Back to the Classics: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)

I’m not a horror fan, so I’ve never made an effort to read the classics of the genre — but for one reason or another, in the last few years I’ve read Frankenstein, Dracula, and now this brief but hugely influential tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

With all three of these books, it is hard to come at them with an unspoiled mind because the basic facts of the story are usually well known. In this case, the dual identity of Dr Jekyll can hardly be news to anyone. But the reading of these stories usually holds other surprises, as the author’s particular method of storytelling is not held sacred in retellings or dramatizations, perhaps for good reason.

Here, most of the novella is concerned with characters who observe Jekyll and Hyde but are unable to put the two together. However, since any suspense meant to be caused thereby is no longer effective, it’s with some impatience that we wait to hear from Jekyll himself — which comes only at the end, after the fact, as it were. The oddly distant, third-hand point of view is not the most obvious way of creating a tense and thrilling tale. But perhaps there was some hesitancy about approaching this subject that caused Stevenson to put it at arm’s length.

As with Victor Frankenstein’s creature and the undead Count Dracula, Stevenson has created an image of the Double, the dark shadowy figure that lurks in our unconscious and that plays out our inadmissible desires. While Frankenstein is haunted by the product of his overly intellectual thinking, and Dracula embodies the evil bloodlust of egoistic feeling, Jekyll shows the dangers of splitting off a part of the will. Wanting to be an outwardly good and upright person, but still to indulge the drives (never explicitly spelled out) of his worse nature, he “precipitates out” that part of himself into the horrible Hyde. But his ability to control the transformation is limited, and becomes more precarious until the final tragic outcome.

All three of these works are powerful and compelling expressions of a psychological problem that has great relevance for our time — the encounter with the evil that lurks in each one of us, an unsolved riddle which calls up fantastical images as we try to understand and master it. Each author has created something that transcends the work it came from and has taken on a life of its own. But it is still always interesting and worthwhile to go back to the origin and experience its particular qualities.

Stevenson wrote the book after a disturbing dream, and it can resonate with some of our own nightmare experiences. The spiral of addiction, of being unable to come to oneself while in the grip of some overmastering drive, is imaged in Jekyll’s downfall, for example. To this dilemma Stevenson offers no answer, no viable solution, except perhaps that as readers we can observe this sad fate and try to learn something from it ourselves.

It’s notable that it’s when Jekyll has renounced the draft that transforms him into Hyde because of its dangers, but yet is unable to resist indulging in the vices of his dark side, that he starts transforming uncontrollably and unpredictably. How do we truly become masters of ourselves and all our parts and possibilities? Why are evil habits and compulsions so strong, even for fundamentally good people? The tale feels unfinished, and raises many questions. But it’s up to us try to answer them.

Back to the Classics: Name in the Title


Classics Club: My Brilliant Career

Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career (1901)

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

Here’s a book I’ve heard about for so long, but never read — the perfect pick for a Classics Club Spin, as well as a chance to take part in Brona’s Australian Reading Month event, and to represent another country in my Reading Around the World project. But even without all these side benefits, the story had enough to offer in itself, and I’m glad I finally delved into it.

It was a bit different than I had expected — various blurbs and summaries I’ve read present the narrator, Sybylla, as bravely attempting to choose a writing career over marriage, not an easy thing for a young woman in the early twentieth century. (I suspect these blurbs may be influenced by the movie version by Jane Campion, but I haven’t seen it, so I can’t be sure.) In fact, the book ends with Sybylla in despair after rejecting a good offer of marriage from a man she likes, but does not love, thus apparently dooming herself to a life of peasant drudgery. Far from resolving to become a writer, she expresses contempt for her own talent and dismisses her efforts so far.

Though throughout the story there are frequent references to Sybylla’s longing for an artistic life, given her time and circumstances, a “career” is never a serious option for her. The title is sufficiently ironic, without the “(?)” she wanted to add (till her publishers nixed that idea).

