Befriending Dante: A Reflection on Readership

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Although I have always been bookish in about every sense of the word, I went through a “rebellious” phase in high school when my AP Literature class was required to read Dante’s Inferno. I was adamantly against it and now, as I reread it for the fourth or fifth time, I can explain away this opposition as perhaps being the fault of a poor translation. Possibly, it also had something to do with the fact that it Inferno not meant to be read in isolation; that popular engagement with Dante’s Divine Comedy begins and ends with hell may be telling of some morbid modern imagination or revealing of a concerning preference for darkness rather than light. Whatever the case, though, I scoffed at Dante without giving him a fair chance and declared that the whole of Inferno was not much more than a fanfiction in which he cast himself as the star. 

Although more nuanced now—having had the privilege of reading the Commedia under the Virgil-like guidance of a world-leading Dante scholar—my basic impression of Dante remains about the same. Laughing into my well-marked copy, I recall my first encounter with Inferno. Such an adorable young hypocrite I was! I belittled this great father of poets and—to think!—without Dante, my beloved Eliot would not have written!

As I mocked Dante for putting himself in a poem peopled with his favorite fictional and real-life heroes and villains, I was at the same time doing the same thing on a much humbler scale. You see, my first real attempt at a novel centers around a girl who is suspiciously similar to myself and who engages vividly in conversation with her favorite book characters: Scarlett O’Hara and Sherlock Holmes being among their eclectic ranks. As I wrote this long-since abandoned draft, I had to address the question which I now realize also occupied Dante: Why am I so compelled to document my own development in the context of people I know not only in life but through literature? 

Reading Dante’s Divine Comedy again, I’ve come up with a few hypotheses as to why this may be: First of all, loneliness. It’s no secret that we introverts often prefer the company of a good book and likely Dante was similar. He was, however, also an exile, reading and writing apart from the home he loved. His Commedia was not only a product of his imagination but of his isolation. In reading and writing, we enter a community no longer bound by time and space. Just as Virgil is able to leap from history to lead Dante on a narrative journey, people from history, myth, and fantasy hasten to meet us in the pages of books. If we are willing, we can still talk to them as though they are flesh and blood, though we must summon them with paper and ink.

Our loneliness finds relief in the company of books, even those of our own making. By engaging imaginatively with the characters I loved most, my novel draft allowed me to get to know them more intimately and to incorporate them into my own little imaginative circle. Through reading and writing, my sense of community expanded vertically throughout time and horizontally across cultures, worlds, and even dimensions. Similarly, Dante incorporates a diverse cast of characters to regain community, to situate himself solidly within his own Italian cultural and historical context, as well as to establish himself in the continuation of a poetic-philosophical tradition.

My second hypothesis is a continuation of this idea. As relational creatures, we come to know ourselves through our knowledge of and interaction with others. A prominent theological emphasis of Dante’s Commedia is that the truest self-knowledge is attained not through stubborn individuality, but in the mutual humility of community and faith. Through his conversations with various people along his journey, Dante becomes more self-aware, ultimately coming to perceive the Triune God as the divine epitome of self-love and self-knowledge. In growing in relation to others and maturing in his consideration of God, Dante himself is remade.

Similarly, readers often piece themselves together through books, stitching words and stories into patchwork personalities. My outlook on life is lovelier thanks to Anne Shirley, my wit sharper thanks to Elizabeth Bennet, and I like to think I’ve gained some gumption from Scarlett. Reading is an act of self-reflection, considering ourselves in comparison to the characters and writers we most admire. Best of all, the books—and, of course, the Book—which disclose something of our own Author lead us to a greater knowledge of our identity as human beings made in the Image of God.

Finally, it seems that reading (and in turn writing about what we read) serves as moral formation, shaping our desires and decisions. Dante encounters many sinners in hell who, through their own devices, get exactly what they wanted. They loved stories that reflected their own flawed desires and pursued these to the bitter end, continuing to desire those same lowly things in death so that these desires fittingly become their chosen punishments. This is a negative example of bad readership. Using books to reinforce or justify vice is a discredit to discernment, that incredible gift of intelligence.

