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. 

Dear Mr. Dickens: An Open Letter

My dear Mr. Dickens,

I hope you are well and not at all rolling over in your grave. (It is, after all, nearing Christmas and renditions of your famous holiday tale are promenading before audiences who are mostly wondering whether they actually turned off the oven or whether the turkey they pretend to like is burnt positively to a crisp.)

I digress. I hope that you are enjoying some heavenly library and continuing to dream up wonderfully real characters, quirks and all. (Though sadly characters with fewer flaws if you are in some higher home…)

Now that the well wishes are done, I must humbly beg your pardon; I insulted you years ago, though perhaps we can lay the true blame on my mother, who insulted you first. But whether or not insults are hereditary failings, I must ask you to forgive me. I called you “long-winded” and “gold-digging,” for I heard that you were paid per word and perpetuated your propensity for prolific phrases to procure profit. (How’s that for alliteration?)

I was wrong to mock you for a trait that I share (love of words and liking of being paid for them). I also concede that I was incorrect in my accusations. You were not, as it turns out, paid per word, but rather per installment. This is most sensible, as you wrote novels in monthly installments and it seems a shame to only be paid upon the completion when readers were already enjoying your creations. I freely confess that I made these claims without reading anything aside from the aforementioned Christmas tale and even this is dubious as I my only memory of it is from the Muppets’ version. And so, I apologize most sincerely for my unbased bias.

My readers might pause here, thinking that the length of some of your works does lend some credibility to my prejudice. But here is where we must become more thoughtful. Are your books —David Copperfield for instance— actually pedantic in prose and sprawling in size? Or, are our attention spans as readers poorly lacking? Are we even reading these narratives correctly?

Life is so rapid these days and we demand constant simulation. Not only does my phone weigh much less than Copperfield, it promises more laughs and terrors per post.  Modern literary material is the same; young adult novels especially demonstrate this, focusing more often on the fantastic elevating the ordinary instead of finding what is naturally noteworthy  in this ordinary.

It is so easy to be absorbed by rapid-fire adventures and super human characters, but have we lost something? Have we lost an enchantment with our own humanity? Even just a few chapters into David Copperfield, I am rediscovering a love for the quirks of the human race. I am disgusted by characters that are as flawed as I am and cheer for those that cherish the same silly little hopes that I do. I am enraptured once more with the thought that in all my eating or drinking or whatever I do, I am somehow doing something marvelous because I am, as much as and more than any character, a unique human being set within the context of my culture and, above all, creation’s narrative.

But I am getting carried away and I will tell you now, Mr. Dickens, that I intend to write many more blog posts as I live alongside young Copperfield. For that is what it is, after all: living. There is to be no skimming, no rushing through this book; the very length and style do not allow for it! And where once I might have cursed you for this, now I bless you, sir. I am grateful that your writing, at once elegant and snappy, makes me slow down, return to a fascination with the ordinary, and truly live in community with your characters as they develop alongside my own life.

I once more offer my humblest apologies and my deepest thanks.

Your abashed and admiring reader,

Ryanne J. McLaren

 

Non-Writing Writer

I was inspired this morning as I walked to practice piano for an upcoming recital… this would have been great, had I been inspired to practice. Rather, I was inspired to set the opening of Wordsworth’s The Prelude to music. 

My roommate (bless her) stopped me just in time: “Ryanne, if you write a melody and add lyrics, you’ll also want to add harmony and piano. You don’t have time!” 

Valid. 

But I felt strongly the annoyance of being unable to create due to the pressures of my ordinary, required pursuits. 

So I wrote a little rhyme to vent: 

A non writing writer’s a monster they say:

A little too frazzled and nearly insane.

She lives in an enchanted, storybook world 

Yet can’t venture in, for life is a whirl.

One single word leads to many and two-

Well, they multiply to be more than a few. 

And should she dare to compose a small line 

She risks the danger of falling behind;

The everyday life has no cares for the muse,

Though the poet’s soul, she hardly did choose. 

So cursed with a mind that brews up ideas 

And a heart that ever ceaselessly feels,

She stumbles about with a businesslike stride 

And forces her little brainchildren to hide

And wait for a time when life will relax 

It’s grip made of boring and ord’nary tasks-

So she might finally write them all down,

These inkling ideas that, impatient, abound. 

