Category Archives: Literature

Lord of the Rings Detour

If I’ve been a bad blogger lately (I have), it’s because of Tolkien. My life has taken a bit of a Lord of the Rings detour in the sense of being side-tracked from everything that I should be doing and thinking pretty exclusively about LOTR. Earlier this summer, I picked up The Hobbit with no intention of going through the other three again, mostly for length reasons. Probably because I knew this exact thing would happen.

You see, I have a confession to make. I wasn’t a fan of the series pre-Peter-Jackson movies – I don’t think I’d ever even heard of them. Admittedly, I was 10 when Fellowship was released in theaters. So the movies were definitely the primary source of interest for me, though at some point, I picked up the books and tried to give them a read. Still being young and not a hardcore fantasy reader, I did not have the same experience then as I am having now. In fact, I now remember little of that first time with the books. Needless to say, I was long overdue for giving it another shot.

I am 88 pages into Return of the King right now, and already I’m feeling concerned about what I’m going to do when I’m done. I’ve grown attached to these characters and all of Middle Earth; what happens when I find myself back in New Mexico? True, I have a lot of other books I need to read this summer (mostly books loaned to me by family and friends that won’t see the light of day until winter if I don’t get to them before the semester starts), and getting caught in the middle of this epic series was probably the most inconvenient thing of the summer thus far. But it’s also been the best.

I’ve seen a quote somewhere, though I don’t remember where anymore, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” (A quick Google search led me to George R. R. Martin.) If that’s not enough incentive to pick up a novel, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, I’m not planning on asking some dumb “do you prefer the book or the movie” question because nine times out of ten, there’s no comparison. I am, however, interested in one question: is there a scene or character that got little or no screen time in the movies that you would have chosen to include or highlight, even if it required of you to reduce focus on a different scene of your choosing? If you want to add something in, you have to take something out.

I’m really interested in hearing anyone and everyone’s response. I’ll come back in and edit this post with my response when I finish those last 252 pages. ;)

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House of Mirth by Judith Wharton

To continue with the loosely-applied “gender” theme of these literature posts, I present to you House of Mirth by Judith Wharton.

Somewhere on the border of naturalism, with just a touch of realism for good measure, House of Mirth focuses on Miss Lily Bart and her social circle of rich New Yorkers in the late 1800s. Lily, however, finds herself pushed away from the center of this circle as it becomes more and more apparent that she doesn’t have the money to play cards every night and go vacationing nearly every week. She lives primarily off money distributed by her aunt, while she employs herself with finding a husband with enough financial security for her elaborate taste. In her late twenties when the book begins, her time is running out, yet she cannot seem to resist sabotaging her own chances at marrying. Unable to admit that she desires independence, at least to some extent, she must navigate treacherous social highways which seem to lead nowhere but disaster while overcoming the indecision that comes from being trapped between two unattainable lives.

Though the story centers around Lily Bart, the opening scene depicts Lawrence Selden spying her and speculating about her from across a train station, and it prepares the reader for a novel intensely focused on social perception, expectation, and reaction. Rather than watching Lily learn to navigate high society, we find that she has already finely tuned her ability to manipulate both the men and women around her to the point where it’s arguably the art form Selden describes. Therefore, as circumstances change, we follow her fall from high society into Lily’s personal purgatory.

While Lily may not appear particularly inspiring on paper (so to speak), the character brings about questions of one’s ability to rise above his or her circumstances, as well as the expectation that have been imposed on him or her. Lily’s mother in particular taught her that there was nothing worse than “living like a pig” and the value of living a “fashionable” life. After years of hearing her mother’s opinions of how one ought to look and act, Lily first experienced the hardships of poverty after her father lost all his money. Her mother took the opportunity to place the burden upon Lily’s shoulders, speaking to her of their family’s money, “But you ’ll get it all back – you ‘ll get it all back, with your face”. This notion that the family’s money depended on her ability to marry a wealthy man stuck with Lily for the rest of her life, weighing heavily upon her. By telling her that her beauty would secure their financial stability once again by landing a wealthy husband, her mother also began to form Lily’s perception of her self-worth. By the time she reached 29, Lily valued only her pretty face, rather than her considerable intelligence or “dramatic instinct”. Rather than appreciating the art in her calculated actions as Selden does, she consistently regards those social necessities as mere “business.”

