Sunday, April 27, 2008

Book #12 - Bleak House (Charles Dickens)

I didn't plan it this way, but when I started reading Charles Dickens' "Bleak House", I realized that like "The Mill on the Floss" it was also about a lawsuit.  I have no doubt that this lawsuit will also lead to big consequences, although as "Bleak House" opens, the legal case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce has been going on for years and years, and shows no signs of coming near a resolution.  In fact, people seem to hardly remember what the case is actually about.  Which is quite an amusing concept, actually.

The story opens with some wonderfully descriptive language about London shrouded in fog.  Which is no doubt a metaphor for the court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.  We learn about the case almost immediately, and meet one of the affected parties, a Lady Dedlock, but Dickens does not enlighten us as to what the case is about or why it has lingered so long in the courts.  Indeed, it's shrouded in fog.  Then, in the third chapter, Dickens really throws us a switcheroo, when suddenly there's a new narrator (previously third person omniscient), a Miss Esther Summerson, who begins by telling her story (after informing us that she's not very clever and might not make so great a narrator...thanks, Charles).  She was raised by a Godmother, who we later learn was her aunt.  We don't know what happened to her parents, except that her godmother/aunt tells her one birthday that her mother had disgraced the family, presumably by Esther's birth.  We learn nothing else.  When the aunt/godmother dies, Esther learns she has a benefactor, who is connected with the Jarndyce case, who sends her off to boarding school, where she's quite happy for a few years.  Then she is suddenly called to London, where she will fill the position of companion to Ada Clare, a cousin of one of the Jarndyce's.  Ada and her cousin Richard are going to live with one of the Jarndyce's at an estate called Bleak House.  It's not clear why, except that this was somehow one of the outcomes of the lawsuit.  Dickens is being coy and mysterious, and everything is still quite shrouded in fog as to what exactly is going on.  Which, naturally, makes one want to keep reading.

Dickens is fun...his writing is great, but in a different way than George Eliot.  I'm not sure how to put that difference into words except maybe to say it's less flowery and more immediately descriptive, than reflective.  And Dickens' characters are awesome...even the minor characters are really fleshed out with their own peculiarities.  The book is (so far) like a menagerie of colorful characters.

I've read some Dickens before:  "David Copperfield" in high school (loved it, and ended up reading it twice...I can still vividly remember some scenes after 25-30 years or so, such as the storm scene), "Great Expectations" (8th or 9th grade, probably, and I have little memory of it), and "A Tale of Two Cities" (read it maybe 10 years ago).  If "Bleak House" comes anywhere close to bringing me the enjoyment that "David Copperfield" did, then I will be a very happy man.

One final note:  I'm traveling to London this week!  I haven't been there before (or anywhere else in Europe for that matter), so I'm looking forward to it immensely.  Dickens should be appropriate reading for the trip, I should think.  Although London of 2008 is, presumably, a vastly different place from the one of the 1850s.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The End of the Mill on the Floss (Spoiler Alert!)

I finished The Mill on the Floss this morning.  Yes, yes, I know what you want to ask:  did I cry at the end, like I did at the end of Silas Marner?  Sigh...yes, I did shed a tear, but just one..well, maybe two, but no more.  Damn that George Eliot, she's messin' with me!

Well, just as I feared, Maggie screwed herself up bigtime.  She totally falls for her cousin Lucy's suitor, Stephan.  She tries to hide it, but then he falls for her as well, so you know it's gonna be trouble.  And it was.  Stephan seems to decide "What the heck, I'm going for this" but Maggie pushes him aside, although she is barely able to do this.  Stephen agrees, and tries to resist Maggie, but he just can't.  Then, one day, a boating outing is planned, one in which Lucy hopes to put Maggie and Philip Wakem in a rowboat so that they can have some alone time and romance one another, while Lucy will row with Stephen.  Alas, Philip suspects something is going on between Maggie and Stephen, so he doesn't come that day.  And Lucy gets called away for some reason or another.  So boom, suddenly Maggie and Stephen are in a rowboat together, enjoying a beautiful afternoon.  Uh oh.  They row down the river, and Stephen suggests to Maggie that they just keep on rowing down the river, Huck Finn style, and elope and get married.  Maggie says no, because she loves Lucy and Philip and doesn't want to hurt them, even though she totally is into Stephen (for reasons unclear to me, because he seems like a bit of a douche).  But Stephen presses the issue, and then Maggie gets rash, gives in and says yes, and the next thing you know they're catching a ride on a bigger ship, and the next day they're in another town way down the river.  Then Maggie freaks out, says it was all a mistake, and after arguing with Stephen, she gets in a coach to take her back to her hometown.  Of course, she gets in the wrong coach and goes even farther away from home, so that by the time she really does get home, several days have past, which means the scandal in town is totally HUGE!!  Oops.

