Monday, January 31, 2011

Treasure Island: In Which Stevenson Singlehandedly Creates Our Perception of Pirates

Everyone knows that Treasure Island is about pirates. And everyone knows what I mean by pirates: parrots on the shoulders of treacherous one-legged sailors, an old map with a red "X" to mark the secret location of the buried treasure, schooners, mutinies, maroonings, tropical islands, scalawags with names like Black Dog and Billy Bones, shipwrecks, muskets and cutlasses, the black spot, pieces of eight, rum, rum and more rum, even the guy with the red stocking cap who climbs the rigging with a knife in his teeth.  Guess what? Robert Louis Stevenson made it all up.

Birth of a Subgenre
Before Treasure Island, none of the above ideas were specifically connected with pirates in the popular imagination.  The birth of the novel can be traced to the day Stevenson's stepson painted a map of an island, and Stevenson, looking over his shoulder, was intrigued enough to make up a story on the spot.  Within 15 days he wrote 15 chapters.  The remainder of the book was finished later that year, Stevenson having been interrupted in the middle by a prolonged illness.  Stevenson based his ambiguous one-legged mutineer and sea-cook Long John Silver, one of the most well-known literary characters of all time, on his friend, William Ernest Henley, who had lost his leg to tuberculosis.  If Henley's name sounds familiar, it's because he's the author of  the poem "Invictus"  (you may know its oft-quoted lines, "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul", penned shortly after Henley lost his leg).  The personality and determination that shine through in "Invictus" have also been captured in Stevenson's portrayal of Silver.

The story garnered little attention when it was first serialized in a magazine, but when published as a book, it gained instant popularity.  Without Stevenson, we'd be missing an entire segment of halloween costumes, kids' books, films, themed birthday parties, niche seafood restaurants and amusement park rides. There would likely be no Talk Like A Pirate Day, nor would Facebook provide the language option "English (pirate)".  Would not our world be a little less merry and whimsical without Captain Jack Sparrow?  (Can't say I'd miss Captain Feathersword of The Wiggles though....)  These items are shallow in themselves, but the world of adventurous and imaginative play in which children engage while drawing on this cultural legacy is quite valuable.

The book itself is, of course, an excellent adventure novel.  It's a classic coming-of-age tale intended for a juvenile audience, although it differs significantly from more recent children's works in its frequent descriptions of enthusiastic rum guzzling.  Must be a pirate thing... The plot contains enough twists to interest adults, and the morally complex character of Long John Silver is also unusual in children's literature.  At 250 pages, you could read it aloud to your grade-schooler in a week.  In fact, I think I'll do just that, even though I read it to myself last week.  It's that good.

Favorite character: Long John Silver
Guy you want to slap: Squire Trelawney
There was a lot of: piratical mentioned above
There should have been more: dangerous island creatures. I'm thinking a big snake would have intensified the savage wilderness feel of the island.
Conflicts existed between: civility and savagery, truthfulness and deception, drunkenness and sobriety, loyalty and disloyalty
Eccentricity I'd most like to emulate: Dr. Livesey carrying a piece of parmesan cheese with him in a snuff box.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Scarlet Letter: A Romance

Wait... "A Romance"?
Yes, that is the subtitle Nathaniel Hawthorne gives to his magnum opus. I know what you're thinking: "A romance among the Puritans? This is going to be about as grotesque as a Russian luau."  Now, before you go complaining that I'm insulting Russians, let me point out that I thoroughly enjoy their food, music, novels, ballet, folk tales, fur hats and Faberge eggs. I just don't see them as embodying the aloha spirit.  In the same way, the plain, somber, gray-clothed Puritans aren't the first people who come to mind when you want to read about a vibrant and undying loooove.  >insert googly eyes here< Perhaps this is why The Scarlet Letter sat on my shelf for 12 years with nary a peek from me.  I thought it would be dour and depressing, what with all the "Sinner!" and "Evildoer!" finger pointing.

That is where I was wrong. I humbly repent, in the most literary way possible.  I will admit that I suffered through the first half, as did the main characters.  That section focused a lot on Hester's de facto shunning by the community, which was very puritanical (how fitting, I know), and the plot came across as heavy-handed with overly repetitive allusions.  But the book in its entirety turned out to be a very interesting exploration of many themes, including sin, legalism and guilt.

In the latter half, we see how Hester's development as a human has taken her far beyond the Puritan settlement.  To couch it in Puritan terms, although they view her as an outcast and sinner, she has become more Christlike than any of them.  The minister, however, is still wracked with guilt and we see the contrast between how these two people have dealt with their unacceptable behavior. We also see Chillingworth develop from a husband wronged into the worst sinner in the community.

