November 2007 Archives

Sweet Jane

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Last Sunday I spent the entire afternoon curled up with a book - something I used to do all the time but which now seems incredibly luxurious. The book in this case was an old friend: Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, which I was re-reading for the third or fourth time. I can't help loving Jane Eyre, mostly because I love Jane herself: so earnest, yet such an effective tease and sometime smartass, with her impressive self-control and occasional bursts of audacious temper. I think Brontë struck a very unique balance with Jane: she doesn't, especially in retrospect, take herself overly seriously, but she doesn't discount the validity of her experiences, either. Her sardonic, sensible tendency to poke fun at her past self is tempered by a real core of self-respect and self-esteem, in the true sense of believing that her selfhood has value. It's not a combination you see a lot in heroines from Victorian novels, and it makes her seem quite real to me. I like her for arguing, at the age of ten, that surely we should strike back at those who oppress us, and only love those who love us in return (not the standard turn-the-other-cheek doctrine). And I like her for her increasing subtlety and realistic-seeming struggles with issues of faith and spirituality as she gets older. So often the sympathetic female characters in nineteenth-century novels are not allowed any doubt, of either morality or religion, because they are supposed to be unalterable, self-sacrificing moral compasses leading the corruptible men back to salvation while turning the other cheek and never raising their voices. Not that Jane Eyre is without this theme. But it's definitely a lot more complicated than, say, Amelia's character in Vanity Fair, or Biddy in Great Expectations, or any of the women of Bleak House.

I have to say, though, that the xenophobia and racism in the book really got to me during this reading in a way it hasn't before. All that stuff about French people being innately superficial and shallow compared to the staunchly disciplined English? The progression of stereotyped mistresses kept by Rochester, in which the flighty Parisian is followed by the immoral Italian and the slow-witted German? And how we're supposed to overlook Rochester's imprisonment of Bertha because, well, her mother was a Creole, and you know how prone to sin and madness those tropical brown people are? The scene where Rochester is describing how the hot tropical air is closing in on him, and he thinks about killing himself but then a sweet, pure breeze comes in "from Europe" and realizes that he "isn't really married" and should just go back to Europe and start looking for another woman? The phrase "the pure breeze from Europe" is repeated in different configurations about three or four times, just in case we hadn't picked up on the idea that the atmosphere and peoples of the East are polluted and we should stick to good old English salt of the earth, which will purify us and save us from descending into madness ourselves.

At the same time, it's interesting that Jane feels such a yen to explore the world outside the hills that bound her station, and that she is very conscious and admiring of objects that come from far-away lands (the Turkish carpet, the imported china, etc.). And she is especially thrilled at the idea of traveling after her marriage to Rochester. So it's an intriguing, and perhaps realistic, contradiction. It's good to want to visit other places, as long as you don't get too involved (e.g., marrying a foreigner) or start to absorb some of the "vices" of foreign lands or lose the "virtues" of your English upbringing.

None of these points are new (Wide Sargasso Sea, anyone?), but for whatever reason, they intruded more on my reading than they ever have before. It was a strange mental space for me, because somehow, even though I find him very disturbing when I think about his actions logically, I can't help championing Rochester's cause emotionally. "Oh, you locked up your wife in a windowless room for years on end and never told me about it? And you intentionally misled me into thinking you were about to marry another woman, in order to make me feel jealous and inferior? That's so endearing, honey! You must really love me." It seems like Jane's reaction ought to be more along the lines of "It's good I found out about this violent tendency in my fiancé before we actually tied the knot," than her true one of "I am heartbroken I can't marry this man; inconveniently, he has a previous wife locked in the attic." Yet, for some reason, when I'm actually in the midst of reading the book, I can't help agreeing with Jane, and hoping for the ending that actually takes place. Maybe because all the people of Jane Eyre dwell in the velvet-tapestried no-man's-land of Gothic mystery, and it's so much fun to visit them there that it becomes easy to forget my logical reactions. Undoubtedly I will continue to pay them many visits there in the years to come - which will be beneficial, as long as I remember by upright American principles, and am not corrupted by their licentious moorland ways.

A wrinkle in memory


When I heard in September that Madeline L'Engle had died, I had the extremely unusual idea that now would be a good time to re-read her famous Time series of young-adult novels. This notion turned out to be so wildly original that Powell's was completely sold out of all her books when I sauntered over in search of them. Having apparently not learned my lesson after trying to purchase a copy of Timequake a few days after Kurt Vonnegut's death, I was unreasonably shocked by this development. However! A mere month later, there were plenty of copies in stock, so I recently got around to re-reading A Wrinkle in Time. The experience turned out to be a strange, multi-layered exercise in memory, as well as a rediscovery of a good book.

Prior to re-reading Wrinkle, I remembered that I had read it and its sequels as a child, and loved them. But I could bring to mind almost nothing about the book itself. The only things I could recall were that it had a female protagonist, and that there was a scene in which everything in an apparently unplanned scene happened in creepy unison. That was pretty much it. But once I started reading, every passage transformed into an old friend, one that I remembered intimately a split second after encountering it again. Strangely, this wasn't one of those re-readings where each scene spurs memories of what's going to happen next, so that the reader feels like some kind of prophet of five-minutes-in-the-future. No, this was a deep and detailed memory that only came back as I absorbed each passage for a second time. It was an eerie but comforting reading experience.

But at the same time, I was also "remembering" the story through the lens of all the other books I've read in the meantime. It's such an archetypal story - the quest after the missing father, the young people fighting for light in the darkness, the trio of otherworldly helpers that guide them but can't explicitly tell them what to do, the disillusionment with a parent's fallibility, the ultimate triumph of love. When I read the novel the first time, I had much, much less experience of these ubiquitous story elements than I do now. I had very little "novel sense"; I didn't get instinctual insight about the story's direction, as I lacked the experiential base of having absorbed hundreds upon hundreds of novels over the course of many years. A Wrinkle in Time was probably in the first or second wave of novels that I read myself; I was just starting out on my lifetime love affair with the written word. It was a fairly bizarre experience to revisit a story I have literally read before, but which I read with a much a much blanker literary experience than I have now. While I was remembering L'Engle's story as I re-absorbed it, I was also "remembering" it into a shared tradition of coming-of-age quest stories extending from Homer's Odyssey to Rowling's Harry Potter books. That sort of cultural recognition is something I've become accustomed to as part of my reading process, so it was fascinating to be reminded of a time before I had consciously acknowledged any of this literary context, before I was saying to myself "Oh, I recognize this; here's the part where (the protagonist is tempted by the side of evil, the idol shows itself to be flawed, the oracle gives unwelcome insight, the hero(ine) must continue on alone, etc.)". All in all, this re-reading was a very complicated act of remembering indeed.

Which seems so perfectly appropriate, given that Wrinkle is all about connecting instinctually with one's place in the human history of moral struggle - how coming of age means taking up the mantle of luminaries that have gone before, and finding one's own way while still gathering strength from their example. Recognizing this idea from other novels is sort of a meta-example of the idea itself. In other words, I sort of created my own little time-wrinkle just by reading books! How cool is that?

In my opinion: very cool.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography