2017年6月30日 星期五

Review: 'Northanger Abbey' by Jane Austen

It is the first Jane Austen's novel I have ever read. It is such a delight! It has sarcastic and witty prose written from the perspective of the writer. The dialogues artfully bring the characters to life. The plot contains interesting and unexpected twists. The writing is clear, simple and elegant. When I was reading, I was comparing to Austen's style to that of the Bronte sisters I have read recently. Anne Bronte's prose is like prayers which are filled with determination, faith, and sincerity, and very often has a moral message, and sometimes a bit winding. Emily Bronte's novel is way too dramatic and fills with Gothic elements that haunt the reader. Austen's story seems to be told by an 'actual' storyteller, who can see people's whims and emotions.

The heroine is a seventeen-year-old girl named Catherine Morland, who is one of the ten children of a vicar. At the beginning, 'no one would have supposed her born to be a heroine'. Neither her family's social status nor her character is extraordinary. She is just an innocent and ignorant girl. The first part of the narratives follows her six weeks visit to Bath, where she goes from parties to parties to meet people and make friends.  After the first week, she met the hero of the story, Henry Tilney, and falls in love. She overcomes some obstacles to become closer with Tilney's sister, Eleanor and is invited by the old Tilney to visit Northanger Abbey, the family's house. The latter half of the novel is about her stay there, where she fantasizes a Gothic story in that ancient abbey.

The novel satirizes marriage being the means to enhance social status and secure wealth. Isabella, a good friend of Catherine since she comes to Bath, is engaged to Catherine's brother, James. Yet, after learning that James' family will not give much allowance to them after their marriage, Isabella flirts with Frederick Tilney, who is from a much richer family, despite her disgusts with him. Another character, the old Tilney is especially amiable to Catherine only because he thinks she is an heiress. Their snobbishness forms a stack contrast with the heroine, who is artless and sincere. I think Austen does not only tries to satirize particular persons but the whole society that yields a kind of pretentiousness. The society requires people to form social circles and networks to be able to enjoy themselves and not to feel awkward. Yet, somehow, self-love exceeds our ability to understand and empathize other people. For example, it is quite ironic that Mrs. Allen, who longs to meet an acquaintance in Bath, only likes to talk vainly about her gown, when she finally met an old friend from school.

A thing I love very much about this book is its vivid portrayal of the characters. Although there is not much description of the appearance of Henry Tilney, we know how charming and intelligent he is through his dialogues with Catherine. A reader would not only regard him as the heroine's lover but an attractive person in general. When he first dance with Catherine, he says "I shall make a poor figure in your journal tomorrow." When Catherine denies, he creates an agreeable version of himself in her 'journal'. He wittily expresses his wish to be flattered by the heroine. The depiction of Catherine as a naive and simple girl is also very remarkable. It is quite amazing that she can be uplifted very easily after a grave disappointment.

Let's end this with a quote: 'To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability to administer the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid'

2017年6月22日 星期四

Review: 'Wuthering Heights' by Emily Brontë

I remember reading a translated classics for children's edition of Wuthering Heights when I was a child. I do not remember the plot but it produced a tumultuous storm in my head during the two or three hours reading it. It is extremely dramatic and quite fast-paced. I know it is probably not my kind of book because I usually like fictions that are richer in thoughts and emotions instead of dramas. As expected, I do not enjoy reading this book but it was not a waste of time. I am actually interested to know why this revenge story is written. I do not mean to find out the author's intention but the cultural meaning of the novel.

The story is about two related families, the Earnshaws and the Lintons in a remote area of Yorkshire, who reside in two big houses four miles apart, namely Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. It is set between the 1770s and 1802. It starts when Mr. Lockwood becomes the new tenant of the Grange and pays a couple of visits to his landlord Mr. Heathcliff, who lives in the Wuthering Heights. Lockwood becomes very curious of his neighbours and Nelly Dean, who served in the two houses, tells him an epic story happens between the two houses.

Nelly Dean's narrative starts when the old Mr. Earnshaw adopts an orphan from Liverpool and names him Heathcliff. Mr. Earnshaw's daughter, Mr. Earnshaw adores the orphan very much and Catherine develops a very close bond with him since childhood. Yet the elder son, Hindley disgusts him and tries to stop Catherine from being too close to him. Mr. Earnshaw died when the children are still in their teenage years. Hindley thus can abuse Heathcliff as he wants. Catherine, although declares her tremendous love for Heathcliff, later marries her cousin, Edgar Linton of the Grange. Heathcliff disappears on a stormy night when he overhears Catherine's declaration to Nelly. He reappears three years later and tries to revenge against the masters of the two households, Edgar Linton and Hindley, who 'separates' him and Catherine. When the two die, he shifts the target to their offspring, who is also the daughter and nephew of Catherine.

The story is mostly composed of one outburst of quarrel or temper after another but without enough description of emotions or relationships that yield those outbursts. From the narration of Nelly, we just know that Hindley, Catherine, and Heathcliff are naturally very tempered people since their childhood, who just shout and throw things when they cannot get what they want. There are always not many detailed descriptions on the bondage between the two lovers in childhood besides them being good playmates. The lack of psychological descriptions makes the characters development too shallow and the story too melodramatic. With the commentary of Nelly Dean, the revenge of Heathcliff seems like a melodrama of an evil monster destroying an innocent village and finally destroying himself. I think the novel will be much better if it adopts a third person narratives that provide more details of the internal worlds of characters.

However, the reason for Heathcliff's revenge interests me. I think that merely his love for Catherine is not enough to yield his motivation for revenge. He tries to seize the dignity and power of the masters of the two households, who humiliate and bully him when he is young. He then reproduces his suffering to the younger generation, Hareton, and young Catherine. The revenge story is a result of an outsider, an orphan from the city's streets, failing to be accepted in a relatively exclusive social circle of countryside middle class. It reflects how power and class differences are detrimental to human relationships.

When Heathcliff is adopted, he does not regard himself as lower than Earnshaw's children as he receives more adoration from Mr. Earnshaw. When he is hit by Hareton, Nelly thinks 'he would have gone just so to the master, and got full revenge by letting his condition plead for him, intimating who had caused it'. Yet, he is not regarded as equal as other Earnshaw's children. Even Catherine does not defend him. Nelly, in order to avoid Hindley being blamed, 'persuaded him (Heathcliff) easily lay the blame of his bruises on the horse.' When old Earnshaw dies, he is deprived of respect. He runs away when he hears that she says it would degrade her if she marries him. Although Heathcliff plots a revenge to seize the property and status of his former oppressors, he fails to gain their respect and dignity which are granted by blood but is regarded as a devil instead. This reflects how unbreakable social differences are and how detrimental they are to people.

Another interesting point to note is the way the characters subject to the power. Hareton is neglected and degraded and suffers very much because of Heathcliff's revenge. Yet he does not hate him but is very loyal to him or maybe even love him. Nelly just thinks it is due to his habits. Maybe Hareton cannot find his place beside obeying his oppressor. What will happen if it is a common response to oppressive power?

I recommend people to read some critical writings about the book after reading it. I was surprised to find out its many different interpretations, which maybe even more interesting than the novel itself!

Wuthering Heights is in the public domain- Project Gutenberg.

2017年6月16日 星期五

Further Notes on 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall'


Yesterday, I posted a review on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which is mainly about its general themes and my feeling about the story. I think I should elaborate more on The Tenant as a feminist novel. Guilt is a central emotion that drives the actions of the characters. The novel reflects how the society uses the feeling of guilt to restrict women's behaviors and suggests how one might try to resist it.

