Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.
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Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!
(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)
THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:
Is there a classic book you just “didn’t get?”
Despite my love of classics, there are a number didn’t really “get” (at least until I went to a class discussion about them and could begin to see what other readers were getting out of the book!), but my mind really blanked at coming up with specific titles when I saw the prompt for this week.
In a stroke of genius, I decided to go to my Goodreads shelves and see what classics I had given low star ratings to. The only problem: many of these I read ten years ago or more, and I don’t think I remember enough about them to say why I didn’t like them or what I didn’t get about them! (Though I did actually write a review of The Turn of the Screw for the blog, and I think I “get” Brave New World; I just don’t like it.)
With all that in mind, I’m officially going with:
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Unfortunately I don’t seem to have written a review of Madame Bovary, which would be helpful in refreshing my thoughts because I read it in 2013. However, personally I’m just not a fan of that genre of novel that (perhaps reductively) could be called: wealthy woman becomes unhappy in her marriage and starts taking lovers and…readers are supposed to be sympathetic to that? I’m not a big fan of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence or The Awakening by Kate Chopin for similar reasons.
I suppose there’s an argument that, in the past, women were stuck in unhappy marriages, if divorce was not an option, and that makes infidelity more forgivable than if they could leave their husbands and pursue new prospects that way. Even with that in mind, I’ve never been on board with books about adultery, especially in instances where the woman isn’t really being treated badly but has just never been truly in love with or excited by her husband.
Madame Bovary really focuses on that point, that Madame Bovary is experiencing ennui. This means 1) it’s hard to feel that she’s doing the “right” thing or “doesn’t have other options” when she cheats because she’s just bored! and 2) the book is kind of boring because it focuses on how boring the life of the protagonist is. I felt as if I were listlessly drifting through the whole book, not as if I were reading anything interesting.
Even if one argues we’re not supposed to sympathize with Madame Bovary, I don’t get the appeal of the book. So Flaubert is just portraying a bored immoral woman and asking us to ponder how bored and immoral she is? I’ll pass, thanks.
Have you read Madame Bovary? What did you think?
Summary of the Dover version of Madame Bovary:
Bored and unhappy in a lifeless marriage, Emma Bovary yearns to escape from the dull circumstances of provincial life. Married to a simple-minded but indulgent country doctor, she takes one lover, then another, hastens her husband’s financial ruin with her extravagance…
Gustave Flaubert (1821-1888) was brought to trial by the French government on the grounds of the novel’s alleged immorality, but unlike his less fortunate contemporary, Baudelaire, he narrowly escaped conviction.
Falubert’s powerful and deeply moving examination of the moral degeneration of a middle-class Frenchwoman is universally regarded as one of the landmarks of 19th-century fiction. It is reproduced here, complete and unabridged, in the classic translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, daughter of Karl Marx.
A young man in nineteenth century San Francisco slowly loses his connection to society and lets “the brute” inside take over.
Vandover and the Brute has an interesting publication history. It was considered too scandalous to be published in the late 1800s but today often just gets pegged as “historically significant” (Dana Seitler). So which is it: fascinatingly salacious or academically of interest?
Personally, I think Vandover is likely to appeal to more academic readers than to those looking for an entertaining read. The novel touches on a number of themes common to naturalist writing; it’s quite a treasure trove for those who may wish to explore social determinism, biological determinism, race suicide, degeneration, masculinity, etc. Plot-wise, it’s a bit dull.
The dullness is partially a result of intentional authorial choices. Protagonist Vandover is stuck in the rut many scholars see as part of naturalist writings; he cannot really progress. So, while on one hand a large of amount of things happen in the book (which I won’t specify to avoid spoilers), it’s also possible to say that nothing happens at all. Imagine a graph of Vandover’s life as an oscillation, like a sine curve.
However, Vandover is only stuck in some parts of his life. In others, he’s actively degenerating. This is what attracts many people to the book: the story of a man regressing into animal. However, I found the description of this more exciting than the actual execution of it in the book. Norris takes a rather strong narrative role and actively comments on what he wants readers to think/know. He’s pretty explicit about the man turning to brute plot point. I didn’t think there was much to interpret here; one just observes that it’s happening and moves on.
I enjoyed reading Vandover somewhat because I did it for class, and the discussion was fairly interesting. However, I don’t think it’s something that would have appealed to me if I’d read it on my own.
Have you ever read a book for class you liked but didn’t think you would have finished on your own?
If You Like, Then Read is a feature where we offer book suggestions based on titles you already like. This week we are showcasing books recommended for fans of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. To read other “If You Like, Then Read” posts, click here. To find out what Charlotte Brontë heroine you are most like, click here.
Jane Eyre is immensely popular. Book Riot reports that when they asked readers their favorite book, Charlotte Brontë’s classic romance novel came in third after To Kill a Mockingbird and Pride and Prejudice. (Many people suggest reading Pride and Prejudice if you enjoyed Jane Eyre, presumably because both are historical novels–though from different centuries–and both combine romance and keen social commentary.) But reading Jane Austen and Brontë together seems a little obvious. So read on to discover the books we recommend for those who love Jane Eyre, whether they are books similar to Jane Eyre, books based on Jane Eyre, or books inspired by the lives of the Brontë family.
The Brontë Sisters by Juliet Barker
This nonfiction overview of the Brontës, based on original documents and letters and years of research, suggests that some of the most commonly held beliefs about the Brontë are not true; for instance, perhaps the siblings’ father was not the cold, unfeeling man readers have thought for generations. A highly rated book sure to help readers understand the biographies and psyches of Charlotte and her siblings that you should read after finishing Jane Eyre.
The first of two novels written by Charlotte’s sister Anne, Agnes Grey follows a young woman as she faces the hardships of the life of a governess, often isolated and little respected. Though inevitably compared to Jane Eyre, the book lacks the Gothic elements of that novel and takes a more realistic look at the women dedicated to teaching unruly children not only book knowledge but also values. A pleasant romance completes the work. If you like Anne’s work, you should also check out The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a (then) scandalous look at the realities of women abused by alcoholic husbands.
Villette by Charlotte Brontë
If you enjoyed Jane Eyre, it’s likely you’ll enjoy Charlotte’s other novels. In Villette, Lucy Snowe goes to teach at an all-girls boarding school after a family tragedy. There she encounters romance from unexpected quarters and a mysterious ghostly nun. Enjoy all the elements of love, Gothic influence, and psychology you found in Jane Eyre, in what is argued by many critics to be Brontë’s best work. (And if you like Villette, you can always go on to read The Professor, which features a male protagonist in similar circumstances!)
Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre edited by Tracy Chevalier
A natural choice for readers who love Jane Eyre, Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre is a female-authored anthology with contributions by Tracy Chevalier, Tessa Hadley, Sarah Hall, Helen Dunmore, Kirsty Gunn, Joanna Briscoe, Jane Gardam, Emma Donaghue, Susan Hill, Francine Prose, Elif Shafak, Evie Wyld, Patricia Park, Salley Vickers, Nadifa Mohamed, Esther Freud, Linda Grant, Lionel Shriver, Audrey Niffenegger, Namwali Serpell, and Elizabeth McCracken.
In this imaginative novel, children Charlotte and Branwell have the power to jump into their imaginary world of Verdopolis. (A world the siblings created in their juvenelia, for those readers who don’t know.) Emily and Anne used to play with them in this fantastic world, but now they’re mostly left behind. Unknown to all four of them, however, a villain is lose in Verdopolis, and the children may pay a high price for their grand adventures.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
For almost eighteen years the Doctor of Beauvais suffered in the Bastille, innocent of any crime. When at last released and reunited with his daughter Lucie, he has lost both his identity and any remembrance of those who imprisoned him. The two turn to England as a place where they may be able to build a new life, but the outbreak of the French Revolution threatens to destroy everything they have gained. Consider reading it in honor of the bicentenary of Dickens’s birth!
Camille by Alexandre Dumas fils
This classic features another woman who believes she may never find love. If you liked Jane Eyre for the romance, you will enjoy this story of two lovers fighting to be together against their own doubts and the expectations of their society. Dumas writes a beautiful tale that explores what it means to be human and to truly love. Read Briana’s review of Camille here.
In a parallel universe, the England of 1985 is essentially a police state, the Crimean War has dragged on for 130 years, and time travel and cloning have become common. Technology furthermore enables people to travel within books, but the country’s third most wanted criminal has begun to use this power to change some of the world’s most famous literature. Special Operative Thursday Next is on the case as she seeks to prevent Hades from changing the story of Jane Eyre forever.
Jane Eyre’s Daughter by Elizabeth Newark
In this sequel to Jane Eyre, Newark imagines the life of the Rochesters’ daughter Janet at boarding school. Why does the mysterious Highcrest Manor have a locked wing? And which of two men should she give her heart?
Always Emily by Michaela MacColl
Emily and Charlotte Bronte dream of becoming writers, but for now a series of local robberies and a neighbor’s death has caught their attention. Can two teenage girls solve the mystery?
Adele, Grace, and Celene: The Other Women of Jane Eyre by Claire Moise
Claire Moise’s sequel to Jane Eyreimagines Rochester’s ward Adele discovering a cache of letters from Grace Poole to her mother Celene. In them, Grace recounts the events of Jane Eyre to Rochester’s former mistress.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Antoinette Cosway grew up on a plantation in the West Indies, but is given in marriage to an Englishman who takes her away from her home and ultimately grows to distrust her. The book shifts between Antoinette’s perspective and that of her husband as a restrictive and prejudiced society drives her to madness. This 1966 novel responds to Jane Eyre by reimagining Bertha Mason, “the mad woman in the attic,” as a fully-fleshed character with a story of her own.
Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn
Grown from embryonic tissue and then rejected by the woman who ordered her production, Jenna grows up lonely but receives a fine scientific education. She finds work as a technician on the distant planet of Fieldstar and falls in love there with the enigmatic Everett Ravenbeck. Ravenbeck, however, hides a secret that will destroy their future happiness. A science-fiction retelling of Jane Eyre perfect for Charlotte Brontë fans.
This book imagines a friendship between eleven-year-old Ada Lovelace and the future Mary Shelley. Together, they shock the sensibilities of Victorian Society by creating the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, a secret constabulary to apprehend clever criminals.
In this whimsical fantasy, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë have spent countless hours imagining stories in the room at the top of the stairs. Now, however, Charlotte and Emily must go off to school–where their two older sisters died from fever. But just as it seems separation is inevitable, they find themselves in a magical world where the Duke of Wellington still fights Bonaparte–a world they have created! Can the siblings escape a land they themselves have authored? Or has the world spun out of their control? If you’re interested in Charlotte’s juvenilia, check out our review of The Secret.
The Mysterious Howling is a quirky middle-grade book that delights in upending the conventions of Victorian society by introducing that most horrific of things into its stories–unmannered children. It centers on the arrival of new governess Miss Penelope Lumley at Ashton Place. But she never expected to find children raised by wolves! Now she must solve the mystery of how these children were found in the forest in the first place.
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë secretly harbor dreams of publishing their stories. However, writing, they have been told, is not the life for a woman. Unfortunately, their brother Branwell is slowly descending into a life of degeneracy and madness, and their father is aging and blind. Faced with the prospect of having to support themselves, the sisters hatch a plan to publish their work under pseudonyms.
What books would you recommend to readers who liked Jane Eyre?