The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Fiction — audiobook. Read by Anna Fields. Blackstone Audio, 2004. Originally published 1905. 13 hours, 42 minutes. Library copy.

Set against the backdrop of the 1890s New York upper class society, Wharton’s fourth novel tells the story of Lily Bart, an unmarried woman, beginning with her visit to Lawrence Selden’s apartment. Lily has feelings for Lawrence but must marry a wealthier man in order to keep her social standing.

An unexpected visit by Lawrence causes her to change her mind and a series of events — innocently accepting money from her friend’s husband, alarming Lawrence by changing her mind about him, incorrectly being accused of adultery — leaves Lily in social ruin. Attempting to fight her way back to high society, Lily is advised by her two remaining friends to marry — quickly. Lily refuses their advice working as a personal secretary and, later, in a milliner’s until her inheritance arrives and she can save herself.

Married to her principles but trapped by a society with rigid expectations for her life, Lily Bart quickly wormed her way into my heart much in the same manner that Emma Woodhouse did. There are aspects of her character that would be easy to dismiss or derive — her constant sabotage of her own prospects due to snobbery, her refusal to associate with people who offend her sensibilities, her inability to reconcile herself with the reality of her situations — but each of these characteristics can be viewed through a favorable lens. She is deeply committed to her principles; she is a victim of a society where women are, tragically, confined to rigid gender roles and left unequipped to deal with scandal or reduced circumstances.

And, once again, Wharton explores the hypocrisy of the elite society in Manhattan presented a woman whose reputation is left in tatters by rumors and gossipers who hold unmarried women to different standards. Lily is viewed as a whore because she accepted financial support from a jealous woman’s husband yet society is willing to accept her with open arms if she inherits a substantial fortune or marries a man. Lily longs for independence and to marry for love yet society’s expectations for her constrain her access to money and her ability to function independent of society.

Interspersed amongst this larger critique are smaller yet still pointed criticisms of a society confined by an old code of morality but fixed on money and conspicuous consumption. The parties Wharton describes in great detail are lavish affairs, but there is always an air of superiority and suspicion surrounding the attendees as the old families and “blue blood” must decide to reject or accept the flood of “new money” during the Gilded Age.

While most people seem to consider this novel to be Wharton’s lesser work due to it being her first, I actually enjoyed this novel more than The Age of Innocence due to both to the brilliant of her critique and the character she created in Lily Bart.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

Advertisements

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

Fiction — audiobook. Read by Pat Bottino. Blackstone Audio, 2000. Originally published 1894. 5 hours, 10 minutes. Library copy.

Set during the American Civil War, Crane’s classic novel follows Henry Fleming, a young private in the 304th New York Regiment of the Union Army who deserts during battle after deciding the odds are in favor of the Confederate Army.

When Henry reaches the rear of the army, he overhears a general stating that his regiment managed to hold the line and win the battle upending Henry’s rationalization of his decision to flee. Ashamed after learning of the victory and interacting with a badly wounded Jim Conklin, Henry decides to return to his regiment and earn his own “red badge of courage”.

Crane’s exploration of the emotions surrounding war, particularly shame and camaraderie, and how such emotions can motivate a person to act against their own self-preservation makes this novel an intriguing read. Cowardice becomes courage due to the romanticism of war; the same romanticism that made a nineteen-year-old enlist in the first part.

Despite the interesting psychological exploration of war, I think listening this novel rather than reading it impacted my appreciate of the tale. Although I would consider myself to be rather comfortable with nineteenth-century prose, it was often difficult to image particular scenes or follow some of Henry’s meandering thoughts. Additionally, Bottino’s narration was rather straight-forward; he rarely seemed to raise his voice or add any inflection to help convey emotion, which is rather sad considering how the novel explores the exploitation of emotion to perpetrate war.

Others’ Thoughts:

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Fiction — audiobook. Read by Richard Allen. Tantor Audio, 2008. Originally published 1852. 20 hours, 8 minutes. Library copy.

Subtitled “Life Among the Lowly”, Stowe’s anti-slavery novel begins with Eliza learning her son, George, and the middle-aged Tom, who has a wife and children, have been sold by the Shelbys to pay off their debts. Eliza and Tom have been with the Shelbys since Arthur and Emily were children and the Shelbys consider themselves good, caring masters.

But Arthur ignores his earlier promise of giving Tom his freedom and Emily is unable to hold her promise to Eliza that her only child will be not be taken from her. While Eliza makes a run for freedom with her little boy across a treacherous river crossing, Tom is sold and travels on a riverboat down the Mississippi River.

Once on board, Tom is purchased by Augustine St. Clare and taken to New Orleans where he continues his friendship with Eva St. Clare over their shared Christian faith. Eva eventually becomes very ill and her deep faith in the face of death at a young age convinces her father to free Tom and her cousin Ophelia, who is against slavery, to reject all her prejudices against blacks and finally accept Topsy, who St. Clare purchased to show Ophelia that he is not biased against blacks despite owning slaves. After Eva’s death and the sudden death of her father, Tom is sold to Simon Legree and taken to a plantation somewhere in Louisiana. Tom refuses to whip the other slaves on the plantation and is punished for both his refusal and his deep faith in God by Legree.

Meanwhile, Eliza locates her husband George Harris, who ran away after his owner pressed him to set aside his marriage vows to Eliza and marry a slave on his new owner’s plantation. Their escape to Canada is thwarted by the slave hunter Tom Loker, and George pushes the man over a cliff after her and Eliza have been captured. Despite the risk to them, Eliza insists George take Tom to a nearby Quaker community for medical treatment.