Sybylla was described by some readers as “a frustrating heroine,” and I could see why. Certainly she is a very frustrated young woman. Though she escapes from her poor, trodden-down family to live with her wealthier grandmother, she doesn’t want to admit that this can only be a brief respite, given to her as an opportunity to make a decent match. Her longings for other things, for music, for creativity, have no outlet in the Australian bush, and only make her unhappy when she’s not dreamily ignoring her actual prospects.

In this state she drifts into an engagement with a decent young man who is probably enticed by her difference from other girls, but with whom marriage would never work — a fact that she finally, painfully, has to face and to communicate with him. She is then punished for her discontent by her own mother, sent to drudge for a family even grubbier and lacking in culture than her own. She only escapes when disgust makes her physically ill.

What a bitter, woeful tale, you may think! Yes, in a way, but Sybylla’s voice (a thin disguise for Franklin’s own, one can’t help but assume) often speaks with keen irony, a sharp bush-honed sense of humor, and a knack for observation that helped pull me through. Published when the author was barely out of her teens, the novel is rough-edged and sometimes self-indulgent. With a bit more distance, a more mature perspective, the raw emotion and painful teenage confusion of the novel might have been mitigated. But some of its power might also have been lost.

Frequently the book made me think of a darker, Australian version of Anne of Green Gables. There was the girl heroine with a taste for music and a talent for writing, brought from a life of toil to a more genteel home; there was the conflict-ridden romance; all amidst a dramatic natural setting on the edges of European immigrant civilization. But Anne never loses her home at Green Gables, and she doesn’t torture Gilbert with her own confusion in quite such an extreme way, either. Anne goes to college, but also finds true love; Sybylla goes back to the cows on the home dairy farm and gives up on marriage. Their fates, in the end, diverge utterly, with Franklin’s account the more realistic, if less reassuring.

Reassuringly cozy it may not be, but My Brilliant Career is a book with a unique and memorable persona, an author-heroine I will not easily forget. Against Sybylla’s pessimistic predictions, her creator, at least, did indeed become a writer, leaving her mark upon the world of literature — maybe not the “brilliant career” of a teenager’s dreams, but a real and impressive story of one woman’s struggle to make her voice heard.

Classics Club List #37


Don Quixote, Part II: The End

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part II (1615)

Though I did not stick very well to my chapter-a-day intention, by reading in fits and starts I have finished Don Quixote. When I last checked in, I was in the middle of Part II; Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were being deceived by their aristocratic hosts, who wanted to encourage them in their role as knight errant and squire. This went on for a good while longer, and included Don Quixote having the opportunity to defend his virtue against a lovely young admirer, along with Sancho finally getting to be the governor of his insula.

The latter was one of the most successfully conceived episodes, I thought, with Sancho showing surprising acumen in his role, yet soon wisely deciding the responsibility of governing is not for him (largely because the doctor in charge of the governor’s health won’t let him eat anything he likes). He goes back to serving his master and they have a few more adventures which end in Don Quixote being sent back to his village, where he comes into his right mind at last.

Don Quixote Consulting the Enchanted Head – Charles-Antoine Corypel IV, ca. 1714

If that sounds a bit anticlimactic, it is. Overall, I found the pacing of this part of the novel decidedly odd. Where the first part suffered from layers of interpolated tales, this part was full of false starts and red herrings, plot threads that Cervantes seemed to lose interest in and quickly abandon. For example, in one chapter Sancho gets stuck in a cave, which would seem to promise some trials or other escapades … but in the next chapter Don Quixote hears him calling and he is released without further ado. Ho, hum.

The promise of playing with multiple realities and points of view also dissipated. There were a few piquant observations — for example that the Duke and Duchess are as mad as their knightly guest, for taking so much trouble to deceive him — but otherwise I had the sense the author was getting bored and just wanting to wrap up. After a peculiar meeting with a man who has supposedly met the “other” Don Quixote and Sancho Panza from the pirated second half of the tale (to which Cervantes is constantly referring in this part, as well as to the “real” version by a Moorish author), the Don just goes home and — dies? Perhaps this was an attempt to put an end to further literary piracy, but for me it was something of a letdown.

