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Question 1: Ending of Jane Eyre

How satisfying do you find the ending of Jane Eyre? Rochester is made to seem less powerful in the relationship because of his physical dependence on Jane’s help, and Jane is more powerful because of her new wealth and family connections. Is this successful resolution to the clashes of values depicted in the novel? Also, what is Bronte communicating by making the last words about St. John’s ministry in India, rather than about Jane and Rochester? Jump in with any ideas you have.

Response from Adam:

I see how carefully and often you’ve read Jane Eyre, MJ, and I hesitate to offer my non-Victorianist perspective! In any case, it seems to me that Jane Eyre does try to harmonize value systems, as you suggest. At the end, the heroine gets right with religion and everything else that she wants: a better position, love, marriage, family, Rochester domesticated. The world makes sense.
Daniel Deronda offers an interesting contrast. I wonder if Brontë says you can have what you want, and Eliot replies, no, you can’t. I’m not sure that Gwendolyn gets what she wants (and perhaps neither does Dorothea in Middlemarch). Eliot is writing more than a generation later, and as the novel form ages, sometimes both its shape and characters cohere less. Brontë’s Jane seems coherent, integrated, triumphant, and so does her novel. Daniel Deronda, however, breaks in two as Gwendolyn’s plot diverges from Daniel’s. In both cases, the heroine’s fate seems bound up in the novel’s form.

Probably I’m overgeneralizing. In the twentieth-century, though, the novel-of-education form continues to disintegrate, and so does the protagonist as an integrated self (Samuel Beckett’s trilogy somehow clarifies this idea for me). I think my point is simply that Jane Eyre imagines that harmony exists, both in the cosmos and in the self. Later novels (and some earlier texts) often don’t.

MJ Booklover Reply to Adam:

Really interesting comparison between “Eyre” and “Deronda”! Whereas in Jane Eyre, as you say, the heroine is able to reconcile her moral principles with other goals and desires, pretty much the opposite is true for Gwendolyn in Deronda. She develops stronger and more morally-based values as the story unfolds, but it seems the more moral she gets, the less she is able to fulfill her desires or be comfortable in the world.

Nevertheless, Eliot thinks she is still better off: better to be a good person than rich and successful in a worldly sense. Daniel grows more meaningful moral values too, after discovering his true Jewish heritage. And he does get a nice wife and a meaningful life purpose; but he doesn’t get Gwendolyn, who he finds powerfully attractive. As you point out, the form of novel reflects the impossibility of their coming together as the story splits into two plot lines. (Good insight about how form follows theme!) So I think I agree with you: Eliot says “you can’t always get what you want,” at least not if you want to be a good person.

But about Brontë: in the novel, of course, Jane gets it all–morals, social correctness, and all her individual desires. This ending pleases and satisfies many of the readers I have discussed the book with over the years. But not everyone, I have learned, finds this ending satisfying or believable. For one thing, to some people Rochester seems somewhat emasculated at the end; is Jane marrying the same man she fell in love with? For another, her bettered social position depends totally on a melodramatic contrivance. Of all the cottages in all the little towns in England, she collapses on the one doorstep that could open the door to wealth and a higher social class for her? Perhaps Brontë fits her big shaggy discussion of values and far-reaching social critique into a fairy-tale-like narrative, because that is what most readers want. And I do think she argues, like Eliot, for the primacy of morals in life choices. But I’m not sure Brontë herself would say, yes you can get what you want and still be a “good” person. I don’t think, in her own life, that she did.

Question 2: How to Read Faulkner

How does a reader approach the work of William Faulkner?

