Tag Archives: WEM

And the gold for smartness goes to . . .

The Olympics are on.

I’m going to ignore all the political barbs, social commentary, and ugly sweaters. Instead, its time to focus on what I know: Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

Whoa.  It felt good to write that sentence.  Isn’t this WEM Degree making you feel smarter by the minute?


Posted by on February 7, 2014 in Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment


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In the Face of Tragedy

Old Man in Sorrow Vincent van Gogh

I love a happy ending, but the value of tragedy is no longer lost on me.

Tragedy, he perceived, belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there were still privacy, love, and friendship, and when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason.

For Winston this realization comes with the recollection of his mother’s sacrifice for him.  Even though he cannot remember the reasons for that sacrifice, he does know that in his current condition such a selfless act could never occur.

Today there were fear, hatred, and pain, but no dignity of emotion, or deep or complex sorrows.

I’m not a fan of sorrow, even when it doesn’t manifest itself in complex and deep ways.  But I do put a pretty high value on privacy, love, friendship, and family.

So, if anyone asks how reading the WEM list has changed me, I think my answer will be colored by these passages.  For the dignity of emotion is a gift transferred from one generation to another through the arts, and exposure to their fear, hatred, and pain teaches us the value of our own safety, love, and freedom.

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Posted by on October 27, 2013 in 1984


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Isabel’s Well-Educated Mind

Isabel Archer could have joined our book club.

It had lately occurred to her that her mind was a good deal of a vagabond, and she had spent much ingenuity in training it to a military step and teaching it to advance, to halt, to retreat, to perform even more complicated manœuvers, at the word of command.  chapter 3


It sounds like Isabel’s mind is a little more well-trained than mine which occasionally goes AWOL.

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Posted by on January 24, 2013 in The Portrait of a Lady


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Wrapped-up and Lined with Fur

Do you remember how Herman Melville used the term “damp, drizzly November in my soul” to describe Ishmael’s funk?  Well, we take issue with his descriptor.   November is chock full of joy.  So full, in fact, that we took a little unannounced blog break to really savor the Thanksgiving portion of that joy.  We hope your portions were also savory, and thank you for coming back for seconds.

In addition to the eleventh month’s feast, we also have a couple of WEM birthdays to celebrate in November, and so we tied our Anna Karenina wrap-up into a part of Christine’s big weekend.  We grabbed a quick lunch, tossed around our best ideas on Tolstoy’s work, and then hit the malls to spot all the fur, sparkle and Russian flair that seems to be trending this season.

This is a picture of the three of us after our wrap-up session.

Okay, fine.  It’s totally not, but Christine did walk away with a slightly sparkly skirt.  Close enough.

Here’s a quick summary of our ideas.  Don’t judge them too harshly, remember, we had shopping to do.

All three of us hit on something important in our retitling of Anna Karenina, namely, that it wasn’t just Anna.  Levin deserves a starring role in this novel, and so we gave him one.  All three of us also mentioned something about searching and love.

Take note, these themes are going to be repeating themselves in this wrap-up, so just to make it really clear for everyone, I’ll spell them out with fancy little bullets

  • There are two distinct, yet intertwined stories, that of Anna, and that of Levin.
  • There is a great deal of exploring, searching, exploration, almost all done in the name of . . .
  • Love.

Okay, now that we have that all squared away, here are the answers to some of the other WEM prescribed questions.  (Okay, in fairness to SWB, she doesn’t actually prescribe, she suggests.)

Chronicle or Fable?
This is obviously a chronicle, nothing fable-ous here.

What do the Characters Want?
Anna wants love.  So does Levin, he just doesn’t know it.  Well, maybe Levin actually wants faith, but he really, really doesn’t know that, and it isn’t until he discovers love that he gets faith.  I hope I’m getting this right.

Faith, hope, and love.  Sounds familiar.  Did you catch all of Tolstoy’s scripture references?  Adriana did.

What Stands In Their Way?
For Anna the rules and norms of religion and society seem to really trip her up.  She wants out of the marriage she has, then she wants the certainty of Vronsky’s love without the commitment of marriage.  Messy, messy.