Don Quixote – Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1900

And what about Dulcinea? After being the subject of so much of the action and conversation within the novel, and after Sancho’s finally pretending to give himself the blows supposedly needed to release her from her enchantment, she never appears — which is logical enough, as she doesn’t exist. And yet I wish she could have been more than a figment, that there could have been some interesting clash with the reality of an actual woman. But as usual, it’s only Sancho and his wife who provide us with anything close to a real-life relationship in the novel.

This is all very postmodern, and I’m sure there is much to be drawn from the subverting of my narrative expectations, but in the end I was left with a sense of disappointment. Maybe another read-through, now that I have the overall picture, would grant me more insight into this famous story. But for now, I’m going to move onto other quests.

Thanks to Emma of Words and Peace for reading along with me. You helped me to get going, and I hope you reach your own goal!

Classics Club List #71


Five years of the Classics Club

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since I joined the Classics Club, with the goal of reading 50 classics from my self-defined list in that time.

Well, it’s been a wonderful part of my blogging life and I am so grateful for all the books I’ve encountered through this project. I did not quite make it to fifty, and I still have a lot more to go (I ended up naming 100 books to choose from), but I am going to let go of my “official” goal and just keep reading from my list if and as I please.

For those who may be interested, here are all the books I’ve read, in order of their review date:

  1. Smith – Leon Garfield June 2014
  2. Barchester Towers – Anthony Trollope July 2014
  3. A Solitary Blue – Cynthia Voigt August 2014
  4. Le Grand Meaulnes – Alain-Fournier October 2014
  5. Sapphira and the Slave Girl – Willa Cather December 2014
  6. The Brandons – Angela Thirkell December 2014
  7. The Home-Maker – Dorothy Canfield Fisher December, 2014
  8. Bliss and Other Stories – Katherine Mansfield (New Zealand) January 2015
  9. The Towers of Trebizond – Rose Macaulay March 2015
  10. The Aspern Papers – Henry James June 2015
  11. The Mark of the Horse Lord – Rosemary Sutcliff July 2015
  12. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf July 2015
  13. The Matchmaker – Thornton Wilder July 2015
  14. An Old-Fashioned Girl – Louisa May Alcott July 2015
  15. Armadale – Wilkie Collins August 2015
  16. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (Russia) October 2015
  17. The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse (Germany) November 2015
  18. Saplings – Noel Streatfeild December 2015
  19. A Separate Peace – John Knowles January 2016
  20. Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House – Eric Hodgins February 2016
  21. Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton July 2016
  22. Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis July 2016
  23. Three Men in a Boat – Jerome K. Jerome August 2016
  24. Three plays – Eugene O’Neill November 2016
  25. Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury November 2016
  26. The Makioka Sisters – Junichiro Tanizaki (Japan) December 2016
  27. Diary of a Provincial Lady – E.M. Delafield December 2016
  28. A Fugue in Time – Rumer Godden February 2017
  29. Troy Chimneys – Margaret Kennedy February 2017
  30. Scaramouche – Rafael Sabatini March, 2017
  31. My Cousin Rachel – Daphne DuMaurier April 2017
  32. Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl May 2017
  33. The Fledgling – Jane Langton July 2017
  34. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley August 2017
  35. The Return of the Native – Thomas Hardy August 2017
  36. Excellent Women – Barbara Pym September 2017
  37. Season of Migration to the NorthTayeb Salih December 2017
  38. East of Eden – John Steinbeck December 2017
  39. Don Quixote, Part I – Miguel de Cervantes January 2018
  40. Herland – Frances Perkins Gilman – February 2018
  41. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe – Penelope Lively March 2018
  42. The Shuttle – Frances Hodgson Burnett June 2018
  43. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison June, 2018
  44. Uncle Silas – Sheridan Le Fanu July, 2018
  45. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin October 2018
  46. The Story of My Life – Helen Keller March 2019

Among these, there were a few weaker works by authors whose other writing is more worthy of the “classic” designation (The Shuttle, A Fugue in Time). And not all of them were to my personal taste (Lucky Jim, Diary of a Provincial Lady). But every single one was worth reading, and some were outstanding: East of Eden, Invisible Man, The Mark of the Horse Lord, Mrs Dalloway, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, Scaramouche, and My Cousin Rachel being among my personal favorites. I might not have read them without this incentive, and I’m so glad I did.

