"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Monday, March 24, 2008

"Judge not according to the appearance"

In my last post I said that the main theme of a George MacDonald novel was relationships. The same could be said of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The whole is a series of mis-evaluations of character that are slowly reevaluated as new information is revealed to Elizabeth. The original working title of First Impressions gives a clear indication of what the story is about. Elizabeth’s first impression of Mr. Darcy is unfavorable; her first impression of Mr. Wickham is favorable, but in both cases, on informed consideration, she is forced to admit that her first impressions were wrong.

The present title of Pride and Prejudice is also apt. Everyone in the book has pride. The way Austen portrays this vise is often candid and funny as when Elizabeth says of Darcy: “I could easily forgive his pride if he had not mortified mine” (13).

The style of the opening page seemed a bit abrupt when I first started it, but really, who wants to read 10 or 20 (or 30, or 40, or 50) pages of introduction to a story. The details fall into place soon enough, and the comfort is that Austen doesn’t waste time with superfluous descriptions so dreaded in other authors. For some reason that I can not fathom now, I also thought the dialogue was odd. But that first impression is now wholly replaced. Instead, I now hold that each character has a unique voice that can almost be heard. Each character is clearly differentiated and personality is revealed without need for outside description.

For instance, Mrs. Bennet’s voice exactly embodies that nervous, thoughtless temperament that is hers. Mr. Bennet is full of ironic statements and the solemnity of sarcastic humor. Mr. Darcy never indulges in small talk or lets any emotion into his voice, thus gaining himself the mistaken identity of a proud, stuck up, uncaring prig. Lydia is unmistakable with her fast, exclamation riddled talk and interjections of “Lord!” Elizabeth herself, though the most complex, is also readily identifiable though I can not remember any one trait of her speech that stands out.

Austen’s characters come alive with real depth through the use of distinctive ways of speaking. Compare Sam Gamgee in the Lord of the Rings. Who will not instantly recognize his “save me Mr. Frodo! I’m drownded. I can’t see your hand.” Or “Lor bless me, sir, but I do love stories of that sort.” If there is one flaw in the Lord of the Rings (is there a flaw?) it is that Merry and Pippin are like twins: they don’t stand out from one another in speech or otherwise. (But there, that’s a digression, and probably the first time Pride and Prejudice has been compared to the Lord of the Rings). But the simple truth remains that great fiction has characters with distinctive and memorable speech.

The Comparison with The Lord of the Rings, though, highlights a fundamental trait in my past reading preferences. My fingers have often left untouched those books on the shelf that I consider “chic literature” and instead come to rest on heroic epics and tales of adventure with little or non of “that sentimental non-sense.” But call it maturing taste or what you will, I have found George MacDonald, Dickens’ Bleak House, and now Pride and Prejudice to be excellent books. They are able to penetrate into places that Homer and Beowulf never even attempted to approach.

Austen’s subtle exploration of human character and emotion, plus her masterly dialogue, sets her story apart. There is a barely perceptible humor, almost satire, which also distinguishes it. Throughout, these little observations poke fun at the foibles of human feelings.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004).

Friday, March 7, 2008

Same Old Story... Or Is It?

It’s a pity that finding George MacDonald in his unabridged entirety is almost impossible (unless, of course, you are willing to read online at a site like Project Gutenberg but I just can’t accept not having the feel of a book in my hands). I have read people who say he was not a very good writer and often rambled, but what exactly is meant by this I am unsure of. The unabridged fantasies and children’s stories I have read are perfectly fine for Victorian literature. I have a suspicion that what is meant is that authors now-a-days don’t write like that. A fairly obvious point; no one writes like Shakespeare now either.

All this to say I read another (abridged, of course) MacDonald Novel: A Quiet Neighborhood. One flaw I do find in MacDonald is that all his realistic stories start to sound the same after a while. A young gentleman (in this case and a few others a clergyman) falls in love with a beautiful (and usually rich) young lady and after a little mystery or family secret is cleared up they wed and live happily ever after. What keeps the invariable routine bearable after 15 novels are the inner dilemmas every MacDonald hero faces (and many of the minor characters as well).