For Levin it seems to be his own brain getting in the way of things.  He’s just sort of an overthinker, I think.  What do you think?

Point of View
Sparknotes told us that this was one of the earliest examples of internal dialog, but we thought that seemed a little sketchy, because certainly we got a fair amount of internal dialog in Jane Eyre, and Crime and Punishment is pretty much built entirely of internal dialog.  Maybe it was a Russian Thing.

We thought it had a pretty simple style.  I’m using this as my excuse for failing to get many Classic Word of the  Day posts written, and I’m sticking to it.

IImages and Metaphors
For images and metaphors we skimmed over the list from Spark Notes, apparently Tolstoy didn’t like trains.  Then we also wondered if Anna’s portrait meant anything, but we didn’t really come to great conclusions.  Do you have any?

Beginnings and Endings
Here are a few of the things we noticed when we compared the beginning and ending of the novel:

  • Anna is not at either the beginning or the end.
  • The novel begins with the unhappiness that is a result of unfaithfulness and ends with happiness that is the result of faith and faithfulness.
  • We meet Anna first through the eyes of someone else, and we learn more about her death through the eyes of someone else.
  • Trains, Trains.

Sympathizing with Characters
We all felt some connection to Anna in the beginning, and none to her by the end.  We also determined that you could replace the words “Anna” with “the novel” and “her” with “it” in the previous sentence, and have a shared sentiment.  Also, we loved Levin, and could relate to Dolly as a mother.

Tolstoy’s technique of running parallel stories of Levin and Anna showed the reader the differences decisions about love and faithfulness can have.  We think that his handling of the human experience in this form may be  what makes this novel so well-loved and admired.  What do you think?

This is the question that always trips us up, but it seems important to note two things here:

  1. Tolstoy models Levin after himself.  If that isn’t self-reflective I don’t know what is.
  2. Both Levin and Anna are in the process of writing books about the things they love yet can’t connect with – agriculture and children, respectively.  Neither is able to solve their own problems by the writing of books, only the actions of love can do this.  Levin learns.  Sadly for Seriozha and Ani, Anna does not.
  3. Oh, and a bonus thought:  Kosnyshev publishes a book and it doesn’t do one lick of good for him or anyone else.  So one might wonder, why did Tolstoy bother?

Argument, and Do We Agree?
Well, this is where we should be able to write a dissertation, or at least a fairly well-footnoted term paper, but alas, my page was pretty blank.  I hate to speak for my well-educated friends, especially when I seem to have so little to back me up, but I’d say that we agree with Tolstoy’s take on love, faithfulness, marriage, and humanity.  Those strokes aren’t too bold, are they?  Certainly not when a rare outing to the stores with friends awaits.


Posted by on November 26, 2012 in Anna Karenina


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Spring Cleaning Summer Style

I love summer.  It’s like January all over again for me.  New ideas, new plans, new resolutions, even here at the blog I have great expectations, and we read Oliver Twist.  I get an organizational bug that often melts away as quickly as a grilled popsicle, but never mind that, let’s strike while the artificially colored sugar-water is hot!

Item #1:  Since we have so many people reading with us these days (Hip!  Hip!  Hooray!!!) it might be good if we checked in every once in a while to find out where everyone is.  Now, mind you, this is not a competition.  We don’t set deadlines.  There’s no crying in classics, well, except for UTC.  Hebdomadally, or so, one of us will say, “So, what chapter are you on?” and everyone can answer in the comments.  Nothing official, just a way to help us keep track of where the gang is.

Item #2:  I want to update our “Other WEMers” on our sidebar.  When we began this blog over a year ago we had no idea we would end up linked to so many fabulously smart readers.  Now we want those links to be solidified with actual links.  If we don’t already have you listed there, please send us a message through our little feedback box.  If you blog mostly about other things, but have pages dedicated to WEM let us know how best to link those.  Just give me whatever info makes the most sense to you.

Oh no! Christine has three children. I only see two heads.
Wait, no worries, someone has to be holding the camera. Whew.

