Monday, October 20, 2014

Jane Eyre Read-along: Week 5

Welcome to the fifth week of 
the 2014 Jane Eyre Read-Along,
brought to you by

Introduction:  "My cherished preserver, good-night!"

Jane is awakened by a strange laugh in the night and finds that there is a fire in Mr. Rochester's bedroom.  She wakes him and quickly puts out the fire, drenching him in the process.  After some time of assessment the following interchange occurs:   

"You have saved my life:  I have a pleasure owing you so immense a debt.  I cannot say more.  Nothing else that has being would have been tolerable to me in the character of creditor for such an obligation:  but you:  it is different -- I feel your benefit no burden, Jane.
'Good-night again, sir.  There is no debt, benefit, burden, obligation, in the case.'
'I knew,' he continued, 'you would do me good in some way, at some time;  . . . My cherished preserver, good-night!"

This Week's Discussion Questions  
for  Chapters 15 - 19
(Questions Provided by
Babbling Books)

1.) Rochester seems to be a very strong personality. Is it surprising that he would become enamored with someone like Celine Varens?

I do not find it surprising that Mr. Rochester finds the appeal of Ms. Varens irresistible.  He is not the first to be in that situation.  It is a case of his passions overcoming his reason; in his case a "grande passion" as he tells Jane about the experience.  What he lacked in elegance, so he believed Ms. Varens thought, he made up for with his masculinity.  Unfortunately the affair was not meant to end well as he found her in the arms of another;  again, not the first man to experience the pain of being spurned by a fickle woman.

2.) We find that Thornfield Hall is a place with strange servants, where demonic laughter is heard and mysterious fires are set. Are these just clever and atmospheric plot devices, or is Bronte saying something more? 

As a literary device this is part of the Gothic element in Jane Eyre.  While not an explicitly Gothic novel Jane Eyre has elements that were popular beginning in the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth (among my favorites are novels by Mary Shelley and Ann Rafcliffe).  I believe these events contribute to the mystery surrounding Thornfield Hall and its owner.  They certainly continue to provide this reader with impetus to plunge forward sharing nervous wonder with Jane.

3.) At one point, Jane rebukes herself as a result of her attraction to Rochester, and resolves to suppress that attraction. Is this a realistic reaction of a person falling in love? Do people act this way in the real world and the present day?

I see this aspect of Jane as evidence of her uncertainty as to her relative position at Thornfield and in Mr. Rochester's life.  She seems unsure whether she should be satisfied with her position as Governess to Adele, thus not expecting anything more than any employee would from Mr. Rochester, or she should reasonably consider herself a potential "favorite" of Mr. Rochester and hope for a much more personal relationship.  The process she uses thinking this through seems very real as one Jane Eyre might consider, but perhaps a little cooler than may be typical for others.  In any case I loved her description of the process:

"When once more alone, I reviewed the information I had got;  looking into my heart, examined its thoughts and feelings, and endeavored to bring back with a strict hand such as had been straying through imagination's boundless and trackless waste, into the safe fold of common sense."

She has been hurt too often in her young life, by family and those from whom she should have received warmth and caring.  I am not surprised that she carefully tries to choose the "safe" approach with regard to Mr. Rochester.

4.) Jane believes that Rochester is planning on marrying for the benefit of connections. Is she assessing his character fairly? Based upon what we know about Rochester at this point, would a man like him enter into marriage for such reasons?

This seems like a reasonable choice for a man who has been betrayed by at least one woman when he let his passions override his reason (see Question 1).  I think that alone makes Jane's assessment reasonable based on the little else she really knows about him.  The assessment may also be based on her opinion about his social class in that a choice of marriage partner is more likely to be based on connections (or money) for someone of his station in society.  She may possibly be making a mistake in her assessment because of the mystery that seems to abound at Thornfield Hall, but maybe that is asking too much of her.

5.) At one point, Blanche Ingram insults and acts cruelly to a passive Jane. Rochester allows this to go on and he takes no action to stop it. What can be concluded from his behavior?

This may be just another instance of the importance of social class overriding the more benevolent feelings that one might expect from Mr. Rochester.  He has nothing to gain with his peers from doing otherwise.  On the other hand Jane may be right about Rochester and he does not really care for her at all; not that I really believe that for a moment.

6.) Rochester disguises himself as a fortuneteller deceiving Jane and several other characters. Is this the act of a trustworthy person? In reality, can someone who acted this way ever be worthy of trust? 

This episode, for me, seems to further the mystery of the story.  It is clear that he feels a need to discover information about some of those at the party that he could not obtain in a more direct matter.  This may be a simple game;  but I rather think of it as a test of Jane in particular.  He may not feel that he has the sort of relationship with Jane (or Blanche) to do otherwise.  As for the matter of trust I would respond with a perhaps.  It would depend on the persons total character and I believe we have much more to learn about Mr. Rochester before making a judgement one way or the other.  I will look forward to learning more about his relationship with Mr. Mason in this regard.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Scientific Discovery and Time

by Gregory Benford

“Passion is inversely proportional to the amount of real information available” 
― Gregory Benford, Timescape

This is a novel of scientific discovery that does not neglect the story of the people who make the science. It is a better novel as much due to both its fusion of detailed character development and interpersonal drama and the science fiction narrative that includes time travel, an alternate reality, and ecological issues.