In Purgatory, however, tales and pictures of virtue are presented, spurring penitent souls to better love and pursue all that is good and true and beautiful. Many good books feature fallen characters; in fact, there would be no narrative conflict were all characters and situations wholly good and perfect. However, if we read like the redeemed souls Dante encounters, we will learn from the good and the bad in books. Through discerning readership, we can engage the whole breadth and depth of human experience without leaving our nooks, honing our ambitions and hopes without the inconvenience of real-life consequences. The more excellence we glean from books, the more attuned to truth and goodness our minds and hearts will become. 

Rereading Dante now is supremely fitting. I know that I am not alone in being perhaps more lonely, more confused, and more in need of direction than ever. Dante, rather than providing an escape, has become a way of engaging my own isolation, wandering, and hope in faith and relationship. He has become a very dear literary friend—albeit a chatty one who I often wish would stop talking politics.

When Dante is lost and fearful in the first canto of Inferno, his favorite poet-philosopher appears to restore him to community and truth, and, through these, to himself. In the same way, rereading our own beloved authors might restore us to ourselves, just as talking to a close friend might bring us back to our senses. Engaging authors and characters-turned-companions provides company in loneliness, conviction amidst chaos, and, ultimately, a reminder of not only who we are but—if the books are good and true enough—who we are meant to be. 

I return now to the notes I took only a few weeks ago when I once more met Dante at the gates of Hell: Through literature, we form productive relationships with those who thought and imagined before us, as well as those who continue to think and imagine beside us. If we, like Dante, engage in humble and eager readership, perhaps we will—unlike my AP reading list—transcend beyond the filthy babbling of Hell and look toward the radiance of Heaven. Dante may begin his epic in pride, placing himself alongside the best poets and thinkers of history, but, throughout the Divine Comedy, he allows their wise words—and, indeed, their failings—to instruct as well as inspire him, to help him develop not merely as a poet-turned-protagonist but as a human being on the journey of virtue and faith.

This, my dearest reader, is the essence of readership itself: to develop together as human beings toward the best and truest communication, community, and—when readership couples with faith—communion. 

Miss Darcy

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman having read or seen Pride and Prejudice, must be in want of a Mr. Darcy.” – Jane Austen and Ryanne McLaren*

*Note: The above quote does not actually represent the entirety of this post, but I did think it rather apt in capturing the feelings of Austenites everywhere.

Rereading Pride and Prejudice is probably the most fun summer homework I have ever had. I find myself procrastinating my other work as I continue to become absorbed into Jane Austen’s Regency world of country lanes, stuffy dinner parties, heartfelt letters, and- of course- the universally-beloved romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.

In beginning to read this book for the second (or is it third?) time, I was determined to figure out which leading lady I am the most like. My mother used to tell me to “put on my Jane face” whenever I needed to act sweet and politely charming. But, others have mentioned that my sass is more in line with Elizabeth. I hope that I have never been a Lydia or Kitty, though I fear I may occasionally be Mary.

But…the more I read, the more I come to realize that I am not completely like any of these characters. And, while most girls will argue that Elizabeth is their spirit animal, I am afraid that I am, instead, Mr. Darcy.

Granted, I am obviously not a “young man in possession of a good fortune,” but I cannot avoid acknowledging the incredible similarities I have discovered between Darcy’s character and my own.

First of all, according to internet searches, which we all know are always accurate, both Darcy and I are INTJ personalities, commonly considered to be the “architects” archetype. INTJs are characterized by planning, introversion, and analysis. Of course, the Meyers-Briggs indicator does not capture the whole of our natures, so I will continue to delve deeper, using Darcy’s pursuit of Elizabeth as my primary evidence.

  1. Rudeness and cluelessness:

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“I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men” (Austen 7-8).

I do not think that Darcy meant any overt meanness here, but was simply being blunt with his thoughts. If I had a nickel for every time I said something insensitive simply because I thought it obvious, I would be able to buy Pemberley. He was also clueless that the woman he slighted at first will become attractive to him within the next few chapters. I’ll admit this has happened to me too; upon meeting someone, I might not give him a second thought at first, even if he becomes important to me later.

