Percy Shelley’s Mont Blanc and Romanticism

Quick update: I am not done with The Overstory, and even though I’m now significantly further in, I have nothing new to say from last time. (It’s still just “BUT THE TREEEEEES” on repeat.)

So I want to take a break from that and talk about one of my favorite poems, which is “Mont Blanc” by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Shelley isn’t my favorite Romantic poet (that’d be Keats), but I admire him—and I admire “Mont Blanc” most of all. This is probably pretentious of me, but I appreciate that it’s so inscrutable. I can really dig my teeth into it on a number of fronts, but there’s still a lot of things I find unclear about the poem, and I kind of enjoy that. It’s like there’s plenty more waiting for me upon further inspection, as I get older and see things in new lights.

The area of teeth-sinking for this post is going to be a pretty basic one, and you can probably find countless Sparknote-like analyses online about this connection, but whatever. I do what I want.

And today, I want to talk about the ways “Mont Blanc” is a classic example of the Romantic era of arts and letters.

First Off, Some Elements of Romantic Era Works

I had an excellent teacher for my 400-level English course, and he said just about everything about Romanticism could be summed up in “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich, pictured here:

It’s a nature painting, sure. But it’s not a landscape. The focal point is man—a solo traveler made contemplative by the power he looks out upon.

Let’s not forget, though, that he’s on top of that mountain. Even as the Romantics respect, love, and are in awe of nature, they’re primarily in it for what it does to deepen their own experiences.

Romantics are anti-urban and anti-industrial. (You can primarily see this in Wordsworth’s works. He considered London to be a positive horror show.) They want to be in nature. But they’re not into descriptive pastoral pieces just for the sake of describing what they see. Everything is about the sublime: the power that comes from nature and its effect on the receptive spirit.

My aforementioned excellent literature teacher said we can blame the Romantics, primarily Wordsworth, for the trite “I went into my backyard, saw a tree, and had a thought” poetry that’s the hallmark of contemporary amateur poets everywhere. But the real Romantics, though at times a little self-absorbed, did it right. There’s a reason every aspiring poet unintentionally follows this formula. It really worked for the Romantics.

Oh, by the way—timewise, the Romantic era lasted most of the 1800s. The painting above was created in 1818. Shelley’s composed “Mont Blanc” in 1816.

What’s Mont Blanc?

It’s a nice pen to give your groomsmen! Just kidding. It’s the biggest mountain in the Alps—and in fact, the second biggest one in all of Europe. It’s on the border of Italy and France. While Shelley was writing this poem, he was on the French side, in the Arve Valley, looking up at the mountain.

Here it is, if it helps to picture it.

The Sublime in “Mont Blanc”

First off, for reference, you can find the poem in full here.

If you come to “Mont Blanc” expecting a beautiful description of an elegant landscape with a majestic mountain as its focal point, you’re going to be disappointed. “Mont Blanc,” frankly, is a terrifying poem.

But now that you know a bit about Romanticism, this makes sense. The sublime isn’t a nice scene that’s pleasing to the eye. It’s an awesome, overwhelming, chaotic, strike-the-fear-of-god-into-you experience caused by nature, which leaves you no choice but to think very large thoughts about your own existence and your place in this world that’s so much bigger than you.

As Shelley describes the ravines and rivers and mountain itself, you can see him showcasing the sublime in “Mont Blanc.” It’s not a serene place, but it’s somehow holy. It’s big and terrifying and will strike fear and awe into your heart. And in the end, it holds the secret to life and death. (Emphasis mine in quotes here.)

  • “a vast river
    Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.”
  • awful scene,
    Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down
    From the ice-gulfs that gird his secret throne,
    Bursting through these dark mountains like the flame
    Of lightning through the tempest;”
  • “A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame;
    Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion,
    Thou art the path of that unresting sound—
    Dizzy Ravine!”
  • “Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
    Mont Blanc appears—still, snowy, and serene;
    Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
    Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
    Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
    Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
    And wind among the accumulated steeps;”
  • “how hideously
    Its shapes are heap’d around! rude, bare, and high,
    Ghastly, and scarr’d, and riven.—Is this the scene
    Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young
  • “there, many a precipice
    Frost and the Sun in scorn of mortal power
    Have pil’d: dome, pyramid, and pinnacle,
    A city of death, distinct with many a tower
    And wall impregnable of beaming ice.
    Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin
  • “Below, vast caves
    Shine in the rushing torrents’ restless gleam,
    Which from those secret chasms in tumult welling
    Meet in the vale, and one majestic River”
  • “Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:—the power is there,
    The still and solemn power of many sights,
    And many sounds, and much of life and death.”

These are all instances of how Shelley is experiencing the sublime through his experience standing in the valley of Mont Blanc.

But Let’s Not Forget Shelley’s Presence…

Don’t forget that a key part of nature, for Romantics, is their place in it. They want to discuss what it makes them think and feel. We first see Shelley himself show up in the poem in stanza II:

  • “and when I gaze on thee
    I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
    To muse on my own separate fantasy,
    My own, my human mind, which passively
    Now renders and receives fast influencings,”

If you ask me, the transition to talking about himself seems a tad awkward—sort of a “but enough about you; let’s talk about me.” But without these deeper thoughts he begins to have about sleep and life and death…well, without them, we have “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (the painting I shared above) but with no focal point. It’s just a landscape.

Landscapes are nice. But what makes a Romantic poem is the thoughts the poet has because of what he (and let’s face it, Romantic poets are almost always “he”s) sees. The interpretation Romantics give to their poetry adds depth.

Here are more reactions and insights Shelley has as the result of what he sees:

  • “I look on high;
    Has some unknown omnipotence unfurl’d
    The veil of life and death? or do I lie
    In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep
    Spread far around and inaccessibly
    Its circles? For the very spirit fails,
    Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep
    That vanishes among the viewless gales!”

With this, you get the sense that Shelley is so overwhelmed by the vision before him, that it’s so powerful, that he must somehow be witnessing the connection between life and death in this place he’s found himself. He feels it’s so surreal he must be dreaming, but if he’s dreaming, could he possibly actually be dead?

Then we have this:

  • “Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
    Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
    By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
    Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.”

Lol. On one hand, this is just Shelley saying, “not everyone can appreciate this the way some people, like me, can” But if we take what he’s saying at face value, he feels that because of his capacity and the capacity of likeminded people, there are great gifts here for those who would receive it. That certain people could take pilgrimages here and find the secret to “repealing fraud and woe.” That’s the effect of the sublime on the individual, to Shelley.

Finally, let’s take a look at how the poem ends.

“And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?”

This is so quintessential Romantic. He’s zoomed all the way out of his experience at Mont Blanc and generalized to this question:

“What good is nature if we don’t learn to observe it in silence and solitude and take in the lessons that we can from it?”

(And what a man-centric, classic Romantic way of looking at these things that feel so powerful and so much bigger than yourself—you’re no good if we can’t take value from you.)

I’d love to hear what Shelley would have to say about the personality types that can’t sit still and observe nature for long swaths of time.

Final Thoughts on “Mont Blanc”

I’ve picked on the poem a bit at the end here, but let me reiterate—I love this poem, and I love Shelley. This work is so dense and impossible to truly untangle. And I adore that about it. I still read all of stanza IV and think, “Wut 🤔.

However, even if you don’t really understand what’s going on, it’s a delicious poem to just take in. Crunch on those word choices. Let the descriptions wash over you. See what sinks into your subconscious. “Mont Blanc,” like it’s namesake, is waiting there, big and overpowering, for you to take away revelations and new experiences.