I have to stop here and comment about what I said in my very first post on this a kid, Maggie would get these crazy impulsive ideas in her head, immediately act on them, and then just as quickly she'd regret what she'd done.  Well, she's done exactly the same thing here as an adult.  And this is one reason why Eliot is so awesome...Maggie was such a convincing character as a child, and as an adult she acts just like the character we'd thought she'd grow up to be.  This is not easy writing to pull off, but Eliot does it with ease.

Anyway, back to the book.  So Maggie is back in town, and is ostracized by almost everyone.  Most hurtful is her beloved brother, who spurns her.  The guy loves her, and has done well for his family, but he's totally self-righteous and rather pitiless.  But a childhood friend of the brother takes Maggie in and lets her stay in his house with his family.  And Philip writes Maggie and says all is forgiven.  And finally Lucy comes to see Maggie and they cry and all is forgiven.  But does it all end happily?  Of course not!  First, Stephen writes Maggie and asks her to reconsider, that they can still run off and marry.  Maggie burns the letter...her mind is made up.  But still, this causes her to suffer all over again.  Then, one night as she's alone in her room after many rainy days, wondering how much longer her pitiful life will last, she notices there's water everywhere!  A flood!!  She bravely wakes up the house, and saves everyone, and then takes off in a rowboat for the Mill, where her brother is now living again.  After great effort, she rows up to the flooded mill house and saves her brother, who, realizing the tremendous effort it took her, and realizing how she loves him, forgives and embraces her.  Then the boat gets rammed by floating debris and they drown in each other's embrace.  The End.

If it seems to you that my description of the ending happens abruptly, well, it does!  The ending is weird that way.  It almost seems contrived.  But I'll forgive Eliot this, since the rest of the book is so wonderful.  It's not a quick read, and not full of action and adventure, but a great book nonetheless.

I'd leave it at that, but I have one final thought...what's with all the water?  First of all, the mill is on the river Floss.  Then, in a critical early scene, Maggie pushes her cousin Lucy into the mud when they're down by the pond.  The critical scene where Maggie impulsively gives in to Stephen's wooing happens while they're rowing on the river (and she returns home afterwards not by river, but by land).  And at the end, of course, Maggie and Tom drown in the flood.  What does all this water symbolize?  What does it all mean?  If you have any ideas, let me know.  Meanwhile, this talk of water is making me thirsty, so I'll go have some...mixed with a bit of bourbon.  Thanks, George Eliot!

Up next:  Bleak House!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Characters on the Floss

I'm home from my travels now, and back to reading "The Mill on the Floss".  I've got about 100 pages left.  Maggie, despite her disavowal of all things pleasurable and self-directed, has begun to clandestinely meet the lawyer's son, Philip Wakem, for long walks in the woods.  Philip, who is quite bright, but is a hunchback, met Maggie years before when she came to visit her brother Tom at his boarding school.  Maggie and Philip hit it off, but Tom never liked Philip, who was much better at his classes than Tom.  Philip has always yearned for Maggie's affections, and now that they're grown, he revels in his meetings with her.  He eventually professes his love to her, which takes her aback.  She tells him she loves him too, but the whole thing seems a bit weird to me.  First of all, Philip, because of his deformity, seems starved for love and affection, and may be clinging to Maggie just because she's the only woman who's ever taken notice of him.  Second, does Maggie really love this guy?  I don't know...I think she truly likes him and thinks of him as a brother, but I don't know about anything more.  She's still young, and has no experience with romantic love yet.  In fact, her greatest love so far is her brother, who she adores.  So is that the role model for her love for Philip?

Anyway, complications ensue when Tom tells his father (Mr. Tulliver) he's earned enough to pay off his legal debts. Mr. Tulliver is overjoyed, and celebrates by horsewhipping the lawyer (Philip's father) when he sees him in the road.  This excites Mr. Tulliver so much that he collapses and dies.  Soon after, Tom learns of Maggie's meetings with Philip, and orders her to stop, saying it would disgrace the family.  Maggie agrees, and Tom takes her to see Philip, and forces her to tell him she can't see him again.  He also makes fun of Philip's deformities, which Maggie doesn't like at all.  So then a couple of years go by, and Maggie goes to visit her cousin Lucy, who has grown into a beautiful, and rather innocent, woman.  Lucy introduces Maggie to her suitor, who takes a shine to Maggie.  Maggie takes a shine to him too.  Uh oh.

So that's where I am now.  I'm worried about Maggie...she's been cruel to Lucy before when they were kids (she pushed her into the mud when mad at Tom).  She loves Lucy, but her impetuousness got the best of her.  I hope that doesn't happen again.  Maggie needs to work at striking a better balance between her tendency to do rash and crazy things, which she quickly regrets, and her previous passion to repress her nature completely and deny herself any pleasure at all.  She's like a pendulum that has swung between the two. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Times Have Changed

I've gotten bogged down in "The Mill on the Floss", mainly due to traveling for work and not having much time to read this past week. And this book is not so amenable to being read in short bursts. The language and pacing is rather languid. Which I mean in a good's thick, beautiful language, which means it's not conducive to being read a few pages at a time. I think this book is best savored in long sessions, and not chopped up MTV-style into short attention-deficit friendly blocks. The style is quite different from Silas Marner, which I would describe as a page turner. This one definitely is not that. It takes patience to get through, but the patience is rewarded if I let myself just relax and get absorbed in the book.