The story is written from two viewpoints, equidistant from the novel's publication in 1980. One narrative is set in a 1998 ravaged by ecological disasters and is on the brink of large scale extinctions. It follows a group of scientists in the United Kingdom connected with the University of Cambridge and their attempts to warn the past of the impending disaster by sending tachyon-induced messages to the astronomical position the Earth occupied in 1962–1963. Given the faster-than-light nature of the tachyon, these messages will effectively reach the past. These efforts are led by John Renfrew, an Englishman, and Gregory Markham, an American most likely modeled on Benford himself.

Another narrative is set in La Jolla, California at the University of California-San Diego in 1962, where a young scientist, Gordon Bernstein, discovers anomalous noise in a physics experiment relating to spontaneous resonance and indium antimonide. He and his student assistant, Albert Cooper (also likely based on the author and his experiences at UCSD), discover that the noise is coming in bursts timed to form Morse code.
The resulting message is made of staccato sentence fragments and jumbled letters, due to the 1998 team's efforts to avoid a grandfather paradox. Their aim is to give the past researchers enough information to start efforts on solving the pending ecological crisis, but not enough that the crisis will be entirely solved (thus making a signal to the past unnecessary and creating a paradox). Due to the biological nature of the message, Professor Bernstein shares the message with a professor of biology, Michael Ramsey. Since the message also gives astronomical coordinates, he also shares it with Saul Shriffer, a fictional scientist who is said to have worked with Frank Drake on Project Ozma. Initially, these characters fail to understand the true meaning of the message. Ramsey believes it to be an intercepted military dispatch hinting at Soviet bioterrorism, while Shriffer thinks the message is of extraterrestrial origin. Shriffer goes public with this theory, mentioning Bernstein in his findings. However, Bernstein's overseer, Isaac Lakin, is skeptical of the messages and wants Bernstein to keep working on his original project and ignore the signal. As a result of this interruption in their experimentation, Bernstein is denied a promotion and Cooper fails a candidacy examination. The signal also exacerbates difficulties in Bernstein's relationship with his girlfriend, Penny.

In 1998, Peterson recovers a safe deposit box in La Jolla containing a piece of paper indicating that the messages were received. Meanwhile, it is clear that the viral nature of the algal bloom is spreading it faster and through more mediums than originally expected. Strange yellow clouds that have been appearing are said to be a result of the viral material being absorbed through the water cycle, and it soon affects the planet's agriculture as well, resulting in widespread cases of food poisoning. Flying to the United States, Markham is killed in a plane crash when the pilots fly too close to one of the clouds and experience seizures.

In the past narrative, now advanced into 1963, Bernstein refuses to give up on the signals. He is rewarded when the signal noise is also observed in a laboratory at Columbia University (a nod "Tachyons were the sort of audacious idea that comes to young minds used to roving over the horizon of conventional thought. Because of Feinberg I later set part of my tachyon novel at Columbia towards the inventor of the tachyon concept, Gerald Feinberg of Columbia). Using hints in the message, Ramsey replicates the conditions of the bloom in a controlled experiment and realizes the danger it represents. Bernstein finds out that the astronomical coordinates given in the message represent where the Earth will be in 1998 due to the solar apex. He also receives a more coherent, despairing message from the future. Having built a solid case, Bernstein goes public and publishes his results.

The remainder of the story involves the possibility of an alternate reality and some surprising consequences. The combination of science, the impact of the scientists' work on their interpersonal relations, and the impact of the science itself on the future made this an excellent work of science fiction. It is no surprise that it won several awards including the Nebula Award in 1980.

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Jane Eyre Read-along: Week 4

Welcome to the fourth week of 
the 2014 Jane Eyre Read-Along,
brought to you by

Introduction:  "Thornfield Hall was a changed place."

Jane has settled in to her life as Governess at Thornfield Hall.  However, in spite of the presence of Mrs. Fairfax and Adele with her maid, she finds the Hall a place of "stagnation" and "silence";  her room is "lonely" and Mrs. Fairfax merely "tranquil".  All this changes with the arrival of Mr. Rochester:  "I discerned in the course of the morning that Thornfield Hall was a changed place.  No longer silent as a church, it echoed every hour or two to a knock at the door or a clang of the bell.  Steps, too, often traversed the hall, and new voices spoke in different keys below.  A rill from the outer world was flowing through it.  It had a master;  for my part, I liked it better."  
Jane had yet to formally meet that master, her master; she would find even more changes about to occur.

Week 4  Discussion Questions:
Chapters 11 - 14
(Questions provided by
A Night's Dream of Books)

Jane meets her pupil, Adele Varens, in Chapter 11, and we learn more about her in subsequent chapters. How is this little girl contrasted with Jane herself, when she was a child?

