Tag Archives: questions

New Year, Same Old Story – Part 2

Okay, yesterday we covered the easy stuff – grammar and logic stage questions.  Today, we dive into the rhetoric.

WEM Ornament 4

Oh, look at that pretty glittery ornament.  It’s so sparkly!  Did you remember to identify the novels in yesterday’s ornaments?  You can do the same with today’s pictures – they’re different.

Oops, sorry, I’m easily distracted by shiny things.  Plus, answering the rhetoric questions can be just plain difficult, but we did it, and I’m hear to report the facts.

We started by going through the list of characters.  Did we sympathize with Eustacia?  Nope.  How about Clym?  Not so much at the end.  What about Mrs. Yeobright?  She was kind of that annoying mother-in-law and not so quick to forgive.  Well, Thomasin then?  She did choose to get herself into that mess.  Wildeve?  Absolutely not.

It’s true.  We didn’t really sympathize with anybody.  There were some glimmers of characters that we could relate to, but mostly we found them all sort of unlikable.  But don’t worry, we had a theory about what caused our detachment:  we’re pretty sure that we couldn’t sympathize with the characters because we can’t sympathize with Hardy’s argument.  Or maybe it’s visa versa.

As we approached the second rhetoric question about Hardy’s technique this section from Susan Wise Bauers’s description leaped off the page, as if it were written for this very novel.

What does the setting of the book tell you about the way human beings are shaped?  If the novelist believes that we are produced by our environment – that the place and time in which we live determine who we are – she will pay close attention to the physical landscapes.

Hello?  Paging Mr. Hardy.  Wow, does he ever think people are formed by their environments.  He goes to great lengths to describe the background of each character, and then watches as they are remolded and shaped by their present situation on the heath.  As Christine so succinctly put it, “It’s Nature vs. Nurture, and Nature always wins.”

As we dealt with that tricky question about the novel’s self-reflectiveness Jeannette pointed out that Clym is the only one on the heath with an education, and that he is the character mostly closely associated with Hardy himself.  Clym tries to expand his education and bring learning to the heath-folk.  That is a no-go with Egdon.

Changing the heath, or even trying to leave it, is not that easy.  You can’t learn your way out, you can’t spiritualize your out, and you can’t love your way out.  Resistance is futile.

WEM Ornament 2While Hardy’s story seems to take place in a very tight sphere (did you notice that we never left the heath, not even once?) there were some signs that he was influenced by the changing world around him.  The play between characters and their class and background was certainly still a topic on the minds of the English.  In addition Hardy’s work takes place on the cusp of modernism and its move away from faith.

That’s right, folks, welcome to modernism.  Here’s how Susan Wise Bauer sums Hardy’s argument (and who are we to argue with SWB, well, except for where she made a mistake or two in her summary of the ROTN plot.)

Thomas Hardy’s hapless characters struggle against the implacable natural forces that continually push them down into the much from whcih they strive to rise.  They always lose.  And so, Hardy wants you to know, will the rest of us.”

Cheerful, right?  But we’re afraid she’s on to something.  The best you could hope for if you were one of his characters is the outcome that befell Thomasin and Venn.  And even their end was not so bright and chipper until Book Sixth was forced out of Hardy’s pen.  The heath giveth, and the heath taketh away, but blessed is not the name of the heath.

In addition to the heath exacting its desires, there is a healthy dose of human pride, vanity, passion, self-love, lack of forgiveness, lust, and scheming to go around as well.

And while we may agree with SWB about what the argument is, we don’t agree with Hardy about it’s greater truth.  For what the novel lacks is hope.  Sure, the world is full of rugged, ugly, dark terrain.  Absolutely, sin abounds.  But outside of a scheming Venn Diggory, where does one find the good on Egdon heath?  Where is Raskolnikov’s Sonia?  Where is Rochester’s Jane?  Where is Levin?

They’re not here.  Instead we find we’re left on a hill of dead bones listening to the guilt-ridden sermons of one lost in despair.  Yes, Hardy, I’m talking about you.


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New Year, Same Old Story – Part 1

My reading companions and I made a New Year’s Resolution:  No more waiting around to do the WEM questions once a novel is finished.