I have been striving to become familiar with the writings of Faulkner for the last several months and can report little success. His composition, sentence structure, though a bit “German” in nature (one sentence can be a paragraph or a page), is compelling, even musical. However after several pages of his prose, I easily remember the vocabulary, the artistry of his flow of ideas, but I can not sensibly apply the ideas expressed through his characters to overall relevance of a philosophy or commentary about the period of time in which his characters find their expression. I have been convinced by those more Faulkner-insightful than I that born Southerners–like I am–have a genetic predisposition to insights to understanding and applying anything Faulknerian. Perhaps I took the road most traveled. Russ Norris

Reply from MJ Booklover:

Hello, Russ,
I think you are right that Faulkner is not an easy writer to get to know. I make a few remarks about Faulkner in the Reading List for American Modernist Literature that you can take a look at, for a start: https://readgreatliterature.com/literature-lists-timelines/literature-american-modernist-literature-1915-1945/.

Faulkner is difficult mostly because of his technical fireworks. Once a reader learns to navigate those, the themes become more apparent. In fact, oftentimes the technique IS the theme or idea. Let me see if I can explain:

Faulkner’s preoccupation was with the way we tell stories about ourselves and others. We receive judgments, values, and narratives from families, culture, or local history, and often apply or enact them in warped ways. Also, people are naturally fascinated by other people, but because they can see only a part of what others think and feel, they make up a lot of stories about others and don’t realize they are not seeing the exact truth.

Further, people recruit other people to play roles in their own false personal dramas, and thus end up exploiting them, whether to a large or small degree. People even tell false stories about themselves that they proceed enact, often to the detriment of themselves and others. Thus the bad guys in Faulkner use others, either as characters in the stories they spin, or actively exploit them for personal gain, without regard to that person’s inner life or needs; the good guys (the few there are) have more empathy for others, allowing or encouraging them to express their own identities. Thus as a writer, he tries to enact that kind of empathy, spending a lot of time inside people’s heads to try to render how they think and feel, and discern the kinds of cultural forces and experiences that made them that way.

Faulkner also critiqued much of small-town Southern culture. His stories illustrate how racism, privileging blood ties over individuals or moral principles, and too much adherence to a medieval-esque code of honor all warp people, damaging their identities and causing grief all around. Blind personal ambition is often a villain as well.

It sounds like you have read a lot of Faulkner, but to get more comfortable with his technique, I would recommend starting again with a couple of the short stories, “Barn Burning” and “A Rose for Emily,” reading not just for theme but to analyze his writing techniques. Check out my post on “Rose for Emily” for a discussion of both technique and themes in that story here:

https://readgreatliterature.com/literary-acrobatics-william-faulkners-rose-for-emily/.

In “Barn Burning,” notice how Faulkner keeps our perspective mostly inside the head of the small boy, with some outside commentary from the narrator, to illustrate how he struggles with divided loyalty between his father (the blood) and his keen sense of morality. Family or Empathy? Loyalty or Morality? Sarty must choose. This is a small casebook for Faulkner’s major themes.

From there, move on to Light in August. This is easier to read than some of the more famous ones, but does still use some flashy writing, such as stop-action scenes, and other scenes where we stay inside the perspective of a particular character. The book is about how various sicknesses in the older Southern culture damage the characters and encourage them to damage others. But the book also offers the way out of this cyclical misery: an imperfect “romance” between the pregnant waif Lena and the kindly Byron. To fix a broken culture, just have a kid and start over. Life goes on when encouraged by kindness. He also illustrates that enlightenment is possible, as the Rev. Hightower has an epiphany at the end that his cherished code of honor was actually inhumane.

After that, try As I Lay Dying. Here Faulkner examines the range of psyches found among the stubborn poor. What motivates each individual to hang on or a pretty useless quest? One aspect not to miss with Faulkner’s work is the humor–rather dark, of course, but often sad-funny, not just sad. There’s humor in this work along with angst. Then try The Sound and the Fury–true stream of consciousness, shifting from the mind of one character to another. If it is hard to keep up with the changing perspectives, take a look at sparknotes.com or another reader’s guide to clue you in. The themes in this work are similar to Faulkner’s other works. One of the cultural problems that haunts the characters is the way all the male characters are preoccupied with the honor of their sister. Sounds like a good thing, but the story shows how the whole family is warped by this preoccupation.