Next week, I expect to finish The Overstory and have some final thoughts, so look forward to that roast. (Just kidding. Maybe I won’t roast it. Maybe.)

The Quote That Defines the Men of Middlemarch—and What It Means

heart cardLet’s do a good ol’ introductory (seemingly unrelated) story!

When I write in a birthday/anniversary/random-love-ya card to someone I care very much about, I try to keep a 70/30 split on two things: (1) that person’s inherent qualities and (2) how they make my life better or what they mean to me.

I focus more on the former because I don’t want them to feel like their worth is entirely tied up in my experience of them.

How does this relate to Middlemarch?

Well, I’d been taking notes on some common themes I’d been seeing in the thoughts of the male characters. And then I stumbled on this quote, which was the thread that tied it all together:

Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy.

In other words,

The men of Middlemarch think primarily about themselves and how women fit into their big picture. They don’t think about love or making the women happy. 

There are interesting exceptions (Farebrother, Rosamond) which I’ll get into if I don’t have carpal tunnel by the end of the post.

But for the most part, if you listen to the men in this book, you’ll hear them thinking and talking themselves and how others can make them feel.

Now, I’m not looking to man-bash here. My interest is academic. I do, however, think the author might be searching to make a point through this book. We’ll talk about all of this.

Let’s talk first about examples of how men think this way.

Subject One: Edward Casaubon

I already ragged on this guy pretty hard, so I’ll avoid all the things from that post and just talk about more recent developments as I’ve read on.

Remember, our new thread that ties it all together is this:

The men of Middlemarch think primarily about themselves and how women fit into their big picture. 

Now, here’s just some of the evidence that’s true of Casaubon, outside of the previously discussed proposal letter.

First, let’s take a look at this (highly truncated) quote from Chapter 29:

And when [Casaubon] had seen Dorothea he believed…she might really be such a helpmate to him as would enable him to dispense with a hired secretary…Providence, in its kindness, had supplied him with the wife he needed…A modest young lady…is sure to think her husband’s mind powerful.

In other words, Casaubon is thinking of Dorothea in her capacity as a free secretary.

The passage goes on to explain how Casaubon had expected much joy from his marriage but hadn’t found it; he, in fact, wound up missing the days when he could work in solitude. And consider this thought from Chapter 10:

Though he had won a lovely and noble-hearted girl he had not won delight—which he had also regarded as an object to be found by search.

…Poor Mr. Casaubon had imagined his long studious bachelorhood had stored up for him a compound interest of enjoyment.

What is he’s not considering is Dorothea’s delight or Dorothea’s enjoyment.

These quotes make it hard to find better examples of how Casaubon

  • Expected his wife to supply his needs
  • Was disappointed when he found no pleasure in her help, despite her competence
  • Wasn’t interested in what she felt or thought in the midst of all of it

Subject Two: Fred Vincy

Fred showers proposals on Mary Garth in Middlemarch, and we get some ideas of what he’s thinking about the object of his affection in Chapter 14. Remember that

The men of Middlemarch think primarily about themselves and how women fit into their big picture.

And consider some of these quotes as he talks to Mary in Chapter 14:

I don’t see how a man is to be good for much unless he has some one woman to love him dearly.

Note that it’s not that he has a woman to love dearly; it’s that one loves him dearly.

Then, after Mary mentions something about women never thinking men they love as “bad,” Fred says, “It is hardly fair to say I am bad.” She responds: “I said nothing at all about you.” (Love that, by the way.) This time, it’s Mary showing us that Fred is thinking of himself.

Let’s next talk about how Fred has borrowed what I assume is a lot of money (being unfamiliar with the economies and currency of Romantic-era England, I can only guess from the characters’ reactions) from Mary’s dad. He can’t pay it back, and Mary’s family is in trouble because of it.

When he goes to Mary in Chapter 25, he explains the situation and self-flagellates for a while before getting to the core of it, saying

I am so miserable, Mary—if you knew how miserable I am, you would be sorry for me.

So, to summarize: when Mary doesn’t respond to him beating himself up with the pity he believes he deserves from her, he doesn’t think of how she and her family are affected but rather how sad he feels about it.

Mary responds by saying

Selfish people always think their own discomfort of more importance than anything else in the world.

Well said.

Subject Three: Will Ladislaw

Escandalo! Will is interested in newlywed Dorothea. I know, this is turning into a real soap opera.

He also mostly fits into the “men of Middlemarch focus on themselves at the expense of others” rule. So, in spite of how nice it would be to see Casaubon lose Dorothea to someone else, as a reader, it’s hard to be on the side of another self-centered person.

Chapter 21 is full of Will talking to Dorothea about himself, his future, and his interests. Dorothea encourages him and asks him polite questions. When she doesn’t answer quickly, he begins to obsess about her perception of him, “imagining from Dorothea’s silence that he had offended her.”

And in Chapter 22, he’s possessive of time alone with her so that she could “take more emphatic notice of him; he only wanted to be something more special in her remembrance that he could yet believe himself likely to be.”

Let’s talk about this since it’s a little more complicated than Casaubon’s and Fred’s version of the prevalent self-centeredness.

Remember what I said in the intro about wanting to write cards that focus less on what people mean in my life and more on their inherent worth, which exists outside of me?

While Will is thinking of Dorothea, it’s usually centered around what she thinks of him. In fact, he’s rather obsessed with it.

And now, think fast, cause here’s a rapid-fire toss of supporting quotes:

  • I have made you think ill of me.
  • Still, you don’t like me. I have made myself an unpleasant thought to you.
  • I wish I could ever do anything that would be what you call kind. 

It’s admittedly a step above what we see in other characters. And Will has occasional thoughts that are completely Dorothea-centered. For example, he thinks her voice is like a harp.

But for the most part, even things on the surface that seem Dorothea-centered are actually Will-centered. In Chapter 22, he daydreams of embracing her feet and confessing he would die for her. And it’s Will’s feelings for her that are giving her that worth in his mind—nothing inherent about her as a person.

Am I being nit-picky? Maybe when compared to some of these other cases. But he still fits into the main assessment:

The men of Middlemarch think primarily about themselves and how women fit into their big picture.

Subject Four: Tertius Lydgate

Lydgate is not interested in marriage, but it doesn’t stop him from (1) thinking about what’s proper in a wife (juicy stuff in light of what I’m arguing here; we’ll get there in a sec) and (2) flirting endlessly with Rosamond Vincy.

Let’s tackle what he thinks is proper in a wife first. Quote time:

Lydgate felt sure that if ever he married, his wife would have that feminine radiance, that distinctive womanhood which must be classed with flowers and music, that sort of beauty which by its very nature was virtuous, being molded only for pure and delicate joys.

Firstly, ugh. Secondly, Note that there’s no concern over what a potential wife would feel toward him or the expectations she might, in turn, have of a husband.

I guess that’s asking a lot though. Which of us, in times of being single, stare off into space and think, “and one day I’ll have a significant other who will be fulfilled and happy with me!” instead of “one day I’ll be with someone who [fill in with all the traits I like]!”?

But there’s more with Lydgate.

As he spends more and more time over at the Vincys’ house, he fails to realize or care about the thing that Mrs. Bulstrode discusses with him in Chapter 31, which is this: other perfectly eligible suitors are backing off. After all, they think Rosamond is committed to Lydgate. He does nothing to dissuade them.

