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Matters of Life and Death

If on a winter's nightSusan Wise Bauer shares that Calvino’s classic If on a winter’s night a traveler contains eleven beginnings. (WEM, pg. 110)

Looking at my copy’s table of contents, I count ten titled chapters.  So how many beginnings are there?  ten or  eleven?

Should I count chapter [1]?  That felt more like a prologue?  Should I count chapter [12]? In twelve I have the beginning of the Reader and Ludmilla’s life together.  That could be a beginning, but that same chapter has the conclusion of the story’s illusive novel.  Chapter [2]?  There the Reader goes to the book store and the story within a story (many stories) takes off.  Ten beginnings?  Eleven?  Beginnings are just one of the confusing things about this novel.

Salman Rushdie called If on a winter’s night a traveler, “the most complicated book you… will ever read.”

It was complications that drove Christina, Jeannette, and me to do a different kind of wrap-up.  Sure we met over food like always, but when it came time to discuss the wrap-up questions, we were stumped.  How do you talk about point of view, setting, style, or character obstacles?  There are stories within stories within stories!

Instead we latched on to this quote from the book:

  “Do you believe that every story must have a beginning and an end?  In ancient times a story could end only in two ways: having passed all the tests, the hero and the heroine married, or else they died.  The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.”

The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces:  the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.  All stories?  We decided to see about that.  With WEM novel list in hand, we thought back over three year’s worth of reading and divided the books we’ve read into two categories: continuity of life and inevitability of death.  True, some books ended with the hero and heroine married (Jane Eyre).  In some books, they died (Anna Karenina).  Sometimes they married and later died (Madame Bovary).  Amazingly, we instantly agreed on the placement of about 97% of the titles.  After brief debates, we were able to place the remaining 3%, giving us 100% agreement on our results.

Think back.  Where would you put Don Quixote?  The Scarlet Letter?  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?  1984?  Consider where you’d place each of the WEM novels we’ve read so far.  Start with Don Quixote and end with If on a winter’s night a traveler.

I’ll share the Classic Case of Madness results soon.  Put some thought into placing the novels.
Remember…tt’s a matter of life and death.

 

 

 

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Posted by on August 6, 2014 in If on a winter's night a traveler

 

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Seized

Seize the Day Heb Check-in

Did you Seize the Day?

I’m seizing this hebdomadal check-in and turning it into a quick wrap-up.

I found Bellow’s brief novel to be a combination of Mrs Dalloway and The House of Mirth: a day in the life of a midlife crisis.

I was also reminded of our “city-bad, country-good” theme.  How many examples of that can we find in the WEM novel list?  I’ll start with Oliver Twist. Feel free to name others.

What did you think of our hippo-like main character?  Did you feel sympathy for him?

Oh, and what did you think of Dr. Adler?  Were his harsh actions toward his son justified?

One cannot read the phrase Seize the Day without thinking of its Latin counterpart:
Carpe Diem.  Did you ever wonder about the phrase’s popularity?  Where does it come from?  Do what I did.  Pick up your trusty copy of The Well-Educated Mind and read page 360.  The poet Horace includes the words Carpe Diem in Odes.  SWB paraphrases Horace’s philosophy: “Accept your mortality and always act in the knowledge that time is short.”  

Based on the short time we spent with Tommy Wilhelm, do you believe things will improve for him?  Is the ending of Seize the Day hopeful?

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2014 in Seize the Day

 

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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.

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

 

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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.

Retitling
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.

Style
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.

Technique
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?

Self-Reflection
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.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2012 in Anna Karenina

 

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Soon. Soon.

theoretical – not practical

Classical Usage:  During our final gathering for Madame Bovary my kind reading partners volunteered to write the wrap-up post while I was gone on vacation, and I said, “Nah, that’s okay, theoretically I could write it with paper and pencil, and I’ll have like a gazillion theoretical hours in the van with nothing better to do, then I should be able to type it up and post it when I get to my parent’s house.  And if I don’t get it done on the way out I could theoretically do it up at the internet-free cabin in the Black Hills before the nine children wake at 5:13 a.m.  Yeah, so this is totally, theoretically possible.”

Classically Mad Usage:  I’m back from vacation now, so theoretically that Madame Bovary wrap-up post should be up any day now.

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2012 in Madame Bovary, The Blog

 

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What’s a Metaphor?

Sorry about saying that I would have have a post about images and metaphors yesterday, and then not delivering.  If you’ve hung around this blog for any amount of time you probably saw that one coming.

But if you don’t want to read about the images and metaphors in Uncle Tom’s Cabin I could tell you more about that horrible Mississippi Mud Cake I made.  I’m telling you folks, Aunt Chloe would have shaken her head in despair at my mediocre attempt.  No “perfectioners” would have hired me so I could pay for my husband’s freedom.  You know that cracked dried up mud on the banks of a river in a drought year?  That’s what this cake was.

Oh, you’re here for images and metaphors.  Sorry, I’m easily distracted.

Water.  Eliza’s daring cross of the Ohio river, Tom’s move to the south, Eva’s death by Lake Pontchartrain, George’s family’s journey to freedom across Lake Erie, Cassie’s reconnection with her family learned of on the riverboat north.  Water delivers.

Hair.  Eva gives away her golden curls as a symbol of her love, Legree’s mother does the same for him, yet he rejects it.  Eliza is forced to cut her dark locks to ensure safe passage to Canada disguised as a young man.

Mothers.  Mrs. Stowe is one, and she often addresses her readers with the same enduring moniker.  Then, she smothers the book in mothers: mothers, both slave and free; mothers who have lost their children to slavery, death, and unbelief; mothers who are horrible at mothering (and wifing, and slaveholding too, for that matter); mothers who go to any lengths necessary to save their children; mothers who are helpless to save their children; mothers who cry and help; mothers who drink and despair; mothers who stand up to unfair laws and their husbands; mothers who mother children who are not their own; mothers who are not mothers, yet take on the role; mothers who heal the enemy and make them the friend; mothers who love.

Tom’s Bible.  It is always present.  There’s clinging to the Word of God, and then there’s really clinging to the Word of God.

And last, but not least, in fact, it’s definitely the best, is Christine’s analysis of the parallels between Jesus and Uncle Tom:

  • Tom leaves his cabin to descend into the south like Christ descended to earth to be “among the lowly.”
  • Tom is sinless (as far as we can recall in the novel, if you can find an instance where HBS shows him sinning please let us know, we think even his anger can be justified as righteous.)
  • Tom is forsaken by everyone.
  • The Morning Star shines over Tom as he lay beaten in the shed.
  • Tom’s time of bitterness about the coming events is like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane praying that the cup be taken from him.
  • Tom asks George to take care of Chloe like Jesus as John to care for Mary.
  • Sambo and Quimbo are like the two thieves on the cross, or possibly like the Roman soldier who while participating in his crucifixion realized Jesus was the Christ.
  • Legree is like Pilate or the Sanhedrin, although he also reminded me of obdurate Pharaoh.
  • The body of Tom was taken by his friend to be buried.
  • Tom’s death buys freedom for others.
 
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Posted by on June 13, 2012 in Uncle Tom's Cabin

 

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