Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray

After a little hiatus brought on the craziness of my last couple weeks, I am eager to jump back into my blog and discuss another great novel.  Today, I’ve chosen The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. 

If you’re familiar with Oscar Wilde, you probably have come across his witty plays, like The Importance of Being Earnest, and his silly quotes, such as "Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative."  In this case, you might get the impression that he was a clever writer who wrote primarily for the sake of the audience’s entertainment during his time.  Yet among his many delightful poems and plays is this one novel that offers a startling contrast to most of his other work.  Oddly, this anomaly was my first exposure to Wilde, and it was years before I discovered his famous sense of humor.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is an exposé of the ugliness of beauty.  This intriguing contradiction is marvelously personified in the character of Dorian, a beautiful young man with an evil heart.  At the beginning of the novel, Dorian is the epitome of naiveté and innocence, but this is quickly warped as he discovers his own aesthetic appeal.  The good-hearted painter, Basil, creates a magnificent portrait of Dorian in his youthful perfection, which awakens Dorian’s self-lust.  Gazing longingly at his own portrait, Dorian wishes that he would always maintain the perfection of the portrait and it would be the picture that would instead lose its attractiveness.  His wish is granted, thus setting him on the course to his ultimate demise.  Eventually, Dorian’s exterior self and interior self are irrevocably separated.  As he commits each horrendous crime, his portrait becomes more and more hideous, revealing his true nature.  In the end, he must make a choice regarding which image he values more – the exterior or the interior.

There are a number of worthwhile things to talk about in this book, but I’m going to cut to the end.  I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that it is one of the best endings I’ve ever read.  It just felt so fitting, so unexpected yet perfect, that it transformed my entire view of the novel.  I liked the novel as I read it, but I loved it once I finished.  And now that I’ve read it this way, I cannot image it having any other kind of conclusion.  I realize not everyone will have this response to the ending, and I don’t want to raise your expectations so high that you are disappointed.  But if you have already read it, I’d be interested to hear whether you had the same experience with the final scene.

Now I suppose I’ll retrace my steps a bit and comment on one more aspect of the novel I love.  There is an intangible yet vital level of philosophy running as the book’s undercurrent.  Particularly in comparison with Wilde’s other works, The Picture of Dorian Gray is both a thoughtful commentary and an indicting critique.  Wilde challenges the falsehood of appearances and the emphasis our society places on them.  He allows Dorian to spiral out of control through his own selfishness and the advice of Lord Henry.  Moreover, if you have some insight about Wilde’s personal life, I believe the concept of a hidden yet powerful identity takes on special significance.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mixed Feelings about Uncle Tom

In my very first entry in this blog, I promised I would take the time to discuss my feelings about Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe in more detail. My first reading of this book inspired me to devote myself fully to Classic Literature and will forever be meaningful to me for that reason. In that first reading of it, I was so immersed in the tragic story that I read most of it in one sitting. This was the first time I ever cried reading a book because I became so attached to the characters.

In addition to the story, I was also moved by Stowe's direct critiques of slavery.  One of my favorite scenes is when a stranger confronts one of the "kind" slaveowners, saying, "It is you considerate, humane men, that are responsible for all the brutality and outrage wrought by these wretches; because, if it were not for your sanction and influence, the whole system could not keep foothold for an hour."  She regularly condemns slavery and exposes its utter cruelty both in story and in narrative.

I have also always been attracted to Stowe's novel for its historical significance.  During my first reading, I heard the legend in which Abraham Lincoln said to Stowe, "So this is the little lady who started this great war."  I like the idea that fictional literature can spark dramatic social change.  I still believe that great literature has the power to do this in some capacity or another.  I've heard that the "practical" business world tends to look down on the humanities as a "weaker" study that doesn't actually contribute to social function.  However, we have literature such as Uncle Tom's Cabin that dramatically affected social change and other literature that individually affects a person's sense of identity and purpose.  This shows me that literature not only contributes to society but can be critically impacting on both an individual and collective level.

Yet when I engaged with this novel academically years later, my initial devotion to Uncle Tom's Cabin faded.  I became aware of the legitimate problems scholarly African Americans like W.E.B. DuBois had with this novel.  I realized that a white woman really could not be expected to understand the African American struggle, and her one-dimensional characters could be patronizing.  Moreover, Uncle Tom's perfect and unfaltering spirit of grace and humility might very well have been impossible to maintain in slavery, and it would be wrong to expect African Americans to respond this way.  Richard Wright, one of my favorite authors I've mentioned before, wrote a challenge to Stowe's novel called Uncle Tom's Children.  This collection of short stories emphasizes the violence and brutality against African Americans a few generations after slavery.  It removes any trace of Stowe's peacefulness and replaces it with a dark reality.  I think it is imperative for readers to keep this in mind when engaging with Uncle Tom's Cabin, and it somewhat lowered my unbridled enamor with it.

Nevertheless, I still maintain that Stowe did a brave and good thing in writing Uncle Tom's Cabin.  I still admire her intentions and love the book for its social significance.  I just find it important to balance my understanding of the book with the components of African American struggle she neglected or inadvertently euphemized.  I think it should be seen as a building block for racial understanding and equality but not necessarily as an accurate, finished assessment.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Literary Blog Hop 3

I'm excited to again be a part of my favorite blog hop, hosted by The Blue Bookcase.  The prompt this week is: "What is your favorite poem and why?"