That he might be ruining her chances for love with someone who is imminently considering marriage, which the book has made clear several times that he is not. And he only proposes when he’s overcome with feeling—inspired by Rosamond’s flattering despair at his absence.

Conclusion: George Is a Woman, and She Has a Bone to Pick

The author of Middlemarch is one George Eliot, pennamed so presumably to escape the discrimination that would come with being a female author.

But it’s pretty obvious that this author is woman trying to make a point about the inequalities associated with marriage, especially after reading that quote I shared in the intro.

Again, that quote is

Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy.

If those aren’t the words of a woman writing to express, through story, her displeasure with how unequal men and women of the 1800s were, I don’t know what are.

Surprise Secondary Conclusion: Probably Not, Though?

But I want to leave on a note of challenge to myself here. I’ve got a quote from Chapter 16 that says

Rosamond, in fact, was entirely occupied not exactly with Tertius Lydgate as he was in himself, but with his relation to her.

So, that quote, saying that Rosamond cared not so much about Lydgate-the-man but rather Lydgate-the-potential-husband. We have a woman exhibiting the characteristics I’ve assigned to the men of the book.

Then there’s this from the vicar, Farebrother, much later in the book:

You talk as if young women were tied up to be chosen, like poultry at market; as if I had only to ask and everybody would have me.

And now we have a man pointing out how no one ever treats women as if they have agency.

These quotes pretty much undo all I’ve proven with this post and my conclusion. I’m nothing if not a masochist.

Maybe this whole book was meant to be a contrast between the selfish and the unselfish, and it has less to do with gender than I’ve posited here.

Or maybe there’s not much rhyme or reason to it. Honestly, I’m struggling to find coherent threads throughout this book. I’m trying, though.

Anyway. Stay tuned for more half-baked posts on Middlemarch.

Middlemarch: Casaubon’s Proposal Letter Analysed

Listen all ya’ll, this is sabotage

Beastie Boys

because I believe I’m about to throw down some spoilers.

But honestly, if you dislike spoilers, you shouldn’t read Middlemarch because the author is throwing them down hard herself.

I’ve just begun reading George Eliot’s (AKA Mary Ann Evans’) Middlemarch again. It was about a decade ago that I consumed it on the recommendation of a delightful English teacher. My memory of the plot is pretty fuzzy, as I’m old AND I have goldfish-level info retention anyway.

So, What Are We Spoiling Today? What’s This Post About?

Quick catch up. Early in the book, teenage Dorothea has met two suitors. One is young and charming and one is self-important father time. She hates the lack of a humbuging, harumphing, anti-enjoyment grandfather figure in her life, so this is the suitor she chooses to marry. What could go wrong. <–Rhetorical.

But while it’s obvious from both the circumstance and the author that this is a disaster waiting to happen, what I find interesting is the very specific ways Casaubon has made it clear in his proposal letter that he’s an awful person. This match is going to be ugly, and he previews the ways how.

That’s what I’m going to talk about today, with quotes from the letter that illustrate exactly what’s wrong with this pompous Methusela:

  • that he has no feelings of actual love,
  • that his thoughts about Dorothea are simply about her potential as a helpmate,
  • and that he’s willing to stoop to manipulation in his attempt to convince her this marriage will save her in various ways.

Quick note on accessibility: I post screenshots of the book that visually impaired won’t be able to read, but I write out all the quotes I find important, and I created an MP3 of the whole letter you can listen to here

First, a Quick Recap of Dorthea’s Return Letter for Context

Quote from Middlemarch—picture of Dorothea's entire letter

That’s right. I’m so lazy I’m taking pictures of my Kindle.

Before we get to Casaubon’s letter, let’s jump ahead to Dorothea’s response.

While we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves, what Dorothea says in her letter will put into perspective the rest of what I’ll say in this post.

Dorothea says in the first sentence, “I am very grateful to you for loving me” (emphasis mine).

She believes Casaubon’s letter to be a profession of love—and that that love will be the cornerstone of their marriage.

We were all teenagers once…

She’s going to find something out the hard way, and it’s something we can already see in Casaubon’s proposal letter. We’ll see he never mentions love. What’s more, we should, in fact, question his capacity to love.

With that, here are some points I want to bring up with Casaubon’s letter.

1. What’s Up With the Dense, Inscrutable Line at the Beginning?

Quote from Middlemarch—Casaubon's first paragraph of proposal letter

Please pardon the shadow of my wine glass.

Let’s begin with this doozy from Casaubon’s proposal letter.

This quote is the second sentence of this letter.

I mean, he’s opening with this.

Here’s the line I’m talking about:

I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition of some deeper correspondence than that of date in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my becoming acquainted with you.


I’m an English major whose main focus over the course of a lifetime of reading is 19th-century literature. Here is my reaction to reading this line.

Amanda's WTF face


Now, I’m going to break the quote down for you as best as I can, but please know, this isn’t just the way people talked in the “olden days.” This is different: purposefully obtuse. His goal is to impress by being utterly opaque.

Check out the quote with interpretation in bold so you can see what he’s saying here.

I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition

I’m quite sure you and I both recognize”

of some deeper correspondence than that of date

“that there’s been more serious talk lately”**

in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my becoming acquainted with you.

“about the fact that I’ve discovered I have needs while, coincidentally, meeting you!”

** it’s unclear to me quite what he means here. I think he’s talking about asking her uncle for permission to marry and he’s assuming uncle and Dorothea have discussed it. But he might be talking about feeling like he (Casaubon) and Dorothea have been having deeper communication lately.

So, that long-winded sentence, nearly impossible to dissect, can be summed up as “MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.”

Twitter quote from Kanye West"I'm not even going to lie to you. I love me so much right now"

But even if you don’t dissect it, what’s the point of having a sentence that stiff and dense in a proposal letter, right off the bat? To establish intellectual dominance? To intimidate? To get this relationship off on the proper platonic foot? To hide the fact that the sentence just says “MEEEEEEEEE”?

Up to your judgment, friends.

2. Note That He Sees Her as an Object Fit for Purpose

Quote from Middlemarch—Casaubon's first paragraph continued (D's fitness)

“You’re my holy grail mascara”

Okay. The quote under inspection this time is this:

I had an impression of your eminent and perhaps exclusive fitness to supply that need***…each succeeding opportunity for observation has…convinc[ed] me more emphatically of that fitness.

*** The need he’s talking about is the unspecified one found in the last section’s quote.

To be fair, the ellipses in my quote skip through some parts that mention his affection. DON’T YOU WORRY. I’ll get to that because it makes me angry and I like to write when I’m angry.

But first, the quote I shared—he’s talking about her fitness, not her loveable qualities. He seems almost to be obsessed with this unique fitness he hasn’t found anywhere else.

This is dehumanizing.

Quick aside: I’m not ashamed to say I watch a lot of beauty YouTube content. There’s a concept among this community of a “holy grail” product—the product, after a long hunt, that’s absolutely perfect for you and causes you to never need to buy anything again.

Say you’ve been looking for years for a mascara that doesn’t smudge, makes your lashes look floofy, lengthens them, and generally makes everyone you see gasp and say, “Wow, what false lashes are those?”

Then, finally, you stumble upon it! You couldn’t be happier. But are you in love with it? If you couldn’t put that mascara on your eyelashes, would you love it for what it is?

