Friday, July 30, 2010

Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory

I am back from Brazil! The team I went with arrived safely back in the U.S.A. and we are all now slowly but surely getting back into our regular routine. I am not quite there yet, and I knew I wouldn’t be, which is why I scheduled this week to be a simple book review on a book that is not on the list at all, but something I chose to read on my own. However, even though Speak, Memory is not on the M.A. list, hopefully I can gain some insights from it that will help me better understand Pale Fire, the optional work by the same author.

Speak, Memory is very interesting, although a little bit dull at times. I wish Nabokov spent more time talking about his ability to see sounds and clearly attribute specific colors and textures to certain letter sounds. The narrative voice is intriguing as the author wrote the book as if he was telling the story to his wife, Vera. It isn’t something the reader is always aware of, but it crops up as a nice surprise at times. If you have read any of Nabokov’s other works, I do recommend Speak, Memory for further insights into this fascinating Russian writer. I am glad I read it before I dove into Pale Fire, which is proving to be interesting in its own way.

So as promised, next week I will cover Pale Fire. What is really great about this work is that it will be covered in the course I am taking this Fall, so there will be an additional post with helpful notes from my professor in the future. We will get an expert’s opinion, and see how far off I was. It should be enlightening.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bleak House Cast of Characters

I know I said that this week I would be going into a deeper explanation of the characters of Bleak House. Instead, I have decided to create an extremely complicated but also extremely helpful chart that contains most of the main Bleak House characters and how they relate to one another. Click on the image above to get a full cast of characters.

I am sure I missed a few connections here and there, and that some of my labels on certain relationships are less than adequate. Even so, this chart has helped me much more than the general list of characters found at the beginning of my edition. Hopefully, it will be just as helpful for you.

There will not be a blog post next week as I will be out of the country. I get the privilege to spend ten days in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on a mission trip. I will still be reading (maybe), but as I doubt I will have internet access, I decided to go ahead and cancel next week’s post and just pick up the following week. I will take a brief look at Speak, Memory, the autobiography of Vladimir Nabokov. Hopefully by the next week, I will have finished Pale Fire and will be able to take notes on it. So until the 30th, happy reading.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Optional Work: Bleak House

I just want to start off by saying that this book is long. I realize I am stating the obvious, but I still fell like it needs to be said and that this truth cannot be overstated. I chose the Barnes and Noble edition which includes original illustrations, a map of Dickens’ London, and a timeline of Dickens’ life and the important events that happened during his lifetime. This edition is 817 pages long, and, in true Dickens fashion, the book really doesn’t start to get moving until about page 395. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the book…I just had to pace around my tiny apartment a few times after finally finishing it because I felt as if I was waking up from a coma…but a good coma…if there is such a thing.

Like many of the novels that will appear in this blog, Bleak House could belong to a multitude of different genres. The one I have decided to go with are satire, romance, melodrama, social criticism, and even detective fiction. I will speak more about satire and social criticism in the history section when I come to Dickens’ feeling about the English judicial system of his time.
When talking about romance as it pertains to Bleak House, the best example I can think of from the book that exemplifies this genre is the relationship between John Jarndyce and Esther Summerson. John Jarndyce is perhaps one of the most noble and upright men that Dickens ever created. He essentially comes to Esther’s rescue after the death of her godmother. He educates her, and then gives her a comfortable place to live with him and his wards, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone. It is later revealed (spoiler alert!) that he long had the intention of making her his wife and sharing with her his life at Bleak House. Throughout the novel, Esther expresses both to Jarndyce and the reader how utterly grateful she is to him, and how she owes her very life as it is to him. It is a different take on the common tale of a knight coming to the rescue of a maiden.
Bleak House is a melodrama in that Dickens does appeal to your emotions by making some people unbelievably good (Esther and Jarndyce), and others downright vile (Harold Skimpole). I would also like to argue that some scenes and plot points are exaggerated as well. My main example for this (spoiler alert!) is the eerie scene in which the illiterate Mr. Krook is found to have been a victim of spontaneous combustion. Before his body (or lack thereof) is found in his apartment, there is constant description of Guppy and Jobling smelling something in the air and various odd substances drifting from the sky. When the body (or lack thereof) is found, it is really just a smoking mesh with a much freaked out cat nearby. In my edition, an illustration accompanies the description, making the scene that much more complete. Of course, spontaneous combustion as a means of death is its own exaggeration, as many people do not believe in its possibility, and it is extremely difficult to prove.
The novel crosses over into detective fiction whenever Mr. Bucket appears to investigate either the murder (spoiler alert!) of Mr. Tulkinghorn, of the whereabouts of either Lady Deadlock or the ruined Mr. Gridley. Most of the action involving Inspector Bucket takes place near the end of the novel, and it really is interesting to see how Dickens has him put together his clues and evidence in order to figure out who the real culprit is.