The three of us lost Eustacia in the weir and married off Thomasin to the Reddleman before Christmas, but the questions somehow got put on the back-burner next to the wassail.  So when 2013 rang in, our journals were showing more than a proverbial clean slate.  Despite that, we mustered enough intellectual juice to work our way through them one snowy evening over Roasted Pear and Chocolate Scones in Jeannette’s immaculate living room.

WEM Ornament 1After catching up, and exchanging some small tokens of our WEM progress and friendship we hit the books. We shared our retitling of the novel, something we all dread at every wrap-up session.  Part of our problem this time around was in deciding who possessed the role of main character.  In Hardy’s title the distinction goes to Clym, but none of us felt that was accurate.  In fact, all three of us named the major player in this work Egdon Heath.

When my friends flew by the chronicle/fable question with a quick answer to the former, I threw up a red flag, and they kindly listened to my crazy theory about the Reddleman being a fantastic element to this novel just as the call across the moors was to Jane Eyre, and the nocturnally burning A was to The Scarlet Letter.

The wants and obstacles in ROTN seem some of the most clear cut we’ve encountered.  Hardy uses sentences like “What Eustacia always wanted was . . .” and “Clym wanted three things, at best he could only have two.”  Never mind the fact that in the end he loses all three.  And do you know what stands in his way?  The heath.  After a while in our wrap-up session we sounded a lot like those Sunday School kids who pipe up with “Jesus” as the response to every inquiry.  So in order to branch out we added that miscommunication and a lack of forgiveness also mess up situations and cause undue angst.

Of all the novels we’ve read on our WEM journey our stop at the heath rivals only our trip across Melville’s seven seas in terms of importance of setting.  The heath is everything.  Egdon acts on people.  It suffocates Eustacia, makes Cymn its servant, bites Mrs. Yeobright, and pulls Wildeve under it’s tumultuous darkness.  Only Venn and Thomasin, those who are content and respectful of their home, find peace within it’s scrubby terrain.

Despite my lack of Classic Word of the Day posts no novel has given me a more papercuts than Hardy’s work.  I madly flipped from text to dictionary, from text to glossary, from text to footnotes, all the time astounded at his complex and yet simple style.  His narratives described the people and places with rich complicated metaphors and details, while the stretches of dialogue were so colloquial that pressing your finger on the kindle nearly always gave the same result, “no entry found.”

WEM Ornament 3Our classy friend, Norma, told Christine that as she worked through the novel she imagined it as a black and white film with flashes of red.  We think she’s on to something.  The red of fire, Venn, blood, and even Eustacia’s ribbon blaze against the stark dark vs. light relief.  It’s quite an image.

Jeannette opened our eyes to see the theme of vision and lack there of.  Sure, Clym goes physically blind, but others also are impaired and unable to see the truth.  Mrs. Yeobright fails to see the desires of her son and the intentions of his bride.  Eustacia cannot see the danger that awaits by ignoring the knock of her mother-in-law.  And finally the lack of sight causes her to fall (or jump if you like) into her death.

The question that monopolized our discussion of the book’s beginning and ending (although Jeannette pulled through with another astute observation that the book began with singing for a wedding that didn’t happen, and ended with singing for a wedding that did) was this:  Should Hardy have written a Book Sixth?  We all know he didn’t want to, and that his Victorian audience pressured its composition after Book Fifth appeared in its serial installment.

About this we all resolutely agree:  No Book Sixth.  It’s as bad as an epilogue, and we all know how Christine feels about epilogues. (In case you don’t:  she doesn’t like them.  Not a bit.)  We think that the end of Book Fifth is more in keeping argument of the novel.

So what is the argument of the novel?  Well, provided my internet keeps working correctly you can tune in tomorrow for the Rhetoric portion of The Return of the Native wrap-up session.

P.S.  Bonus points if you can correctly identify the novels depicted in the beautiful WEM ornaments made by Christine.


Posted by on January 17, 2013 in The Return of the Native


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On the Brink

The Building of a Dam by Julien Alden Weir
A painting of a weir by Weir, that’s awesome, right?

Fall or jump?

Jump or fall?

Things to consider:

  • Without the help of the Reddleman, Thomasin would have lost her way and fallen in the weir.
  • Eustacia had previously considered ending her life with her grandfather’s pistols.
  • After rescue from Charley she promised never to think of it again and that the moment had past.
  • Susan Nunsuch cursed her.
  • The prospect of a new beginning was in front of her.
  • She had no money for the new beginning,
  • The heath hated her.
  • She was beginning to remember that Wildeve was not exactly her dream dude.