Some of the negative reactions of Linden-car's residents upon the arrival of a solitary widower presupposes that women living independently of men are guilty. It is because women are not supposed to think for themselves. Mrs. Markham tells her daughter, "Rose, in all household matters, we have two things to consider, first, what's proper to be done, and secondly, what's agreeable to the gentlemen of the house-- anything will do for ladies." She also teaches Gilbert to choose a wife who does not attend to her own pleasure but the men's, 'it's your business to please yourself and hers to please you.' If a woman's business is to take care of the 'gentlemen' at home, a woman who has no gentlemen to attend to is a challenge to that inborn duty. She assumes that Mrs. Graham is not a good person simply because she lives on her own and talks about the rumors attempting to shame Mrs.Graham.

In many parts of the novel, the female characters are using this sense of guilt to sanction each others' or even her own behaviors. In addition to spreading rumors, parental authority teaches girls to feel a sense of guilt when they disobey. For instance, Millicent Hargrave reluctantly marries Mr. Hattersley because she is fear of disobeying her mother whose wish is to have a rich son-in-law. She believes that she should love her husband out of duty despite her disapproval of his behavior and she is guilty having said against him in a letter. Esther, Millicent's younger sister, is being pressured by the family as she rejects the arranged marriage by her mother. She is not sure if she should be the guilty one.

The heroine, Helen Huntingdon resists that sense of guilt when she finds out that the marriage is infelicitous. When Helen knows that Huntingdon and Lady Lowburough have an affair, she hesitates to go down for breakfast the next morning. But then she tells herself, 'let me remember it is not that I am guilty: I have no course to fear; and if they scorn me as the victim of their guilt, I can pity their folly and despise their scorn.' In earlier occasions, when Helen and Huntingdon have a quarrel, she refuses to be a submissive 'good girl' but detests the arrogance of her husband. She also helps her young friend Esther by relieving her feeling of guilt for not obeying her mother.

The book gives us a historical picture of women's situations in.the Victorian era. I think the lesson of this book is not to be ashamed of thinking for yourself and making yourself happy even if people judge you unfavorably.

2017年6月15日 星期四

Review: "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" by Anne Brontë

It is a moral tale of marriage from a woman's point of view.  Similar to Jane Eyre, it is claimed to be one of the very first feminist novels. It directly rejects that a submissive housewife is 'a good woman'. It encourages woman to have their own judgement and own voice to be heard in the face of abuse or unjust treatment. The protagonist also does not afraid to displease people by stating her opposite stance or be sorry for her own opinions. The novel does not only challenge the conventions of the conservative Victorian society but it is also quite relatable to the issue of woman's rights in modern society.

The story is about Mrs. Graham, a new tenant of the desolate WildFell Hall, who causes lots of gossips about her identity in the neighborhood. She and her son Arthur make friend with Gilbert Markham, a young local farmer, and landowner. Although Mrs. Graham is not amiable but rather is content with desolation and solitude, Gilbert falls in love with her for her sophisticated and mature character. Mrs. Graham reveals her real identity and secret to Gilbert by letting her read her diary. The diary follows the course of Helen Huntington's marriage and how she finally determines to escape from her husband with her son. 

I am really impressed by the emotional intensity of the novel. The pages overflow with the internal struggles the protagonist has been through. The words are sometimes the cries of the heart or the prayer to God or the whisper to herself. It is really heartbreaking to see a young woman slowly dashes her hope for a happy marriage. After accepting Huntington's proposal, Helen realizes that he is not as good as she thinks: 'My cup of sweets is not unmingled: it is dashed with a bitterness that I cannot hide from myself, disguise it as I will.' After knowing he cheated on her, she writes, 'Oh! when I think how fondly, how foolishly I have loved him, how madly I have trusted him, how constantly I have studied, and prayed, and struggled for his advantage...' When I read this sentence, I flipped back to the start of diary, which is written by that innocent girl in love a few years ago, and sighed. 

Helen's story makes me think of a documentary on domestic violence I watched recently. I was surprised that some women stayed in their marriages for many years although their husbands constantly abuse them. Some of them are afraid that their children will have to grow up in a broken family so they do not divorce. Yet the violence is already detrimental to their kids' moral character. If a girl can write a story in the 19th century about a young woman running away from her husband to protect her kid from moral degrade, why the society in the 21st century cannot sufficiently protect women and children from physical violence in families?