In my mind the Victorian era was really the height of the novel. I mean seriously, how many of the great novels came out in the 1800s? Lots! And if you think about it, what else did folks have to do then for entertainment? It's hard to fathom, but there was no internet or TV or radio or recorded music. You couldn't talk to friends on the telephone. So what could one do at home at night for entertainment (besides drink oneself into a stupor)? Seems to me like reading and talking and playing a musical instrument were the only possibilities. So it's no wonder that books like "The Mill on the Floss" move at a slower pace, and are so rich and dense. Folks had more time to focus and savor the written word and ruminate about what they were reading, without the distractions of the modern day. Like blogging.

Plot update: Maggie and Tom have grown up, and their father loses the mill, having lost his lawsuit. The winner of the lawsuit buys the mill and lets the family stay on and work for him. Tom has become quite industrious, and is working and saving to help his father pay off his legal debts. Meanwhile, Maggie has reacted to the family's loss by undergoing some kind of spiritual experience, having read a book by the medieval monk Thomas A Kempis. It seems like she decides to live a life focusing on the troubles of others, and not living for her own wants and desires. Yeah, good luck pulling that one off, Maggie. It doesn't seem like her at all. We'll see how it goes. As one of my wife's southern relatives likes to say "You can't keep your nature crouched down".

Sunday, April 6, 2008


I've been thinking about vocabulary while reading "The Mill on the Floss".  Remember studying for the SATs, and trying to learn a bunch of new vocabulary words?  I do.  I remember wondering (a) how many of the words I'd remember once the SATs were done and (b) whether I would actually use any of them.  I think I do use some of them..."salient" is one word I remember learning, and I definitely use that one.  I'm finding it quite interesting to read Eliot, because every few pages or so I find myself reaching for the dictionary to look up a word.  Oftentimes it's one I think I know what it means, but am not totally sure, while other times I definitely do not know what it means.  And I think I have a pretty decent vocabulary.  So what's up, then?  Did educated Victorians use a lot of words that have fallen out of the common vernacular?  Or was Eliot just, like, totally literary and threw in a lot of obscure words just to obfuscate things?  I tend to think it's the former.  Which makes me wonder why some words fall out of the language more than others.  Is it just that people don't need those words anymore, perhaps because there are more common synonyms?  Or perhaps most people can only remember a certain number of vocabulary words, and some of the old, less frequently used Victorian words got crowded out by newer words that the Victorians never used, like internet and genome and Wii.  Apparently even Samuel Johnson worried about obsolete words when making his dictionary...he thought that there were some words that were found only in dictionaries and were never really used, and he was probably right!

Meanwhile, back at the mill, things aren't looking so good.  Maggie and Tom's childhood seems to be rapidly coming to an end as their father has just lost a lawsuit, and will lose the mill and the house and all their belongings as a result.  I guess they didn't have umbrella liability policies back in Eliot's day...

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Book #11 - The Mill on the Floss (George Eliot)

Well, I've left the pre-Civil War America and taken a jaunt back to Merry Olde England.  Same time period, just across the pond.  The book is George Eliot's "The Mill on the Floss".  I thoroughly enjoyed "Silas Marner" and I'm eager to enjoy this one as well.  I'm about 100 pages in, and it hasn't let me down so far.  Yet the book is quite different from "Silas Marner".  That book seemed something like a fable.  The characters and the story had almost a mythical quality.  But "The Mill on the Floss" is different.  Here the characters are all quite human, and in wonderful ways.  Let me just say that George Eliot rocks!  It's not just her language that's so wonderful, though it is...thick and rich like maple syrup.  It's her characters which she draws so well that they seem alive.

The lead characters in this book, at least so far, are Tom and Maggie Tulliver, the two children of the local miller.  Tom, the oldest, is an earnest kid, but not all that bright.  Maggie, on the other hand is extremely bright, and has an incredibly vivid imagination.  She's also rash and moody.  The great thing about these kids is that Eliot makes them so damn real...the way they act is so just like a kid would act.  And when Eliot leads the reader through their thought processes, and then shows the reader how they subsequently act upon their thoughts, it makes one think "Oh yeah, that WAS how it was when I was a kid".  Maggie, in particular, is so great.  She'll be in a bad mood, and get some crazy, impulsive idea in her head, and then she'll just suddenly do what she was thinking...and then, just as suddenly, she'll realize what a bad idea it was and the tears will start to flow.  Even when she's mean, as she is to her cousin Lucy, you still can't help but sympathize with her.  She wants to be good, really, but she just can't help herself.

So we'll see what happens.  I think the kids grow up in this novel, and it will be quite interesting to see how Maggie turns out.