No. It’s an inanimate product. And it’s an inanimate product that you want to buy because it’s fit for your purpose.

Dorothea is an inanimate product to Casaubon. She’s his holy grail mascara.

3. His Mention of Affection Is Twisted

Now, let’s talk about some parts I ellipsed out of the quote in the previous section. After all, he does mention affection!

Her “fitness” is

…connected, I may say, with such activity of the affections as even the preoccupations of a work too special to be abdicated could not uninterruptedly dissimulate.

First of all:

Penn Jillette saying shut the _____ up

Can I share this and still keep my PG blog rating?

Casaubon’s self-importance about his “work” (a giant undertaking that no one asked for—namely writing a sprawling scholarly religious text uniting mythologies) is showing up in a proposal letter. This is no surprise, as he finds a way to center this work in every conversation he has.

But do you hear what he’s actually saying? “Even my work, which by the way is way too special for me to pause even for a moment, couldn’t distract me from my affection for you.”

That’s what affection means to him. It’s how affection shows up in a marriage proposal. This backhanded “Not even my work can prevent me from being interested in you.” Very flattering.

He also says that the source of the affection is her fitness for his work:

That fitness which I had preconceived…evok[ed] more decisively those affections

Remember, Dorothea thanked him for the “love” he expressed in this letter. Does this sound like love?

4. More of the Same: She’s Attractive Because of Her Capacity to Support Him in His First Love—His Work

Quote from Middlemarch—Casaubon talks about his work and Dorothea's suitable mind

Marry me and I promise you a lifetime of righteous suffering.

Here, Casaubon restates what we’ve already heard:

Our conversations have, I think, made sufficiently clear to you the tenor of my life and purposes: a tenor unsuited, I am aware, to the commoner order of minds.

Translation: “What I do is super smart. Most people don’t have the IQ required to spend much time with me.”

But then, behold! A concession!

I have discerned in you…a rare combination of elements****…adpated to supply aid in graver labors.

****If you read the whole quote, you’ll learn those elements are, according to him, are (1) it’s rare that a woman is smart and (2) it’s rare to find someone he’s so convinced will be devoted to him and his work.

So, let me paraphrase Casaubon here:

“I have decided you have the traits necessary for graver labors, so please marry me.”

This is, in fact, much more a job offer than a marriage proposal.

He is trying to flatter her. This is what he considers the kinds of compliments that will win her over. Sadly, he’s not wrong.

5. Providence, Not Two Equals Uniting in Love. Providence.

Quote from Middlemarch—Casaubon views Dorothea as a gift of providenceWe’ve a number of quotes here indicating that Casaubon considers Dorothea his personal gift from God.

I trust you’re excited to hear these quotes so you can revel with me in hatred.

Here we go.

My introduction to you (which, let me say again, I trust not to be superficially coincident with foreshadowing needs but providentially related [emphasis mine] thereto as stages toward the completion of a life’s plan)…

And we have the equally romantic

To be accepted by you…I should regard as the highest of providential gifts.

Now, lest you think he considers this a gift from Dorothea, let’s see what Merriam Webster has to say about providence:

Merriam Webster definition of providence--divine guidance or care

Yep. To Casaubon, her acceptance of a proposal is a gift from God, not from Dorothea.

6. And the Worst of It: The Manipulation

Quote from Middlemarch—refuse me, and you might live a life of shameLook at this veiled threat near the end of Casaubon’s letter. Wow.

In return I can at least offer you an affection hitherto unwasted, and the faithful consecration of a life which, however short in the sequel, has no backward pages whereon, if you choose to turn them, you will find records such as might justly cause you either bitterness or shame.

Let’s break that down with some more dictionary definitions (and my analysis in bold, for spice):

In return I can at least offer you an affection hitherto unwasted

Collins Dictionary says “hitherto” means you’re indicating “that something was true up until the time you are talking”

So, my interpretation: “If you accept my proposal, do so in the knowledge that I like you. So far, anyway.”

and the faithful consecration of a life

Merriam Webster has “consecrating” as “dedicated to a sacred purpose.”

Here’s what Casaubon’s saying: “I’ll offer you a life that’s dedicated not to you but instead to a sacred purpose.”

which, however short in the sequel,

“I’m old and probably going to die soon.” (I think that’s what he means, anyway. He’s a hard dude to understand.)

has no backward pages whereon, if you choose to turn them, you will find records such as might justly cause you either bitterness or shame

My interpretation: “If you chose not to marry me, I can’t promise your choices won’t lead to bitterness or shame.” Ew.

It’s that last one that gets me. The promise of a holy life to a pious, naive teenager—and the threat of potential debauchery upon refusal.

Let’s Close By Remembering Dorothea’s Letter

Recall what Dorothea said in her response to this letter. She is grateful to him for loving her.

But what has he actually said here?

  • “This proposal is all about me and the benefits I’ve been thinking you’ll bestow on my life.”
  • “You are a helpmate fit to assist me with my true love—my work—and that’s the only source my of attraction to you.”
  • “God has given you as a gift to me—it’s providence.”
  • “And if you say no, I can’t be responsible for your shameful spiral into crime and prostitution.”

After analyzing quotes from this letter, how can you come to any conclusion but that this marriage, despite what Dorothea responds with, will be a loveless one?

And that’s it for me today. I promise you an equally uplifting post on Middlemarch next week.

Martin Dressler, By Theodore Dreiser…No, Wait

I got a gorgeous new Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas. I think the things are a little overpriced and, with the Kindle app on the phone, they’re not really necessary. But oh my. It just feels so good to read on the Paperwhite. It’s an aesthetically delightful experience. I find myself picking up this beautiful device all the time, even when I really ought to be getting work done instead. I am having a great time, guys.

Martin Dressler coverIf you read my last post, you know I had it up to here (gestures) with American Pastoral. So I moved on to the next item on the Pulitzer list: Martin Dressler, by Steven Millhauser. I’m tearing through it. I wouldn’t call it engaging on a broad level, and I’m not even sure I’d call it good. But it feels like home to me. It’s right in the center of books I know how to read and know how to engage with, because reading this feels exactly like reading Dreiser.

A Bit About Dreiser

For all I’ve written about Dreiser (check out my tag cloud that hasn’t been cool since 2009 but that I still like anyway), I don’t know if I really ever explained him.  He’s a turn-of-the-century author, quintessentially American and Midwestern and highly sociological, whose novels were often bildungsroman-flavored and dealt with industrialism, urban development, and finding one’s way financially from the ground up.

He was a writer in a school called naturalism, which focused on realism (often the gritty, dark aspects of society) and nature vs nurture. Literary naturalists were fascinated by Darwin and the forces of nature. As they were often journalists, they had a detached but holistic view, seeing issues from many perspectives and reporting what they saw without moralizing. Though there’s a few things I think that keep Dreiser from being a spot-on naturalist, he’s got almost all the characteristics.

Also, here are some of Dreiser’s titles

  • Jennie Gerhardt
  • Sister Carrie
  • The Titan
  • An American Tragedy

Now for Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. (See where I was going? It’s a very Dreiser title.)

Similarities Between Dreiser Novels and Martin Dressler

So, first, there’s the writing style. I can’t believe this is a book written in 1996. It is so convincingly turn-of-the-century in language and manner. (I’ve seen criticisms of its historical omissions, but I haven’t noticed anything obvious myself, and I’m fairly well-versed in general American history.) Also, it is so convincingly Dreiseresque, style-wise. There’s the same kind of dry, unemotional third-person storytelling Dreiser employs that allows no manipulation to stand in the way of analysis.