Dystopian Reality

Dystopian novels have been “in” for several years now. The Hunger Games and Divergent were the most popular reads of my high school days. Brave New World, 1984, and Anthem were on the AP reading lists. I continue to devour Ray Bradbury’s work.

However, we forget the purpose of dystopian fiction, which is to warn and protect us from creating such futures in reality. Dystopian fiction remains fiction only so long as we read and heed these books as warnings, not merely as disturbingly entertaining tales.

While we continue to be shocked by the dystopian stories we read, we are at the same time allowing ourselves to fall into them. By labelling them as “fiction” we are separating them from our reality and from our future. We feel terror and disgust as we read them, but can easily brush them aside as “mere stories” once we close the covers.

Ray Bradbury once said,

“You do not have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

As much as I’d like to say Bradbury is inerrant, I would like to alter this statement ever so slightly for the sake of clarity:

“You do not have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop believing them.”

As soon as we assure ourselves that dystopian societies are just monsters created by authors, they lose their power to prevent us from growing into such societies. The moment we begin to read these books as fiction, when we stop believing that such horrors and degeneration might be possible, is the moment we begin to descend into dystopia ourselves.

images-1.jpgIf children were to read the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel as merely a story that could not possibly have any truth to it, the preserving concept of “stranger danger” loses its impact. We cannot read this story to children without explaining its moral and begging them to heed its lesson.

In the same way, adults cannot read dystopian novels simply as futuristic fairy tales; we cannot consume them only for their shock and entertainment value. Rather, just as we would hope that children learn caution from Hansel and Gretel, it is our duty as responsible readers to learn an even greater caution from stories such as Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and even The Hunger Games. 

It is of even greater importance now in 2017 than when these stories were originally penned, even if that was not long ago. We already have turned deaf ears to the warnings of these stories and are already reaping the consequences as we slip into dystopia.

Consider the following: 

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 Remember the citizens of the Capitol in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins? We were bothered by them for their selfishness, their vanity, their degenerate morality, and their obsession with entertainment. But are we equally concerned by such lifestyles in reality? Or do we shudder at them between pages and then act as they do in our own lives without even realizing?

download-2In The Giver by Lois Lowery, another YA dystopian novel, babies who are not up to standards are “released.” I remember my friends and I crying over this chapter in elementary school. Yet now so many former young readers champion the killing of the pre-born because of detected health problems, special needs, or simply because the child is unwanted. How can we justly promote in reality the things of which we once read with sorrow?

download-3Fahrenheit 451 is fairly explicit in its message (Bradbury makes no attempt at subtlety -bless him). Yet while we read of the death of literature, we retreat without a thought into cheap entertainment as soon as we finish the book. Worse, we ignore his clear warnings and are happy to glean our information through soundbites and social media blurbs rather than through thorough reading, considerate conversations, and serious thought. Are we, too, mindlessly “watching our stories” without discernment or contemplation?

fullsizeoutput_161Perhaps the most shocking dystopian novel I’ve read is Brave New World (Aldous Huxley). At least, it was shocking when I read it four years ago. Now, it feels rather ordinary. (Has the world really fallen so far in four years? Perhaps I am simply older and sorrowfully wiser.) As I read this book, I was horrified at the unrestrained sexuality of it; most characters sought only their own pleasure, cared nothing for relationships, and procreation was a thing of the distant past. But is this so far different from today? We find ourselves living in a generation that boldly protects promiscuity and demands consequence-free pleasure while conservative approaches to relationships are scorned as old-fashioned.

download-4.jpgAyn Rand’s Anthem centers on a character called “Equality 7-2521.” Everyone is equal, but, ironically, no one is free; every member of the society is equal to the extreme that none of them may differ from others. Today, are we perhaps striving for a dangerous equality like that of Anthem? We must certainly protect and value all people equally; however, Anthem warns against forcing equality of thought. Although we read this warning, do we follow it? The minute someone expresses an idea that we consider offensive, are we quick to aggressively silence him or her rather than admit that we all have the right to think freely?