According to the case of this audiobook, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln told Stowe her work had been a catalyst for the Civil War and “Stowe’s Tom is actually American literature’s first black hero, a man who suffers for refusing to obey his white oppressors”. Both statements make me glad I finally read the novel, and her didactic arguments are particularly important in framework of understanding American history.

Listening to the audiobook read by Richard Allen allowed me to appreciate the dialects employed by Stowe in her characterizations and helped distinguish between each of the characters. Given the title, it is certainly understandable why people remember Tom most vividly, but I thought the “secondary” character of George was largely exempt from many of the problems — one-dimensionality, caricature, stereotypes — that plagued the majority of the characters in this book, which clearly arise due to the edifying purpose of the novel.

As I was listening to the novel, though, I could not help but wonder if the reason the book has not stood the test of time — that is, there has not been a film adaptation since 1965 and the novel is not taught in public schools — is due to its heavy reliance upon both stereotypes about black people and Christianity. Both Uncle Tom and Eliza are presented as people pleased with slavery while under the ownership of the Shirleys. It is only after they are sold (and the Shirleys succumbed to the sin of greed) that slavery is shown to be the true evil that it is.

In addition to advocating for the end of slavery in America, Stowe’s novel puts for the idea that a strong Christian faith can help slaves overcome the violence inflicted on them and help slave owners see the errors of their way and, therefore, appears to suggest that being morally opposed to slavery comes about solely as a result of being a Christian. Given the time period in which the novel was written, it is understandable for a large number of the characters to proclaim to be Christians and, personally, I’m glad she addressed the claims on the part of slave owners that owning slaves is Christian.

But I would also argue against her equation of Christianity with moral authority, and I can see how such assertions would make it difficult for the novel to be covered in a public school such as the ones I attended. (Her advocating for freed slaves being sent to Africa rather than integration in American society in the epilogue could also be difficult to “teach” to students.) So, yes, the novel is historically important and filled with very memorable characters with, sadly, not entirely unique experiences, but the problematic stereotypes and didactic nature of the novel makes it understandable as way the novel has faded from prominence.

Others’ Thoughts:

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

This story follows Ivan Denisovich Shukhov through a course of a single day in his life as an inmate in a Soviet forced labor camp. An innocent man, Ivan was accused of becoming a spy after capture by the Germans as a prisoner of war during World War II and sentenced to the Siberian work camp as punishment by the government. The novel is one of the few criticisms of the Satlin regime published in Russia when first published in 1962, and this edition includes Solzhenitsyn’s infamous letter to his fellow authors against censorship in the country.

I will confess to having some trepidation when I started Solzhenitsyn’s novel during Hour 12 of the read-a-thon. Experience has taught me that Russian novels can be rather difficult reads requiring determination and a really good audiobook. I had neither of those thing for this particular book.

However, my concerns were put to rest after only a few pages and I ended up flying through the entire novel during the course of the read-a-thon. It’s a fantastic read; the simplistic scope very deceptive in nature. In a single day, Ivan introduces readers to  nearly all the terrors found in a Soviet work camp and lays the foundation for the development of an interest of life in Stalinist Russia.

I thought the book would be rather pessimistic in nature. After all, who can be happy in a forced labor camp? But Ivan shows how simple victories (receiving a second ration, landing on the sick list) can mean life or death, happiness or sadness in a camp. Furthermore, I found the development of classes and a political system within the camp — both those created by the regime and those created by the inmates themselves — to be completely fascinating. The presentation in this novel is so complete that its obvious the novel is based upon on Solzhenitsyn’s personal experience in the camps.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Translated from Russian. New York: Bantam, 1963. Originally published 1962. Print. 203 pgs. ISBN: 9780553117127. Source: Purchased.
Book Cover © Bantam. Retrieved: October 18, 2012.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Yossarian, a bombardier for the air force, is furiously scrambling to save himself from the horrible chances of war. His problem is Colonel Cathcart, who keeps raising the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service.

Yet if Yossarian makes any attempts to excuse himself from the perilous missions that he is committed to flying, he is trapped by the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, the bureaucratic rule from which the book takes its title: a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes the necessary formal request to be relieved of such missions, the very act of making the request proves that he is sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved.

“History did not demand Yossarian’s premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance.” (pg. 68)

The book itself is a rather confusing exploration with characters introduced and removed without care. The “catch-22” of the tale was evident from the beginning for me unlike many of others that I know who have read them. (But that may also be a function of the numerous presentation on this book that I heard in high school.) I’ve read other books where the criticism of bureaucratic nightmares and war have come across in a much stronger, more interesting manner than this one.

Multiple people in my life informed me that Heller’s book is one where you will have no idea what’s going on as you read it but all the pieces will fall into place after you turn the last page. Somehow that was not the case for me. I finished this book last week and mulled over it ever since yet my thoughts are still not coherent. This is one of those books where I wish I didn’t have a book blog because trying to explain my negative feelings on such a beloved book is always a difficult challenge.

I recognize that Heller’s style is quite unique and quite revolutionary for his time (and even for today). I’ll even recognize that this book might have been too much of a challenge at this point in my life, but I was quite tired of seeing this book every time I pursued my shelves. I persevered and, unfortunately, did not fall in love.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Originally published 1955. Print. 453 pgs. ISBN: 0684833395. Source: PaperBackSwap.
Book Cover © Simon & Schuster. Retrieved: October 9, 2012.