Have you read any of these, or do you want to? What are you looking forward to on your Classics Club list?

Classics Club: The Story of My Life

Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (1903)

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan in 1888

Almost everyone must know who Helen Keller is: the girl who became blind and deaf due to illness before she was two years old, enduring several agonizing years of isolation before being reconnected to the light of thought. The play and film “The Miracle Worker” dramatizes this event, and it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by the moment when Helen connects the idea “water” with the word W-A-T-E-R. Every time we see this happen, it reminds us that the ability to communicate through language truly is an everyday miracle.

The Story of My Life is Helen’s account in her own words of the time before and after this momentous event, along with a selection of her letters, as well as a description from the point of view of the teacher who facilitated the miracle, Anne Sullivan. While the title suggests someone looking back from the perspective of many years, when it was written she was in fact only in her early twenties, a student at Radcliffe College. The focus is really more on education than on living, since Helen’s admission to Radcliffe was itself a landmark event, and there was great interest in how a “disabled” person had come so far in her studies. Native intelligence, tireless work, and the dedicated commitment of her teacher enabled her to undertake a course of study that would challenge anyone, however “abled.”

Helen took on the mission of showing that a blind and deaf person could accomplish much more than was previously thought possible: learning four languages, becoming a writer, passing college entrance exams in mathematics and geometry (always her least favorite subjects). Her greatest wish was to learn to speak, so that she could communicate with people who did not know the finger alphabet that had first given her the gift of language. She accomplished this too, although it was not always easy for listeners to understand her. Reading her words, it is fascinating to consider how language, thought, memory, speech and comprehension can develop without the two sensory faculties that are usually so central to our experience. Human relationships are revealed as paramount, and the teacher-student bond becomes as essential as light or air.

Since I knew little about Helen’s story beyond the early years, I was surprised by the weight given here to a plagiarism scandal that caused her great suffering as a child. While she was learning to read and write (“reading” being largely through the help of others who would spell books into her hand), she was delighted to be able to create a story of the Frost King that she thought was original. After it was published, its resemblance to another author’s work was discovered, and Helen was subjected to a grueling questioning process and lost one of her dearest friends. She must have “heard” the story somewhere, though it was not quite clear when or how, and it became part of her developing memory for language in an unconscious way. The insensitivity of some of the adults around her, the way they treated her like a criminal over this mistake without trying to understand her immense challenges, was disturbing. It must have made a deep mark on her, making it even more impressive that she continued her education and her life in the public view.

Also surprising for me was how often Helen used images related to sight and hearing, perhaps because of her wish to fit into the “normal” world. For me, it would have been more interesting to learn about her actual sense experiences, how she felt and smelled and tasted the world, but perhaps she felt a need to translate her sensations into more ordinary terms in order to connect with readers accustomed to such descriptions. She was a pioneer in a field that few had ever attempted before, and there was little awareness of human rights for people with disabilities at the time.

There’s an intriguing passage in one of the last letters quoted in the book, written to one of her professors to explain why she has stopped writing compositions for his class:

I have always accepted other people’s experiences and observations as a matter of course. It never occurred to me that it might be worth while to make my own observations and describe the experiences peculiarly my own. Henceforth I am resolved to be myself, to live my own life and write my own thoughts when I have any. When I have written something that seems to be fresh and spontaneous and worthy of your criticisms, I will bring it to you, if I may, and if you think it good, I shall be happy; but if your verdict is unfavorable, I shall try again and yet again until I have succeeded in pleasing you…

Helen had a lot more life to live, and she wrote many other books, but this is by far the most well-known, and probably one of the most famous autobiographies in history. I would like to read some of her later writings to find out if and how she came to “describe the experiences peculiarly [her] own.” In the meantime, I have been given some insight into the life of one of the most extraordinary figures of our time.

Classics Club List #57


Classics Club: The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

The new Folio Society edition of this book is available here. A copy was received from the publisher for review consideration. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

Binding design by David Lupton for The Folio Society’s edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

It’s no secret that Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my favorite authors, but I’d somehow managed never to read her most acclaimed science fiction novel — even though the paperback cover with its male-female snow sculpture face is engraved on my memory, probably from my days shelving books in the public library. It’s also no secret, and I hope not a spoiler, to say that the setting of the book is a planet inhabited by people not defined by gender. They bear the potential to manifest as either male or female, and only come into single-sexed form once a month, the sex in question depending on the others in their environment. When a stranger from the interplanetary alliance called the Ekumen visits their remote, wintry world of Gethen, he must come to terms with this very alien society and try to break through its resistance to his call for peaceful cooperation.

As with most science fiction of the time, the book was not considered serious literature when first published. But that did not stop it from becoming a groundbreaking work of gender re-imagination, of social-science-fiction, the genre in which Le Guin excels. Its profound influence on writers and readers is acknowledged in Becky Chambers’s introduction to the austerely beautiful new Folio Society edition, which points out that the Terran protagonist must spend the length of the story overcoming the biases built into him by his biology, just as we do today. And though we still struggle with the bias and conflict and abusive behaviors that spring from our divided nature, we can look back at the years since Le Guin’s novel was published and see that our ideas have become more fluid and open, and have the potential to become even more so.

Illustrations by David Lupton for The Folio Society’s edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

This book was an opening gambit in that conversation, and it’s fascinating to read it for the first time just now. At first my response was mixed. Le Guin’s language is always finely and thoughtfully crafted, but I found it jarring that the male pronoun and the word “man” are used for Gethenians, making it very hard not to picture the male gender. I wish that Le Guin could perhaps have been more daring with her language, even though as we all know it’s incredibly awkward to come up with a gender-neutral pronoun in English. The strangeness and awkwardness would not have been inappropriate, though, as it requires a real mental effort to imagine an androgynous society.

I was also surprised and rather dismayed that specifically female experience was largely absent from the novel. The amazing fact that Gethenian “men” can also be pregnant and bear children is mentioned, but never shown. Even though there must be pregnant and nursing “women” present during the time of the story, we never see them; we read the startling phrase “The king was pregnant” but he doesn’t appear onstage in this state, and we just get the report of his child’s death. Again, this made Gethen seem like a society of default men, with the female form as more of an aberration than an integral part. In fact, it could be viewed as a kind of male fantasy, where women are present for their essential functions (sex, childbirth) but absent the rest of the time, along with their pesky hormonal imbalances and mood swings.

Illustrations by David Lupton for The Folio Society’s edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

But does this anthro-centrism have a hidden point? Is it in fact due to the perspective of the Envoy, Genly Ai? His misogynistic prejudices filter through his narrative; whenever he mentions a Gethenian as having a feminine quality, it’s generally negative. His only encounter with a “girl” in the state of kemmer (when Gethenians come into their mating potential) inspires wordless disgust in him. A pathetic captive like himself at this point, she nevertheless seems to threaten him in some fundamental way that he can’t even express. And when he’s asked by a Gethenian what single-sexed women are like, he has no idea. Apparently the people of the future have been able to master interstellar travel, but the nature of half their population remains inscrutable to the other.

But then Genly must undergo an arduous journey across the great ice field that covers much of Gethen, in company with Estraven, the only person on the planet who has supported him, and whom he has so far distrusted. Estraven takes a tremendous risk in order to bring Genly out of captivity, which involves performing a deeply feminine role: creating a space of warmth, cultivating life, enduring hardship for the sake of human connections. Experiencing Estraven’s unwavering commitment to the forces of transformation changes Genly; distrust turns to friendship, and then to love. It changes us too, as readers. We experience something of the true nature of sacrifice, of the process of conception, gestation, and birth that is one of the great mysteries of human life — and that truly transcends all limitations imposed by our bodies.