2. Eye love intelligence: 

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“No sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes” (16).

Pardon the terrible pun, but Darcy comes to admire Elizabeth’s whole figure upon finding he admires the witty sparkle in her eyes. This is usually the first thing I see in a person too; a good-humored and intelligent expression in someone’s eyes is the most attractive thing to me and gives that entire person a handsomeness that cannot be matched.

3. Knowledge is power, but also love: 

 

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“He began to wish to know more of her” (16).

It might sound horrible, but people like Darcy and myself don’t care that much about learning about others unless we have a genuine affection for them. It goes right along with our detest of small talk. We don’t give two pence about someone’s thoughts on the weather,his/her favorite dinner course, or where he/she buys tea biscuits. Unless we care for this person deeply. In that case, we will not only want to know everything about him/her, but we will make a clear effort to ask and observe in order to gather information.

4. Falseness if futile: 

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“‘Nothing is more deceitful,’ said Darcy, ‘than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast'” (35).

When Miss Bingley copies and compliments everything Darcy does, he does not hide his annoyance, but expresses it in wise sayings she is sure to misinterpret but still allow him to speak his mind. He is aware of and despises all ploys of manipulation. Similarly, nothing bothers me more than falseness or deception and when I am aware of these manipulations, I speak my mind. And, though I usually believe I am correct, I also generally regret it.

5. Slow to form opinions, slow to discard them: 

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“My good opinion, once lost is lost forever” (43).

I agree with Elizabeth that this tendency is “a failing indeed,” but it is a failing I share with Darcy. Wickham wronged Mr. Darcy and deserved to lose his favor, but was it wrong of Darcy to renounce forgiveness? This is a fault of mine as well, for I am guilty of remaining cold toward people who have “lost my good opinion” for unreasonably long periods of time. But, I will add, the trust and friendship of such characters as Darcy and myself are not easily won, so it is understandable that breaks in these bonds are also not easily forgotten.

6. Desire is danger: 

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“He began to feel the danger of paying Elizabeth too much attention” (44).

This is an exaggeration, but I am right when I say that Darcy feared his attachment to Elizabeth. Feelings of any kind are discomfiting to natures such as his, for they not only contradict reason but are at risk of being found out by others. The fear of a person discovering where Darcy’s (or my own…) affections lie is all too real for him (and me.) We know from experience that secrets relating to the heart are best kept in complete privacy because it allows for protection of our own egos as well as make the likelihood of getting over such affections greater.

7. Reason > Romance: 

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“Steady to his purpose, he scarcely spoke ten words to her…and though they were at one time left by themselves for half an hour, he adhered most conscientiously to his book, and would not even look at her” (43).

As I said before, if Darcy could forget his admiration of Elizabeth, he would likely congratulate himself on avoiding ridiculousness. It is the first instinct of people such as him and me to try and adhere to reason rather than romance, especially when there is a risk of the romantic feelings not being returned.

8. A matter of company: 

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“We neither of us perform to strangers” (135).

Although this scene centered around a piano, Darcy is not talking about musical performance, but rather social interaction. He makes it clear that he does not do well in many common social situations. This is crazy relatable for me. Dentist appointments, customer service lines, and ice breaker activities are torture because they require me to chat lightly with people I don’t generally connect with. (And, in the case of the dentist, I have to chat with sharp objects prodding my gums, which I think must literally be a punishment from hell.) However, when we find a place or group in which we meet people with shared interests or natures, we perform our social duties admirably enough to be mistaken for extroverts!

9. The gift of time: 

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“More than once did Elizabeth in her ramble…unexpectedly meet Mr. Darcy…on these occasions it was not merely a few formal enquiries and an awkward pause and then away, but he actually thought it necessary to turn back and walk with her” (140).

Darcy has made it clear up until this point in the novel that he does not enjoy spending much time chatting or idling. However, this is exactly what he keeps doing! In talking and walking with Elizabeth, he is showing that he cares for her enough to make time with her a priority. This is perhaps the greatest gift he can give her at this moment and, in the same way, I express my love by making time for people I love greatly.