Adele is also an orphan whose mama has passed on, but in many ways she is very different than the young Jane.   When we are introduced to her she is quite capable of singing and fluent in French, but seemingly undisciplined.  Jane finds Adele "docile, though disinclined to apply"  and that is certainly not like the Jane that we met in the opening chapters.  She also seems spoiled as evidenced by her preference for Mr. Rochester because he gave her "pretty dresses and toys";  but despite his kindnesses he has brought her to England and then left her there.  We later find that while she has "no great talents" she neither has "any deficiency or vice".   That Adele is willing to learn is more due to Jane's ability as a teacher than it is due to Adele's intelligence or perseverance.  

How does Bronte set the general atmosphere surrounding Jane's  awkward meeting with Mr. Rochester, in the country lane, which takes place in Chapter 12? 

It was January and "It was a fine calm day, though very cold".  Jane narrates that she offers to post a letter for Mrs. Fairfax and she shares the description of a landscape that is noted for its "utter solitude and leafless repose".  The sun is fading as the day is dying as she pauses on her journey.  
As the sun goes down the moon appears and betrays an evening calm.  This sort of solitude and calmness might not seem eerie if we hadn't been introduced to the strangeness of Grace Poole and her laugh only a page earlier.  The result for Jane is a conflation of nightmare and reality as Mr. Rochester and his horse come upon Jane.  As he passes her the realization that the black form is just a man breaks the spell, but the experience adds to momentousness of the occasion and leaves a special mark on Jane and the reader.

Jane states that she would not have offered her help to the fallen rider, had he been conventionally handsome. What does this tell the reader about Jane?

I am not sure what to make of this other than an indication of a sort of prejudice Jane has toward the outward appearance of beauty in others.  Given her experience thus far this is not surprising as she considers herself to be plain and her experience with those who flaunt their beauty such as Georgiana Reed was quite unpleasant.

What further information about Jane's personality, and her philosophy of life, do her paintings convey?

Jane's own description of the paintings reinforces her humility and her inability to translate the true power of her imagination to the painting.  That her imagination seems very dark is demonstrated by the first painting which highlights a lone cormorant and a drowned corpse. The other two paintings continue with a  theme of bleakness, cold, and in the third, an eye notable for its "glassiness of despair".  While Jane claims to have gotten pleasure out of the experience of painting these, they seem to betray a bleak outlook on life.  She claims to be tormented by her inability to realise what her mind's eye saw;  and Mr. Rochester suggests it is due to her lack of artist's skill that she only portrays a "shadow" of her thought.  What thoughts may they be?  She seems to be storing up the dark side of life in her mind so that she might better be able to handle the realities of her daily existence.  

What do you think is the real purpose of Mr. Rochester's interview of Jane? Or do you think it's the typical interview an employer would conduct, when hiring a new domestic employee?

Mr. Rochester's interview starts more as a probing of Jane's thoughts in an attempt to discern her character.  It is a strange way to conduct an interview and it tells us as much about the interrogator as it does about the interrogatee.  His is almost a teasing manner as in "Did you expect a present, Miss Eyre?  Are you fond of presents?"  He is as willing to compliment her (regarding the progress of Adele) as he is willing to criticize her (as to her piano-playing).   By the the end of the lengthy tete a tete he has a detailed picture of this young governess, but we have seen a man whose hardness, strong opinions, and harshness may be a facade hiding someone who is in search of companionship.  Perhaps there are even more secrets that he is hiding beneath this firm facade.

Do you see any hints of foreshadowing in Chapter 14? Please explain. 

Chapter fourteen seems to contain the seeds of mystery and intrigue.  Why do I say this?  We have already experienced, through Jane, the isolation of Thornfield Hall and the strangeness of Grace Poole with her even stranger, eerie laugh.  But now, we have Mr. Rochester telling his story, at least parts of it, with the admission that fate had "wronged" him and he had not the "wisdom to remain cool."  It is a story told in a way that bewilders Jane.  She says "Your language is enigmatical, sir:  but though I am bewildered, I am certainly not afraid."  What might occur in the future that would challenge Jane's present courage  we do not know;  but the idea is placed in our mind that we will find out more about the enigmatic Mr. Rochester.  He sees in Jane a "restless, resolute captive" who "were it but free, would soar cloud-high."  He on the other hand has seen better days and has only his claim to be of good intentions to give him hope for the future.  This chapter has heightened the Romanticism of the novel and suggested much more intrigue is in store.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Two by Marilynne Robinson

I have read three of Marilynne Robinson's novels.  Two of them are discussed below and Gilead which came between them, which I hope to comment on at some future date.  Her writing style is impeccable and a joy to read. I heartily recommend all of her novels to readers who love beautiful prose and thought-provoking domestic tales.


Housekeeping“Then there is the matter of my mother's abandonment of me. Again, this is the common experience. They walk ahead of us, and walk too fast, and forget us, they are so lost in thoughts of their own, and soon or late they disappear. The only mystery is that we expect it to be otherwise.”   ― Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

The housekeeping that is described in this fascinating novel from the pen of Marilynne Robinson is different than any I have ever experienced and that is part of the charm of the book. Add to that the elegant prose style of Ms. Robinson and you have all you need for a great book. The story is set in a fictional town in the Pacific Northwest that rests along a lake that casts an ominous shadow; it has the distinction of once having claimed an entire train that slid from a bridge into its dark waters one night, taking almost all on board to their deaths. Time swallows people in the same way in this seductive book (although not everyone in our book discussion group was taken with its charms).
The narrator is Ruth, a teenaged girl. She and her sister are raised, affectionately but haphazardly, by various generations of the women in her very eccentric family. This is a book about women, making homes, and leaving them. Even when the girls stay home, the days and nights pass and the plot goes nowhere in particular, but you do not mind because the author has such a masterful way with words.