Estraven wanted to change the world. We can, too. And if you need some guidance across the icy wasteland of today’s fractured cultural landscape, this book has something to offer. Read it, and let it spark your own questions about what is vital, what is essential, what is real. So the journey begun by Genly and Estraven may continue.

Classics Club List #54


Beautiful Books: Uncle Silas

J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas (1864)

It’s yet another classic book review! I’ve been doing a lot of these lately as I try to plow through my accumulated TBR pile. But while on vacation I took a whole bunch of newer books along with me on the e-reader, so I hope to have something completely different for you very soon. Even though I do like reviewing classics, I don’t want to focus on them exclusively on the blog.

In the meantime, I’m going back to the Victorian era with a giant of the Gothic genre. I confess that it was the looks, not the content, of this book that initially caught my attention. It’s a Folio Society edition with illustrations by Charles Stewart, a fascinating character in his own right — a theatre enthusiast, collector, and artist who was obsessed with the tale for many years. He created some of the pictures for an edition that never made it into print, but these were eventually incorporated into the Folio publication along with a gorgeous period-style binding design.

The illustrations are also beautifully in tune with the Victorian aesthetic, and though done in pen and ink imitate the engravings that often adorned books of the period. These are plentiful and add marvelously to the brooding atmosphere. The typography is unobtrusively excellent as well.

But what about the story? (Spoiler alert here — I’m going to refer to some major plot points.) It’s narrated by a seventeen-year-old girl who inherits her father’s enormous estate and is sent to live with her Uncle Silas in his crumbling house. She wants to honor her father’s wish to believe him innocent of a horrible crime of which he was accused years ago, but this becomes more and more difficult as the ominous characters and events pile up …

Though I enjoyed the book overall, I was left with a faint sense of disappointment. Many elements seemed to me to have more potential than was actually fulfilled. There was a fantastically villainous French governess, for instance, but Le Fanu seemed to lose interest in her and her evil petered out into ridiculousness. Another character, a neglected girl with a wonderfully unconventional personality and manner of  speaking, had to be immediately smoothed out and made into a model of Victorian propriety, which was unfortunate. And there was a big build-up of the “Swedenborgian” view of spirits and angels, which would seem to presage some supernatural-slash-psychological crisis, but nothing came of this.

Most seriously, our heroine, Maud, was too silly and passive for my taste. I loved the theme of trying to break through deception to the true reality, but Maud spent far too much time clinging to her wish for Silas to be good, even when it was completely obvious that he wasn’t. She ignored her forebodings for so long that she deserved what came to her, and was saved not by her own awakened initiative and insight, but by some equally silly antics on the part of her captors.

These left me baffled, because they were trying to kill Maud very cleverly in secret so that nobody would know, but the whole point of killing her was to get her inheritance, for which purpose her death would need to be made public. Perhaps this was an indication of Silas’s disturbed mental state, but as a crime it made no sense.

Then there was the way her killer had to enter the murder room laboriously through a secretly contrived window, creating a locked-room mystery — but then Silas barged in to check on the murder through the door. Wouldn’t it have been easier for the murderer to just go in through the door and exit through the window?

And so on. Such inconsistencies left me with a sense that Le Fanu was not quite in command of his material, in spite of the parts of it that shone. Influential as he was in the beginnings of the Gothic/thriller genre, there are others who have done it better — though for a dive back into those early days of the genre, you can’t do better than this beautifully rendered edition.

Classics Club list #68


Classics Club: Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Race is a topic I’m reluctant to even approach here on the blog. I’m mindful of my privileged status and hesitant to make any pronouncements about people whose experience I cannot truly share or comprehend. However, I do not think it’s helpful to isolate ourselves in separate racial camps and decide we can never understand each other. So through reading, I do try to understand, bit by bit. It’s one of the main benefits of reading for me — to be able to enter into the experience of another person who is profoundly different from me, and find our common humanity.