I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in a discussion of social and religious themes.  The plot moves slowly but there is character development, albeit from the narrator's point of view.  What I mean by this is that there isn't a lot of dialogue or monologue coming from the characters.  The narrator explains what the characters are thinking, feeling and doing.  Don't give up on the book if you find it initially distasteful, either.  After chapter viii, you will not be bludgeoned repeatedly with the community's view of Hester. (Not as much, anyway)  It is also intriguing to read this book in view of Hawthorne's internal conflict between his Puritan ancestry and his distaste for that religious sect.  Although he disapproved of his gloomy ancestors' religious persuasion, he felt a real connection to the town of Salem and a strong sense of his place in New England.  This comes through in the novel's end, as the protagonist eventually returns to the town of Salem despite her treatment by its inhabitants.  We can imagine that Hawthorne would have done the same thing.

Best contrast: between the marketplace and the forest
Most conflicted character: Dimmesdale
Most surreal character: Pearl
Favorite short quote: "It is remarkable, that persons who speculate the most boldly often conform with the most perfect quietude to the external regulations of society."   [There are a few excellent sections which are too long to feature here.]
This book makes you want to: wander contemplatively through the forest, meet the author
This book makes you glad you don't have to: endure legalistic piety, sew your own clothes
Sense of place: 9 out of 10

Saturday, January 15, 2011

One for all, all for one!

I know, you've all been dying to read my illustrious opinion of The Three Musketeers. I shall now elaborate: I present, for your reading enjoyment, my Saturday Evening Post! *groan*
     Moving along...Dumas has certainly earned his reputation as one of the greatest novelists of all time. (I can't complain about Lord Sudley's translation either, although it's not the most recent.) D'Artagnan was dashing; Athos, inscrutable; Porthos, hilarious; Aramis, kind of a pansy. I certainly did not expect to laugh so hard or so often while reading The Three Musketeers, but Dumas pokes fun at human weaknesses and tendencies in a most delicious manner.  He was also very good at mixing plot-driven action with dialogue passages.
     Regarding the differences between the children's abridged version and THE REAL DEAL,  the kids' version did a good job of portraying the characters and their personalities, and it didn't dumb down the plot in terms of addressing human issues like jealousy, revenge, manipulation, ambition and courtly love...but it left out the entire siege of La Rochelle!   Several subplots and minor adventures were also cut, surely to shorten the story, but I suppose the siege was dropped because the editors decided that the underlying religious conflict is beyond a child's understanding (and the siege wouldn't make sense without it).  Let's face it, the intricate theological arguments driving the Huguenot/French Catholic conflict cannot be summed up by "eenie meenie minie moe, papal authority's gotta go" or "one fish, two fish, sacramental eucharist". Dumas doesn't give much background or explanation before presenting the siege.  He rightly assumed that his audience was familiar with the religious and political situation of the time, but if you don't know popes from puritans, a five minute rendezvous with Lady Wikipedia will give you enough info to properly enjoy this novel.
     I highly recommend The Three Musketeers to anyone who likes plot-driven novels.  We see many conventional plot devices in the first half of the novel, but in the second half, the single character of Milady takes over and drives the plot in a very unconventional way. Although the characters are not one-dimensional, we do not see much of their internal struggles or dialogues, and at the end of the book the characters themselves seem mostly unchanged by their experiences. Perhaps Dumas believes that people remain fundamentally unchanged by their environments. Perhaps he just likes to spin a tale.

Favorite character: Athos
Femme fatale: Milady de Winter
Guy you want to slap: Monsieur Bonacieux
Bad guy who wasn't bad enough: Count Rochefort
Funniest scene: the breakfast bet. or Athos locked in the cellar. or D'Artagnan's would-be duel with Athos. or Porthos' dinner with the Coquenards. or Aramis' dialogue with the Jesuit and the priest...
There was a lot of: food, wine, women, swordplay, melodrama, Catholicism  (Dumas, he's so French)
There should have been more: positive strong female characters (to balance the negative strong female character)
This book makes you glad you don't have to: wear tights, faint when surprised (women), carry a purse (men), duel everyone who smirks at you, flog a servant, hide in a convent, flatter the royal family, be branded for a felony, retrieve jewels from the English
This book makes you want to: insult people thoroughly, send secret letters, order monogrammed handkerchiefs, spend your significant other's money (hey, they're good for it!), gamble until you've won your opponent's horse, avenge somebody

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Heavy on the intrigue

This week I'll be galloping through Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers.  Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must point out that I read an abridged children's classics version of this book... repeatedly... from about the ages of 6-8.  My brothers and I would cut out paper swords, fashion makeshift cloaks from scarves and march down the hall shouting, "One for all and all for one!"  That said, the glaring fact that my childhood abridged version was about 60 pages, while the novel itself is 630 (this translation, anyway), proves that I have not, in fact, read this book!  Also, in an unfortunate example of phonics-gone-wrong, my 6-yr-old self understood the main character's name to be Dee-ART-again....but I have long since redeemed myself, having a undertaken a couple semesters of self-directed French study as penance.  Nevertheless, I shall only ever read this book in translation, as my pronunciation of French is still quite brutal, and the only result of my acquaintance with Dumas' original text would certainly be the regrettable murder of a classic novel.  This week, I look forward to comparing the plot differences between my old childhood favorite (read: bowdlerized) version and THE REAL DEAL.  I also look forward to a long tale of historical intrigue and romance spun by a master storyteller.