Item #3:  As previously stated, it’s summer, and while that means that there is no dust on my bedroom ceiling fan, it also means that schedules are erratic.  Camps, vacations, impromptu trips to the beach (if you’ve never visited Lake Michigan in the summer, schedule a trip soon, it’s a fabulous place to get some reading done, unless you’re too busy counting to make sure you still see five heads bobbing up and down in the waves) and other summer fun sometimes impede our ability to blog and/or respond to comments.  Please don’t give up on us if a day or two goes by with out a post or reply.  We love you, we just also love the sun, and when you live in West Michigan you have to soak up every ray possible and store it for those long winter months.

So, let’s kick this off with Item #1:

Sooooo, where are you in Madame Bovary (be sure to give the Part and Chapter number)?


Posted by on June 16, 2012 in The Blog


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Concerning Chapter Titles

In the WEM‘s section titled “How to Read A Novel,” readers are asked to pay attention to the table of contents of each book.  Susan Wise Bauer explains that it makes a difference whether a novel has chapter titles or not.

Don Quixote has many short chapters; the chapter titles (“The prophesying ape,” “The puppet show,” “The braying adventure,” “Concerning a squire’s wages”) tell you that the story will unfold as a series of separate, brief events.  The chapter titles of The Scarlet Letter (“Hester and the Physician,” “Hester and Pearl,” “The Minister in a Maze”) introduce you to the story’s main characters.  In both cases the chapter titles tell you how to approach the book.  Don Quixote is an episodic adventure; The Scarlet Letter is an examination of character.

My copy of The Scarlet Letter does not have a table of contents, but the chapters do have titles.  Chapter three is called “Recognition.”  Hester stands on the scaffold, holding infant Pearl.  She notices a stranger.  Hawthorne paints a description of the character without revealing his name.  Hester does not need the narrator to name this man she immediately (as the chapter aptly says) recognizes.  It is such as shock to her that she “presses her infant to her bosom with so convulsive a force that the poor babe uttered another cry of pain.”

The other instance of recognition in this chapter comes toward the end when the man shouts out from the crowd, “Speak; and give you child a father!”  Here, Hawthorne tells us Hester recognized the man’s voice.

Tell me, first-time-readers, who did you suspect this man was when you reached chapter three?


Posted by on March 6, 2012 in The Scarlet Letter


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Nothing but the Truth!

I’m beginning to think that Jane snuck a look at my WEM book.  Remember the homework that I must complete at the end of each novel?  In the Third Level of Inquiry: Rhetoric-Stage Reading section of the WEM book there are two little question at the very bottom of the page. 

Is this book an accurate portrayal of life? Is it true?”

Now back to Jane…

In chapter 12 she seems to have a thing for truth-telling. She goes so far to use the word “truth” twice in two pages.  The first time she’s discussing Adele.  It seems Adele is making noted progress but that she does not posses “great talents, no marked traits of character, no peculiar development of feeling or taste, which raised her one inch above the ordinary level of childhood.”  A few phrases later Jane says it.

“I am merely telling the truth.”

The next section finds Jane describing Grace Poole.  Jane mentions her “eccentric murmurs” and her strange laughter.  Then she goes on to describe how she witnesses how Grace would “go down to the kitchen, and shortly return, generally (oh, romantic reader, forgive me for telling the plain truth!) bearing a pot of porter.”

Did you catch it?  “oh, romatinc reader, forgive me for telling the plain truth!”

Jane seems to want us to believe in the accuracy of her descriptions.  Is Jane establishing her trust-worthiness? I think Jane needs us to believe her.  Later will things happen that will make us doubt her?    Hmmmmm

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Posted by on February 3, 2012 in Jane Eyre, Well-Educated Mind


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Jane’s Turning Point

Remember when I said that part of my “homework” when I finish a novel is to give the book a new title?  The WEM book says that I need to answer two questions before I can rename the story.

1. Who is the central character in this book?
2. What is the book’s most important event?

I am here to proclaim that after reading four chapters of Jane Eyre, I can already answer those two questions.