So what do you think?  Did Eustacia take the plunge on purpose or not?


Posted by on January 12, 2013 in The Return of the Native


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Remember the other day when Christine brought up that odd seed cake from Jane Eyre that showed up again in Uncle Tom’s Cabin?  Well, as appealing as that was, for our wrap-up I decided to try something new, yet thematic.  I found a recipe for Mississippi Mud Cake from a Taste of Kentucky’s website.  Despite the pound of butter, copious pecans, and a healthy share of cocoa, it was, well, uh, let’s just say there’s a reason I didn’t provide the link.

As we choked down our cake for our final wrap-up and answered SWB’s questions some of them seemed to be complete gimmees, for example:

Chronicle or Fable?  Chronicle, HBS only reminds us that she knew of actual situations like the ones she wrote about two or three hundred times.

What do the characters want and what stands in their way?  Uh . . . let’s see . . . this seems a bit like answering “Jesus” to every single Sunday School question, but “Freedom” and “Slavery” seem the obvious responses.  Even if you take the wants some of the white characters and boil them down long enough you get the same answers.  Maybe you could throw in “family” for Tom, but even that is tied up in his freedom.

Point of View?  Omnicient Royal We.  We’ve been over this, but we did add that we think that Harriet uses “we” to make us feel part of a greater community joining the battle against slavery.

Setting?  The deeper south the worse it gets, the farther north, the better.

Style?  Nothin’ fancy to see here folks, just a nice, plain, story designed to get your emotions in motion.

Beginnings and Endings?  See the answer to wants and obstacles and reverse the order.

Do we Sympathize with the characters?  Yup.

What techniques does the author use?  As the seventh of thirteen children, Harriet put on her Middlest Child hat and approached the argument against slavery from every possible angle.  There are stories with happy ending, stories with sad ending, good slave owners, bad slave owners, historical arguments, emotional arguments.  It seems she covered her bases.

Is the novel self-reflective?  We spent a good time talking about what this question even means (If you have great insight please help us out, we talked about it with Ruth and Adriana in the comments over here.  We think for this book the presence of the Word of God is important to the answer, as is the importance of slaves being able to read, and Mrs. Stowe’s appeal to educate the freed slaves as they came north.

Did her time affect her?  Oh yeah, just a little.

Is there an argument?   Undoubtedly

Do we agree?  How could we not.

See what I mean?  We did talk in great depth about some of them, but really, the surface answer was the bulk of our substance.  There were some nice answers to metaphors and images, but those will have to wait until tomorrow.  Today, it’s just the basics.  And they’re pretty basic.

Now, we don’t want you to get the wrong opinion, we loved this novel, and yet we found it difficult to discuss in depth.  We had a similar experience with Jane Eyre.  So we spent some time trying to identify a cause and effect relationship there, but I’m not sure we came up with anything more than dense, dry cakes.  What do you think?  The more we like a book the less we can analyze it?  True or false?  And if true, why?

You chew on that for awhile, you might need a swig or two of lemonade.



Posted by on June 11, 2012 in Uncle Tom's Cabin


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Fagin’s Concern?

In chapter XLIV of Oliver Twist, Nancy tries to leave Sikes’ house to meet with Rose Maylie on the bridge.  Sikes is in a mood–“more in the spirit of obstinacy than because he had any real objection” and forbids Nancy from leaving.  In fact he holds her down in a chair for an hour while she struggles.  It’s another sad example of Sikes abusive control over Nancy.  But my question is about Fagin.  After this incident (which Fagin witnesses) Fagin whispers to Nancy.

     “The reason of all this,” replied Fagin.  “If he”–he pointed with his skinny fore-finger up the stairs–“is so hard with you, (he’s a brute, Nance, a brute-beast) why don’t you—“
     “Well!” said the girl, as Fagin paused, with his mouth almost touching her ear, and his eyes looking into hers.
     “No matter just now,” said the Jew, “We’ll talk of this again.  You have a friend in me, Nance; a staunch friend.  I have the means at hand, quiet and close.  If you want revenge on those that treat you like a dog–like a dog! worse than his dog, for he humours him sometimes–come to me.  I say, come to me.  He is the mere hound of a day, but you know me, of old, Nance.”

