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Archive for the ‘Book Discussion’ Category

As I noted in my previous entry, I’m no expert on vampire literature and am currently more interested in sharing ideas for thought and discussion than on “settling” anything in reference to this novel. I am just reviewing my notes on the book and am suprised to find that curiosities and issues for consideration and discussion are still flooding my mind. So here are some additional things that intrigue me in reference to this novel:

1. I’ve heard that reviewers and critics, in general, share my belief that Rice is an innovator in this area of literature and that her books are of higher quality than most other vampire novels. I’d like to hear what readers with more experience in vampire literature have to say about this notion. How rare in level of quality is Rice’s vampire fiction? What influence has she had on other writers in this genre? Are there other authors of vampire literature whose skill and insight are equally noteworthy?

2. In my last entry, I noted how numerous and how complex are the philosophical concerns addressed in Interview with the Vampire. I just wanted to bring up a few more that seem impossible to ignore:

—the nature of choice in one’s actions and the extent to which passivity functions as a form of action and as a choice. “And so you decided to become a vampire?” the boy interviewer asks Louis soon after the book opens. “Decided,” Louis replies, “It doesn’t seem the right word. Yet I cannot say it was inevitable from the moment he stepped in the room. No, indeed, it was not inevitable. But I can’t say that I decided.” This sort of ambiguity in the extent to which one’s will and reasoning determine one’s actions and that to which we cannot exactly say that we “decided” to act persists throughout the text. It is important to Louis’s self-realization journey and to the portrayal of vampire nature in general.

–the nature of love. Claudia says at one point that vampires daring to love one another is the “crowning evil” of all they do. Rice seems to explore two extremes of thought about love: in one sense, love is the greatest driving force behind many of the characters’ most significant acts. In others, as well as at times in Louis’s musings, the idea of love among vampires and even seemingly in and of itself is all but dismissed. Or it is suggested that love among vampires is inescapably weak compared to that among mortals. In his ponderings, Louis seems to compel us to ask to what extent love motivates action and to what extent it may simply be an excuse for behaviors. Some consideration of love as simply an overestimated extension of the basic need for companionship also appears, as does some exploration, through the different relationships among the vampire characters, of a potentially infinite range of types of love in general.

3. In my last entry, I noted two separate issues–gender/sexuality and the coming-of-age narrative—as worthy of thought in reference to this novel. After writing this last entry, I started to think about the ways in which the issues that I had chosen might intersect and overlap, which is interesting in this case. The central coming-of-age narrative here is, of course, Louis’s. But Claudia’s transition into womanhood without physical change creates a sort of partially stunted coming-of-age tale, and we do see some movement toward maturity in Claudia as the novel progresses. Strangely, as both Claudia and Louis mature, they move from an opposite-sex love object choice to a same-sex one. Claudia, arguably partially by force of circumstance, moves from Louis to Madelaine; meanwhile, Louis moves from Claudia to Armand. Why does Rice present this transition to a same-sex object choice as a part of the coming-of-age process? Or if it’s not the gender that determines the choice, what role does gender play in how these attachments develop and progess? And what, then, does determine the ultimate object choice for each of these two characters?

4. It’s important, of course, to ask why Rice chose the interview format, given that the interviewer plays such a small role in the text. But as the contrast between the sense of discomfort in the interviewer’s voice at the beginning and his behavior at the end indicates, he is seduced by the story of vampire life, which is not the effect Louis intends at all. My first thought about the interviewer was that he might be seen as a figure of the reader, who may be at first judgmental, then silent as he/she is drawn into the story, and ultimately awed by the tale’s sensuous imagery.

But as far as the interviewer’s reaction goes, I don’t think that comes close to telling the whole story and would really like to hear other readers’ interpretations of the book’s ending.

Having the book develop as a tale that Louis presents during an interview also allows Rice to show Louis not as having a complete and solid narrative to deliver, but rather as sometimes hesitant, confused about what he means, and ambivalent. This gives us a more compelling and complex sense of the philosophical inquiry that pervades the novel, as well as of Louis’s struggle to establish and articulate a coherent sense of self.

Are any of these issues of interest to other readers? And what key issues have I missed? I’d love to hear from you!

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 I must admit that before I read this book, I had literary vampiraphobia with a touch of pure hard, cold prejudice.  I had read long excerpts from several vampire novels and Twilight in its entirety, along with some secondary literary criticism and analysis. I did so, however, NOT because I was interested in the vampire genre or impressed by its rise to popularity.  Instead, we might say that I wanted to know what tired cliches bound together the works I’d read and how on earth the genre could rise to popularity in any period.  After all, in my mind, what could be done to make the act of sucking blood out of another being into something I wanted to read about? Nothing, I imagined.

I’m not going to turn my reading of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire into a life-changing experience and claim that it sucked the moral blood out of my staunch and longstanding disgust.  But I did come to see that various qualities associated with the vampire genre can combine to create a medium for certain social questions, themes, and portrayals of uncommon or taboo behaviors.  Rice, I feel, uses these media cleverly and insightfully.  I saw that intellectually worthwhile questions and conflicts could be explored within the frame of a vampire tale, and I feel that Rice’s explorations are, in many areas, as strong as in texts and accompanying genres that we are used to regarding as more mentally stimulating and complex.

Although I know that my interests, of course, may not match those of others, I’ve decided to share some of the reflections, issues, and questions I raced to write down as I was reading.  This may just be a start, and I may have more to add later, but for right now, here are four things I found worthy of thought in reference to Rice’s novel. These are in no particular order:

1.  This is, in a sense, a coming-of-age novel, and the vampire genre allows for opportunities not available to most coming-of-age authors.  Because Louis’s existence seems to begin anew when he becomes a vampire, the author can begin the part of the book that tells of the coming-of-age journey at the moment of Louis’s “birth,” the point at which he knows nothing and first begins to search for order and answers.

Once Louis is reborn as a vampire, he begins searching for and trying to create his identity and life perspective, beginning with a sense of himself as different from other vampires.  At that point, he believes that he, unlike the other vampires, is empathetic and still capable of the strong emotional attachments viewed as existing only among mortals. He also feels disdain for the pleasure of the kill that other vampires savor, convincing himself that he kills only because he must, meanwhile underestimating his own culpability in his having become a vampire.  As in most coming-of-age novels, the protagonist casts off these early beliefs by intertwined and inextricable processes of developing self-awareness and of maturing through experience.  There is a great contrast between Louis’s self-concept at the beginning of the book and at the end of it.

2.  Although I realize that this book has drawn the attention of some scholars, it is generally categorized as popular fiction.  Consequently, I was surprised at the variety of philosophical issues it addresses and the depth in which it explores them.  Readers themselves are drawn to explore them but must find them impossible to resolve.   Just to name a few:

—the conflict between and convergence of mortality and immortality.  At many points, the interactions and contrasts between vampires and mortals raise this issue.  In addition, we get glimpses of varying sentiments among the vampires about what it means and how it feels to be immortal.  We are asked to explore mortality and death as forces extending beyond simple bodily destruction, especially as Louis realizes that if all the vampires ever created were, indeed, alive forever, there would be many more of them.

—the nature of evil and what acts are and are not evil in nature.  The issue of what evil has to do with the existence or nonexistence of a supreme being is handled particularly cleverly at one point.  The novel also, in some descriptions of the vampires’ actions, raises questions about whether acts done because they are necessary to life can be viewed as evil.  Under what circumstances? Finally, Rice leads us to question the purpose of the concept of evil itself.  What fuels the need to believe that one’s actions and one’s identity are free of evil entirely?

3. For me, the most compelling issues in this text are sexuality and gender.  The eroticism in Rice’s work is daring, to say the least, as is her image of gendered role play.  For example, as Lestat comes to Louis and thereafter instructs him in vampire life, there is unmistakable homoeroticism present in numerous passages.  Beyond that, as the two negotiate their relationship, there are a few points at which Louis seems to be taking on a distinctly female role while Lestat’s masculinity seems suddenly apparent and even exaggerated.

For me, however, the character in the work who merits the most discussion in terms of these issues is Claudia.  When Lestat and Louis make Claudia a vampire, the eroticism–eroticism in a scene involving adult contact with a child–is strong and hard to miss.  As Claudia matures but does not change physically, she seems, at many points, some of which contain strong sexual undertones, to be both a woman and a child or to alternate quickly between coming across as one and then as the other.  Her presence in a household she shares with two adult men, Louis and Lestat, creates numerous scenes in which Rice’s portrayal of both gender and adult-child relations is eerie but compelling.  I hope to review the work to explore

—questions of gender identity and gender relations in the vampire world.

—Claudia’s character and role in the text.

—erotic undertones in some scenes depicting the vampires’ interactions with their mortal victims.

4.  Rice makes skillful use of contrast.  Much of the tension in the work comes, for me, from abrupt alternation between slow-paced scenes with much description and scenes depicting fast-paced action.  The slower and calmer scenes are relaxing and create comfort, which is shattered by the sudden intrusion of a fast-paced scene, often a horrific one. Rice juxtaposes depictions of Louis and his peers doing what they need to do to survive or to escape a threatening situation, in various senses, with philosophical explorations that generally leave Louis more conflicted than he was before.  Am I going too far, I wonder, if I think of this as, in part, a way of exploring the force of daily life’s necessities compared to that of the individual’s search for truth and meaning.

Well, again, these are just my first impressions, and I hope to have more refined ideas or other suggested issues to share in the future.  I especially hope that some of you will leave comments so that I can hear your ideas.