I am not saying that everything in these dystopian novels will come true, but they are not nearly as far-fetched as they once seemed. Certainly I do not expect America to be divided into factions or our teenagers to be sent into battle against each other or for us to mate according to selection by governors. However, there are undeniable dangers to reading dystopian novels as fiction, just as there are dangers to ignoring the morals of fables and fairy tales.

We ought to read dystopian books as seriously as we read history books. It is said that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” and so we diligently are set to studying history from the minute we enter school. We also are encouraged throughout our school days to read dystopian stories, but we must not be satisfied with reading them as mere fiction. Rather, we must read them with the discernment and diligence with which we study history. It is imperative that when we read dystopian books, we read with great awareness of their relation to reality so that we are not, like poor history students, doomed to live them.

 

To the Books on my Shelf: A Sonnet

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Couldn’t resist sharing this “shelfie”  😉  #nofilter

 

Too often, I find myself staring in admiration at my bookshelves. The ornate covers of collectables, the crackled pages of old favorites, the bright illustrations of new editions… *sigh of delight* To my abashment (isn’t that a lovely word for a not-so-lovely feeling?), I own and admire many books I have yet to actually read. Also, I continually purchase books without finishing the ones already waiting for me so faithfully at home! Horrible. Simply horrible. But, in staring at my beautiful and partially-read Shakespeare collection, I was inspired. Perhaps, if I cannot read all of the books on my list, then I can at least compose a sonnet (which may or may not resemble Shakespeare’s most famous 18th Sonnet) for them to assure them of my good intentions!

               To The Books on My Shelves

Shall I shelve thee and read mere summaries?

Thou art more dense with stories worth the wait;

Rough times have robbed my reading time in May,

And summer’s months I deem too short a date:

Though Sun a hot book light for reading shines,

And e’en by night a lamp burns near undimmed,

I fear my eyesight steadily declines

While far too many tomes remain unskimmed.

But dusty still your ink will never fade

Nor I forget the study that I ow’st.

Although cases of books rest in the shade,

Someday I shall uncover all they know’st.

So long as writers breathe and glasses see,

So long shall books give breath and sight to me.

Reflections on Writing a Novel Draft

During my journey home from Italy, I was super bored and, thus, my brain went crazy and came up with a novel idea that I am ridiculously excited about. Thankfully, I hit 50,000 words on my other novel draft, so I was able to set that one aside without too much guilt to begin this next project. While I am writing like mad to make sure I don’t forget my initial ideas, I have been trying to write more mindfully as well, meaning that I am writing with intentionality and observation. Basically, I am noting the quirks and tendencies I have as a writer, along with the surprises and mistakes.

For instance…

I have a knack for writing characters like me. This sounds like a bad thing, but it is not! Yes, I have written characters who resemble me in their appearance, fashion taste, sense of humor, hobbies, etc. and I need to steer clear of doing this too often or risk becoming predictable as an author. However, I have found that I also write characters who teach me about myself. For example, a cynical and morbid actor may not sound like me, but this particular character revealed to me some darker aspects of my own mind. (Don’t be scared; he’s not a bad guy.) Characters who I have tried to make unlike me have ended up like me in ways I did not intend, displaying through their traits and stories parts of myself that I did not even realize existed: apathy, romance, ambition, etc. all revealed themselves to me in my characters.

Continuing on, I have discovered that my life bleeds over into my fictional writing. I cannot control it. A barista from a coffee shop, a quirky house, a childhood friend, an overheard sentence, have all ended up in various stories of mine. I’m sorry if you read of a character that resembles you closely someday; I can’t really help it. I’ve found that I “collect” real-life characters and place them in fictional stories. As Sherlock Holmes once said, “life is infinitely stranger than anything the mind of man could invent.” I believe using aspects and people from the real world creates greater detail and intrigue in the fictional realm. 

The advice given by numerous authors to “write the book you want to read” is 150% valid. (please don’t attribute that quote to a single author; I’m pretty sure literally every successful writer has said something along those lines.) You know why assigned essays are not usually fun? Because 9 times out of 10, nobody wants to read your five paragraph essay on your three favorite foods. Actually, make that 10 times out of 10. Nobody cares. BUT, if you think of an idea that you wish to read about, why not write it yourself? When I find a book that fascinates me, I can’t stop reading. When I’ve thought of a story idea that fascinates me, the same principle is in place: I can’t stop writing. 