10. When all else fails, GET TO THE POINT! 

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“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” (145).

Here is where Darcy and I differ; when Elizabeth fails to catch all of his hints, he straight up tells her “Hey, I like like you. Do you like me? Check yes or no.” I wish I were this bold. It would probably save me lots of overthinking. Maybe someday I’ll give it a shot… I do, however, share Darcy’s appreciation of straightforwardness and wish more people were like him in this way.

11. Service speaks: 

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“He had done all this for a girl whom he could neither regard nor esteem. Her heart did whisper, that he had done it for her” (248).

When his profession of love was not returned, Darcy continued to show determined care in his actions, taking on the shame of the Bennets and doing all he could to restore their propriety. It is such selfless service that speaks Darcy’s love the loudest. I only hope I serve those I care about, even if they do not always share my feelings, in the same quiet and generous manner. Let’s also take a moment to celebrate that his determination and patience prove totally worth it in the end! 🙂

So there you have it. Again, I am not the tragically romantic figure that Darcy is, nor am I so reserved and skeptical as he is. Still, while I may not be as much like our dear Mrs. Darcy as I had hoped, there is nothing wrong with being a sort of Miss Darcy, as long as I don’t go about earning a reputation of being “proud…above [my] company…and above being pleased” (6).

 

Works Cited
Austen, Jane, James Kinsley, and Fiona J. Stafford. Pride and Prejudice. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

 

 

A Bookish take on New Years Resolutions

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As with every new year, we find ourselves drafting lists of resolutions. Eat healthier. Wake up early. Finish that novel. Run. Get to know that person. Keep your room clean. Practice daily. We all know these resolutions and, more likely than not, we’ve all broken them. Every year it seems we make the same sort of resolutions and the disappointing pattern becomes- well- dull. Perhaps it is time we made some different resolutions and, since, coming up with them can be a struggle, I’ve managed to poll our favorite literary characters for input. (How, you ask? Well I have all of these characters on speed-dial, clearly.) Maybe this year is the year to make a resolution inspired by the wisdom of literary legends, and- who knows?- maybe this will be the year where you’ll finally keep your resolution to the end!

 

 “What is your top New Year’s Resolution?” as answered by our favorite literary characters: 

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.” –Anne of Green Gables

Anne Shirley: Cherish dear friends and make new ones.

 

“There is a stubbornness in me that can never bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises above any attempt to intimidate me.” –Pride and Prejudice

Elizabeth Bennet: Be less concerned with the opinions of others.

 

“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. I must tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” –Pride and Prejudice

Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy: Share feelings honestly and respectfully.

 

“My mind…rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis…I crave for mental exaltation.” –Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of the Four

Sherlock Holmes: Be ever curious and value opportunities to learn.

 

“Courage is knowing you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” –To Kill a Mockingbird

Atticus Finch: Persevere despite all challenges.

 

“Tomorrow is another day.” –Gone with the Wind

Scarlett O’Hara: Don’t dwell on the failures of the day; tomorrow brings another chance.

 

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” –Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre: Appreciate freedom and enjoy independence.

“Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today. Good morning! But please come to tea- any time you like! Why not tomorrow? Good bye!” –The Hobbit

Bilbo Baggins: Be more open to adventures.

“My principal sin is doubt. I doubt everything, and am in doubt most of the time.” –Anna Karenina

Konstantin Levin: Let go of self-doubt.

 

What’s my resolution? My answer is “all of the above.” Happy New Year everyone! Let’s make this an exciting chapter in our lives!

7 Steps to Overcoming a Haircut Crisis: by Rapunzel, Anne, Jo, and Me

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My face post-haircut. Goodbye braids..

“It looks so good!” gushes the stylist.

You nod vaguely, but inside you’re screaming, “Since when does ‘two inches’ mean ‘take it all’?”

You came in wanting a simple trim (freshen up the layers, cut the split-ends, the usual), but one ambitious beautician and several pairs of scissors later you’re sitting open-mouthed in a nest of your own hair.

I’ve been there.

We’ve all been there.