1.  Jane Eyre  (This one was rather easy!)
2. The moment when Jane stands up to her Aunt Reed in 
    chapter 4.

Do you remember that chapter?  Oh, it’s a good one.  Aunt Reed tells terrible untruths about Jane to Rev. Brocklehurst, the director of the Lowood Institution.  Jane is horrified, and when Brocklehurst leaves, she lets her aunt have it.

… ‘People think you are a good woman, but you are bad, hard-hearted.  You are deceitful!’
     Ere I had finished this reply, my soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt.  It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into un-hoped-for liberty.

When I finished reading this section, I gleefully wrote in the margins “Turning point!” and drew several stars.

Surely nothing more important than this can happen in the novel.  Right?  

There’s only four hundred more pages to read. 

On second thought maybe I should hold off on crafting a new title until I’ve read a few more chapters.


Posted by on January 26, 2012 in Jane Eyre, Well-Educated Mind


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Renaming Oliver Twist

You’ve finished Oliver Twist?  Great!

But for those of us following the WEM guidelines, we still have an assignment.  Remember when I said that I was required to take notes?  Keep a character list?  Fold down corners?  Look up definitions of words?  All of those things are suggestions by Susan Wise Bauer in her section titled “How to Read a Novel”.  Upon completion of the latest classic, I grab three things: my copy of the novel, my journal, and my copy of WEM.  I then do my best to answer the thoughtful questions Bauer has crafted.  One of the things she asks me to do is to give the novel a new title and subtitle.

“Now give your book a title that mentions the main character, and a subtitle that tells how that character is affected by the book’s main events.” WEM pg. 70

Here’s my attempt at titling Dickens’ sad story:

Oliver Twist: an innocent orphan is abused and manipulated by evil characters and, finally, rescued from his sad life by kind, wealthy people who are related to him.

It’s rather wordy and not very catchy.  But check this out.  According to the WEM synopsis for Oliver Twist, the book “was originally subittled The Parish Boy’s Progress in a satirical play on Bunyan’s title.  Christian is a grown man who can pursue his own destiny, but Oliver Twist is entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers.”

Whoa!  The classic novels are so intertwined!  Remember the Don Quixote references?  And way back when we started Oliver, I felt Dickens was making allusions to  Pilgrim’s Progress .  It makes me wonder what we’ll find in Jane Eyre.

Blog friends, here’s an assignment for you.  I’d love to read your attempts at renaming Oliver Twist in the comments section.


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P&P character web: spiders not included

As a student of the Well-Educated Mind, I am required to keep a list of characters.  Author Susan Wise Bauer suggests that I not only list characters but give a brief description for each one.   I’ve tried a couple different ways of doing this. 

For Don Quixote I listed characters on index cards that I used as a book mark.  This got frustrating since there were so many characters and so few of them ever made a reappearance.  I think by the time I finished the book I had five index cards covered front and back with tiny script.  As an added insult, the cards continually fell out of my book, losing my place.

For Pilgrim’s Progress I used the same format with some of the same frustration.  Few characters return in later chapters.  At least in this book, the characters’ names are their descriptions, so that part was easier.

For Gulliver’s Travels I confess that I neglected to keep a list.  I was so wrapped up with end notes that I completely forgot about it.  Again, it wasn’t that big a deal because once Gulliver left a location, he never came back.

For Pride and Prejudice, the first character-based novel on our list, I planned to do a stupendous job.  SWB suggests when there are lots of related characters, one should make a family tree.  This sounded like a great way to maintain the list (and to gather blog post material!).  Sadly, I do not know anything about family trees, and it took me many chapters to figure out who was related to whom and how.  I abandoned that idea and created a list organized by family in my journal (the one I use for chapter summaries).

I finished the novel.  Still I dreamed of a P&P family tree.  Fortunately there’s google and Wikipedia

It’s not a family tree, but isn’t it beautiful?!  It’s more of a family web.  A family and friends web.

I love how it shows the relationships between the characters. 

Oh, what a tangled novel!  What a web!  Though I suppose it is a web without a spider… 


Unless you think of Lady Catherine as the spider, using her silken threads of wealth and power to compel others to do her bidding…

Maybe there was a spider after all.



Posted by on November 16, 2011 in Pride and Prejudice, Well-Educated Mind


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