Despite being the author, I don’t know where every part of the story will go and I am as surprised by its twists and turns as I hope readers will be one day. It’s frustrating when plot points won’t connect or the timeline does not line up or characters decide to be fundamentally unlikeable. However, all of the struggles are forgotten the moment a character develops naturally or a plot twist generates itself or even when a particularly good bit of imagery paints itself. Writing is a constant adventure.

That about wraps up my reflections for now…oh wait! I have a couple more little tidbits that I have discovered over the past few days of writing:

  1. Writing time is like Narnia time in reverse; one minute of writing might actually be three hours of regular time. This can get out of hand very quickly.
  2. I feel guilty but a little bit cool every time I write a swear word, even if it is an edgy character saying it and not me. We’ll see if I let those stay in later drafts
  3. I have a morbid mind. Don’t ask. If this book makes it through publishing, you’ll see what I mean.
  4. It is possible to have a crush on your own character. The problem is if that character is based off a real person. (Not this time, though.)
  5. Netflix and writing go surprisingly well together. I managed to re-watch a season of Parks and Recreation and write 10,000 words in the same day. (Blame jet-lag for my laziness…)
  6. I get so enthusiastic about my ideas that I fear it borders on annoying. Sorry, everyone I’ve talked to in the past three days. If this ever gets published, you can have a free copy to read or burn depending on how obnoxious you found me.
  7. Coffee is writer fuel. One shot of espresso generates roughly 2,000 words. I’m open to donations of coffee money. The more coffee, the sooner this draft is finished.
  8. I write because I have to. I mean, I have no idea if anyone actually reads my blog posts regularly but I cannot help writing them. Words just build up inside my brain and if I don’t string them together into written sentences, I go crazy.

That’s all for now! If you read all the way to the end of this, do me a favor and like or comment or send me an appreciative message via carrier pigeon since I’d like to get an estimate as to how many people/who actually read(s) to the end of my articles. (See extra realization number 8) Thanks!

Okay bye for reals! Back to frantically typing my draft!

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: 

hey-girl-mr.-darcy

“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.

 

 

The Bookworm’s Guide to the Galaxy: Understanding Readers

Most of my best friends are
bookworms. We all have our favorite genres, authors, eras, you name it. We are an eclectic group of athletes, honors students, writers, artists, musicians, and gamers, yet we are united by books and our need for words.

However, it has come to my attention that this is not how most of the world and its people are and that it mildly terrifying to someone like me, who can hardly carry on a conversation without quoting a book or alluding to a classic. I have tried to be less bookish when talking to non-readers, but seeing as I run a blog titled “A Bookish Charm” and have been caught on numerous occasions sniffing the pages of other people’s books (which is one than a little embarrassing), I have not really had success with this approach. Therefore, I have (because this is what a I do in my spare time…yet another bookworm problem) devised a list of ten ways for readers and non-readers (I suppose some might call them “normal people”) to understand each other and even become good friends. 🙂 (I should add as a disclaimer that I know and care for many non-readers and mean no offense as they simply are gifted in other areas.)

For Readers:

1. Know that people will ask you if you have seen the movie adaption of the book you are reading. Try not to be offended, even if the book is waaaaay better. (Of course, if you want to ask them if they have read the book that inspired the movie that they watched, go for it.)

2. Don’t abstain from showing emotion over the book you are reading in public, but don’t be surprised when people laugh as you sob over the tragedies of fictional characters. It hurts, but we just have to live with it.

3. Don’t ask non-readers to smell books. Just don’t.

4. Accept the fact that non-readers probably will not care that your characters are on the brink of disaster and your book is reaching its climax. Even if your company’s conversations are boring and you’d rather read during dinner, sometimes it is best to sacrifice a bit of reading to pretend you’re listening. After all, you can always wonder about the book while you smile and nod.

5. If you happen to be with a non-reader at the mall, understand that he or she may actually want to visit stores other that Barnes and Noble. Just prepare yourself that you will have to try on clothes and probably stop for a pretzel before you can go spend your entire paycheck on books you do not have room for on your shelves.

6. Try not to cry and break out in sarcasm when a non-reader claims to be a reader because she read Twilight and Divergent.

