Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy is another novel that I’ve heard referenced from time to time but knew absolutely nothing about. I literally mean nothing; I had always thought the title referred to a woman. Big hint: it doesn’t.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Thomas Mallon.)

To the contrary, Jude of Jude the Obscure is a young orphan boy at the start of the book. The schoolmaster he has recently taken some lessons from leaves for Christminster to hopefully attend college, and Jude dreams of following him. Jude teaches himself Greek and Latin from books and learns stone masonry so that he can one day travel to Christminster himself and hopefully find a way to go to college.

However, Jude lusts after a young girl name Arabella who has been taught to get herself in a family way so that she can snag a husband through his sense of honor:

“As he is a romancing, straightfor’ard, honest chap, he’s to be had, and as a husband, if you set about catching him in the right way.” 

Arabella remained thinking awhile.  “What med be the right way?” she asked. 

“Oh you don’t know–you don’t!” said Sarah, the third girl. 

“On my word I don’t!–No further, that is, than by plain courting, and taking care he don’t go too far!” 

The third girl looked at the second.  “She DON’T know!” 

“‘Tis clear she don’t!” said Anny. 

“And having lived in a town, too, as one may say!  Well, we can teach ‘ee som’at then, as well as you us.” 

“Yes.  And how do you mean–a sure way to gain a man?  Take me for an innocent, and have done wi’ it!” 

“As a husband.” 

“As a husband.” 

“A countryman that’s honourable and serious-minded such as he; God forbid that I should say a sojer, or sailor, or commercial gent from the towns, or any of them that be slippery with poor women!  I’d do no friend that harm!” 

“Well, such as he, of course!” 

Arabella’s companions looked at each other, and turning up their eyes in drollery began smirking.  Then one went up close to Arabella, and, although nobody was near, imparted some information in a low tone, the other observing curiously the effect upon Arabella. 

As you can imagine, this doesn’t go well, though Jude does marry her. Eventually she takes off for Australia without him and Jude travels to Chrisminster where he falls in love with his cousin, Sue. Of course, before his cousin knows of his love, or his previous marriage, she promises to marry Jude’s old schoolmaster. After learning of both Jude’s secrets, she goes ahead with the marriage even though the schoolmaster repulses her.

But, Sue soon leaves the schoolmaster for Jude. Still, things never go well. The judgment of a highly moralistic, church-based society follows them.  Sometimes this is through other people, causing a life of poverty and wandering, and sometimes this is through Jude and Sue themselves. As I’m sure everyone is aware, this is a pretty tragic novel.

I’ve heard that Hardy got lambasted pretty thoroughly over Jude the Obscure. There’s a lot that works together to keep everyone miserable in this book: church proscriptions against divorce, conventions about marriage, traditional senses of family duty, and all that. Even when freed, these things are so ingrained into at least some of the characters that they are never free enough to not be ruined. I’m not sure if the book is really anti any of those things, but it certainly presents the idea that these particular characters could not be happy in the face of such. As one might expect of a novel from 1895, Hardy got some negative attention. In fact, I’ve heard it said that the reception of Jude the Obscure is why he gave up writing fiction.

Would these characters still have been as unhappy if they had really been free (and felt so) to correct their unwise marriages and join together? Would they have been happier if marriage didn’t exist? I’m not sure that even that would have enabled these characters to not be miserable. They seemed kind of doomed to me. Still, being forced into expected roles without full knowledge of what they were doing and then being unable to do anything when it turned out to be the wrong thing sure didn’t help.

In any event, though these characters kind of seemed doomed regardless of anything anyone did, I enjoyed reading and did find Jude the Obscure to be well written. It sure isn’t cozy Saturday reading, but there’s a lot to wonder about in here about how we live with each other as human beings. At least, I suppose that’s my take away.

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Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

The name Robert Louis Stevenson is familiar to me, if for no other reason than I’m a longtime fan of Treasure Island. However, I don’t really know much about his other works. I hadn’t ever even heard of his novel Kidnapped. However, fond as I was of Treasure Island, I thought I’d take a look.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Alexander McCall Smith.)

Similar to Treasure Island, Kidnapped was originally written as a historical boy’s novel. That, more often than not, means adventure. However, there are no pirates here.