To me, these ideas of influence and the power of choice are at the forefront of this novel, and this past semester, I wrote a paper about how Lily’s indecision stems from her inability to fully accept the life expected of her and her refusal to enter the working class. It is as though she is frozen somewhere in the middle of these two lifestyles, with too many mistakes and not enough self awareness to firmly step to either side. Personally, several things about this book drew me in, particularly seeing how Lily uses her manipulative skill to her advantage as her own type of social power, as well as the ongoing tension between Lily and Selden. They’re not perfect, but they’re adorable.

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There are so many other things I could say about this novel, but I’ll leave it at this:
If you’ve read this book before, what do you think is the word that both Lily and Selden discover after it’s already too late?

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Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare is a little like Brussels sprouts.

Bear with me.

Like Brussels sprouts, many people grow up with an aversion to Shakespeare. A lot of people think they like neither, though they never necessarily give them a chance.  Something about their names, Shakespeare and Brussels sprouts, has come to be associated with that which is undesirable or unattainable. Likely causes are bland preparation and dull teachers; however, a teacher in love with Shakespeare can talk about his plays intelligently and make them accessible to any reader, which produces the same effect for his work as a 400-degree oven, garlic, salt, and pepper do for Brussels sprouts.

At least, this is what I learned this semester in my Shakespeare class.

One of the first plays that we read for that class was Twelfth Night. Written in the second half of his career, about 1601, this play didn’t quite fit neatly alongside A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the comedies or with Hamlet and Macbeth in the tragedies. Twelfth Night, as well as Measure for Measure, fit into a new category often referred to as “problem comedies.” Though still comedies, they are darker; in Twelfth Night, for instance, while everyone else gets married at the play’s conclusion, Malvolio closes with a vow of revenge.

The most interesting aspect of this play for me, however, connects back to the novel Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides that I wrote about last, and its discussion of gender. At the heart of Twelfth Night lies an intriguing commentary on gender roles, and it features my personal favorite of Shakespeare’s women, Viola.

Viola, believing her twin brother to be dead, decides to honor him by risking her life to dress like him and work for Orsino, Duke of Illyria. Meanwhile, Orsino fancies himself in love with a Countess called Olivia. Unfortunately for him, Olivia cannot be bothered by his excessive expressions of love (which is actually what he wants because he’s all about the chase, anyway) as she is so busy making a show of mourning for her dead brother.

This is where Viola comes in. She uses her cross-dressing, gender-bending role ambiguity to resolve this classic Petrarchan stalemate between Orsino and Olivia. By befriending Orsino as a male they see each other as equals, so when she falls in love with him (and he with her, once he finds out she is a woman), they present the alternative idea of a companionate marriage.

Of course, after being sent with messages of love from Orsino to Olivia, the Countess falls in love with Viola (disguised as Cesario at the time). This is presumably due to Viola’s unique perspective of the situation as a woman in a man’s clothes, but as the play is a comedy, luckily for Olivia, Viola’s believed-to-be-dead twin brother comes back for her to marry.

Whereas most of Shakespeare’s women fall into the “obedient” stereotype of the Medieval view of women, the ones that do have some sort of drive or agency tend to be evil or otherwise unpleasant (ahem, Lady Macbeth). Viola, however, uses the means she has available (cross-dressing, naturally) in order to present a positive, influential female character. And I think that in itself is enough to make this play worth reading.

As an interesting side note, if you’re wondering what on earth the title “Twelfth Night” has to do with the play, the 12th night of Christmas is the Feast of Epiphany, also known as the Medieval feast of fools. It is a secular holiday when all social distinctions are erased for a day (within reason, of course). On the Twelfth Night, boundaries break down and dissolve gender and social divisions. Oh, and don’t forget the food, drink, and music in quantities beyond the limits of reason. ;)

 

* This post would not be possible without everything I learned from that Shakespeare class with Dr. Miller-Tomlinson. Before this spring, I definitely fell into the “Shakespeare isn’t for me” group, something I am not trying to overcome. :)

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