Home (Gilead, #2)“He will talk to me a little while, too shy to tell me why he has come, and then he will thank me and leave, walking backward a few steps, thinking, Yes, the barn is still there, yes, the lilacs, even the pot of petunias. This was my father's house. And I will think, He is young. He cannot know that my whole like has come down to this moment. 
That he has answered his father's prayers.”   ― Marilynne Robinson, Home

Marilynne Robinson's novel, Home, is in part a variation on the theme of the prodigal son. However in this case, the father, Reverend Robert Boughton, does not role out the red carpet. 
Just as she did in her first novel, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson evokes themes from the Bible to provide thematic foundation for her narrative. As this story proceeds we begin to get a picture of a man deeply disappointed in his son and who seemingly, in spite of some words that suggest otherwise, would have preferred that his son not return after an absence of twenty years. While his daughter Glory, who is living at home caring for him, is willing to attempt to reconnect with her brother Jack as she deals with her own personal regrets, Reverend Boughton is gradually portrayed as a vain bitter old man, shorn of the more loving aspects of the Christian belief system. Doubt and distrust of his son, not altogether unwarranted, but certainly unexpected from a man of the cloth, consume the Reverend whose blood ties with this broken son do not help him overcome his antipathy for flaws that do not seem to be beyond forgiveness.
But the old man said, "Come here son," and he took Jack's hands and caressed them and touched them to his cheek. He said, "It's a powerful thing, family."  And Jack laughed. "Yes, sir. Yes, it is. I do know that."  
"Well," he said, "at least you're home." (p 176)
Others have shown some trust in Jack, but all seem to harbor doubts in this beautifully-written novel that shares its local and some characters with Robinson's Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead. In Gilead father and daughter remain as the rest of the family gathers to see their father through his last days, but the prodigal . . . well, read the book and find out.

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Thursday, October 09, 2014

Reading Questionnaire

Reading Connections 
& Time

I ran across the following questionnaire five years ago at kiss a cloud where it was placed in response to the original (I believe) at Savidge Reads. Connections can be found everywhere when pursuing reading blogs.  While I wrote a response at the time I thought after five years I might update my thoughts about these questions.
Anyway I think that today, with its sunny skies and and cool October weather is as a good as any one for curling up with a good book. But before I get too settled on the couch I append my answers to the "timely" questions about reading and Time with thanks to Simon and Claire. 

What time do you find the best time to read?

For me it is the first thing in the morning for about an hour.

What are you spending time reading right now?

I am beginning to read two large novels, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte; the latter is for a read-along on the Web and the former is for a class I am taking at the University of Chicago.  Other novels are also on my reading docket including Maps by Nurruddin Farah and The Enormous Room by E. E. Cummings and, for another study group, The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil.  That last title is a reread and it happened to be on my reading docket five years ago.

What’s the best book with time in the title you have read?

Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time would have to top the list and it has become a favorite over the last half-decade.

What is your favourite time (as in era) to read novels based in?

While I have read and enjoyed books from the preclassical era (The Epic of Gilgamesh) to the Postmodern (Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell), the Victorian era is my favorite time with Bronte, Dickens, Eliot, Trollope and Hardy among my favorite authors.

What book could your read time and time again?

There is not one book that I could put above others in my reading experience and there are many that I have read more than once.  Several candidates for this book would include Jane Eyre, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Middlemarch, War & Peace and David Copperfield.  I should add that not a year goes by in which I do not read some Shakespeare.

What recently published book do you think deserves to become a classic in Time?

Two that might make the grade that I have read are Embers by Sandor Marai (1942 but rediscovered in 2002) and the above-mentioned Cloud Atlas  (2004). The closest to a time theme for me would be Immortality by Milan Kundera (1990).

What book has been your biggest waste of time?

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai is still at the top of this short list;  being a tremendous waste of a book filled with uninteresting characters and narrated in an unnecessarily convoluted manner. So many better books have been written about India (most recently The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga).

What’s your favorite read of all time?

This would be a tie between Jane Eyre and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Who is your favorite author of all time?

Marcel Proust.

Madness of a Tragic King

King Lear
by William Shakespeare

Barbara Gaines, Director

"Howl, howl, howl!  O, you are men of stones.
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack.  She's gone forever.
I know when one is dead, and when one lives. 
She's dead as earth.  Lend me a looking glass."

- King Lear (V, iii, 258-262)

The current production of King Lear at Chicago Shakespeare Theater is successful primarily due to the astonishing performance of Larry Yando as Lear.  This seems to be due not only to his fine acting but also to the direction of the play that centers the action on Lear from the opening moments - with a prologue that is not in the original play -  to the final scene.  That this production has this focus is not unexpected, after all the title of the play is "King Lear", but doing so masks some of the flaws in the production;  one that used a contemporary setting and the songs of Frank Sinatra as backdrop for the 
tragedy of Lear. 