There’s also the bildungsroman aspect, the coming-of-age and discovery of the self found in Sister Carrie, The Genius, The Financier, An American Tragedy, etc. Martin Dressler follows Martin from childhood to success as a young adult. Much of this coming of age is concerned with capitalism and finding one’s way in their career, which is tre Dreiser. And there’s also a similar unflinching portrayal of era-appropriate gender dynamics and the injustices and abuse that male protagonists commit against the female characters. In fact, Martin is very like a Dreiser character in that he’s not quite a protagonist you want to root for. While you feel like you understand him and how he’s developed into this character, he’s moody and rude and unfaithful. Frankly, in many ways, he’s an ugly person. (Can we talk about that scene where he’s so moved by a ten-year-old’s affection that he promptly needs to visit a brothel to lose his virginity? Relevant: this tweet I just saw.)

That’s not all. The subject matter outside of the characters is all Dreiser, too. There’s the young person making their way in a big city, and that big city is growing and changing. There’s new building construction, profits and losses, innovation, industry. No detail is spared in discussing the ins and outs of daily business and the lives of those who run it.

This, too, is Dreiser-like: the level of detail and the inclusion of what we might, as students of literature, see as random scenes. These scenes only serve to help paint a picture of a whole without having any further relevance. I don’t know about you, but when I read, I’m always looking for patterns, foreshadowing, things to come back to later. You can’t do that with Dreiser, and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to be able to do it with Martin Dressler, either. It took me a bit to get used to this. I always remember the scene in An American Tragedy in which Clyde’s ride with his friends winds up in a terrible accident. I kept waiting for the consequences (or even relevance) of that scene to come back into play later in the novel, and it really never did. In Martin Dressler, there’s that aforementioned stomach-turner with the ten-year-old. I keep waiting for it to be relevant, but it seems to have just been thrown out there and never picked back up. Books like these often have elephants in the room that just hang out, waiting to be acknowledged so we can go about our literary business of treating everything that an author includes as if it has a greater purpose for us to uncover. But in Dreiser’s and Millhauser’s cases, I think it’s just there to be what it is. It’s one more thing to report, allowing us to draw our own conclusions from an assemblage of facts portrayed without the author’s leading or moralizing. It’s the journalism aspect of naturalism.

Anyway, the experience of reading Martin Dressler is so familiar. I feel like I know the book already because of what I think of as my Dreiser period. (You know, like Picasso’s blue period. Except no one considers my reading art. Sad trombone.) As I said, I don’t actually know if I like the book much or if I think it’s well done, but reading it feels second nature to me. It’s strange. Also pleasant. I’m glad to be reading again.

The Trouble With Literary Device Abuse

My sincerest apologies for this prolonged absence. I’m still around and still excited to talk to you about books, I promise.

I was overwhelmed with work for a bit there, and there was little time for reading, let alone blogging about reading. But I did manage to polish off Michael Cunningham’s The Hours about a month ago. 

I’m a little distanced from it now for an overview, but I’m not so distanced that I don’t have things to say about it. This should have been the perfect book for me, folk. It’s got Virgina Woolf. It’s got rage against the cult of domesticity/feminine mystique mindset. It’s got introspection and character-heavy (and non-plot-heavy) writing. Heck, would have recommended this book to me.

So, my personal opinion is that this set of ingredients, which should have formed the most delectable layer cake, was totally wrecked by the wrong chef. (Also, you will be burned out by all cake metaphors by the end of the book, and I don’t know how I even stomached making that one. More on that later). I feel awful saying it. To have devoted so much of himself to a very women-centered, introspective, and deep-feeling book, I’m sure Cunningham is a wonderful man. But The Hours contains some of the most exasperating (professional) writing I think I’ve ever encountered.

Anyway, I looked at what I thought about The Hours and extrapolated to get a list of literary device abuses. These misuses apply to a lot of writing I see.

I Will Never Get Back The Hours I Spent Reading This Book (But Some Don’t Want Them Back)

The Hours CoverQuickly, let me say this: as I was reading The Hours, I thought that surely I must be batty to dislike it, and that was pretty much confirmed. A number of judges thought this worthy of a Pulitzer. I started googling reviews and scholarly articles on the book, and it did nothing to convince me that I’m sane. The overwhelming consensus is that this book is excellent, with me all alone on the sea-salty island of curmudgeon.

So take this all at face value–I personally felt these things, and most other people didn’t. But my minority opinion shall not be silenced, and by that, I mean I have a blog that’s pretty much an Amanda brainstuff soliloquy. I will be the one person to say, albeit nervously, that my thoughts that this was bad writing were reaffirmed on every page as I read.

By bad, I mean excessive. Obnoxiously thorough examination of every thought in a character’s head. Concerted efforts to make everything “deep.” Pushing symbolism past the point of being meaningful and into the realm of bang-you-over-the-head insulting. And that leads us to…

Literary Device Abuse 1: Symbolism

There’s a section where a housewife is cooking her husband a cake, and the author makes it clear that this cake is a reflection of how she felt in her role–imperfect, trying too hard, a failure. Cool. I like symbolism. But this one is drawn out to the point of being rage-inducing. Chapter after chapter is about this cake, I kid you not. The author would veer into another subject, and then there would be a paragraph that started, “She thought of the cake at home” or something and I would think “STOP.”

In fact, I was looking through my notes in the Kindle book as they pertain to this. It moves from “Ug” to “Please stop” to “AHEM, metaphor, are you getting this meeettaaaaphooooooor” to, finally, a big fat “ENOUGH WITH THE [censored] CAKE.” This is what I mean by the writing being exasperating.

This is not the only instance of literary device abuse.

Literary Device Abuse 2: Pretzeling Yourself to Describe a Character

What I mean by “pretzeling” is that an author bends in all sorts of weird ways so they* can include a description of a character without a paragraph that’s something like, “John was medium height with brown hair and bushy eyebrows, and he liked long walks on the beach and ice cream.” The classic (and awful) way of trying to more naturally integrate character description is to have them look in a mirror. I do think there are creative, unusual ways to do this that can work, and I’m not saying no one should try. They just should fix it if they fail.

In The Hours, there’s no looking in a mirror to describe oneself. But there is a character that has been living with someone for many years, and to describe that person she’d lived with, Cunningham says, “for a moment–less than a moment–she sees Sally as she would if they were strangers. Sally is a pale, gray-haired woman…” etc. Ug, this is so obvious and gimmicky! It’s just a hair better then the mirror tactic, and it’s not natural at all. You don’t have to see someone as if they are a stranger to know what color hair they have.

I think this could have been better done with something like “Sally’s gray hair, the harsh features–all were as familiar to Clarissa as her own face, yet an unspoken distance between them made her feel almost like a stranger” or something like that. You can integrate description in natural ways.

I didn’t find character development and description done right all throughout the The Hours. All of the tactics used to develop characters seemed obvious, not just the tactics used to describe them physically. There was a scene where Virgina’s relatives come over, and they find a dying bird. “Oh boy,” I thought. “Here comes a character-development device.” You could just sense it. Reader, we are about to enter a character’s brain and learn over the next three pages of inner monologue (see device three) that Virginia thinks things, deep, life/death things, because of this bird. Sigh. Indeed, that then happened. Color me unsurprised.