I hope that gets you started! Let me know how it goes.

Question 3: Favorite Poet?

What great poet has made the biggest impression on you, and why? Which of that poet’s works stand out the most? OR what single great poem has been significant for you, and why?

Reply from David Miller:

There has been no poet more influential on me than the self-proclaimed poet laureate of England, Mr. John Milton (1608-1674). It’s unfortunate that Milton is often overshadowed by Shakespeare in English studies, but it would be difficult not to be at least partially overcast by such a long shadow. Milton was acutely aware of the “problem” of Shakespeare in developing his own grand style, just as the Victorian and Romantic poets who followed him where conscious of Milton’s shadow over them.

John Keats, for example, is famous for having remarked that “life to Milton” would be death to himself and to his own poetic career. This is the problem with antecedent genius. Another’s genius can prevent you from writing. Your muse becomes your gorgon, and you turn to stone. This is what happens to Milton in his poem, “On Shakespeare,” as he apostrophizes the bard’s literary powers:

“…thou our fancy of itself bereaving,

Dost make us marble with too much conceiving” (ll. 13-14)

It’s funny to imagine a marble bust of Milton within a poem about Shakespeare. Milton’s point is made nonetheless. I confess that reading Milton for the first time certainly had a similar effect on me. I’m sure many of us could speak to an experience in which we were dumbfounded by the power of another’s language.

But why is it that discovering unknown possibilities in language should turn us to stone? Perhaps because we seem to be hardwired to reverence artistic achievement in a way that is composed and dignified. Perhaps because we don’t know exactly how to bring artistic achievement fully into our realm of experience. Perhaps because experiencing artistic achievement actually is, in some way, always debilitating. Or perhaps we don’t remain stone for long. Only for a moment.

There are two of Milton’s poems that stand out as having reached beyond the genius of Shakespeare and therefore profoundly impactful: his pastoral elegy Lycidas (1638) and his great epic Paradise Lost (1667/1674). I’ll say a few words about Lycidas, although it would truly deserve more time than I’m able to give it here. Paradise Lost deserves its own post entirely.

Milton wrote two major pastoral elegies: Lycidas and Damon. The first is written in English, the second in Latin. The first is held up as one of the finest poems in the English language, the second is rarely read, even in its English translation. The first is written about a fellow Cambridge student named Edward King, with whom Milton had limited interaction, and the second about his best friend, Charles Diodati. There’s a way in which Milton’s distance from King, as opposed to his closeness to Diodati, enabled a superior poem. A level of removal from tragedy, in this case at least, does not turn a poet to stone.

To set the poem up, Milton writes, “In this Monody the author bewails a learned friend, unfortunately drown’d.” A monody is a single melodic line. A sort of solo. This is the first of many references to music in the poem, as Milton seems to want to merge poetry with music in this work. Whether or not the poem is a monody is up for debate.

The poem is certainly interrupted by many voices, but all these voices are framed by a single “uncouth” voice—the diffident, poetic voice of a young John Milton, revealed at the end to be a “swain” or shepherd in line 186. What’s tricky about this poem is that all of the actual figures of the situation at Cambridge are reimagined in the pastoral mode as shepherds, satyrs, and other familiar figures of Roman poetry and pastoral painting. “Pastor” means shepherd in Latin, and so pastoral art, literature, and music concern the rustic world of shepherds and their activities within an idealized natural setting or locus amoenus (Latin for “pleasant place”). King is called Lycidas in the poem. He is a young shepherd who has died “ere his prime.”

