Posts tagged reading
Posts tagged reading
Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton was not quite what I expected. I’m always surprised by books written in the way-back that sound like they were written a couple of years ago. Wharton’s prose and observations are fresh, alive, and captivating.
I recently read Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, and reading Yates’ novel brought to mind Wharton’s. In both books, characters struggle with societal expectations, personal desires, inhibiting gender roles, and disillusionment and dissatisfaction. Both undercut the trust we put in society to operate logically, pushing readers to reexamine their lives and their views.
In Age of Innocence, precedent and decorum are everything. A scandal can arise from the smallest faux pas, and in the constrained, tiny upper-class society, word travels fast.
Wharton gives us Archer Newland, the son of a well-off, established family. He is content: he has a sister and mother who adore him, a beautiful fiancée, and security. Only when Countess Olenska returns to New York, escaping an abusive husband in Europe, does he realize his contentment is a static, stale thing. Wharton’s novel could have been some pulpy novel, but the level of her writing and observations on human behavior take it out of that genre. And the ending is perhaps one of the most punch-in-the-stomach I’ve ever read.
“Then you must tell ‘em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak ah grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and dod de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak the de sea. It’s movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”
This quotation should be enough to convince anyone to read this beautiful book.
Janie turns into a strong, self-assured woman through the course of the book’s extended flashback (who’s got two thumbs and is a fan of frame tale/flashbacks? this gal), but what she undergoes to get to that point is, to put it mildly, a hell of a lot. She has three husbands, only one of whom she ends up really loving, and that is the marriage that ends tragically. I won’t say what happens, what had to happen. You can read it and feel the weight of it yourself.
Zora Neale Hurston is an interesting case. Her work had become neglected after her death, only to be resurrected years later during Second Wave Feminism. It’s not hard to see why. Janie performs many roles through the course of the book, most of them related to stereotypical ideas of femininity and a woman’s place. Her first husband seems to be interested in Janie as a helping (farm)hand and someone to cook his meals. Her second husband values Janie as a trophy wife, someone to help him maintain dignity and appearances. As mayor of a new town, he has the freedom to wander while she remains stuck in his general store, doing work she detests. Her third husband is younger than her, but he doesn’t care. He loves Janie, wants what’s best for her, discusses things with her, works alongside her in the bean fields. That vision of equality cannot go unnoticed.
Because it’s told in a flashback, the book takes on a hint of a dreamy quality, at least to me. Maybe I kept the flashback too much in mind. But Hurston knows how to describe an oncoming hurricane without a hint of dreaminess. It’s foreboding; you can feel the tension in the air, the hiss-crackle of it.
But to return to the opening quotation. Janie says these words in eloquent defense of her third marriage, as a buffer to the townfolks that judge her for marrying her third husband. They find it unnatural that she and a younger man would marry, would even love one another. Hurston isn’t making a case for cougarism (but if she is, it’s a pretty one), only for tolerance and a relaxing of societal expectations, a call for openmindedness and for knowing the facts before passing judgment.
Oh my God, what a page turner. Seriously. So it’s light on character—it’s more of a philosophical exercise. Lord of the Flies, like a lot of the other sorts of dystopian novels I’ve read in this list, are so cliché now that we forget about their initial impact. Actually, I still felt quite an impact from Lord of the Flies, probably because it’s framed differently than Brave New World and 1984. Here we have boys who have lived in “civilized” society—English boys, so they should be really civilized!—who then turn “savage.” This books gets at the concept, well, better than Brave New World, I think. It demonstrates the capacity for humans to break out of certain societal repressions and values and mores.
There’s also just some weird stuff. Like the pig head. That whole sequence is really quite disturbing, with reason.
And some of the writing is noteworthy. Golding describes a tide coming in at night, a tide full of those tiny phosphorescent sea creatures; he describes this glowing advance so perfectly that I still see it now.
One other noteworthy thing is the afterword. Golding consciously chose a group of boys, not a group of girls or a group of boys and girls. Why? I forget his reasoning already, but it got me thinking: would a group of girls have fared “better” than this group of boys? At first I thought, “Oh yeah!” But then I really thought about it. It would turn into a truly dangerous version of Mean Girls, the parts where Cady imagines she’s back in Africa. When I discussed this over lunch with some co-workers, someone pointed out that people of one sex tend to behave better when around members of the opposite sex. I have to agree. By sticking to a group of solely boys, Golding removes, for the most part, the elements of sex and lust. Things would indeed have gone differently had he included girls in the mix.
