Thursday, May 29, 2008

Two for the Price of One

There are few things more enjoyable than coming home from a long day in the lab, propping my feet up, and imbibing from a book while sipping a cold drink.  And it's all the more enjoyable when the book and beverage are paired appropriately.  For Mark Twain, whiskey seems like the suitable drink, particularly an American whiskey like bourbon or rye.  A cosmopolitan seems appropriate for Oscar Wilde, cognac for Stendhal, and a vodka martini for Tolstoy.  So when I sat down for an hour with "Bleak House" this evening, I naturally fixed myself...a margarita!  Now, I know, Dickens is not a Mexican author, and frankly I doubt he ever made it to Mexico.  Who knows if he could have even pointed out Mexico on a map.  Yet, the margarita seemed so appropriate to me.  You see, the margarita is a unique and wonderful drink.  It's tangy with lime, sweet with triple sec, and yet has that salty rim that's such a delightful contrast.  And this reminds me so of "Bleak House".  This is a novel that's quite funny, with an oddball collection of the most, well, oddball characters around.  And yet, it's not just a barrel of comedy jokes.  It's also biting political satire, a poignant tale of human frailties and failures, full of the sorrows of dashed hopes and dreams, and an affirmation that today's often biting and cynical views of lawyers were also prevalent 150 years ago.  Like the margarita it offers up a colorful cornucopia of flavorful delights:  the sweetness of love and family, the sour bitterness of failed dreams, and the salty, tumultuous seas of human foibles.  Or maybe I just felt like having a margarita and now I'm trying desperately to justify it all.  Whatever.  My head's a bit woozy with tequila.

I have one further note on "Bleak House", brought up in the comments to the previous post.  There are two narrators in this book.  One is your typical omniscient, third person narrator.  The other is Esther Summerson.  The novel's chapters jump back and forth between the two narrators, which is pretty cool.  But I've been pondering why Dickens does this.  When I think about it with my rational, scientific mind, I realize that the omniscient narrator is essential to the story.   There are so many characters, with so many hidden secrets, that a first person narrator like Esther just could not have told the story.  The converse is not true...I don't see that Esther being a narrator is essential to the story.  The story could have been told entirely in the third person.  So why does Dickens use Esther as a narrator for parts of the story?  I think there are two reasons.  Well, at least there are two reasons that I can come up with.  The first is that Esther helps obfuscate the story.  This is a confusing tale, with lots of mystery and unknowns and fog and lawsuits that drag on so long that no one seems to remember what they're about.  And Esther adds to all of this.  She's clearly an unreliable narrator, and she also clearly covers things up sometimes.  I can't remember the exact passages now, but there are a couple of times that she starts to describe something and then stops and says something to the effect of "oh well, never mind, it's not important", when truly we can tell it is indeed important to her.  She also lies about her feelings, but not well enough so that we can't guess as to what they are.  In short, a recurrent theme of the novel is murkiness and confusion, and she helps add to that.  The second reason for having Esther narrate is to add a human element to the story.  Despite her unreliability, the reader bonds with her and feels for her, especially over her obvious despair at being hideously scarred by smallpox.  She makes the story more poignant.  Without her, the story's eccentric characters would be more to the foreground, and the reader might not have anyone to identify with.  There wouldn't be an anchor, and the story would lose some of its effectiveness, I think.  Or is that just the tequila talking?'s late, and I just can't tell anymore.  Sometimes I think that...oh, never mind, it's not important.  

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