What’s going on with Fagin?  Is he truly concerned for Nancy?  He couldn’t be… could he? 

Fagin seems to walk a fine line where Sikes is concerned: pleasing him, hating him, using him, fearing him… 

Yes, Fagin and Nancy have known each other for a long time, but I can not see that as a reason for Nancy to trust Fagin.  Perhaps Fagin senses that something is “up” with Nancy, and he is worried that she knows too many of his secrets?

Fellow Oliver Readers, what’s going on here?

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Posted by on December 29, 2011 in Oliver Twist


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A House-breaker’s Sixth Sense

     In the short time that he had had to collect his senses, the boy had firmly resolved that, whether he died in the attempt or not, he would make one effort to dart up stairs from the hall, and alarm the family.  Filled with this idea, he advanced at once, but stealthily.
     “Come back!”  suddenly cried Sikes aloud. “Back!  back!”
     Scared by the sudden breaking of the dead stillness of the place, and by a loud cry which followed it, Oliver let his lantern fall, and knew not whether to advance or fly.

Oliver Twist chapter XXII

Oliver is going to warn the family that they about to be robbed.  Out of nowhere Sikes shouts, “Come back!”?  In the margin of my copy I wrote in bold letters:  What warned Sikes? 

Did he see something that Dickens chose not to share with the reader?  Did Sikes “sense” that something was about to happen? 

Why did Sikes call?  He’s been threatening to shoot Oliver for two chapters.  My guess is that he feared the boy would implicate him and Toby Crackit in the attempted crime if caught.

What do you think?

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Posted by on December 22, 2011 in Oliver Twist


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Follow-up on Fagin

On the heels of Jeannette’s post about Fagin, I have some questions. 

1.  In chapter XX, why does Fagin give Oliver the terrible crime book to read?  
     Is this part of Fagin’s behavior modification program for new gang members?
     Is this meant to be Oliver’s punishment for his stay at Brownlow’s?

2.  If Fagin gave Oliver a book, that means Oliver can read.
    Oliver can read?!
    When did a workhouse orphan learn to read?

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Posted by on December 18, 2011 in Oliver Twist


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Yo, I’ll Tell You What She Wants, What She Really, Really Wants

First of all, please accept my apologies for not posting this yesterday as I promised in my earlier post.  I should have known that wouldn’t actually happen.  I blame the whole “withered minds” thing.

Secondly, thank you all for your replies.  The diversity made for good conversation.

Thirdly, I tried to make a clever chart.  But, well, uh, I guess I’m just not that blogger.  Instead you get the fuzzy, statistically questionable one below, where I’ve condensed and reworded some of the votes.  Enjoy.

What was that?  You wanted to know which of those opinions belongs to Susan Wise Bauer?  Tomorrow.

Or maybe the next day.


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P&P Parts PSA

One day this week I checked in with Jeannette to see how far ahead of me she was in reading P&P.  She said she was several chapters into Part II.  Come again?  Part II?  as in Part I, Part II, Part III?  It’s true!  Her version of the novel has chapters and parts.  My poor Bantam Classics version has only chapters (and tiny margins barely wide enough to scribble a note, but I’ll save that complaint).  

To avoid confusion, Jeannette shared with me where each of the parts begin.  I’m here to do the same for you.  

Part I  Chapters 1-23

Part II  Chapters 24-42

Part III Chapters 43-61

Consider this today’s Literature Public Service Announcement.

My Bantam copy also does not have an introduction, so can anyone tell me if the 3 parts were Austen’s plan for the original publication?


Posted by on October 20, 2011 in Pride and Prejudice


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To Know or Not to Know

My copy of Gulliver’s Travels is bare bones.  No intro.  No preface.  No Editor’s notes.  No footnotes.  No endnotes.  No sidenotes.  No index.  No nothing.

I suppose that’s all well and good.  SWB doesn’t want us delving into a lot of analysis before we read these classics for the first time anyway.

BUT . . .

GT is a satire and I know not the first thing about 18th century British Politics.  So that makes me asks the following question:

Should I be constantly checking with my husband and his Norton Critical Edition for Swift’s meaning, or should I be content to apply the satirical elements to human nature and times and places that I see fit?

Ruminate on this, dear friends.  Ruminate.


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