 

 

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After much time spent puzzling over the question of what to make of Fanny, I find myself still grappling with it. As I think about the text more and more, in fact, I feel more strongly that I’m still just grappling here instead of really figuring anything out.  These reflections are, then, like my earlier ones uncertain and tentative.  I may even be less certain about what I’m saying now than about what I put forth previously.  But, with that in mind, here goes:

As we try to make sense of this novel, it seems as if we must begin by trying to make sense of Fanny, though I honestly see little hope of success.  Aside from, of course, the narrator’s, Fanny’s emerges as the primary perspective from which we see things in the novel, a situation that is furthered by her remaining distant from everyone but Edmund.  Edmund and Fanny’s bond develops because of their shared morality, as we see when the rest of the young people want to perform the play Lovers’ Vows and both Edmund and Fanny object.  Never allowing her text to sacrifice complexity, Austen suggests a difference in morality between these two characters, however, by letting even Edmund end up being drawn into the play, although it’s important that he agrees to participate as a favor to Mary Crawford.  I suppose it’s true that, therefore, from one angle, we might look at Edmund’s behavior as a sign of moral strength in that he is relinquishing his desire not to be involved  because his resistance has done nothing to stop the play’s performance and he wants to prevent the greater immorality of Mary’s being forced to act out scenes with strong romantic overtones opposite an outsider from the community.  And on Fanny’s part, with her forceful insistence that she “cannot act” and the virtual terror that seems to accompany this assertion, one can see why some readers would contend that, in this case and in other notable major episodes, what some would categorize as actions motivated by Fanny’s morality are more accurately classified as reflections of her extreme insecurity.

There’s no doubt that Fanny is insecure as a result of her harsh treatment.  As we see when she reflects on her place in the Bertram home during her visit to her birth home in Portsmouth, she enjoys far more material comfort there but receives little love or encouragement in either location.  Among the Portsmouth clan, it’s clear that her mother has other favorite children, a fact perhaps reflected in Fanny’s having been chosen in the first place as the child to surrender to the Bertrams’ care. In the Bertram home, she endures the constant criticisms of her Aunt Norris, (a great vehicle for Austen’s sense of humor but a character about as charming as a rabid dog with red ants building villages in its ears)  who goes so far as to blame Fanny for Maria’s fleeing her marriage and running off with Henry Crawford.  Her preposterous reasoning is that, had Fanny accepted Henry’s repeated marriage proposals, he would not have sought Maria’s attentions in the first place.

Fanny sleeps in the attic and is often treated little better than a servant; for various happenings, Lady Bertram and her Aunt Norris depend on her companionship or assistance while the other young people are allowed to pursue freedom or enjoyment. (These ladies simply “cannot do without” Fanny time and time again, and in a good 50 percent of these cases, I can see no earthly reason why not).   Although Austen portrays Fanny’s treatment as unjust, one inescapable question is whether the author sees the adversity she endures as one source of Fanny’s character strength. Or is said character strength something Fanny possesses by nature–something that  enables her to respond politely and calmly to the harsh treatment she endures? 

The latter proposition is clearly at least partly true, as Fanny’s grace in difficult situations throughout the novel illustrates.  But what of the former?  It seems as if the overall pattern of the novel does support this assertion, judging even by the subtle differences among the Bertram children, for whom being the object of overindulgent treatment encourages weak character.  We see, for example, that the oldest son and daughter, Tom and Maria, are clearly held in higher regard than their younger siblings, a pattern that depicts a mindset that was common among this era’s aristocracy.  And what happens?  Edmund, of course, not only behaves better on the whole than Tom, but actively seeks, in becoming a clergyman, the influence of even greater discipline and regulation than he’s already experienced according to his household position. Tom, the favored elder brother, meanwhile, accumulates substantial gambling debt and consoles himself with the fact that many of his friends are deeper in debt than he is.  Throughout the text, Tom’s carefree attitude about money seems linked to the quiet assumption that, although Edmund could have chosen a far more profitable career than he does, he would have had to choose some career and earn a living eventually.  Tom, meanwhile, it seems to be assumed, can repay whatever his debts may amount to and even begin building his future through inherited money and property. Nowhere in the novel, even as the issue of Edmund’s decision to become a clergyman draws discussion, do we find any indication that Tom is–or should be–planning a career.  Ultimately, Tom’s illness makes most explicit Austen’s implication that discipline and adversity build moral character, as it offers Tom both of these things, which he has never experienced  because of his privileged position.  Austen states that, as a result of Tom’s illness, “he had suffered and he had learnt to think, two advantages that he had never known before.”

Similarly, although the contrast between Maria’s character and Julia’s is nowhere near as stark as that between Tom’s and Edmund’s, Maria, elder and favored child, ultimately does her impulsive running off with a man while married to another man; Julia is single when she elopes with Mr. Yates.  Its implied that, when things calm down, Julia’s marriage may evolve into a union that the family can accept; not so with Maria’s.  Julia’s behavior is treated as something that she ought not have done; Maria’s is an act of calling shame upon the entire household.  Again, as with the Bertram boys, the elder child, Maria, who is favored, emerges with weaker moral character than does the younger, slightly less spoiled Julia.  The one form of discipline and duty forced on Maria, Austen makes clear, is one that fosters rebellion rather than moral strength–the obligation to enter a marriage that will secure a respectable social position and financial privilege, which Maria acts in accordance with when she initially marries a man, who, it is said, would be thought “a rather stupid fellow” were it not for his wealth.    