Literary Device Abuse 3: Inner Monologue

The dialogue in this book was excellent. It was minimal, curt, and left a ton to the imagination. Unfortunately, there was about a 1:10 ratio of dialogue pages to inner monologue pages, and the inner monologues contained so many literary sins.

First, everyone’s inner monologue was exactly the same voice. A depressed, self-consumed, prone-to-overthinking voice.

Second, we got to hear many characters’ inner monologues, even the ones that barely show up in the book. That’s a problem when combined with the first sin of them all having the same voice. It’s also a problem because it gives the reader whiplash. We are in and out of way too many heads. I picture the reader as a spirit being plunged in and out of brain after brain, eventually needing to reach for the Dramamine.

Third, god, inner monologue: there’s just so much of it, and it’s so, so tiring. There would start to be a scene–someone would walk into a room to say hi to the occupant there. But as they entered, they would need to pause for two pages and have big thoughts. Then comes the hello. This is not only exasperating, it’s hard for a reader to reconcile with real time. No one would walk in the room, think quietly to themselves for five minutes, and then greet the person on the couch.

Fourth, inner monologue will quickly send you into the danger zone of telling and not showing. An author needs to be careful not to diffuse a potentially powerful scene with a “Character realized she felt sad and depressed.” I found The Hours to be brutally tell-y and almost never show-y.

Conclusion: I am a Bummer

I feel bad, getting so negative on so universally loved book. I loved the idea behind it, and I especially loved the cultural message behind it. But I just could not deal with the writing. I thought about sharing my notes from the book, but just the sample I shared with you is probably enough. Most of them are like that. There is a lot of cussing. It was a tiring, eye-rolling read, despite the subject matter being serious and, to me, invigorating.

Anyway, if you loved The Hours, please crucify me in the comments. Just kidding. Please don’t. I can dish it out, but I can’t take it.

*I am taking a cue from all the style guides changing over to the singular “they,” and now writing is like one big sigh of relief, not having to re-read and look for spots that should unnaturally say “his or her.” You should try it.

On Ellipses as Throat Clearing

Salutations, literos and literas. Welcome to another edition of your favorite show, Stuff Amanda Hates! If you ask the husband, this show is on all day every day at our house, so enjoy a little piece of our life today.

So, here’s something that’s likely a familiar device:

“Can you tell me what happened before the…the incident?”

“Well, I was allowed in that bar once, but then there was some…unpleasantness”

Ellipses here act as euphemism alerts, being perfectly substitutable with throat clearing. Not so bad, right? Especially awesome when portraying mafia bosses or uncomfortable co-workers.

Gangster Looking Threatening

“If you don’t pay up, see, your pet hamster, he may have a little…accident.”

This technique exists for a reason in writing. The intricacies of our everyday dialogue are easy to take for granted until you try to replicate them in speech. With an ellipsis, the author want to convey maybe an awkward “ahem” as the speaker looks for a word that will soften the blow that would come from a more representative description. Or perhaps the author wants to portray a pause as a character struggles to define something that defies being boiled down to language. It might even just be used to emphasize the word that comes after the ellipsis. In any case, the ellipsis is a tool that allows authors to paint an in-text picture of what real, spoken or internal dialogue looks like.

Or does it?

(Hint: NO. Though I suppose that’s a more of an answer than a hint.)

It took listening to an audiobook for me to realize this isn’t realistic at all. We’re listening to Hyperion, which is a fabulous book. It’s completely unjust of me to nit pick the one thing I haven’t liked about it, so please don’t be dissuaded. But Hyperion is chalk full of this use of ellipses, especially in the section we’re listening to now—Brawne Lamia’s story, if you’re familiar. It’s used in the first paragraph (“merely…beautiful”).  It’s used 30 times in the first 12 pages of the section. I stopped counting after 30.

The sheer amount of times it’s used here is made much more obvious by listening to real humans read the text and “act” through the ellipses. And it’s here that I realized that the ellipses aren’t doing anything to make dialogue reflect real conversation patterns at all. Take this:

“It’s like that. Memories that feel…hollow.”

Read that aloud, like you’re a voice actor. Give the amount of pause you would if you were reading a script. You can hear how it’s supposed to be said, right? You’ve probably watched T.V. shows or movies that act as your instructor. Think of Spock from Star Trek. Then, think about how you’d talk to your friends about a memory that felt empty. Even if you were struggling to come up with a word, would you just leave a long, empty pause in there as you thought of the word? You would say, “the memories feel kind of, I don’t know, empty” or something similar.

Now, I’m not at all saying authors should write in all manner of vocal pauses in an attempt to make their conversations as real as possible. You edit out the cruft of everyday speech. But I’ll tell you what you probably shouldn’t do either is write in a supposed-speech-mimic device that’s actually something only employed by actors, i.e., people who have fake conversations.

Listening to the voice actors in the audiobook speak to another with these prolonged pauses struck me as unnatural at best and melodramatic at worst. I can’t think of many instances where it wouldn’t be better to apply italics for emphasis or a phrase like “I don’t know” or “[character] paused to think” to indicate struggle. Check it out my earlier examples.

“Can you tell me what happened before the, er, incident?”

“Well, I was allowed in that bar once, but then there was some”—he raised his eyebrows—”unpleasantness.”

And it’s not even necessarily that this way is more natural. It’s just less obviously unnatural, and it’s way easier reading. It’s an opportunity to be more descriptive and ignore the temptation to be lazy with language. Meanwhile, ellipses to indicate pause also draw attention to themselves and interrupt the text. Don’t take readers out of the moment!

Now, I’m not completely against the ellipses as “ahem” or “insert deeply thoughtful pause here.” You might prefer it to the tactics above, and that’s fine. Also, there are cases that I think really call for it. Take this, out of the same section in Hyperion, when Brawne has been asked to call another character by his first name:

“Yeah, M…ah, Johnny, most of my work falls under that category”

I’d say that the ellipsis is right choice to portray this corrected speech in writing. But know that it in no way represents real speech patterns. If you feel like it does, pay attention to whether or not you’re hearing it being said in your inner actor’s voice. The pause doesn’t represent a part of real speech patterns. It represents overdramatization.

Like its friends the exclamation point, the cliche, and other potentially obnoxious devices, the ellipsis should be used very, very sparingly—if at all.

Jeffrey Eugenides and the Omniscient First Person

I Capturepolished off The Virgin Suicides a bit ago, and I don’t really have the time (or the memory, at this point) to post an overview. But I wanted to talk about how Eugenides continually combines two perspectives without causing a disaster.

I spoke a bit about this in my last post, which was on MiddlesexEugenides does this magical thing that allows him to cheat normal literary rules. More about this in a second. First…

The First Person

When your narrator introduces her/himself to you, the reader, as “I,” the story is being told in the first person perspective. It adds a humanizing element that’s harder to capture in other points of view. You get to hear what the narrator is thinking about everything that’s going on, and it gives you a chance to see things through someone’s eyes in a way that’s natural and tinged with personality.

It’s easy writing. I’m wretched at writing fiction myself, but whenever I attempt it, I seek the shelter of the first person immediately. But it can also be a clever device. It’s been a long time since I read Fight Club, but I’m certain it’s in the first person—it’s a great way to hide things you don’t want readers to know yet, in a way that doesn’t seem suspicious. And I’m sure everyone remembers being taught to look for The Great Gatsby‘s unreliable narrator. It’s the first person point of view that allows these kinds of nuanced relationships with the reader.