While enjoying the production as a whole, again mainly due to Larry Yando's exceptional performance, the evening was not without its disappointments.  First the good aspects:  Joining Yando with strong dramatic turns were Kevin Gudahl as Kent, Michael Aaron Lindner as Gloucester and Steve Haggard as his son Edgar.  On the other hand the portrayal of the daughters, especially Cordelia was not as strong and at the opening scene when Lear requests their declarations of love Nehassaiu deGannes as Cordelia appeared to be tentative and ineffective.  The performance of Jesse Luken as Edmund was one that did not bring the weight and force of language necessary for this essential role that rivals Iago in Shakespeare's catalog of evil characters.  The remainder of the company performed well enough to be worthy support for the magnificent Lear portrayal in this production.  The staging, especially the thunder and lightning of the storm on the heath was, in contemporary vernacular, simply awesome.  

Overall this was another great production from CST although anytime King Lear is well performed you are hard pressed to say you enjoyed the play.  This is the darkest of Shakespeare's plays with Lear's madness and the most tragic of endings, emphasized in this production with the dead Cordelia held in the King's arms.  Still, with all the tragic darkness there is much food for thought in the many wonderful words of this, one of Shakespeare's greatest plays.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Bewitchment of the Magic Mountain

Notes on reading
The Magic Mountain
by Thomas Mann

"Yes, it's top-notch, your having come,' he said, and there was feeling in his nonchalant voice.  "And let me tell you it's quite an event for me.  First of all, just the variety of it--I mean it's an interruption, a break in the endless everlasting monotony."
"But I would think time ought to pass quickly for you all," Hans Castorp suggested.
"Quickly and slowly, just as you like" Joachim [Hans' cousin] replied.  "What I'm trying to say is that it doesn't really pass at all, there is no time as such, and this is no life--no, that it's not," he said, shaking his head and reaching again for his glass." (p 14)

Thomas Mann's novel The Magic Mountain is very much the education of "an ordinary young man";  yet is so much more than this, with questions about young Hans Castorp's very ordinariness and his being in time.  Yes, this question of the status and nature of time is central to the story at the outset.  From the first page when we are told Hans "long trip" is  "too long, really, for so short a visit", time as experienced by Hans and the reader through the narrative's presentation is in a sort of flux.  

Hans' time is stretched out while he is on the Mountain so that a planned visit of only three weeks becomes a stay of seven years.  It is in the fifth paragraph of the novel, in the chapter titled "Arrival", that the narrator shares these words about space and time:
"Space, as it rolls and tumbles away between him and his native soil, proves to have powers normally ascribed only to time;  from hour to hour, space brings about changes very like those time produces, yet surpassing them in certain ways.  Space, like time, gives birth to forgetfulness, but does so by removing the individual from all relationships and placing him in a free and pristine state---indeed, in but a moment it can turn a pedant and philistine into something like a vagabond.  Time, they say, is water from the river Lethe, but alien air is a similar drink;  and if its effects are less profound, it works all the more quickly."(p 4)

Hans has not planned to take this short visit "seriously" but he soon finds, as he crosses the abyss between his old world and that of the magic mountain, that he is imbibing an alien air that quickly removes his inhibitions and exerts a profound force on his being.  He is experiencing what the author earlier, in his foreword, describes as the necessary time for the telling of his story, "for when was a story short on diversion or long on boredom simply because of the time and space required for the telling?  . . . Seven days in one week will not suffice, nor will seven months.  It will be best for him if he is not all too clear about the number of earthly days that will pass as the tale weaves its web about him.  For God's sake, surely it cannot be as long as seven years!" (p xii)

So we begin this modern novel with time as experienced by our ordinary young protagonist being stretched in ways that do not conform to everyday chronological time.  There will also be disease and the bewitchment of death.  Love, as well, will be present as a captive of the magic on the mountain.  Ultimately the bewitchment of the Magic Mountain will capture the reader in its "alien air".

Monday, October 06, 2014

The 2014 Jane Eyre Read-Along: Week 3

Welcome to the third week of 
the 2014 Jane Eyre Read-Along,
brought to you by

Introduction:  "they spoke of books:"

In the chapters for the reading this week we find Jane at Lowood School with new sights and new persons.  The best of Jane's new acquaintances are fellow student Helen Burns and their teacher Miss Temple.  After a particularly hard day (as were most days) Miss Temple invites the girls to share a small, simple repast that she had saved for them and that Jane described as "nectar and ambrosia";  but the best part of the evening was the conversation:
"They conversed of things I had never heard of;  of nations and times past;  of countries far away;  of secrets of nature discovered or guessed at;  they spoke of books:  how many they had read!  What stores of knowledge they possessed!"

Week 3  Discussion Questions:
Chapters 6 - 10
(Questions provided by
Babbling Books)

1.) What are your impressions of the way Helen Burns endures punishment and abuse?