It could hardly be clearer, then, that adversity builds moral character but that  familial pampering, here and in what I know of Austen otherwise, seems the greatest force opposing moral devekopment.  But the character-shaping discipline that Edmund and Tom receive from sources outside the family keep the author from appearing to be an absolute enemy of the upper classes or seeming to portray the aristocracy’s lot in life as an absolute condemnation to moral lassitude.  In fact,  Austen complicates the question of nurture’s influence on adult character by making the influences of childhood and young adulthood extend far beyond one’s parenting and social position.  Still, Fanny, who unquestionably endures the greatest abuses, stands as the moral force that provides constancy to the Bertram household throughout the text while whims, guests, projects, and parental absences create a generally comfortable but a slightly unstable home environment for the Bertram children (which, nevertheless, we must regard as a model of routine and comfort next to the Portsmouth home to which Fanny is sent back to for a visit, seemingly as punishment for her repeated refusals of Henry Crawford’s proposals).  We do not have then, one of those common texts in which the wealthy are displayed as corrupt and the poor as noble.  Austen is too astute an artist to create such a tiresome, pedantic tale.

Despite the fact that we’d assume Fanny to be the happiest character in the novel’s “happy ending,” this is not one of the many “fairy tale” novels popular among certain classes of readers in Austen’s day in which lowborn children rise to great wealth and status and wellborn ones, portrayed as simplistically greedy and morally reckless, are somehow torn from their elevated position, often as a direct result of these very attributes.  First off, we have the question of the Crawfords, who do not seem to belong simply to a particular class.  Mary and Henry Crawford technically belong to the ranks of orphans, having been raised by their aunt and uncle after losing their parents.  Orphans in general, in nineteenth century novels, however, tend to be doomed to poverty and certainly left out of the elevated social circles populated by the children of prestigious families.  These two, however, seem to enjoy a favorable social standing and, at least in Henry’s case, the promise of a large inheritance, as we are reminded by the other characters each time Fanny refuses one of his proposals.  At the same time, however, we might expect the Crawfords to exhibit moral strength because of the suffering it’s implied that they experience in their home, with their aunt and uncle using them as pawns in their quarrels and, Austen also implies, making them feel unworthy and lucky to possess the privileges they do.  Rather than develop in accordance with hardships thrust upon them at home, the Crawfords seem to avoid these influences by distancing themselves from the household they are reared in as much as possible.  They spend considerable amounts of time with the Bertrams, Henry travels on extended trips, and Mary seeks a familial bond of surrogate sisterhood with Fanny.

Money, then, does not guarantee a wholly privileged upbringing, and individual choice plays a significant role in how individuals respond to their lot in life, with other influences and factors also intervening.  And were an aristocratic position a possible destiny for the virtuous orphan schooled in decorum, such as Fanny, it would not then be, as Austen illustrates by Fanny’s refusal to marry Henry, the absolute fate that the  heroine desires or even the fate that being reared among the upper classes makes most appropriate for the heroine.  With Edmund having chosen, in the clergy, a career that will offer him a relatively comfortable living but is clearly socially and economically less rewarding than many of the other options he could have pursued, Fanny still wishes to be his wife.  Her upbringing and character seem particularly well-suited for her fate in marrying a clergyman.  Her strong morality, of course, is advantageous. Meanwhile, her experience of two separate households will prove useful in her interactions with a diverse community, her habit of looking always to the needs of others and serving them would be considered a virtue for a clergyman’s wife in this culture, and her expectation of a slightly lower level of privilege than that afforded to the other Bertram children well suits the social rank that she and Edmund will occupy–by Edmund’s choice.

Many popular writers of this era simplistically presented two routes from a low birth into a higher social class, often pursued together by the same virtuous female character. These were the following: 1. reception into an aristocratic household upon the heroine’s finding herself orphaned or otherwise homeless and 2. marriage to a wealthy man.   Austen alters these formulas and their outcomes a bit in Fanny’s case and suggests that the upper classes do not conspire ceaselessly to keep the lower classes in their place, as many authors of her day would have it,  She shows us that the Bertrams take Fanny in  not because she is thrown into a homelessness that leaves them no choice but rather to foster a better upbringing for the Price family children.  By the time they fill Fanny’s former role as household helper with her sister Susan, the Bertrams are shown as needing this outsider child almost, perhaps, as much as she needs them.  Austen also starts a trend here that will become more important in Persuasion–the possibility of a child of lower-class birth advancing himself to a higher standing, which, in both novels, is offered by the military, as Fanny’s brother, William Price, rises to the rank of lieutenant.  But she refrains from making his elevation simple evidence of some cliched belief that those who work hard, whatever their origins, may succeed in that she makes Henry Crawford’s intervention a significant factor in William’s promotion.