The main anxiety of the poem is twofold. The first is the unnatural death of a young man, a child gone before his parents. The second is the manner of death. Because King drowned, his body was never recovered. Therefore, the very person elegized in the poem is physically absent, unable to be shown to the mourners, adorned with flowers, and lowered into the ground.
Like so much of Milton, the lines surrounding this situation are stunning, even deceptively simple at times:

“Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his watery bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed* of some melodious tear” (ll. 10-16)
*help

Other lines are frightening, as when Milton, taking the occasions to consider his own mortality, imagines the decapitation of another poet:“What could the Muse herself that Orpheus bore,

The Muse herself, for her enchanting son
Whom Universal nature did lament,
When by the rout that made the hideous roar,
His goary visage down the stream was sent” (ll. 58-62)
Or the strange choice of the word “beaked” in this section, which calls to mind the threat of nature:
“He ask’d the Waves, and ask’d the Fellon winds,
What hard mishap hath doom’d this gentle swain?
And questioned every gust of rugged wings
That blows from off each beaked Promontory” (ll. 91-4)

There’s no passage more frightening than Milton’s condemnation of the Church of England and even Cambridge itself in the part their corruption played in King’s death. At the end of the section, Milton imagines God’s final intervention at the end of days in these cryptic lines:

“But that two-handed engine at the door,
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more” (ll. 130-1)
But there are also passages full of tenderness. Milton’s catalogue of flowers decorating the bier, for instance, grows out of a long poetic tradition and is the best example of such a passage in English. But it is his final token of consolation at the end of the elegy that is perhaps the most moving. He will later reuse this ending in Paradise Lost:
“And now the Sun had stretched out all the hills,
And now was dropt into the Western bay;
At last he rose, and twitched his Mantel blue:
Tomorrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.”

Here the poet finishes his song. And here Milton finishes his poem. The ending is, in a way, surprisingly secular. Previously, Milton had already envisioned King in heaven attended by angels. But here, we have a promise of the fresh woods of life and the certainty of more fruitful pastures in the years to come. How ironic that a setting sun should warm us. Does it have the power too to change us from stone to flesh?

Reply to David Miller from MJ Booklover:

OK, wow–it’s clear from your thorough and tender discussion of “Lycidas” that Milton truly is one of your enthusiasms. What do you think is the main reason he speaks to you so intensely? From your post, I gather that aesthetics is the prime reason for your admiration–the beauty of Milton’s language has that power you described to arrest you in a state of wonderment.

You might be interested in this article in the U.K. “Spectator.” Boyd Tonkin reports a universal lament of Milton admirers that Milton is no longer much read. But he makes the argument that Milton’s work, especially his themes, his love of free speech, and the moral dilemmas of the characters, are very relevant today. Milton might not be down for the count! Boyd Tonkin, “Why Milton Still Matters,” online in The Spectator.

Reply to MJ Booklover comment by David Miller:

Great article by Tonkin. I remember reading this once before.

To your post:
I suppose I often argue that any discussion about Milton’s writing must begin with an assertion of his poetic force, because he clearly worked so hard to craft a poetics of power. Milton imagined his verse as having a physical force on others. That said, I concede the point that the lasting impact of Milton on generations of readers rests on the moral dilemmas bound up in the characters of his major poems: Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes.

But beyond Satan, Adam, Eve, and Samson, we can find moral dilemmas in the poetry before his shift to political prose in the 1640s. We see these dilemmas in Comus with Milton’s meditation on holiness, redemption, and accountability of action; in the Nativity Ode with the certain reminder of our sinful state despite our best efforts; and even in Lycidas with the temptation of fame for our narrator, the limits of knowledge, the insatiable desire for achievement, and what some scholars have argued is an entire misuse of King’s death to criticize one’s leaders and their failed policies.