Helen has what I would characterize as a "stoic" attitude, but one that is very much based in a firm belief in God and the Bible.  Helen tells Jane, "It is far better to endure patiently a smart which nobody  feels but yourself, than to commit a hasty action whose evil consequences will extend to all connected with you;  and, besides, the Bible bids us return good for evil."  She appears to be meek as in those "blessed" ones that are said to inherit the earth;  but in spite of her acceptance of punishment, or perhaps beside it, she is not unintelligent and thinks about both her own spirit and the impact her actions have on those around her.  She even betrays admiration for Jane in the way that she smiles and looks upon her.

2.) What are your impressions of the way that Jane sees punishment and abuse in comparison to Helen?

Jane, in comparison with Helen, is almost her antithesis.  She has a rebellious nature and is not ashamed of that, relying on her own standards of what is right rather than those of others (particularly Miss Scatcherd).   Jane tells Helen,  "I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me;  I must resist those who punish me unjustly.  It is as natural that I should love those who show me affection, or submit to punishment when I feel it is deserved."  Thus Jane is more concerned with what she considers "just" and her own natural feelings of when punishment is "deserved" and when it is not.  Unlike Helen whose reaction to abuse is to "love your enemies" Jane is focused on what is right.  Her view seems Kantian in the sense that she sees actions as being defined by rules that apply the same to everyone, and will not accept injustice based on the teachings of the Bible.  

3.) Would Mr. Brocklehurst have been a more realistic and interesting character had he been less overtly fanatical, cruel and hypocritical, and just deeply flawed, instead?

We see Brocklehurst through the eyes of Jane.  While her lens may exaggerate the flaws of his character, they highlight the attitude of Jane, reinforcing the defining characteristics of her own defiant and daunting persona.  Understood this way Brocklehurst, while a grotesque caricature, is infinitely more interesting than his slightly kinder and gentler doppelganger who does not appear in Jane's very personal narrative.

4.) Helen Burns exudes confidence and is sure of her personal beliefs. Do you find it realistic that a young person exhibits such traits?

Helen Burns' confidence and sureness in her personal beliefs seems to stem from a faith that she has developed well before Jane, and thus we the reader, meets her.  That her faith can sustain such confidence I have little doubt.  In her longest statement of faith Helen concludes with the words, "God waits only the separation of spirit from flesh to crown us with a full reward.  Why, then, should we ever sink overwhelmed with distress, when life is so soon over, and death is so certain an entrance to happiness -- to glory?" 
 These words speak of a confidence within;  a confidence that is based on a faith stronger than most of us may share.  This is uncommon perhaps, but surely realistic from a romantic point of view.

5.) Miss Temple seems to influence Jane's personality and outlook on life during her stay at Lowood. Would Jane have developed differently without her influence?

I believe this is a question for which it is too early for us to know.  As readers of Jane's narrative we have yet to see how Jane develops.  It does appear that Jane continues to be observant and admires Miss Temple tremendously.  Jane comments that "to her instruction I owed the best part of my acquirements;  her friendship and society had been my continual solace;  she had stood me in the stead of mother, governess, and latterly, companion."  
Miss Temple's leaving Lowood removed the "tranquility" that she had brought to Jane, but also freed Jane to experience the "real world" outside of Lowood.  This was the world that "awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils."  
I am unsure whether Jane would have had this courage without the influence of Miss Temple, but I am sure that she has it for now and I hope she will continue to exhibit it in her new endeavor as she leaves Lowood.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Romance from a Bygone Era

by A.S. Byatt

“They took to silence. They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a beach, and not removed. One night they fell asleep, side by side... He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.” ― A.S. Byatt, Possession

Possession: A Romance is a 1990 bestselling novel by British writer A. S. Byatt that also won the 1990 Booker Prize. The novel explores the postmodern concerns of similar novels, which are often categorized as historiographic meta fiction, a genre that blends approaches from both historical fiction and meta fiction. In this specific case one of the main themes, struck in the epigraph from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, is that this novel is a romance in its attempt to "connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us".

The romance follows two modern-day academics as they research the paper trail around the previously unknown love life between famous fictional poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Possession is set both in the present day and the Victorian era, pointing out the differences between the two time periods, and satirizing such things as modern academia and mating rituals. The structure of the novel incorporates many different styles, including fictional diary entries, letters and poetry, and uses these styles and other devices to explore the postmodern concerns of the authority of textual narratives. The title Possession highlights many of the major themes in the novel: questions of ownership and independence between lovers; the practice of collecting historically significant cultural artifacts; and the possession that biographers feel toward their subjects. 