The book begins when David Balfour’s parents both die and he gets mysterious instructions to seek his fortune with his uncle. Unfortunately, it turns out that David is actually the rightful owner of his uncle’s fortune and his uncle is a miser. These two facts do not combine well. David soon finds himself a captive aboard a ship that intends on selling him into servitude in the Carolinas.

Personally, I had to wonder a little bit about David and his family. For one thing, I thought David’s parents might have given him a little warning about his uncle. Granted, he may not have been quite as bad when David’s father last saw him, but still. I mean, his uncle tries to get him killed fairly early on in the book:

“Well,” he said, “let’s begin.” He pulled out of his pocket a rusty key. “There,” says he, “there’s the key of the stair-tower at the far end of the house. Ye can only win into it from the outside, for that part of the house is no finished. Gang ye in there, and up the stairs, and bring me down the chest that’s at the top. There’s papers in’t,” he added. 

“Can I have a light, sir?” said I. 

“Na,” said he, very cunningly. “Nae lights in my house.”  “Very well, sir,” said I. “Are the stairs good?” 

“They’re grand,” said he; and then, as I was going, “Keep to the wall,” he added; “there’s nae bannisters. But the stairs are grand underfoot.”

*****

The tower, I should have said, was square; and in every corner the step was made of a great stone of a different shape to join the flights. Well, I had come close to one of these turns, when, feeling forward as usual, my hand slipped upon an edge and found nothing but emptiness beyond it. The stair had been carried no higher; to set a stranger mounting it in the darkness was to send him straight to his death; and (although, thanks to the lightning and my own precautions, I was safe enough) the mere thought of the peril in which I might have stood, and the dreadful height I might have fallen from, brought out the sweat upon my body and relaxed my joints. 

But I knew what I wanted now, and turned and groped my way down again, with a wonderful anger in my heart. About half-way down, the wind sprang up in a clap and shook the tower, and died again; the rain followed; and before I had reached the ground level it fell in buckets. I put out my head into the storm, and looked along towards the kitchen. The door, which I had shut behind me when I left, now stood open, and shed a little glimmer of light; and I thought I could see a figure standing in the rain, quite still, like a man hearkening. And then there came a blinding flash, which showed me my uncle plainly, just where I had fancied him to stand; and hard upon the heels of it, a great tow-row of thunder.

*****

I set him on a chair and looked at him. It is true I felt some pity for a man that looked so sick, but I was full besides of righteous anger; and I numbered over before him the points on which I wanted explanation: why he lied to me at every word; why he feared that I should leave him; why he disliked it to be hinted that he and my father were twins–“Is that because it is true?” I asked; why he had given me money to which I was convinced I had no claim; and, last of all, why he had tried to kill me. He heard me all through in silence; and then, in a broken voice, begged me to let him go to bed.

Now, given that his uncle tried to get him killed, don’t you think that David would be a bit wary when visiting a ship’s captain who does business with his uncle? I certainly would think so. However, apparently David does not:

“Ay, ay,” said he, “he passed me word of that. But, ye see, the boat’ll set ye ashore at the town pier, and that’s but a penny stonecast from Rankeillor’s house.” And here he suddenly leaned down and whispered in my ear: “Take care of the old tod; he means mischief. Come aboard till I can get a word with ye.” And then, passing his arm through mine, he continued aloud, as he set off towards his boat: “But, come, what can I bring ye from the Carolinas? Any friend of Mr. Balfour’s can command. A roll of tobacco? Indian feather-work? a skin of a wild beast? a stone pipe? the mocking-bird that mews for all the world like a cat? the cardinal bird that is as red as blood?–take your pick and say your pleasure.”

By this time we were at the boat-side, and he was handing me in. I did not dream of hanging back; I thought (the poor fool!) that I had found a good friend and helper, and I was rejoiced to see the ship. As soon as we were all set in our places, the boat was thrust off from the pier and began to move over the waters: and what with my pleasure in this new movement and my surprise at our low position, and the appearance of the shores, and the growing bigness of the brig as we drew near to it, I could hardly understand what the captain said, and must have answered him at random. 

*****

“But where is my uncle?” said I suddenly. 

“Ay,” said Hoseason, with a sudden grimness, “that’s the point.” 

*****

It was the last I saw. Already strong hands had been plucking me back from the ship’s side; and now a thunderbolt seemed to strike me; I saw a great flash of fire, and fell senseless.