Literary Blog Hop

It was only a matter of time before I had to talk about poetry on my blog.  I have been avoiding it because the truth is that in general, I do not particularly care for it.  I can feel myself tensing from the potential dissent you may be experiencing, but before you write me off altogether, I want you to know that there are some poems I do really enjoy.  I have tried to avoid equating "Classic Literature" with novels because I do think some poems deserve to join its ranks. However, I do not really like sonnets, Jacobean poetry, Wordsworth, Whitman, Yeats, Dickinson... oh dear.  I realize that these authors are probably quite gifted and well loved by many, but they just lack the indefinable quality that grabs me in literature.  Anna Akhmatova is wonderfully Russian, and yet even she cannot bring me into a love for her poems.  And I loved Shel Silverstein, of course, but he doesn't qualify as "literary" for me.  I'm tempted to defer to epic poems I love like The Odyssey, The Inferno, and Paradise Lost.  And while they certainly count as poetry, that's not what I'll highlight for this blog hop.  Now after my lengthy introduction, I will tell you that my answer is.... SEAMUS HEANEY.

Ok, he's a poet rather than a poem, but any of his poems could be my favorite.  You can check out some of them on this link.  He is a master with language.  The wording he uses is brilliant, full of onomatopoeia (words whose meaning match their sound) and alliteration.  Sometimes a word dangles on the end of the line, like "crusting" or "striking" or "cooling" that pushes you to keep going.  His poems are like paintings somehow, with delicate strokes and harsh strikes.  The words he uses are also so creative.  "Death of a Naturalist" is one of my favorites and incorporates words like "gargled" and "clotted" and "slap and plop."  I can hear the noises of his scenes within the words themselves, and I can easily picture everything.  You've got to read his poems out loud.  And I think he also touches on deep and meaningful ideas embedded in the poetry.  Something that may appear simple actually has a message within it through the word choice.  Oh man, he's fantastic.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Lord of the Flies

Somehow, I have managed to go this far in my life without ever reading Lord of the Flies by William Golding.  I never had it as part of high school or college curriculum, nor did anyone specifically suggest I read it.  In fact, as I was reading it in a cafe the other day, a man near me saw me reacting to a dramatic moment in the story and asked, "Is it just as good the thirteenth time you read it?"  I had to confess it was my FIRST reading and we chatted a bit about the book.  But now I have finished it and can slap it on to my list of Classic Literature because I feel it has earned its right to be there.

Lord of the Flies is a book about children that is in no way a "children's book."  In fact, I'm glad I didn't read it in high school or sooner because it's quite brutal.  If there is anyone out there besides me who hasn't read it yet, it's about a group of children who are stranded on an island by a plane crash and transition from order to chaos, peace to war.  Before writing this post, I browsed some of my favorite book blogs for their comments on this classic and was surprised to discover a great deal of negativity surrounding this novel.  In fact, I couldn't find a single positive review of it that said more than "so awesome."  So it turns out that my discussion of this book is going to be a bit of a defense of it as well.  I believe that the Nobel Prize board knew what they were doing when they gave out this award.

This is a great piece of literature for a number of reasons, but I will highlight just two - its use of symbols and its analysis of human nature.  Lord of the Flies is written as an allegory - please keep that in mind.  I do not think that you are supposed to see any of the characters as multi-dimensional, nor do I think you are to become extremely attached to them.  It's a very short book, so Golding doesn't take the time to build the novel in order to produce this kind of result.  Instead, they each represent something important in the story.  In addition to the children, there are a number of objects that have power in the story as symbols.  For example, the conch shell and Piggy's glasses represent order that are slowly disrespected until they are destroyed.  The Lord of the Flies itself (the hog's head) haunts the characters in its first appearance in the story, foreshadowing doom and a change in the atmosphere. The invisible beast looms over the island, masterfully illustrating the power of fear.  Indeed, fear becomes a tool for gaining power and unleashing destruction, ultimately making those who are afraid become that which ought to be feared.  And the corpse trapped in the parachute marks the beginning of death as it majestically reigns over the island without anyone's knowledge of its rule.  I'm sure with some more thought and time, I could dig up several more symbols because they are the heart of the text.

Golding's analysis of human nature in this novel is bleak and tragic.  Personally, I like to think that there is a larger measure of good embedded in humanity, but Golding's portrait is nevertheless intriguing.  Using children to demonstrate this is a fascinating approach.  He's trying to break down humanity to its elementary form and show how the lust for power can overtake even those which we might be inclined to label "innocent."  SPOILER ALERT*  I kept waiting and waiting for Ralph to be able to conquer Jack and restore peace on the island, but Golding doesn't let that happen.  He proposes that violence is more powerful than reason.  The only relief is the arrival of an adult, who instantly reduces the powerful, savage creature back to nameless children.  I love the abrupt change in both description and narration at the end.  Yet it's still not quite so simple as a restoration to order, for the source of their rescue is a naval officer.  The naval officer represents the adults' kind of war and implicitly indites that as part of the evil and savage nature that escaped among the children. 

I've read that the writing is unimpressive, but I disagree.  I think it is "simple" because the point of the whole novel is to strip to the basics.  And he demonstrates his writing skills at the end when he subtly switches styles at the entrance of the adult.  I'll stop here for now; I do understand and believe that people can have different experiences with books and that's all there is to it.  So if you didn't like it, I certainly don't look down on you for that. But I hope you can see some redeeming qualities in it, and I believe it's worth a try.