On the other hand, The Tenant is still somewhat limited as a feminist novel. It does not explore the possibilities of women staying out of marriage or firing a divorce. There is a minor character, Jane Wilson, who want to marry someone rich and prestigious, ends up failing and becomes an old maiden. Although she is disliked for annoying gossips, why the author does not 'award' her with a 'reform' or a happy life despite her being single?

2017年6月5日 星期一

3 Relatable Coming-of-age Novels that are Over 100 years old

The first time you leave your home, the first time you move to another city, the first time you get a job… These new experiences often become inspirations of a story. We imagine the lives of young adults very different from ours nowadays. The education might be different. We have more career choices and shopping choices. The ideas of success might have been changed. Yet a coming-of-age novel published over 100 years ago may still be relatable to us nowadays. They inspire us to reflect on our relationships with society, family and ourselves in the face of new challenges.

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë (originally published in 1847)

When 19-year-old Agnes Grey considers going to work to support her family, she decides to become a governess. Similar to many young people getting their first jobs, Agnes is full of hope and excitement. Yet she is not without fear. When she first enters her employer’s house, she tells herself, ‘for the first time in my life I must stand alone: there was no retreating now.  I must enter that house, and introduce myself among its strange inhabitants.’ Her pupils are spoiled and unteachable, and her employers are mean and demanding.  She is shocked by her masters’ lack of moral feelings. She is lonely and sometimes she is desperate be alone to be depressed. It is difficult to find someone who shares her interests and values in the workplace, needless to say someone who cares about her.
This novel reflects the disappointing truths about work, unchanged in these two centuries: it can be hard, lonely, boring and makes you feel unfree. You have to be obedient to your employer, at the same time, stand for yourself. You work so hard but the ones you serve may not be thankful since you are paid to do the job. One has to learn to hide their emotions and dislikes. Learning to deal with that unhappiness and loneliness seems to be something we are always doing in the modern life.

Sanshirō by Natsume Sōseki (originally published in 1909) 三四郎  夏目漱石

When Sanshiro, a village boy, enters university in Tokyo, he is thrown into a big city in its process of modernization. The speed of electric tram as well as the pace of this city amaze him but also confuse him. He feels like so left out, separated from the present reality. His relationships with fellows, especially with his crush, are puzzling. As the story progresses, there are more disappointments but at the same time more experiences and reflections for him.
A major theme of how technological advancements affect humans’ fellow feelings. Although it was written more than a hundred years ago, it is surprisingly relatable to people in the modern days. When the news reports a person commit suicide, it becomes a piece of information. Tomorrow there will be other pieces of news on the paper. We cannot feel the emotions, or do not have the time to feel the emotions caused by the incident. I think of social media, which present our social circle just as pieces of news, and how I have been growing up with them…

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (originally published in 1916)

Stephan Dedalus grows up in a conservative Catholic Irish family and is educated at religious schools. The story follows his spiritual journey from an obedient, meek model student to an independent young man who decides to leave his society to become an artist. When he was very young, it seems that he does not have an independent spirit. He always’ found himself doing something’, instead of making decisions. He listens to the priests’ preaches and is often so afraid that he has sinful thoughts and desires. However, as he grows older, he begins to question the values he has been taught. Instead of following the rules, ‘he would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul’.
The novel reminds me of my school days, when I was also an obedient student who was so afraid of breaking any rule, like drinking water without permission and eating in the classroom. After leaving school to enter university, I started to think critically about those rules and found out that many of them are unnecessary and inflexible. I remember teachers justify those rules as a preparation of student to the hidden rules of the workplace. But isn’t it more important to teach student to think for themselves before following others? The transformation of Stephan Dedalus seems to be something lots of young people hope for: to be free of the constraints of an oppressive society, to love life, to create values and meanings…