A good thing, in this example, arises from something troubling–Henry’s relentless pursuit of Fanny, but there is no portrayal of Fanny’s still refusing Henry after he has assisted her brother as a show of ingratitude, although that’s exactly how the Bertrams see her refusals throughout Henry’s pursuit.  Nor does William’s promotion wholly seem a redress of misfortune in his upbringing.  On the one hand, William, indeed, grows up in significant misfortune.  This is the case, of course, because he spends his youth in the chaotic and impoverished Price household. In her portrayal of this family, however, Austen presents William as one of Mrs. Price’s favorites.  This minor character’s lot in life, then, joins the complex situations and fates Austen affords to the novel’s other characters.  In so doing, she portrays a culture in which tiny hints of social transformation and individual explorations of choice are becoming more common and more influential, but not overwhelmingly so.  The upper classes still enjoy great power and exhibit widespread corruption.

Recognizing this novel’s complexity does not mean denying its powerful indictment of the privileged classes of Austen’s day.   Fanny seems, in part, to function as an outsider who makes this indictment  readily apparent to the reading audience through her moral constancy and insight.  As an outsider to the privileged classes, Fanny sees what they cannot.  Each time she is scolded for rejecting Henry Crawford, she withdraws from the family circle to review her reasons for doing so.  Although these are numerous, her insight into Henry’s problematic moral character is a significant one.  And it is not simply her own feelings for Edmund that motivate her opposition to his pursuit of Mary Crawford.  In Fanny’s eyes, Edmund is the “dupe of Miss Crawford” as he fails to see her shallow character until the end of the novel.  These insights are depicted as ones that she cannot share with the Bertrams, not even with her friend Edmund:  they are foreign to the upper classes, as is the heroine’s moral insight in general and , on the whole, the heroine herself   Nevertheless, through Fanny’s fate and her relationships with some of the other characters, Austen suggests a certain amount of fluidity and individual choice gaining power in the society of her time.

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As I’m sure many of you are aware, Jane Austen is widely considered one of the most quotable authors in the English language.  I was particularly struck by some of the insightful and witty lines in Mansfield Park.  And there’s a lot more where this comes from, so as you come across that great line in the novel, please share with the rest of us!

I suppose I’d save myself a lot of trouble if I said that the opinions reflected in these quotations have nothing to do my own, but that’s, shall we say, simply not the case, except where their value is obviously not in their truth but in their wit.   They are in no particular order except for the order in which I discovered them with interest upon review of the text.

1.  “A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.”

2.  “Nothing amuses me more than the easy manner with which everybody settles the abundance of those who have a great deal less than themselves.”

3.  “. . .they are much to be pitied. . .who have not, at least, been given a taste for Nature in early life. They lose a great deal.”

4.  “I cannot think well of a man who sports with any woman’s feelings. . .”

5.  “. . .if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better:  we find comfort somewhere.”

6.  “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

7.  “.  .  . there is not one in a hundred of either sex who is not taken in when they marry. Look where I will, I see that it is so; and I feel that it must be so, when I consider that it is, of all transactions, the one in which people expect most from others, and are least honest themselves.”

8.  “The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient—at others, so bewildered and so weak—and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! —We are to be sure a miracle in every way—but our powers of recollecting and forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.”

9.  “Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there’s never any hope of a cure.”

10.  “But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty woman to deserve them.”

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The scholarly edition of Mansfield Park  that I took a brief glance at indicates that this novel raised more controversy and contrasting opinions than all of Austen’s other novels combined.  Chiefly, people tend either to love or to hate Fanny Price–or else, at the very least to be uncomfortable with her.  Tony Tanner writes of Fanny that no one “ever fell in love with her,” and, in an apparently oft-quoted comment, Kingsley Amis warns that spending the evening or having dinner with Fanny and Edmund would be a venture not to be entered upon without significant deliberation.  On the other hand, those who find Fanny likeable have, of course, championed her superior moral character.

This same character, according to Fanny’s detractors, is simply “too much”:  the heroine, in their minds, stands too far outside of and ostensibly above the habits and manners of the other characters for readers not to approach her with discomfort.  Besides that, some have argued, what we call “morality” in Fanny might more accurately be termed an “overzealous insecurity,” as noted in the introduction to the edition of the text I consulted.

It seems that Jane Austen was highly aware of the wide range of reactions that Fanny could provoke, according to an associate of mine who has read considerable amounts of biographical material on, along with the letters of, Jane Austen.  Unlike with her other novels, she kept track of the reactions this one inspired faithfully, apparently.  But her records contain no comments on how she felt about these reactions.

Hmmmm. . .What about Fanny Price?  It’s not in my nature to like or dislike literary characters all that intensely; for some reason, if I don’t try to avoid these impulses, they ruin my enjoyment of the book.  But strong reactions intrigue me, so I’d really like to know what the rest of you think of Fanny, either here or when we meet.  Meanwhile, I’ll try to sort through her character as much as I can and see if maybe, maybe I can come up with some further analysis –though whether I can or not, knowing  you all have some to offer, again, here or when we meet, I certainly look forward to hearing from you!