The romance concerns the relationship between two fictional Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash (whose life and work are loosely based on those of the English poet Robert Browning, or Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose work is more consonant with the themes expressed by Ash, as well as Tennyson's having been poet-laureate to Queen Victoria) and Christabel LaMotte (based on Christina Rossetti (although LaMotte is presented as much less well-known poet than was Rosetti) as learned by present-day academics Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey. Following a trail of clues from various letters and journals, they work to uncover the truth about Ash and LaMotte's history before it is discovered by rival colleagues. Byatt provides extensive letters, poetry and diaries by major characters in addition to the narrative, illuminating the work with poetry attributed to the fictional Ash and LaMotte.  I enjoyed the many references to literary and philosophical sources and themes that the author interpolates within the narrative.  One favorite theme of mine is reading which is explored near the end of the novel:

"It is possible for a writer to make, or remake at least, for a reader, the primary pleasures of eating, or drinking, or looking on, or sex.  Novels . . . do not habitually elaborate on the equally intense pleasure of reading.  There are obvious reasons for this, the most obvious being the regressive nature of the pleasure, a mise-en-abime even, where words draw attention to power and delight of words, and so ad infinitum, thus making the imaginative experience something papery and dry, narcissistic and yet disagreeably distanced, without the immediacy of sexual moisture or the scented garnet glow of good burgundy.  And yet, natures such as Roland's are at their most alert and heady when reading is violently yet steadily alive." (pp 510-11)

Written in response to John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman the novel explores the postmodern concerns of that and other similar novels, which are often categorized as historiographic meta fiction, a genre that blends approaches from both historical fiction and meta fiction. Byatt wrote elsewhere that "Fowles has said that the nineteenth–century narrator was assuming the omniscience of a god. I think rather the opposite is the case—this kind of fictive narrator can creep closer to the feelings and inner life of characters—as well as providing a Greek chorus—than any first–person mimicry. In 'Possession' I used this kind of narrator deliberately three times in the historical narrative—always to tell what the historians and biographers of my fiction never discovered, always to heighten the reader’s imaginative entry into the world of the text." 
This is only one of the many ways that Byatt keeps the novel (romance) interesting for the reader. The combination of mystery, romance, and literary references made this an engaging and delightful book that become progressively more interesting as I read toward its unexpectedly exciting denouement.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Sting of Eternity.

If you were coming in the fall, 
I'd brush the summer by 
With half a smile and half a spurn, 
As housewives do a fly.

If I could see you in a year, 
I'd wind the months in balls, 
And put them each in separate drawers, 
Until their time befalls.

If only centuries delayed, 
I'd count them on my hand, 
Subtracting till my fingers dropped 
Into Van Diemens land.

If certain, when this life was out, 
That yours and mine should be, 
I'd toss it yonder like a rind, 
And taste eternity.

But now, all ignorant of the length
Of time's uncertain wing, 
It goads me, like the goblin bee, 
That will not state its sting.

- Emily Dickinson

This astonishingly beautiful poem by Emily Dickinson reminded me of a novel I am currently reading, The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.  Mann does not automatically come to mind when thinking of the poetry of our American nineteenth century genius, but I would suggest they do share some common interests that are demonstrated in this poem.  
In particular, Mann's novel The Magic Mountain has time as one of if not it's primary theme.  The philosopher Paul Ricoeur noted that "The narrative technique employed in the work confirms, in turn, the characterization of the novel as a Zeitroman"(novel of time).(Time and Narrative volume 2, p 113)  
Thus I was reminded of this aspect while reading Dickinson's sublime lines about "time's uncertain wing" that keeps her apart from the "taste of eternity".  Wonderful stuff and a good way to begin the first complete month of Autumn.

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickinson.  Little, Brown & Company, 1955.
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.  Vintage Books, 1996 (1924).
Time and Narrative: Volume 2 by Paul Ricoeur.  University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Death of a Principled Man

Faithful Are the Wounds: A NovelFaithful Are the Wounds: 
A Novel 
by May Sarton

"Such a kind man, she thought, holding his handkerchief crumpled up in her hand.  I tried to tell him the truth -- what is the truth?  The plane gave a big jolt and landed.  She knew well that she had not told it, that Edward was more than anything she had said, more disturbing, more . . .  Who was he murdering when he threw himself under the train?  But the kind man had not asked her that and, if he had, she could not have answered.  She could only have said, "I did no know my brother very well."" (p 24)

Faithful are the Wounds is an academic novel, that is it has an academic setting (Harvard University) and many of the characters are academics. It is, however, much more than that for it focuses on the impact of death on personal relationships and presents the difficulties of maintaining one's political and ethical principles.

The novel deals with an intellectual abstraction- the forfeit of liberal courage and conviction- in civilized terms and through the medium of the suicide of Edward Cavan, a Harvard Professor and a militant idealist. Edward is an intense man in his views and preoccupations. He leads an intensely lonely and remote life, following a pattern set in a childhood of rejection.

One of the best aspects of the novel for this reader was the way that Edward's character was presented through the vignettes of the impressions he made on the people around him. In a very realistic way these vignettes are not about incidents where Edward's thoughts and actions are necessarily understood, but they gradually provide a picture of the man about whom we learn in the prologue on page three that Edward Cavan "threw himself under an elevated train".

The narrative that follows presents Edward as seen through the eyes of a few of his friends and relatives just before and after his death: his friend, Damon, who had retracted on the principle at the foundation of civil liberties in the fear of the Communist label, which was in a sense to Edward a personal betrayal; his sister Isabel, who had never understood his alienation from her- and their family; a student, a great scholar, and an old friend- the daughter of a former Harvard dean. But his influence lives on in action as well as memory as a few years later, when academic as well as civil freedom is threatened by a Committee hearing- Damon stands up and defends the concept for which Edward had died.... This is a thoughtful rather than forceful perspective of individuals and issues.