One of my favorite parts is certainly the very end. Forget the deus ex machina for a moment. Ralph is literally running for his life from a pack of boys bent on destroying him. They set the jungle on fire, trying to flush Ralph out. Finally, Ralph ends up on the beach, the pack close behind, when, hey presto, there’s a British naval officer. Until this point, Golding has described the pursuing boys fearsomely: how they sound, their spears sharpened to lethal points, the tension and adrenaline and fear and the pounding hearts. The naval officer only sees some boys with sticks. It’s a phrase like that. Boys with sticks. It’s this sudden, new perspective from a fresh set of eyes, someone who hasn’t been stuck on the island and brewed in the growing unrest and animosity.
“What do you wish for on the first celebration of the day you lost everything?”
Though this is the only sentence I copied from Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, that is no indication of my feelings toward the book. So, I read this a couple of months ago, but the storytelling and the images have stuck with me. Alvarez takes us into the world and mind of the four García sisters, and we travel back and forth in their lives, from childhood to adulthood.
The sentence I copied arises when the García family celebrates their one-year anniversary in the US. They fled Cuba, leaving behind the support of family, position, and reputation. Moving to America was a difficult starting over for this family accustomed to privilege and deference. Not only that. For this García sister, Cuba was sunlight and fresh things; the US doesn’t have these things.
I’m not doing this book justice in writing about it after all this time. But it’s a beautiful book, seemingly plotless, certainly more about character exploration. As a reader, then, you come to your own conclusions, thereby creating your plot. I like authors that trust their readers.
What is it about books presenting dystopian futures that guarantees them a spot in typical high school reading?
I had asked my dad that question rhetorically awhile ago and his response was good, something along the lines of, “It’s at the right time. You can question the world, the government.” That was the gist. Books about dystopian futures raise questions and upset (perhaps) previously-held assumptions that things will always be as they are. Also, in presenting a world completely different from our own but whose denizens treat as the status quo, people can learn about the adaptative part of human nature, the possibility for change, whether that change is good or bad. Or “good” or “bad.”
Brave New World gives its readers a world in opposition to the one that existed at the time of its writing, especially in terms of the pursuit of pleasure, whether it’s sexual or leisure-related. How different, too, from 1984, a book that presents a, to us, bleak future devoid of little joys and familial and fraternal feeling and one that denies physical pleasures. Still, both futures are unsettling, even now.
The issue of happiness, of contentment, is explored at length in Brave New World, and this is one that struck me. John and Mustapha Mond discuss at length the opposing and symbiotic forces of happiness vs., for lack of a better word, disturbance. John, an outsider to the brave new world, is deeply unsettled and disturbed by the London he visits. Back on the reservation where he grew up, he was inculcated with mores about shame and decorum and shouldn’ts and shoulds. The London he goes to is, to him, freewheeling and shameless, without familial ties and obligations. Because he is used to the pull between societal restrictions and personal fulfillment, he can’t really get this place. That’s what I think. But there’s also something childish about the Brave New World, and I think that’s what John gets at when he cries out, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” He wants things bigger than himself, larger forces against which to fight, to push, to pull. That the last sentence of that quotation is its own sentence is telling. He wants there to exist some kind of wrongdoing in the world; that’s what he’s used to.
It’s kind of a tricky subject, isn’t it? The world depicted in Huxley’s book could be construed as a utopia, but something niggles in the back of your mind reading about it. All this comfort and safety and contentment and ease and pleasure. All of it handed to you. It really is rather like childhood: insulated. The Western world values growth and triumph over adversity. If there are no hurdles, how do you measure progress? Maybe that’s what disturbs John, a feeling of stagnation. There are no families, so no one is building toward that. Everyone’s class/status is predetermined, so there’s no working hard to get to the top. Jobs are tied to class, so same thing. Everything is all set. There’s no struggle, no questioning. Just having fun. It should be utopia. But somehow it’s terrifying.