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These are my initial thoughts on this novel, presented in no particular order and certainly not as my foremost insights on the text.  Although I would have to say that I have far more enjoyment from than insight about this particular selection, I do hope to return with some greater insights in the days to come–emphasis on hope.  Right now, I thought I’d just get the discussion rolling.

Before  we chose this book for our Meetup reading, my experience with Jane Austen was confined to Persuasion and Emma, both of which I read as an undergraduate.  I now intend to read at least Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility because, whereas I felt, in true undergraduate fashion, that the other two novels were “okay,”  I positively loved this one.  Most of the serious readers I’m acquainted with have read more Austen than I had previously and have at least one novel of hers that they hold as a “favorite,” and now, at last, I do as well–this one.

One big source of the difference in my opinion between the other two novels and Mansfield Park is that, in both Emma and Persuasion, at least it seemed to me, the heroines had to confront some truth that, throughout the text, I kept feeling as if they narrowly missed a few times, and–now, perhaps, only because I was eighteen when I read one and twenty when I read the other– I’m considering reading these again as well because Mansfield Park dazzled me so, and when I say “so,” I mean so far beyond my expectations that I sat there staring at it when I was done, wishing I could say a personal “thank you” to Austen.  On the other hand, when I read the other two (young and inexperienced as I was, so I’m wondering what would happen if I took another gander) these two heroines’ near misses with a truth they ultimately came to accept grew a bit tiresome to meto, so the plot didn’t compel me to pick the book up.

In the case of Fanny, I felt that Austen had created a far more sophisticated exploration of the conflicts and collaborations between nature and nurture, starting from the moment Fanny was taken from her lower-middle class home .  Besides that, I felt certain that the heroines would ultimately mature as they needed into the Bertram family.  The whole premise of young, lower-middle-class-born Fanny being thrust into a noble family allows us to see Austen, at once, trafficking with a lower-class heroine in one sense and an upper-class one in another, as well as allowing her to explore class relations, which she does with extraordinary wit and a very stark portrait of how the upper class treats the lower class, with Fanny never quite being received into the household, to say the least.  This fact adds complexity to the nature/nurture exploration:  this is hardly a simple case of what I’ve already seen in a dozen other novels–some lowborn woman never knowing or knowing late in life about the lowborn family of her origin, which ultimately, when she does encounter it, emerges as the locus of, to call it what it is, downright repulsive behavior.  In these other cases, either the young woman and/or perhaps even the family with whom she resides know nothing of her origins, or, if known, these origins do not in any way influence the way she is treated.  With Fanny, it’s a case of some privileges being afforded and others being withheld, and when it comes to how her particular upbringing relates to her behavior, we see our heroine, when she returns home to visit her birth household, almost unable to bear its lack of privileges and privacy:  what might have, had she remained in the Price household throughout her young life, seemed “normal” appears almost barbaric to Fanny at times.  But this fact aside, Fanny is clearly the text’s moral locus.

The text shows how shallow and money-obsessed the Bertrams and their associates are, with the exception of Edmund, Fanny’s one true love and ultimate husband.  We are shown that moral weaknesses in the Bertram daughters may be the direct result of their upbringing.  For example, when Maria marries the undesirable Mr. Rushworth, who, it is said, would be thought quite “stupid” were it not for his money, it is presented as Maria’s “duty” to accept the offer, and it’s said that any young woman would do the same in her place.  These comments within the dialogue, along with Mary Crawford’s questionable character, underscore Fanny’s moral superiority. When Crawford is pursuing her, in fact, Fanny is accused of and scolded for not thinking of what’s best for the family when she rebuffs him repeatedly .  But the way things ultimately work out, the novel suggests that this whole business of marrying for money leads to disaster and is falling by the wayside as time goes on.  In fact, the final romantic actions of Julia and especially Maria are presented as shameful to the family (although it’s implied that Julia’s union with Mr. Yates, secured by elopement, is one that can be adjusted to conventions and that the family’s perspectives may be adjusted to tolerate it), which further underscores Fanny’s singular moral position.

One final suggestion that emphasizes, I think, questionable morality within the Bertram household is what I believe to be an implication that the family is involved in the slave trade, which would, in addition, suggest that their wealth, in itself, is corrupt.  My belief that Sir Thomas Bertram at least toys with the slave trade a bit comes from, first, the fact that the property he owns and  leaves the household for an extended length of time to check up on is on one of the Leeward Islands, territory where the slave trade was prospering at the time of the novel’s 1814 publication, and, second, that Fanny asks Sir Thomas about the slave trade, and Austen does not tell us what he answers except that, whatever it is, it hastens the conclusion of their conversation. By presenting the subject in this way and by suggesting that Sir Thomas does not engage in an extended conversation about this subject with Fanny, we are left to determine the extent of the family’s involvement with the West Indies slave trade on our own, and Austen finds a way to, at once, incorporate this controversial issue into the text and, if we look at the matter a certain way, to be said, instead, to have taken a “hands off” approach to it.  Consequently, as we consider the morally problematic “nurture” to which Fanny is subjected but against which her morality triumphs, one issue, the slave trade, remains potentially a major and potentially a miniscule influence on Fanny’s upbringing while others, such as the motives for marriage, are fairly directly shown as corrupt, although, in the treatment of Julia’s elopement and the evolution of this union in subsequent days, I see another range of possible reader interpretations  of the morality of various characters, a sophistication I do not recall seeing, or at least not to the same extent, in Emma and Persuasion. 