The one theme I could really attach myself to when it comes to this book was greed. The Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit that remains at the core of the novel has been going on for years and has consumed pretty much all of the money the winner of the judgment is supposed to receive due to legal fees. As the novel goes on, it becomes apparent that almost everyone, with the exception of John Jarndyce, that becomes at all involved in the lawsuit becomes obsessed with it and ceases to be able to live a normal life. The likeable (spoiler alert!) Richard Carstone slowly becomes more and more depressed and pathetic as he refuses to let go of his false belief that when the lawsuit is over, he will be rich and will be able to adequately provide for his new wife. He refuses to head the advice of Jarndyce and even starts to belief that his guardian is selfish and an enemy.
Another example of greed in the novel is the despicable Harold Skimpole – a friend of Jarndyce and a sponge off of anyone who lets him. He claims to know nothing of money in order to clear his own conscious whenever he gets into debts and can’t pay them back. Someone always ends up paying the debts for him, and he goes on living and never learning from his mistakes because he doesn't really want to. He even has no problems sponging off of people he knows cannot afford even their own debts, much less his. I think for me, the moment I decided I despised his character is when he leaves his house in order to avoid an encounter with a debt collector; meanwhile, his wife and kids remain at the house and they are left to deal with the debt collector on their own.
There are other characters that exemplify greed in the novel, but for me, these two definitely take the top two spots.

Dickens began monthly serialization of Bleak House in March of 1852 and finished in September of 1853. The fictional lawsuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is emblematic of what Dickens seemed to believe were the failures and flaws of the British judiciary system. These were flaws Dickens himself saw both when he worked as a law clerk, and when he himself was a litigant seeking to enforce copyright on his books. Of course, there were Chancery lawyers and judges who believed that Dickens’ social criticism was exaggerated; however, Bleak House did help spur an ongoing movement for legal reform that was occurring as he was writing the novel, and went well into the 1870s. The Six Clerks and Masters mentioned in Chapter One were abolished in 1842 and 1852. This would mean that Bleak House would have to have been set before 1842.

Next week I will dive more deeply into the characters of Bleak House and how their histories and plot lines interweave with one another. While reading the book, I felt like I was introduced to characters and plot lines in a sort of circular motion as one character’s circumstance would lead to the introduction of another, and their’s would lead to the introduction of someone, and so on and so forth until eventually the reader was brought back to the character the whole cycle started with. This can make the novel both fun and frustrating – any novel that begins with a list of characters immediately puts me on edge as it would not be included unless they felt like the reader would need it.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Moby Dick again…and no, this will not be the last time

As promised, here are some questions that will hopefully be useful when thinking about Moby Dick critically for a comprehensive exam. Most of these questions were given to my 19th Century American Literature class by our professor, and lead to some interesting discussions regarding interpretation (which brings us back to narration issues), the issue of naming the ship “Pequod,” and of course, biblical references. Enjoy!

