classified as a children’s book. Twain takes on race, slavery, and religion in Huckleberry Finn. By addressing them all with his characteristic humor and wit, he manages to both take a stance and leave enough ambiguity for the readers to come up with their own opinions about the topics that he raises.
In a recently published version of Huckleberry Finn, all uses of the “n-word” have been replaced with “slave” in order to make the book less offensive. The presentation of race in the book, however, is much deeper and more complex than this single word. Huck has an inner debate about whether or not he should be traveling down the river with Jim and thereby helping him run away from his owner. He contrasts his feelings constantly with societal expectations and says that Tom “fell considerable in [his] estimation” when he agrees to help Jim, too, because Tom was “respectable and well brung up.” Huck makes numerous comments that the readers are obviously meant to assume are ironic, such as the comment that Jim seems to miss and care for his family as much as any white person would care for his. Jim is also clearly portrayed as extraordinarily kind, even giving up his chance for freedom to help Tom when he is hurt.
Religion is also put up for scrutiny in Huckleberry Finn, as Huck must come to terms with what he beliefs. Is what he has been taught about slavery moral, for instance? He is doubtful because Jim is so nice and grateful for all the help he gives. Huck also ponders the power of prayer and whether a “good person’s” prayers are worth more than another man’s. Many interesting philosophical questions arise that could occur to any child, yet still seem very adult.
Despite the thought and joy that clearly went into the writing of this book and the very worthy and interesting questions it raises, I did not vastly enjoy it. I found the quick succession of adventures very implausible and almost ridiculous in their number; they became more tiring than exciting at some point. This flaw improved somewhat by the end of the novel, however, as there developed one main adventure. The book could have been improved by the cutting of a few chapters, but it remains a classic nonetheless.
First Published: 1884
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Summary: When Hester Prynne, a married woman waiting for her husband to return from her travels, is found pregnant, she is forced by the Puritan society to wear an embroidered A upon her breast as punishment for adultery. She refuses to give the name of her lover. Hester faces the struggle of being an outcast in an extremely strict society, while her daughter’s father struggles with the guilt of his unrevealed secret.
Review: Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is an intriguing and complex work that operates as a forceful commentary on both the Puritan era and Hawthorne’s own time. Hawthorne is thoughtful in his portrayal of the adulteress Hester Prynne and the society that condemned her absolutely for a single moral failure. By choosing such a woman as his protagonist and exploring in detail her thoughts and emotions, Hawthorne generates sympathy for her from his readers and compels them to question the moral quality of the Puritan theocracy and of their own contemporary society—whether it be nineteenth or twenty-first century America. The Scarlet Letter is a provocative work that questions the traditional role of women and that raises moral questions that deserve legitimate consideration. The lack of plot and Hawthorne’s in-your-face use of symbolism make the book seem straightforward, but it presents important social and spiritual issues that the reader will be pondering long after the pages are closed.
Subtlety with symbolism is not one of the author’s talents; he is about as understated as the gold and red embroidery on the letter A thatHester must wear upon her chest as punishment for her crime. The reader barely makes it to the second page before finding a description of a rose bush that is followed by the instruction: “It [a rose] may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human fragility and sorrow.” Once the scarlet A makes its appearance, it is denoted immediately as a “token of shame.” In case this is not explicit enough, the letter will later flash through the night sky in the wake of a meteor and the narrator explains that Hester’s paramour sees it as a symbol of his guilt. Hawthorne is not entirely misguided in his employment of symbolism; the Puritans did have an affinity for signs themselves and their presence in the book lends something of historical accuracy. However, their overuse is somewhat problematic—and not solely because the readers must begin to question whether. Hawthorne believes them to be as obtuse as he renders his fellow custom-house workers in his autobiographical introduction. Because Hawthorne is so direct presenting some of the meaning of his work, readers might miss the places where he leaves them room for interpretation.
One such instance is his representation of the role of women. Hester’s marriage was oppressive to her youth and beauty, a portrayal that contradicts the expected place of women in both Puritan society and Hawthorne’s own. No happily married woman in the book marks Hester as an exception. Later Hester asks herself:
“Was existence worth accepting, even to the happiest [women] among them? … As a first task, the whole of society is to be torn down, and built up anew. Then the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position. Finally, all other difficulties being obviated, woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms, until she herself shall have undergone a still mightier change; in which, perhaps, the ethereal essence, wherein she has her truest life, will be found to have evaporated.”
Her thoughts begin as radical, suggesting some of today’s theories about gender as a social construct, but they end pessimistically and with doubt that change for women is possible. Hawthorne never answers completely the question of what a women’s role or nature is and what should be done about it, leaving it for his readers to muse.
Hawthorne’s second major question is whether society should judge an individual or whether that is God’s job alone. Modern readers, if they are not personally religious, may not see this as a legitimate debate, but its importance to the Puritan theocracy is obvious, and Hawthorne clearly wants his own Christian readers to ask themselves this question. Hawthorne depicts the Puritans as hypocritical, and Hester wonders whether “the outward guise of purity [of her neighbors] was but a lie, and that, if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on a many a bosom.” Her thoughts lead readers to ask themselves whether they too have failed and if they are eager to criticize others in order to draw attention away from their failings. The conclusion of The Scarlet Letter indicates Hawthorne’s own opinions about personal confession and societal judgment, but, again, he does not give a complete answer.
The Scarlet Letter is in many ways very direct, featuring open criticism and obvious symbolism. Hawthorne did not intend to write a didactic work, however. He is interested in raising what he considers essential questions, but he only hints at his own answers, leaving interpretation primarily in the hand of the readers. The combination of strong authorial voice and subtlety make this one classic worth reading.