This last point especially is part of the difficulty of defining poetry’s purpose in a very real world, which demands from us our intellectual engagement. I like Milton for these reasons.
I think you’re right, too, that Milton’s appeal is also due to his acknowledgment that freedom is a fundamental human need. This idea is spelled out quite defiantly in Areopagitica, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, The Ready and Easy way to Establish a Commonwealth, and others. But it is unforgettable in the imaginative verse of Paradise Lost, intellectually vital in Comus, and central to Lycidas’ appeal as a meditation on death. The poet is free to choose to listen to or to reject the advice of “wisest Fate,” Saint Peter, and the other voices that interrupt him.

We must read the ending of the poem as a decision, I think. The “uncouth” swain freely chooses to pick himself up and to focus not on himself, and his insatiable desire for Earthly fame, but rather on his small place in a larger creation. I don’t know if Milton ever learned that lesson, but his characters certainly wrestle with it.

I really want to know your favorite poem or poet. I really don’t know who you would pick. Wordsworth? Keats? Tennyson? Yeats?

Reply from MJ Booklover:

My favorite poet? Don’t think I can pick just one. Here are (probably) the leading candidates: Keats, Tennyson, both Brownings, Yeats, Dickinson, Whitman, Frost, and Wallace Stevens. I like a lot of other ones too, like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Langston Hughes, Anne Bradstreet, Shakespeare (of course), John Donne, Wordsworth, Christina Rosetti, and. . . and. . . !

 

Question 4: What is more essential to story-telling, prose [style] or plot?

I have had this discussion with some of my friends, and I think it would be a fruitful discussion to be continued with anyone who’s interested. While there are some who believe that both plot and prose are necessary in telling a superb story, I have found that there are books which lack excellence in one or the other and are still considered to be excellent and worthwhile reads. What I have learned about myself is that I am a fan of prose. To me, there is nothing more captivating than a book which is written masterfully. But, I do acknowledge that there are others who find the events of a novel just as enticing. I want to know before I go on who is who? Which is more essential to the art of story-telling, plot or prose?

Each have their own merits, which I personally believe are mutually exclusive. Let me try and explain: readers who seek books for their prose are often granted a piece of text which expresses its contents, however–if at all–mundane, with captivating precision. While those who seek a masterfully woven plot are left with less precision but, instead, find the limits of their imagination challenged. I may be mistaken with my notions of offering this dichotomy of types of readers, since I realize that plot and prose have a close relationship; yet, I want to challenge if that relationship is inextricable.
*Some of the books which come to mind for this topic are: Lolita, The Remainders of the Day, and The Sirens of Titan.*

If this all seems like convoluted nonsense, then I’ll ask a more simplified question: if you were given two books– one praised for its eloquence and mastery of language and the other lauded for its masterfully woven plot– which one would you choose to read for the first time?
Also, what about plot or prose do you find enjoyable? 

Danh Tran

Reply from MJ Booklover:

Hello! This is a great question for discussion, so much debated by fiction readers as long as written tales have been an art form. Everyone loves a good plot, of course, but I think several of my articles have made the argument for the importance of style over plot as an artistic element. Indeed, many of the novels now considered classic haven’t made that list for their plot lines but for their prose style, artistry, and quality of thought. Readers who read the great works for plot alone will miss most of the “good stuff”–the real value–of reading many of the great novels.
I like your list of examples where style is more important and enjoyable than plot–I have read Lolita and The Remains of the Day, and think they make your point well. Haven’t read The Sirens of Titan. Examples that come to my mind are books like Moby Dick or Tristram Shandy. If you read those for plot alone, you won’t get much for your time, because at least 3/4 of the words in each are concerned with other things than advancing plot–but what things! And how magnificently, or at least interestingly, said.
Would love to hear others weigh in. Hope they will find this thread.

Question 5: Source of Proverb in The Alchemist

Question from Stratos Kossioris: Is the proverb used by Paulo Coelho in the Alchemist “the darkest hour of the night came just before the dawn” a Spanish proverb, and what is its origin?

