Saturday, February 19, 2011

Silas Marner by George Eliot

George Eliot is the pen name of Mary Anne Evans, a 19th century British author of poetry and seven novels.  In addition to Silas Marner, I had heard of The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch, but hadn't read any of them before this week.  I chose this one over the others was sitting on my shelf.  Same reason climbers scale mountains, right?...with the slight difference that I was able to accomplish this while sitting in an armchair by the fire.  (I think I got the better deal.)

Silas Marner is set in the British Midlands during the Industrial Revolution and could be a reaction to it, in that it portrays some of the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution.  Eliot herself rejected organized religion as an adult, and this novel also offers a critique of religion.  Knowing this, one might be tempted to think of Silas Marner as a stern, dour, finger-wagging critique of the negative aspects of the author's society, but such is not the case.  George Eliot excelled both at realism in her depiction of rural society in 19th century England and at sketching excellent character portraits.  Throughout the novel, the development of the main characters can be seen as Eliot skillfully brings out the tension between circumstance and character.  At first it seems like a simple moral tale (good characters get a happy ending, bad ones get their just desserts), but throughout the novel ethics are unhinged from religion, which makes for a very interesting treatment.


Most conflicted man: Godfrey Cass
Most transformed character: Silas Marner
Alchemical child: Eppie
Featured religious denominations: Calvinism, low church Anglicanism
There was a lot of: greed, gossip, deception, religious behavior, renewal
There should have been more: um...none of the above?
This book makes you want to: live a simple life, value people for who they are
This book makes you glad you don't have to: walk miles in the slush, spend your life in suspicion of all that lies outside your small town, live surrounded by aforementioned suspicious people (at least I hope you don't)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Pride and Prejudice

Alas, the poor blog languisheth.  I finished Pride and Prejudice five days ago, and am well into the next one on my list, but I haven't had a chance to compose an entry until now.  I know you're all dying to know my opinion.

Although I have seen several film versions of this Jane Austen classic, at last I have taken the opportunity to read the book itself.  The film versions do justice to the plot and dialogue, but there is much in the structure of the novel that can't adequately be captured on film.  The first part of the book takes place mainly as a series of performances in the public sphere, but Darcy's letter to Elizabeth is a clear divide, after which the plot and character development take place mainly through letters and internal musing.  This contrast between writing styles parallels the plot development, which begins with the characters' first impressions of each other and interactions with each other, and then moves to a more thoughtful section in which the characters must reassess, and sometimes completely deconstruct, their initial opinions of each other.

There are libraries full of scholarly analyses of Austen's work, and of this novel in particular, which I cannot summarize.  I can merely touch on the book's  relationship to its context and historical setting.  The work itself is set during the period of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, which are only implied in this novel in the movements of troops and garrisons from one English town to another.  War and political issues are never mentioned.  Pride and Prejudice was also written after Mary Wollstonecraft had become well-known as one of the founding feminist philosophers, and Austen's main character Elizabeth, while not feminist in the current sense, certainly has views about the education and role of women, views which conflict with those of her society. (Darcy agrees with Elizabeth on many points.)  The novel is set among the landed gentry of 19th century England, and addresses issues of class, inheritance, perception and identity.  All this, woven into a most delicious love story.

Best catch: Mr. Darcy
Guy you want to slap: Mr. Collins
Biggest airhead:, Mrs.,, Mrs.
There was a lot of: dancing, walking, conversing, analyzing others' behavior
This book makes you want to: write letters, walk in the countryside, play the piano on a quiet evening
This book makes you glad you don't have to: fawn over those in higher social classes, become "accomplished" in frivolous amusements (women), walk three miles to your neighbor's house

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Oliver Twist

Dear Mr. Dickens,

     I am writing to wish you well on the occasion of your 199th birthday.  Those who share your birthdate,  February 7, are fortunate indeed to be in the company of both a master storyteller and a proponent of social reform.  Despite your desire to forget the miseries of your childhood, beginning with your father's stay in debtor's prison and continuing through your devastating employment in the shoe polish factory, your readers are aware that without such experiences you may not have been able to so accurately portray the plight of the lower classes of London.  By your own admission, you were a "very small and not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy", echoes of which can be found in both Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.
     I understand that Oliver Twist in particular was intended to shed light on the great London waif crisis.  Indeed it did, with the public being so shocked by your descriptions of crime and squalor that the slum Jacob's Island was cleared as a result.  But Oliver, now, Oliver himself was conceived in irony, was he not?  The subtitle of Oliver Twist: the parish boy's progress alerts the reader that this work stands in contrast to John Bunyan's well-known The Pilgrim's Progress. Bunyan's main character finds himself journeying toward heaven, while your unfortunate Oliver, by dint of circumstance and societal structure, finds himself dragged into a living hell.  Even Oliver's surname, "Twist", darkly foreshadows his likely demise at the end of a hangman's noose, a common fate for pickpockets, thieves and criminals on the streets of London.  Several characters who observed the ragged child predicted, "He'll hang." The fact that an orphan's homelessness and pennilessness would cause any child to steal for his bread was apparently lost on the judges and magistrates who handed down sentences in those days.
     As for Nancy, it was too late for her, wasn't it?  Surely you saw her in the young women of Urania Cottage, the prostitutes and thieves whom you found in prisons and workhouses and invited to the Cottage where they learned to read, write and re-enter society.  This was one of the first halfway houses for women on record, and the 100 women who were rehabilitated there bore witness to your sense of justice.
    Of course, there is one final character in Oliver Twist that I must mention.  She appears in beauty and in squalor, and though you describe her in detail, Oliver Twist alone is not enough to paint a complete picture of her.  She lives in all your other works as well: singing, mourning, lounging, sprinting, bustling, resting, pining, laughing, blooming, dying.  She is London, and you knew her like a lover.
     And so, Mr. Dickens, I congratulate you on another year.  Although you've spent it in the ground, your words have been read by thousands of people over the last 365 days, and so you've spent it in our hearts and minds as well.  Happy birthday.