Today more than ever, were are confronted with the profoundly American dilemma of how the rise of one group of people to freedom and dominance has been intrinsically linked with the subjugation of another group. Complacent liberal “colorblindness” does not address this fundamental inequality, nor its persistent hold on our psyche. I’m so grateful for some of the books written out of the black experience that have helped me to have insight into this phenomenon and its implications for our present and future. It’s something we must all wrestle with in our own way, I feel.

Invisible Man is a novel that powerfully explores the rage and dismay and strange triumph that can arise out of such wrestling, making it a key text for our time. I never encountered it in school, somehow, though I saw lots of my friends reading it. To be honest, I would not have gotten much out of it as an adolescent, so I’m glad I waited until now, when it came up for me in the Classics Club Spin. I found it a highly suitable book to read at this time of questioning and searching for how our country’s racial wounds might finally, someday, find healing.

As he travels from his home in the South to New York City, Ellison’s unnamed narrator goes through a mythic, archetypal journey, from unguarded innocence to bitter experience to a hard-won, tenuous sense of integrity. But this modern hero has a harder foe than the dragons and monsters of old. The people around him, both black and white, create an ever-shifting panorama of idealism, deception, promise, betrayal, compassion, violence, suffering, and potential transformation that causes him to question the very nature of reality and of his own self. To all these other people he seems to be “invisible,” merely a function of their own wishes and desires — but can he discover some ground of reality within himself? What is lasting, what is true? And how can he live in a world that seems to only want to manipulate and destroy?

Though Ellison vividly describes many horrific scenes (a wrestling match pitting black boys against one another for the amusement of white men; experiments done on the narrator while in the hospital; the culminating race riot in Harlem) it’s the inner quest for meaning and wholeness that draws us through the nightmare. This is a universal experience, whether we find it in outer trials of segregation and discrimination, or in the inner struggle against such forces in our own being.

There may seem to be little hope or gentle, natural light in the book, which the narrator writes from a basement bunker he’s illuminated for himself with stolen electric power. But as he prepares to return to the world, he shares with us some extraordinary insights: “Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in the face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many — This is not prophecy, but description.”

And nearly at the end, this:

The very act of trying to put it all down has confused me and negated some of the anger and some of the bitterness. So it is that I denounce and defend, or feel prepared to defend. I condemn and affirm, say no and say yes, say yes, and say no. I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of all I find that I love. In order to get some of it down I have to love. I sell you no phony forgiveness. I’m a desperate man — but too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost, unless you approach it as much through love as through hate. So I approach it through division. So I denounce and I defend and I hate and I love.

This divided consciousness is our modern heritage, and so is the truth that the only way through despair is love. Our fate indeed is to become one, and yet many. By such contradictory, baffling paths as that traveled by Ellison’s invisible man, we may approach this distant goal and find that it is already here.

Classics Club List #64


Classics Club Meme: Featuring Jean from Howling Frog Books!

I seem to be having a Classics Club binge this month, so I might as well go all out and participate in the monthly meme as well.

Here’s the prompt:

We want you to mingle. Go to our member list and select a fellow classics clubber you’d like to feature on your blog. This can be someone who is active within the Classics Club, someone quiet who inspires with his/her posts, someone new to the club or scarce whom you’d like the club to meet. S/he can be a friend of yours, or someone you’ve never met. Tell readers why you value this club member. Highlight at least one post from his/her blog.

I picked Jean of Howling Frog Books, one of my favorite blogs for its highly eclectic ramblings through all sorts of literary territory. I connected with Jean over our shared love of Diana Wynne Jones, but since then I’ve enjoyed reading all kinds of posts from her. If you’d like to connect with a smart, unpretentious reader who delves into both familiar and forgotten corners of world literature, check out Howling Frog. (And if you can figure out where the name came from, you are a master of obscure literary references yourself.)

A voracious reader of classics, Jean has two whopping and fantastic lists – she finished the first one already and is now on her second! I would love to be so well-read, but in comparison to her I’m proceeding at a snail’s pace, and barely touching vast realms like medieval and Asian literature that she’s delved into.

Still, we can all enjoy her brief, chatty posts, which often contain some interesting background information as well as a personal response. Here are a few covering some of the books on my own list (read and unread):

What member of the Classics Club would you feature?

Classics Club: The Shuttle

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Shuttle (1907)

The Secret Garden and A Little Princess were iconic books for me growing up, and I also read and reread Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Lost Prince. So when Frances Hodgson Burnett’s adult books began to resurface, some (like this one) gaining the kiss of approval from Persephone, I was delighted.

It’s a long, sometimes unfocused book, and I’m not surprised to learn that Burnett worked on it in fits and starts over several years. During that time her own life was a fitting subject for a melodrama; having divorced her first husband, the 50-year-old married an actor ten years her junior, who apparently was only interested in her money and the advancement of his career. The marriage was in trouble immediately and only lasted two years. In 1907, the year of this book’s publication, she returned permanently from England to her native country, the United States.

During the period of writing Burnett spent time “shuttling” to and from her beloved Great Maytham Hall in Kent, whose walled rose garden was the model for the “secret garden.” Burnett had renovated the neglected garden herself, and wrote several books there. Though her 1911 children’s book is the most famous rendering, one can also see in this earlier novel similar themes of renewal and rebuilding, and of the garden as symbol of the feminine capacity for rebirth and healing.

Here, though, the accompanying manor house takes on even greater importance than the garden, as the rebuilding of a house goes together with the rebuilding of a woman’s life. The woman, Rosalie, is one of the hordes of American heiresses imported to Europe during this era, to bring their fortunes and vital young blood to impoverished ancient houses and lineage. Her husband, unfortunately, is a dastardly fortune-hunter who proceeds to abuse her in the most disgusting possible ways, and then abandon her, their son, and his crumbling house to pursue his own sordid interests. (Mrs. Burnett was perhaps working out some of her own husband issues here.)

He ensures that Rosalie becomes estranged from her loving family so that they can do nothing to help her, but her younger sister, Betty, won’t give her up. When she pursues her sister a decade later, she proceeds to expend her own fortune, and more importantly, her immense vitality, ingenuity, and compassion, to save Rosalie and foil the plans of her evil mate. In the process she meets her own perfect mate, a neighboring nobleman whose fortune has been lost by spendthrift ancestors, but who refuses to resort to such low tactics to restore it as marrying an heiress. Will Betty be able to overcome his resistance, and forge her own happiness?

The heroine and the villain are too perfectly good and evil for true artistic merit, but there’s a great deal of pleasure to be found in this modern fairy tale. As Betty showers her life force everywhere, we can also feel rejuvenated and inspired to look at parts of our life that might just need a little courage and gumption to get them moving in the right direction. And as America a century later seems to be descending ever further into the pit of selfishness, greed, and nationalistic paranoia, we can try to recover a different ideal: one of generosity and compassionate action.

It’s also notable that Betty is a shining archetype of the “new woman,” whose spirited self-determination would have been considered beyond the pale by many in 1907. She reminded me of the women in Herland, published around the same time. But while they developed their strength and intellect by virtue of living in a world without men, Betty grows by means of a sympathetic man (her father) to unfold the true power latent in the feminine, and comes into active relationship to both masculine strength and masculine weakness. This gives the story a different dimension than Gilman’s single-minded utopia.

Much as I enjoy her books, though, I have to admit that Burnett is not a truly great writer. Her style is often hackneyed, her characters stereotypical, and some of her sentiments cringe-worthy. (I could particularly have done without a subplot concerning a gung-ho young typewriter salesman.) But she had certainly had some ideas that powerfully tap into our collective unconscious, and out of this source created some memorable books. This is one that I felt could have been better, but was still worth reading. Whenever I think life is too difficult or depressing, I’ll just think of Betty, and strive to put my own feminine ingenuity to work.

Classics Club List #22