Reply from MJ Booklover:

I did not know the answer to your question, so did a quick Internet search. Quite a few folk seem to agree with this site, Phrases.org, which I quote:

“The English theologian and historian Thomas Fuller appears to be the first person to commit the notion that ‘the darkest hour is just before the dawn’ to print. His religious travelogue A Pisgah-Sight Of Palestine And The Confines Thereof, 1650, contains this view: It is always darkest just before the Day dawneth.”

 

Question 6: Best Translations of Tolstoy’s War and Peace into English

From Rob A Cimarolli: Hello, I’m new to Tolstoy and classic literature in general. What would be the best translation, easiest? I own Maude and Garnett. But heard good things about Briggs?

Reply from MJ Booklover:

Hello! I am not an expert on literature not written in English, though love reading Tolstoy in translation. I have read Garnett, but it’s quite old now. People say good things about Briggs. I have a friend, Arthur Rankin, who knows a lot about Russian lit, and I will get back to you with his opinion. In the meantime, I found this great discussion of War and Peace translations on this site:

https://www.tolstoytherapy.com/best-translation-war-and-peace/
I think you’ll find some good discussion on your topic there.

Reply from Arthur Rankin:

I really enjoyed reading War and Peace, although it took effort. My favorite translation of War and Peace is the Ann Dunnigan translation from 1968. It’s the first translation into American English. I do admit that I am biased toward the translation because it was the first version of Tolstoy that I read. Her use of American English helped me negotiate the tremendous scope of the novel, and I enjoyed referring to her list of characters, which helped me keep all the characters sorted into the correct family. Dunnigan was an actor in New York and interested in Chekhov, so she began translating the plays. I think her profession as an actor led to her sensitivity toward the characters.

There are other translations to investigate as well. First of these translations is the Maude translation. They knew Tolstoy, and when they returned to Great Britain, they started a project to translate his works. Their translation can seem formal, but that makes sense considering that it was published in the 1920s. Some formality works well when reading a translation of a nineteenth-century novel, I think. Also, their translation has been revised by Oxford University Press and might be worth exploring.

Rosemary Edmonds has a good translation, if you can find it. It was published in 1957; she was a specialist in translating Tolstoy, and her work is definitely readable. There are several other more recent translations (one by Anthony Briggs that received good notices and one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). I haven’t read them, but they may be a good choice for someone who is looking for a newer translation with updated expressions.

Ultimately, I would read the Maude translation or the Dunnigan translation as first choices, and as a second choice, I would go with the Edmonds’ translation. However, these are personal reflections more than critical ones. A further thought about the Dunnigan translation occurs to me. It can be found in a Signet Classic edition that might be difficult to handle while reading. You can find a three volume hard-backed version of the Maude translation at the Everyman’s Library web page. It’s very nice and easier to handle. I hope you find a translation that you like.

Reply from MJ Booklover:

Thanks so much, Arthur, for your discussion of War and Peace translations! I know you are a true lover of Russian literature and are well informed, so I appreciate your sharing with us.

Question 7: Short stories to accompany Brave New World?

I teach dual credit English. We are doing Brave New World, and I would like some British Post-Modern short stories or poems to go with it. Anything with themes like shame, use of language to shape reality, female characters that escape authorial bounds, anti-heroes, capitalism, consumerism, etc. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Bethany Cobb.

Reply from MJ Booklover:

Hello! British Post-Modern is outside my usual areas of expertise, so I can’t immediately think of good suggestions to fit your theme. One short novel comes to mind that might fit: Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go.” This dystopian tale about a society in which people are cloned specifically to serve as organ donors would be an interesting companion to “Brave New World,” and is short and easy to read. It is memorable and creepy, too, with lots of discussion-worthy themes about what it means to be human.

I came across this post on Mashable listing good recent British short stories, but don’t know if any of these would specifically fit your bill: https://mashable.com/2018/01/13/best-british-short-stories/.

Maybe our readers will have some other ideas! If in the meantime you have found some works to fit your “Brave New World” theme, we would love to see your list.

 

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