Of course, perhaps I’m judging this a little too harshly, considering this is supposed to be a boy’s novel. Still, even naïve David might have showed a little better judgment

After all, the book is fun. Personally, I didn’t find it to be quite as gripping as Treasure Island, but maybe that’s just me. Also, as you can get a taste of from the above, this is all set in Scotland and Stevenson goes a bit overboard at times, in my opinion, with the dialect.

Regardless, though the dialect makes things difficult to read sometimes and Kidnapped wasn’t quite as fun for me as Treasure Island, it was still fun. I wouldn’t exactly put this with the greatest books of all time, but it was fun to read. As long as that is all you are looking for then Kidnapped should be enough.

Lord of The Flies–Or you know, post apocalyptic YA fiction before that was even a category–William Golding

Anyone who knows me, knows that I do love some apocalyptic literature.  And lately, the place to find the good ones, I mean the really amazing ones on everything from zombies to bombs, is YA fiction. 

I first read Lord of the Flies while in high school.  For an English class.  Because it was YA fiction (from a time where YA fiction was just a few little books floating sadly in the literary classification and genre worlds).  And I was a YA. 

I loved it.  It was bloody and had kids behaving badly.  It was like the anti-thesis of what they mostly want you to read and do in the hallowed halls of educational institutions.  Oddly, thinking about it, Catcher in the Rye by Salinger is also about kids behaving badly.  Which is also taught in high school English classes.  Students will often love one or the other or both books.  Then we like to squash that love by making them sit still in their chairs and fill in bubbles with a #2 pencil for hours on end.  Oh, the irony.

Anyway, I would tell you which authors listed Lord of The Flies but I can’t find the book.  Earlier, Amelia spent 20 minutes looking for her blankie.  It ended up being on the bathroom counter, where she had set it earlier in the evening.  You know, the first place one would _assume_ a blankie had gotten left.  I went to write my blog post and looked around for The Top Ten.  I didn’t find it.  I spent one minute looking, but due to looking for items burn out, stopped doing it.  If you really are curious, leave me a comment and I will edit this post after I find the book.  Or Dave could be nice and leave it in comments too. 

Ok.  So I totally re-read Lord of the Flies this week.  And I am completely glad I did so.  I was remembering the book all jumbled up, and the things I was thinking happened, did not indeed happen.  So.  There we go.

My thoughts on the book.

1.  Throughout my life, even prior to this blog, I’ve read a lot of children’s literature that was written prior to 1990.  Since this blog, I’ve _re-read_ some children’s literature written prior to 1990.  There is a certain narrative style that is used a lot in the genre. 

“There was no place for standing on one’s head.  This time Ralph expressed the intensity of his emotion by pretending to knock Simon down; and soon they were happy, heaving pile in the under-dusk”.

“But not “come on” to the top.  The assault on the summit must wait while the three boys accepted this challenge. The rock was as large as a small motor car”.

“Not for five minutes could they drag themselves away from this triumph.”

“Suddenly Piggy was a bubble with decorous excitement”.

I don’t know if anyone else notices, but authors from the time of ago liked to make children sound like puppies.  Even in adult literature, they can often sound this way.  When I read Woolf a few weeks back, sometimes children in her book sounded the same as well.

The thing that makes it interesting?  By the end of the book, Golding has dispensed with narrating like that.  He moves the narrative style into a terse example of the horror that it has all become.

2.  The boys were on a plane (or boat, I can’t remember).  It was fleeing the scene of war, World War III to be exact.  But the thing is, Golding doesn’t _tell_ you that.  Narrative details from the boys tells you that.  So, in the beginning, there’s only a vague idea of what has happened to bring these boys here.  Hardly any details about the war are known.  And by the end, not many more are.  Which makes sense.  The narration is all done third person, but all of the people the book is narrating?  They’re children.  Even the oldest are only barely into their teens (or maybe even just 12).  Why would they know the political upheavals and the battles being fought et cetera.  So, Golding was brilliant for that.

3.  It’s amusing to have the boys think that adults would know what to do to keep their society from falling apart.  When what they think adults would do, are the things that adults can’t manage to do.  The things that probably led to the very war that they were fleeing from.

“Grownups know things,” said Piggy.  “They ain’t afraid of the dark.  They’d meet and have tea and discuss.  Then things ‘ud be all right–“

“They wouldn’t set fire to the island.  Or lose–“

“They’d build a ship–“

The three boys stood in the darkness, striving unsuccessfully to convey the majesty of adult life.

“They wouldn’t quarrel–“

“Or break my specs–“

“Or talk about a beast–“.

4.  Golding is brilliant at highlighting the moment when one of the main characters has lost his leadership, Ralph, and another Jack has obtained it.  Ralph wanted all the “grownup” things, to keep a fire going for smoke signaling, to build shelters to protect themselves and the “littleuns”.  Jack wanted to hunt.  That was it.  Hunt.  Well, through political upheavals and the presence of freshly killed pork, most of the group go over to Jack.  Who sets about basically going insane and going “native”. 

“”Tomorrow,” went on the chielf, “we shall hunt again.”

He pointed at this savage and that with his spear.

“Some of you will stay here to improve the cave and defend the gate.  I shall take a few hunters with me and bring back meat.  The defenders of the gate will see that the others don’t sneak in.”

A savage raised his hand and the chief turned a bleak, painted face toward him.

“Why should they try to sneak in, Chief?”

The chief was vague but earnest.

“They will.  They’ll try to spoil things we do.  So the watchers at the gate must be careful.  And then–“

The chief paused.  They saw a triangle of startling pink dart out, pass along his lips and vanish again.”

Notice that not once during that exchange is the “chief” referred to as Jack.  Or the savages by name? Yeah.

5.  Jack partly manages to gain power over Ralph through the use of fear.  Also, the bond that is forged when the boys, carried away by hunting and fear do something absolutely horrific.  Much like prior dictators in history have done.

Lord of the Flies is not a long novel at all.  In fact, it’s almost a novella.  But Golding packs more into it than a lot of novelists do with an extra 900 pages longer.  Lord of the Flies is not only valuable due to the quality of the story, but also due to the quality of the novel form.

Golding narrows down the narrative tighter and tighter until you are forced along to the end, your mind’s eyes not spared a single moment of gazing at the horror.

Again, glad I read it.  And definitely recommend it!

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

 

Alice in Wonderland was listed by the following authors in their top ten books:

Kate Atkinson, Robb Forman Dew, Sue Monk Kidd, Jonathan Lethem, David Lodge, Stewart O’Nan, and Robert Pinsky.

I had lofty plans for this week’s blog.  First, I started Rabbit, Run by John Updike.  I then lost Rabbit, Run by John Updike.  Then I started Daniel Deronda by George Eliot.  Then on the evening of the second of November, I decided to participate in this particular madness: http://nanowrimo.org/.  So, of course, Daniel Deronda was out.  I found Alice in Wonderland as an amazing replacement. 

Wonderland is a story that has taken its place in our collective consciousness.  Most people know parts of this story without ever really knowing the story.  Many know the basics of the story from having seen any of the countless versions of it out there.  Some people know bits of it without knowing any of the story (“We’re all a little mad here”). 

A lot of Carroll’s original tale dealt with issues of the day that he mixed into his little children’s tale (written for a real Alice).  That’s part of what makes it genius.  The description of a “caucus race” that the animals and a miniature Alice use to dry off, which oddly still describes politics to this day.

“Why,” said the Dodo, “the best way to explain it is to do it.”  First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there.  There was no “One, two, three and away!” but they began running when they liked and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over.  However, when they had been running half a hour or so and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out, “The race is over!” and they all crowded round it panting and asking “But who has won?”.

However, so many people spend so much time analyzing and dissecting Alice in Wonderland, that I think they truly forget what it originally was.  A children’s tale.  Yes, that’s right, it was a story thought up by a man on a boat for a bored little ten year old girl.  It was meant to entertain and pass her time.  You know, like we hand our tablets to our kids with Netflix pre-loaded on it to avoid boredom?  This was the 1800s.  People had to make it up if they wanted entertainment.

I really would encourage you, if you decide to read Alice in Wonderland at some point, to not read it with a whole intent to analyze and dissect.  Read it for what it began as.  A children’s story.  You will spend your visit with Alice, The Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter and “Off with her head!” Queen charmed and beguiled.  Or you could try to analyze it, and spend your time in Wonderland with a headache trying to decide if Carroll was commenting on drugs or mathematics.  Was he making a social or political commentary?  Was he a pedophile or not.  

Why ruin a good story with all of that stuff?