In fact, haircuts-gone-wrong are so common that some of the most beloved characters in fiction have also been there and can offer great advice for getting over the horror of your hair disaster. So here you go, 7 Steps to Overcoming Your Hair Crisis, brought to you by some of your favorite fictional ladies:

1. Recognize that your new ‘do is…unexpected. 

"I just wanted a trim!"
“I just wanted a trim!”

Especially if you’ve had the same hairstyle for a long time, change can be shocking and it’s perfectly normal to be startled. On the bright side, unlike Rapunzel, your hair probably did not turn brown and lose its power.

2. Cry a little if you want.

"I thought nothing could be as bad as red hair, but green is ten times worse!" - Anne Shirley
“I thought nothing could be as bad as red hair, but green is ten times worse!” – Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

It’s okay to miss your hair; it was a part of you. And, like Anne Shirley, it’s okay to shed a few tears. After all, you were promised a “beautiful raven black” and given a sickly green; that is a serious disappointment!

3. Be prepared for others to notice the change.

"I walked in, asked if they bought hair, and what they would give for mine." - Little Women
“I walked in, asked if they bought hair, and what they would give for mine.” – Little Women

Even if you cut your hair for the best of reasons, people will notice the difference. Sometimes this is affirming, but other times…not so much. There will always be that one Theodore (“Laurie”) Laurence who sees your new cut and blurts out “You look a little like a porcupine, Jo, but l like it.” Learn to take these awkward acknowledgements as compliments; it will help ease the self-consciousness of having everyone commenting on your hair.

4. Accessorize and experiment!

Princess tiaras make the best accessories. :)
Princess tiaras make the best accessories. 🙂

Yeah, your new hair may not be your best look, but there is a whole world of accessories that can make it more, well, you! Rapunzel totally rocks her short hair with the crown adding some sparkle. (And no, her hair isn’t perfect just because she’s animated…it’s obviously due to the accessorizing.) If headbands and clips aren’t your thing, try other styles (straight, curly, braided, etc.).

5. Take advantage of this opportunity to reinvent your style.

Mrs. Harris: "Is that all your own hair?" Anne (laughing): "Every bit!"
Mrs. Harris: “Is that all your own hair?”
Anne (laughing): “Every bit!”

Green hair wasn’t ideal, but Anne used it as a chance to exchange her girlish braids for a sassy short cut and, later, sophisticated up-dos. Cutting her hair was a turning point in her life, marking the end of her rough childhood and the beginning of better years. Chopping off your hair probably won’t be as climactic as this, but it is still a chance for you to alter your style. Short cuts especially can look both hip and vintage if paired with the right outfit! (I speak from experience on that.)

6. Remember that it’ll grow back…unless you’re Rapunzel.

"And then I'll brush and brush and brush and brush my hair." -Rapunzel, Tangled
“And then I’ll brush and brush and brush and brush my hair.” -Rapunzel in Tangled

Unfortunately, Rapunzel’s hair did not grow back, but yours will! Brushing and brushing and brushing like Rapunzel might help it grow faster too. There are tons of ways to boost hair growth (try searching Pinterest!) but time is definitely the best remedy. Your hair will grow again and be as beautiful as ever. Meanwhile, Flynn Rider has a thing for brunettes and short-hair… 😉

7. Be confident.

"My head feels deliciously light and cool! ... soon I'll have a curly crop that will be boyish, becoming, and easy to keep in order!" - Jo March
“My head feels deliciously light and cool! … soon I’ll have a curly crop that will be boyish, becoming, and easy to keep in order!” – Jo March

Fake it ’til you make it applies to this situation; if you act like you are comfortable with your new haircut, others will accept it and you will get used to it. If Anne could make short hair look good even after dying it green, Jo could sell her hair despite it being her best feature, and Rapunzel could love her non-magical locks, then you can survive and rock this hair crisis. Who knows, maybe you’ll start a new trend? After all, somebody somewhere was the first person to get a pixie cut and now they are everywhere!

I wasn't sure at first, but am starting to like my short hair! :) (On a separate note, I do not know how to take a good selfie...)
I wasn’t sure at first, but am starting to like my short hair! 🙂 (On a separate note, I do not know how to take a good selfie…)