But there are constraints when you pick this perspective. First, you’re really committing to this character, and no other, for the long haul. You’re also committing the reader to a lot of time with him/her, so you better write someone who’s enjoyable (or at least interesting) company. And in adopting one character’s point of view, you mostly cede that of others.


Like God, or Santa, the omniscient perspective sees all. It is, in fact, watching you right now.

It can dive into the minds of other characters. It can describe facts and events without worrying the reader with bias. It can describe a thing inside, outside, up close and far away.

Mostly, the omniscient view will be told from the third person perspective. It’s a good storytelling perspective, but it puts can put a space between the reader and the story, whereas the first person uses a character’s voice as our portal to the story and thereby brings the reader close. In some cases, like in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, this distance is important to the atmosphere of the book, but in other cases, it can make writing for engagement a bit of an extra challenge.

And the Second Person Omniscient?

It’s the creepiest of all points of view.

(Sorry, that’s something my husband said that makes me bust out laughing every time I think of it.)

Why they shouldn’t work together

Pronouns. First person: “I.” Omniscient: “he/she.”

I’m being facetious, though. If you’re telling the story from one perspective, you can’t just switch to another when it’s convenient. Or you can, but it will be jarring unless you do it really, really well. Most authors who try this don’t do it well. It just comes off as distracting and gimmicky.

Why they do for Eugenides

Eugenides does something really interesting, though. He writes from an omniscient point of view, usually reserved for the third person, and tells it via the first person voice. Twice now I’ve seen him execute it in a book, and it’s fascinating to watch how it works.

In Middlesex, the main character speaks as “I” but claims traces the past for generations before him. He’s able to speak to the reader with the closeness that first person provides but not about things he could have possibly experienced. He explains this is possible because he did exist, as genes inside his ancestors, watching all that went on. This character frequently describes floating around in the DNA of his grandparents. It really works.

In The Virgin Suicides, the story is told from the perspective of one of the boys that watched the main characters (a group of repressed sisters) as children. As watchers from outside the house, outside the minds of these girls, how could readers come to know the story as well as they do through this boy’s perspective?

Well, one of the premises of the book is that these boys were infatuated with these girls. Even when the young men became adults, the sisters haunted their thoughts. So they sought out and interviewed people who knew the girls before they died, people from their pasts, and pieced together all the information given them to fill in the holes left by memories from the outside perspective. That’s how Eugenides once again tells a complete omniscient story from the first person perspective.

It’s great fun to watch, and I welcome you to look for how he does it if you wind up picking up these books.

Signing off for now to go read my new delight: Empire Falls by Richard Russo. I’m having a great time, and I can’t wait to tell you about it. It has the most wretched characters. Look forward to hearing all about that.

Purity: A Quick Note From Captain Obvious

This will be short.

Hamlet. Andreas. Go.

hamletWhat Franzen is doing with Hamlet is pretty smack-you-in-the-face, if you’re looking for it. So I’m not going to go into too much detail. I’m just here let you know to look for it.

If you remember anything from high school English, then you’ll be alarmed that Andreas and his mother’s biggest point of bonding is Hamlet. That’s what I mean about smack-you-in-the-face. But if you don’t remember Hamlet, it’s worth knowing a few things as you read Purity:

  1. Hamlet likes his mom. I mean, he really likes his mom.
  2. His dad is a ghost.
  3. What defines Hamlet’s life is his relationship with murder.
  4. He destroys the girl he loves–but does he love her? Can he love her, being as self-absorbed as he is?

The parallels aren’t perfect, but they’re there, and they’re fun and easy to find. If you are new to looking at literature for themes and uncovering hidden mysteries within a book, this is a enjoyable softball lobbed your way.

So if Purity‘s on your list, take your knowledge of Hamlet (and if it’s just the SparkNotes you scanned, good enough), and look at Andreas’ life when you read Purity.

To Level Up…

Now, if you really want to do a psychoanalytic criticism of Purity, get a basic grasp of Freud and read this thing. Oh boy. Pretty sure Franzen himself was reading a lot of Freud as he wrote this. Some of the most powerful phrases in the book come more from the mouth of Freud than Franzen.

But looking at the book on this level, if you’re a psych newbie, will take a bit more dedication. Freud has a pretty impressive body of work. Hamlet, on the other hand, is just, well, Hamlet.


Hey, here’s a fun fact! T.S. Eliot, writer of “The Wasteland,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (my favorite poem), and the collection of poems that would inspire the musical Cats (yes, google it), thought Hamlet was awful and Shakespeare was a total literary mess when he wrote it. The more you know…

Purity: The Trouble with Gender

Here I am, just hanging out on the internet, about to be the four-billionth person here to talk about how Franzen is white and male. But I hope to avoid polemics-as-usual and be sensitive while remaining true to feminist roots.

The Criticism

Franzen’s biggest critics are women, and one of his biggest criticisms is his need to check that male privilege/mansplaining at the door:

Article 1: “Awwww, poor victimized famous bestselling author Jonathan Franzen!”

Article 2:  “The charge of misogyny, like the charge of racism, is a serious one, and I shy away from making it. But …Franzen continues to indict himself with gender theorizing that panders to the worst instincts of the male intellectual.” “Franzen can do better.”

Article 3 (and this is both legit AND hilarious): “He sounds like he’s just observing the patriarchal dictate that before we can talk about any woman artist or intellectual or politician or activist, we must first rank her on Hot or Not.”

Article 4 (by Roxane Gay, one of my favorite people. Follow her on Twitter; she’s a blast.): “He is offering up an earnest, albeit rather narrow and privileged assessment of the world we live in,” noting that, in Franzen’s world, feminism equals “angry womenfolk.”

Criticism Justified?

Oh, totally. Something you’ll see over and over in these articles is a reference to the part in Purity where the radically feminist (and radically unhinged) Anabel miserably guilts Tom into only peeing sitting down because the expression of inequality–standing up to pee–hurts her. You’ll also see that the extremist, separatist feminists that grab ahold of Annagret are not unlike the German Stasi in the book. They’re a totalitarian, police-like force of harpies. Franzen puts feminist in his books, and they are all life-crushing shrews.

Also to be noted is the phallocentrism of Purity, which is probably my biggest complaint about the book. You can look forward to hearing alllllll about the state of every male character’s penis, allllll the time. Is it disappointingly at half mast? Is it a throbbing beast ready to bust a hole in space time? Is it tentatively pushing on something, asking permission? Don’t worry. You’ll get to hear all about it. ALL. ABOUT. IT. And I don’t mean to be prude, but it takes away from my experience of the book. I can’t imagine why Franzen’s brain is just a nonstop flow of “penispenispenispenis.” Why are all these characters so obsessed with the state of their genitalia? Why is Franzen so obsessed?

But then, here’s where my sympathy may set me apart from the rest of the angry readers. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in Franzen’s head, and I accept that this phallocentrism is his thing and it’s not mine. My experience has made me who I am, and he’s been shaped the same way.

For instance, if I wrote fiction, my real-life experiences with men would no doubt show up via my male characters, and considering that feelings I’ve taken away from many of those experiences, that might draw accusations of misandry from critics. (You know, the myriad of critics who would read my best-selling book.) I personally wouldn’t feel that assessment justified, but there would likely be evidence for that argument from my writing.

Going back to Franzen…yes, there is evidence of male-centric, anti-feminist, super-privileged writing here. Some of the articles I linked objectively point out these problems, which are worth noting. But others are outrage-seekers, trying to tear apart the overdog just because no one likes the overdog.