P.S. Don't worry, Kurt. I won't make you be Porthos this time.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Dreams are true while they last...

...and do we not live in dreams?  -Alfred Lord Tennyson

This novel struck me as a very interior work, easily read as a dream in which the dreamer's inner struggles are personified.  To begin with, I was fascinated that the entire setting of Wuthering Heights was like that of a dream state; by this I mean that the world of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange was self-contained.  Just like a dreamer doesn't wonder how the dream began or how s/he got there, in this novel the the characters unquestioningly accept the strange circumstances of their lives and do not appear to look beyond the geographical boundaries of the moors.  Even the city of London, mentioned a couple times, appears vague, distant and surreal.

Pardon me; you dropped your superego.
For some reason I had misguided expectations of the main romantic relationship in this novel, namely, more love and less hate.  Usually when fictional characters exhibit love, it changes them in some way, or causes them to choose more altruistic actions in order to benefit the object of their love.  Catherine's infantilism and Heathcliff's jealous violence run contrary to my expectations in that area. Despite their supposed eternal love for each other, they destroy each other.  This adds to the eerie, surreal quality of the novel.

SPOILER ALERT:  The paragraph below discusses key plot lines and events.

Apocalyptic Fantasy
I think Brontë's decision to carry the plot through the second generation of the two families was critical, but I know a lot of film versions end their portrayal with Catherine's death.  I don't know why filmmakers would choose to focus only on Cathy's and Heathcliff's unrequited love, because I found Heathcliff's manner of death and the redemption (intellectual, moral and social) of Hareton Earnshaw to be key plot elements.  In fact, the transformation of Hareton by Cathy Linton adds to the fantastical mood of the novel, as it contains a strong "Beauty and the Beast" element.  The final romance between Hareton and Cathy brings with it not a happy resolution to an unhappy story, but rather the peaceful yet shaky new beginning that comes after an apocalyptic end.  The theme of devolution before evolution lies heavily across the final pages of Wuthering Heights

So is Cathy forced to choose between nature and culture? Between id and superego? Between altruism and selfishness? Between her construction of Edgar and her construction of Heathcliff? Or simply between Edgar and Heathcliff?  This ambiguity of interpretation is part of what causes readers to return to this book.  Every time it is reread, the reader sees something new. 
Brava, Ms. Brontë.

Favorite character: Hareton Earnshaw
Most annoying character: Catherine Earnshaw
Character that started out annoying but mostly redeemed himself: Edgar Linton
Favorite quote:  "But there's this difference: one is gold put to the use of paving-stones, and the other is tin polished to ape a service of silver."  (chapter 21)
Oddest moment: Isabella Linton making lumpy porridge
Sense of place: 10 out of 10
There was a lot of : bad weather, doorways, windows, high walls, locks
There should have been more: bad weather, deja vu, dialogue between Catherine and Heathcliff
Descriptive passages: 9 out of 10 for quality, but I wish there had been more of them

Saturday, January 1, 2011

1801-I have just returned from a visit to my landlord...

...the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.   Thus we are introduced to the glowering antihero Heathcliff of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.  I received this book for Christmas, and waited until today to crack it open so that it could be my first book of 2011.  If you have most recently been reading current pop fiction, it will take a few pages to get used to Bronte's vocab and sentence structure, which is no surprise considering that she wrote this in1847.  The occasional puzzling out of a strange word is worth the effort though...because in chapter 15 Heathcliff is bitten by a radioactive spider and develops super powers!    Just kidding.

Thus concludes the first of two entries on Wuthering Heights.  I plan to post two entries per week, one when I start reading a new book, and one when I've finished reading it.   The latter entry could include my reaction to or interaction with the book in question.  This blog is not going to be a series of literary critiques (I'm not qualified) or book reviews (I'm not interested).  So if you're a high school sophomore in search of plunderable material for that 2 page report Mrs. Rusten wanted yesterday, you can just move along now.  (But definitely include the part about Heathcliff's superpowers.)

Check back on Friday to see how I fared a week of wandering the windswept moors and unhappy homes of Yorkshire.