This contrast, in my opinion, along with Fanny’s not remaining unchanged by the Bertram household in many ways, especially as her taste for household comforts is presented when she has difficulty adjusting to the Price home, makes this a complex novel and makes the nature-nurure relationship a complicated one.  Although Austen, with her substantial wit, offers clever, original aphorisms about a number of things (more striking ones than I recall encountering in the first two Austen works I read, although both of these were, I believe, composed later in her career, those on marriage are among the most clever and witty, in my opinion, and present, whether seriously or with sardonic charm (a decision often left for the reader himself/herself. The possibility of drawing contrasting interpretations of said remarks, depending on how one interprets Austen’s tone, gives this issue much for each reader to conclude independently, from one perspective; from another, should one, for example, feel that Austen’s tone at such moments is clear and stark, her remarks support interpretations of Austen’s commentary about love in the name of money and perhaps even about trends in the overall moral character of the upper class and “noble” persons of her time as direct and accusatory.  There may even be said to be a quiet parallel here between the Bertram family’s taking in of Fanny and the nobility’s potential influence, by example, of common citizens’ morality.  If we consider this parallel viable, it adds yet another level to the nature/nurture question by making the influence of nurture one that goes beyond simply the household in which one is reared.

Numerous scholars and artists whose opinions of this text are frequently quoted see a similar complexity, but often either fail to specify the basis for their opinions or base them on entirely different evidence and locate them in entirely different issues from my own.  This suggests that there is far more complexity here than that in which I have found a stimulus for these initial reflections–complexity that will, I hope, surface as our group discusses this fascinating text.  I welcome the rest of you to disagree with my first impressions, challenge them, and demand that I confront conflicting opinions.  This text itself, I believe, invites you to do so with a call far more compelling than my own.       .

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The English Patient

by Michael Ondaatje

First off, I am one of the estimated three Americans not to have yet seen the film The English Patient. The film has been on my list of cultural stuff to do for several years now, but I had heard the book characterized as “needlessly diffiicult, perhaps too difficult.” Hmm. Then why was it nominated for our group’s reading with the observation that it reads best if one has not seen the movie? (Well, thanks be to Jason!). I was at a point at which I didn’t know where my next textual experience would come from, so I thought I’d give it a try.

By the time I reached the end of the first chapter, every page I finished bore so many notes and ideas for further exploration that it looked like a yearbook or something. If you are prone to turning analytical and making interpretive notes in the books you read, don’t miss this one. If you aren’t, there are so many things to take note of that you just may on this one, so I’d suggest you not miss it either. Let’s see, there are issues of wartime identity and decorum, questions of trauma and its effect on the individual’s future, issues of the nature of narrative and artistic commentary within a work itself, questions of national identity and patriotism, and issues of the body as symbolic entity–besides all the analysis of character motivations one could do in depth with the material provided. This is, in short, that rare book that readers at any level might respond to analytically. As you know if you’ve seen the movie, there’s also a strong plotline to carry anyone who prefers not to analyze.

Almost everyone knows that story, so I need not repeat it. If you don’t know it, as I didn’t, do read the book before you see the film. I’m ordinarily not much of a plot-oriented reader, but this one held my attention. The style is rich in its modulation between vague, dreamy speculations, realistic dialogue, and concise, needlepoint-sharp, and arresting delivery of plot-centered material. So I would recommend it to all of you, though I don’t know if it’s as good when one has seen the film, and I know everyone else has.

And since I don’t need to tell the story, how’s about one of the many issues I have noted in my book that can engender a range of interpretations far too extensive for me to cover here? (Opens book to random page and picks something written in the margin). Here we go: how the patient’s body and fate become, in a metaphorical sense, the body of the narrative itself. The patient’s fate is posited as, from the early pages of the novel onward, the central catalyst for progress in the narrative in the most general sense. More specifically, the patient’s body emerges as the locus of determination of more specific narrative direction, as it becomes the treasure around which the specific character relationships that determine the novel’s precise progression are negotiated. In fact, it spawns the others’ reaction and adjustment to the notion of disasters and injuries made common in the course of international conflict, a phenomenon of which acceptance on one’s individual terms shapes the other characters’ self-definition on deeper levels in the context of the war. (Oh, and if you are like me and love to read about WWI and WWII, this is an indispensable text for you as well).