The overall effect is to present a man who was respected and loved in spite of his remoteness. It goes beyond that to demonstrate the impact one man can have on the lives of those around him when they are faced with the presence of his death and consider what that presence means to them.

May Sarton was a writer of poetry, novels and memoirs including her Journal of a Solitude. She was born on May 3, 1912, in Wondelgem, Belgium, and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her first volume of poetry, Encounters in April, was published in 1937 and her first novel, The Single Hound, in 1938.  She would go on to publish nineteen novels in addition to many volumes of poetry.  An accomplished memoirist, Sarton boldly came out as a lesbian in her 1965 book Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. Her later memoir, Journal of a Solitude, was an account of her experiences as a female artist. Sarton died in York, Maine, on July 16, 1995.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

The 2014 Jane Eyre Read-Along: Week 2

Welcome to the second week of 
the 2014 Jane Eyre Read-Along,
brought to you by

Introduction:  "a black pillar!"

The most striking scene for this reader was Jane's hesitation upon entering the breakfast-room where she had been summoned.  As she turns the handle of the door what should she see besides the familiar visage of Mrs. Reed?
"passing through, and curtseying low, I looked up at -- a black pillar!  -- such, at least, appeared to me, at first sight, the straight, narrow, sable-clad shape standing erect on the rug;  the grim face at the top was like a curved mask, placed above the shaft by way of capital."
This was the eminent Mr. Brocklehurst whose institution would be taking over the care of young Jane for the foreseeable future.

Week 2  Discussion Questions:
Chapters 1 - 5
(Questions provided by
A Night's Dream of Books)

1.) The novel opens on a very dreary, rainy November afternoon. How do you think this contributes to the general mood of the first chapter?

The first sentence declares that taking a walk was not a "possibility" that day, leading the reader to an expectation of why this might be that is immediately answered in the second sentence.  This not only establishes the mood of the story but provides a foundation for Jane's tale of woe at the hands and minds of the Reed family.  Beginning the novel in November suggests the idea of death in nature with the trees and bushes losing their leaves and the wind howling.  The mood is underscored by Jane's description of the "pale blank of mist and cloud" and "ceaseless rain".  Another aspect of the dreary opening description is to provide contrast with Jane when she engages in her solitary activities such as daydreaming and reading her bird book.

2.) What literary function do curtains and draperies have in the opening chapters?

Along with other aspects of the story such as the dreary condition of the weather on the opening pages these items are metaphors for certain ideas that we will likely continue to encounter as the story progresses.  They can be seen standing for the separation between Jane and the Reed family, but more importantly as a symbol of death along with the color red.  I am reminded of Poe's Masque of the Red Death where he uses similar motifs in a much more horrific setting.  It also isolates Jane, not just from the family, but also from nature and any source of goodness and hope.  The blinds in the "Red Room" are already drawn but the "red" curtains add to the separation.  One cannot fail to note the Freudian overtones of the red damask curtains around the bed that make it seem like a "tabernacle". Overall they add to the majesty of the room (it sounds like something out of a museum), but note that Jane describes it as a "vacant" majesty.  This may suggest simple unreality or something more sinister like the supernatural.  

4.) Bessie's attitude toward Jane is inconsistent; at times, she's kind toward the child, while at others, she scolds her unfairly. Why do you think she acts this way?

I believe that the inconsistency of Bessie's attitude toward Jane is a bit of realism in this very Romantic novel.  Given her position vis a vis Mrs. Reed she may find it difficult to contradict her employer.  In spite of that I believe her true nature shines through with certain acts of kindness that lead to the reconcilement in chapter IV that I discuss below.

5.) Jane speaks more like an adult than a child, especially in the scene with Mrs. Reed, after Brocklehurst leaves. Do you think this is because she's a very intelligent, precocious child, or is this simply an unrealistic part of the novel?

I believe this is intentional on the part of the author.  Jane is a first person narrator and, while we enter her story on a  somber day dominated by a "cold winter wind", she appears from the beginning to be an adult looking back at her life and telling her story beginning when she was a ten-year-old girl.  While she is undoubtedly more intelligent than the Reeds give her credit for I find this a reasonable way for the author to  present the young Jane to the reader.  What I find more interesting is her psychological development:  We see her on the first two pages shutting herself away from the "ceaseless rain" outside, but also shutting herself away from the physical attacks of young John Reed and the psychological torture of Mrs. Reed.  By chapter IV she has summoned the internal energy to speak up to Mrs. Reed saying "I am not deceitful: if I were I should say I loved you;  but I declare I do not love you:  I dislike you the worst of anybody in the the world except John Reed;"  
We see further evidence of her psychological growth as she reconciles with Bessie, the only person in the household who had shown Jane true kindness.   And on  the following page there is one of the most pleasant moments in the first five chapters when Jane closes chapter IV with the following, "and in the evening Bessie told me some of her most enchanting stories, and sang me some of her sweetest songs.  Even for me life had its gleams of sunshine."