In A Quiet Neighborhood Mr. Walton must struggle to find the purpose of his life and how to help those under his care. Helping others means, among other things, reconciling father to son, daughter to father, and interestingly, separating daughter from grandmother. There is an apparent contradiction here, perhaps intended by MacDonald. A quarter of the book is devoted to restoring the relationships of a family in Mr. Walton’s parish but the climax of the action is an elopement with the heroine, Miss Oldcastle, from her tyrannical, abusive grandmother.

The importance of relationships is definitely a major theme of the story. Apparently there are two sequels to this book that I hope to read some day.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Do We Have Common Sense?

That’s the question my sister and I asked after our teacher assigned us Thomas Paine’s inflammatory Common Sense treatise. In the end we had to admit that no, we didn’t have it. So we went to the internet and found it. To bad the other kind of common sense isn’t that easy to get a hold of. We’re still looking…

Common Sense is one of those writings that most people have head of but few have actually read (come to think of it, a lot of books are that way). Common sense is one of those things that most people have heard about but few have actually used (did I just repeat myself?). As inaudible groans passed from desk to desk in our classroom, I secretly felt elated. Paine is not perhaps the sort of writer I would normally read in my free time but as an assignment I felt sure I would enjoy the experience. And I wasn’t wrong.

Pain is pretty easy to get through (oops, I mean Paine). It was written for the common man and sold something like 120,000 copies. (Our teacher said that each copy was reads by about ten people but I don’t know where she got that statistic). The pamphlet is only about 50 pages so in theory it could be read in one sitting. In fact, it took me two and I felt hurried during both. There is a lot to think about.

Supposedly, Common Sense was like gasoline thrown on the newly kindled fire of American independence. Already stirred by British injustice and heavy-handedness, they only needed a philosophical base to build their complaints against the English government on.

Paine argues that if all men are created equal, no men should be elevated above others. “The heathens paid divine honors to their deceased kings and the Christian world has improved on the plan by doing the same to their living ones. How impious is the title of Sacred Majesty applied to a worm, who in the midst of his splendor is crumbling.”

Although primarily arguing on the basis of reason and nature (“Does not nature teach us that the more simple anything is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered.”) Paine takes the story of 1 Samuel 8 where the Israelites asked for a king to be like the other nations, as a clear indication that God does not think kings to be the best governors of men. He allowed them to have one but tried to warn them it was a curse. For a king will “take your sons and make them serve…He will take your daughters…He will take the best of your fields and vineyards…He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage…He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become slaves” (1 Sam. 8:11-17). Also, Paine points out, the succession is not hereditary as the removal of Saul proves.

From this general condemnation of kings he moves to the unjustness of the present king of England, King George III. He mocks the English Constitution as being powerless to stop the King, saying that it is the “constitution” of the English people, not the “Constitution” of the English government that has kept her free so long.

Moving to the practical and economic benefits of independence, Paine assures his readers that trade would be increased and expansion to the west made possible; and a free America would not be in danger from Britain’s enemies, France and Spain. All around it would be a good deal. And I can not help but agree that it has been a good deal for over 225 years, let’s hope it continues to be for at least as much again.

After the first publication, Paine added an appendix addressed to some Quakers who wrote against breaking ties with Britain. The letter, while trying to be courteous, comes across as a little condescending and chides the Quakers for their pamphlet, saying that by defending the British they are meddling in government affairs even though they claim they are not. To the argument that it is God who sets up and deposes kings, Paine very sensibly asks in return who or what God uses to bring about his will on earth. Is it not men? He asks. If the English throne came into existence through war and backstabbing why defend it as being specially ordained of God? But then in a hilarious Chestertonian stroke he says: “We neither mean to set up nor to put down [kings], neither to make nor to unmake, but to have nothing to do with them.”