Take Article 1’s (above) comment. Let me put it in context. This is the paragraph before, quoting a fascinating Guardian interview with Franzen.

“In his Guardian interview, Franzen says that ‘I’m not a sexist. I am not somebody who goes around saying men are superior, or that male writers are superior. In fact, I really go out of my way to champion women’s work that I think is not getting enough attention. None of that is ever enough. Because a villain is needed. It’s like there’s no way to make myself not male. And one of the running jokes in the Tom and Anabel section [of ‘Purity.’] is that he’s really trying to not be male…. There’s a sense that there is really nothing I can do except die – or, I suppose, retire and never write again.’

Awwww, poor victimized famous bestselling author Jonathan Franzen! Why are feminists so meaaaaaan?

I understand where the sarcasm and lack of sympathy comes from here. But I don’t lack that sympathy.

Franzen’s a human being. He’s trying to write stories about how human beings hurt each other and make each other’s lives worth living. I don’t think he’s on a woman-hating mission. I think he’s expressing a lot of himself through Tom, who really wants to be a good feminist and just can’t do it without decoupling himself from crippling guilt, so he’s just given up. And wouldn’t you, if the idea of male privilege had seeped into your bones? If it seemed like the only thing you can do to be rid of this original sin is to never say anything again, lest your inherently poisoned point of view seeps through and victimizes all these people you’re unknowingly oppressing?

“There is No Way to Make Myself Not Male”

The subtitle of this Guardian interview is “there is no way to make myself not male,” and I think there’s an evolution of thinking behind it. I imagine that, once upon a time, he felt ashamed in realizing it, as if there was some essential thing wrong with him.

But now, I think Franzen is saying “there is no way to make myself not male” in a different way. He has been attacked for being male by critics for a long time, and sometimes with good reason. He’s made a couple of boneheaded PR moves (see comments on Edith Wharton). But I think he’s given up carrying that cross of guilt the way anyone with good intentions faced with constant attacks might.

I say he has good intentions because I think he portrays all characters, both male and female, with incredible empathy and nuance. I think Franzen isn’t lying in that Guardian interview when he says he loves people. And if you love people and are constantly attacked as a hate-filled bigot, well, I think there’s good reason to be bitter about it.

As for me, I see the male-centrism, but I like his books too much to think he should be silent. Though I do hope he’ll keep the state-of-the-phallus alerts to a minimum next time.

Creating Character Depth Through Confounding

The other day, I had lunch with a colleague, and he described an idea. He wanted to write a book with his wife, but with a fun twist. He would write one chapter, his wife would write the next, and so on, back and forth. Neither would get to see what the other wrote until it was his/her turn to take over the book.

Beautiful sugar skull woman illustration. Day of dead vector illustration.That got us talking about the genre of the progressive novel. If you haven’t heard of things like round robin writing and the exquisite corpse (see left for what I picture when I say that), well, they’re essentially vehicles for people to collaborate on a story or work of art.

Check them out. They’re fun, and as I’m seeing, they can be useful projects to use as inspiration in solo writing later. But first, creative writing class.

Confound It!

Our lunch conversation led to me remember one of my creative writing workshops. This one was called “Confound It!” or something like that. I might just be making that up. Whatever. If I am, I’m doing a good job because it sounds cool.

It was a collaborative writing exercise in which everyone would write a paragraph, pair up with someone, and switch papers. You would read your partner’s paragraph and write their next one. Except you weren’t supposed to be nice. Your goal was to confound your partner. You were to give them a paragraph that utterly changed the course of what they were writing and forced them to try to recover from whatever disasters you created.

So in “Confound It!,” paragraph one goes like this:

A young man sits and has a heart-to-heart with his estranged, dying father. They hash out old demons from the young man’s childhood. The son finally had the courage to tell his father he had felt abandoned by the old man his whole life.

Paragraph two goes like this:

Not far from the hospital, the abominable snowman, like the young man, was tired of a lifetime of rejection. So, using methods not described in this paragraph, he procured a cache of enriched uranium, and now we’re in the midst of a nuclear winter only he–and for some unspecified scientific reason, also flamingos–could survive.

Paragraph three goes like this:

Dude, come on.

Or maybe it goes like this:

Even the flamingos rejected the abominable snowman, and he learned that extracting revenge through violence was never going to fix the pain he felt inside. The young man at least died, albeit in a mushroom cloud, with a clear conscious after attempting to reconcile through conversation.

This is also kind of the plot of Frankenstein. See, I’m not a very good creative writer even when I’m plagiarizing.

But Confounding Yourself…

The last few Pulitzer-journey books that have graced my bedside table have reminded me of this exercise. These authors’ technique isn’t collaborative in nature, though. Thier goal seems to be to confound themselves. They carefully set up character development in one chapter and then completely undo their work in the next. But this isn’t bad writing. Or rather, it’s bad writing like a fox. (I’m not very good with simile, either.)

The first book that reveals this technique is Olive Kitteridge. In chapter one, we see a harpy wife nagging her sweet, mild mannered husband, berating him in front of guests and drowning him in a sea of “I cook for you, I clean for you, and what thanks do I get?” Olive is extremely unlikeable in this chapter. But in the very next chapter, author Strout undoes all that hard character work–or rather, she complicates it. Olive is a strong woman who knows exactly when people are in trouble. There’s a man in a truck who’s contemplating suicide, and Olive sees him and invites herself into the car. Even though he’s largely silent, she perceives what’s going on. What’s more, she deals with it in just the right way. She’s solemn and strong and doesn’t sugarcoat things. There are few words exchanged, but her curt observations about the world and his family were exactly what he needed to hear to feel less alone. We see that Olive has a soul, and it’s a soul capable of reaching out to others in a deep way. We can also sense that Olive has scars herself.

The author keeps this up. Olive vacillates between being awful and understandable and human and cruel, depending on the chapter. And, the way Strout does it, you don’t feel like it’s that the character isn’t well formed. As I said in my overview on the book, it seems like she’s known every character in the book for years.*

I’m reading the 2008 winner now, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s happening here, too. Oscar and Lola’s mother, Beli, is pure evil in the second chapter. She’s abusive and manipulative in ways that turn your stomach. And when Lola understands she’ll never be perfect enough to make her mother’s abuse stop–and, besides, she doesn’t have the energy to try–the house gets dangerously hostile. Lola has to run. Junot Diaz, the author, has clearly made this character the villain of the book.

Just kidding! He doubles back on chapter two’s character work in the very next chapter. There, we meet Beli as a child, and we understand that she’s a broken little orphan, shattered by the world and with the same impulses we saw in her daughter in chapter two–the need to run. In fact, the author uses the unusual technique of calling her “our” Beli, burdening the reader with responsibility for who she becomes, forcing kinship with her in an insidious way.

When I think of what the authors are doing here, it could very easily backfire. The characters could appear inconsistent, confusing, ungraspable. But when handled right, this act of confounding themselves helps authors use each twist to turn the screw deeper into the wall, anchoring the character as an individual with complexities that reflect real humans. It’s a fascinating technique.


*Guys. Guys. I thought of the best pickup line for Elizabeth Strout. I forgot to put it in my overview post.

Setting: Bar
Me: Hey girl. Are you Zeus, because your characters spring from your head fully formed
Strout: ~Asks bartender for the check, excuses herself~

I’m not good at pickup lines, either.