1. How soon does the subject of interpretation itself become of central concern in this novel?

Pretty much immediately. “Call me Ishmael” could mean a whole host of things. It could be him taking immediate control of the interaction with the hearer of his story and he wishes to establish his own ambiguity. It also could be completely casual. Ishmael could have just picked a name that sounded good to him at that moment. Of course, as an English major I cannot support that last theory simply on the grounds that the Ishmael in the Bible was the illegitimate son Abraham had with his slave Hagar when his wife could not have kids, and Ahab was king that God most hated.
Interpretation comes again very soon after when Ishmael assumes that Queequeg will be a white person, even after he learns that he is out selling shrunken heads. Apparently at the time, it was mostly white people who were peddling heads.

2. What do you think that Ishmael means by “the ungraspable phantom of life?” Why does it seem to be dangerous?

“And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all” (5)

First, it is not necessarily bad to not be able to grasp it. Second, it can be good and not at all dangerous if we don’t actually grasp it. It may be something to strive for but we never can reach, and there is a reason we never reach it. However, to not even try because of the knowledge that it cannot be reached, would be like not living.
Narcissus decides he must have it and ends up drowning. Interestingly enough, Ahab’s fate is extremely similar. He is tormented by his own “ungraspable phantom” and also ends up drowning when he makes that final reach. This is what makes it so incredibly dangerous.

3. How may the lessons in “The Sermon” be applied to Ahab?

The preacher in “The Sermon” chapter tells the biblical story of Jonah and the whale. Jonah received a message from God to go to Ninevah and tell them to turn from their evil ways. Instead of doing what God said, Jonah ran in the opposite direction and is consequently swallowed whole by a whale (or giant fish, commonly believed to be a whale). Jonah then goes back to Ninevah, preaches God’s word, and because the Ninevites do repent and turn from their evil ways, God has mercy on them.
The main lesson (though not the only one) is that we must fear and obey God. He is all powerful and it is the height of arrogance not to trust what he has for us.
Moby Dick already ate Ahab’s leg once. Maybe it is not in God’s plan for Ahab to go after this whale. Of course, Ahab does go after Moby Dick, and of course, the whale kills him. Moby Dick even bites off Ahab’s first fake leg before finally killing him. Ahab has one single focus and no one, not even God, is going to divert him from it as long as he is alive.

4. Why do you think that Melville names the ship the Pequod?

Naming the ship the Pequod foretells almost unavoidable doom. The Pequot were an Algonquian-speaking tribe of Native Americans who inhabited New England, but were completely obliterated during the Pequot War. There were survivors of that war, but they were basically forced to never mention their former tribe again and join new ones. Melville naming the boat Pequod highlights the future fate of the ship and its crew.

5. What is the significance of the three mates and their pairing with the three ethnically diverse harpooners?

The Native Americans are considered savages on one hand, but they are the ones who first started whaling, until the Anglos and the Quakers took over and almost enslaved the Native Americans into servitude.
Even though the harpooners have all of the skill, the mates in charge are white. Starbuck is in charge of the first boat with Queequeg, a harpooner from the South Seas. The second boat is lead by Stubb, who chooses Tashtego, a Native American, to be his harpooner. And lastly, the third boat is lead by Flask who chooses Daggoo, a massive African.
Another interesting thing about the harpooners all being men of color is that they each represent a people group that has somehow been exploited or enslaved by white men. The Native Americans were almost wiped out by disease, war, and relocation. The Africans were brought over to be slaves on plantations, as were the people in the South Seas.
What drives the point home even more is the fact that these harpooners have most of the skill and the muscle, but very little power.

These questions helped me go deeper into some of the novels core issues and get beyond the surface issue of the whale chase and Ahab’s insanity (although those are both still very important). And while I am confident enough in these answers to put them in this blog before you, I am going to put out a disclaimer that I could be mistaken in some of the details and may have missed some other very important points that would also be helpful.

After next semester’s M.A. Exam is concluded, hopefully I will be able to see some of the questions that were on the exam. If I am, I will definitely post as many as I am allowed and explore those as well.

Next week: Bleak House.