We see this clearly in Hana, whose attention to and concern about the patient and his welfare repeatedly invoke the contrast between the patient’s representation of pain and susceptibility to injury and her own position apart from these threats. How, then, Hana seems to ask, does the healthy and able-bodied citizen assume the proper perspective and, indirectly, the proper position within a narrative that is defined by the role of a “patient”? What of the tales his fate implies as central to the new grand master narrative of the war, which centers on its effects and the suffering that remains for individuals positioned as the recipients of international aggression yet identified by their homeland, in this case, as “English,” a label still perceived as satisfactory and essential for designating the individual’s identity.

 

There are also many influences on the characters that take on, for them,

a didactic role in relation to the proper social treatment and tactful public discussion of various happenings, issues, and identities created by the wartime experience. Such things are a big part of what the characters are trying to figure out and, for anyone interested in the war, wholly essential in a way that nothing else can match: what could be more basic than asking who, what, and how the experience of war is to be, from that point forward. These are big questions in the background of this novel as well, so, again, what can be taken up in any other text when the subject is the war that is more important than these issues in terms of questions raised by wartime literature?

And whoever said it was needlessly difficult was either making it hard on himself or herself or assuming that I was really, really dense.

Dear Everybody

by Michael Kimball

This novel began as a short story, “The Suicide Letters of Jonathon Bender (b.1962-d.1999).” What a broad range of pieces beyond what might be labeled ‘suicide letters’ comprise this collection! The genres covered, twelve in all, are listed on the novel’s title page. Just to hit the highlights: “Letters, Diary Entries, Encyclopedia Entries. . .Weather Reports. . .a Eulogy. . .”. This ambitious combination clearly shows Kimball having set for himself a greater challenge than that posed by the traditional epistolary novel, a challenging genre, I would contend, in and of itself.

Among the greatest challenges the epistolary novel poses and Kimball’s adaptation of it intensifies is the maintenance of relative consistency of voice and style among documents attributed to the same person, but with slight variations on that basic style to accomodate a range of occasions, audiences, and time periods, along with the protagonist’s age. There is a broad spectrum of all of these in this novel, yet I, admittedly a demanding and detail-sensitive critic of style, found Kimball’s performance in this area accomplished and judicious, even as the 32-year span of Jonathon’s life is concerned.

I initially took up this book because it addresses two themes I pursue in my reading: the coming-of-age process and suicide. Novels pursuing these two themes tend, however, to display two common weaknesses: first, there

is a tendency towards overdetermined cause-and-effect logic and the side effect of said logic–the protagonist’s behavior seeming to make more sense than that of the typical individual who is not ultimately a suicide victim and, at times, even more sense than that of other characters portrayed in the work. Second, even

more often, we find a progress narrative tightly structured to demonstrate the character’s progression towards a point that may be referred to as the “last straw” and seems to ultimately and almost wholly motivate the main character’s self-destructive action. Here, although there is a development in this novel that might be conceivably referred to as Jonathon’s “last straw,” we see that he, like a real child proceeding to and then through adulthood, advances clearly but then,at times, retreats to a frivolity or naivete that challenges his assumingly established adult, independent status in managing day-to-day life. His depression, as well, at times intensifies in response to a stimulus that seems as if it would have only a minor effect on Jonathon’s life and then, shortly thereafter, seems to be far less impacted than one would expect by some development or event that seems as if it would be highly influential on the average person. What happens here, then, is that Jonathon’s psychological makeup seems far more personal and individual than that of characters in similar texts while still coming across as highly realistic and still avoiding an alternate common flaw of works featuring mentally ill characters: a feeling of emotional chaos, which, in turn, may engender a sense of impossibility of relating to those suffering from a mental condition.

This work, in fact, offers a nice balance between humor and horror.

Understandably and realistically, it is horror that emerges as the far stronger mood within this dynamic. In the meantime, however, Kimball explores a wide range of in-between affective tendencies, as, for example, he leads the reader, at numerous points, almost but not quite to the verge of tears (although, by the end, I would predict that most audiences will have ultimately been moved to tears at least once, if not until the novel’s final pages) or conversely, to the verge of laughing out loud but not quite to this point because of some element that simultaneously creates a pull towards sympathy and even a sadness that verges on despair (but likewise, I would predict that most readers will have laughed out loud at least once before the conclusion of their experience with this book). The work truly is emotionally astute in a wide variety of ways.

The main weakness I would cite here is one I might consider significant, except not in light of these strengths: the reader’s need to suspend disbelief when it comes to Jonathon’s brother Robert’s possession of decades-old documents and memories of the exact words of specific interactions, both of which may not seem likely to have survived the tests of time. At times, as is often the case in epistolary novels, some documents seem to exist wholly for the purpose of conveying information that the reader may have a need for in order to understand the narrative.

I feel, however, that most readers, like me, will perceive such problems as minor in comparison to the overall achievements of this work. The text offers a compelling portrait of an individual who presents striking eccentricities and will not soon be forgotten. At the same time, however, its overall level of believability is higher than one might expect from a work focusing on such a protagonist.

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