7. Do not try to explain that, based on classic literature, love and happiness are not real, because non-readers will think that you are depressed and pessimistic. We readers know that love and happiness do exist in the real world; we just are trying to discuss themes.

8. Try not to be disappointed on holidays when family members give you gifts other than books. They really are trying to be thoughtful, I promise.

9. Talk to real people. Do more than just hold up the cover of the book you’re reading when somebody asks what it is. Believe it or not, this person is trying to have a conversation with you.

10. Appreciate the fact that not everybody reads. Despite what Jane Austen says (“…who does not take pleasure in a good novel must be intolerable stupid.”) there are incredibly brilliant and lovely people who do not choose to be avid readers and we can still be great friends and perhaps we ought be better off because of it; their connection with the real world and our love for the worlds of books could just be a good combination. (Maybe…)

For Non-Readers:

1. Do not make fun of us for walking and reading, smelling books, and quoting them in our everyday lives. We will label you a “Gaston” and our book clubs will either scorn you or pity you.

2. Be gentle with us. Sometimes we are upset because of a fictional character’s death or an author’s failure to produce a satisfying sequel. Don’t tease us too harshly for getting so emotionally invested in fiction and we won’t tease you for shouting at sports on the television or cursing the politicians on the news.

3. Be aware of how we socialize. If we text you with a book recommendation or invite you to go to the bookstore, know that we like you. Perhaps a lot. It is just our nerdy way of showing affection; we are inviting you into our world of books and, even if you do not accept, you should feel honored that we like you enough to think of you in between chapters.

4. Just smile and nod when we make comparisons between books and real life. If I start rambling about somebody acting like a Scarlett O’Hara, just agree and say that yes, she is being annoying and manipulative. 😉

5. Read something. By doing this, you are proving that you care about us enough to attempt to share our passion for reading. We don’t care if you read every classic on the AP Literature list; we just appreciate that you read Harry Potter or even a magazine because it shows that you are trying to form common ground with us.

6. Ask us for recommendations. Even if you don’t read them and the carefully-crafter list we draw up for you ends up in a wad in your backpack, we love being asked to share our favorites and, like reading, this allows for some common ground.

7. Take us to a bookstore. This is the best way to get to know a bookworm. Let us wander the aisles and listen to us admire the new covers of our old classics. Don’t tell us that we do not have enough money for all of the books; just let us have our fun and after we inhale enough paper and ink, we might put down our stack of books we cannot afford long enough to chat about other subjects.

8. Recognize that we are more than the books that hide our faces. Sure, books are at the top of our list of favorite things, but they are not our entire personalities! Like I said before, my bookworm friends are athletes, artists, and scholars. We like other subjects, probably the same ones that you do, so don’t be afraid to talk to us about other things. We want to get to know you too, so tell us about yourself. After all, books and people are the same in that both have stories unique to themselves.

9. Don’t worry if we withdraw for hours by ourselves. We are fine, off on wonderful adventures between the pages of our books. It isn’t that we don’t like you; we just need time to ourselves and our beloved characters. Many of us are introverts, so just understand that if we don’t reply to your text or hear you calling us to come down for dinner, we are not purposely ignoring you, just resting by reading.

10. If we are stressed out, tell us to go read. In about an hour, we will be back to our normal, nerdy selves. 🙂

If you are a non-reader and read this far, know that you are appreciated by this awkward blogger for struggling through the rambling. And now, I shall bid you adieu, for I am in the library and feel a book calling my name…

The Necessity of the Reader: A Literary Criticism of Heart of Darkness

Modernist author Joseph Conrad once said that “of all men’s creations, books are the nearest to us for they contain our thoughts… they resemble us in their precious hold on life.” According to Conrad, books not only act as the vessels that preserve the themes of human life, but as mirrors that reflect the variations of those themes found within each individual reader. This reflective relationship between the reader and the piece of literature is essential to the reader’s formation of a response to that particular work and is what keeps literature resonant over the course of the centuries, continuing to intrigue generations of readers. In his novella, Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad purposefully relies on the ability of the reader to fill in gaps in order to establish the overarching theme of the ambiguity of the truth and ultimately ensure the novella’s enduring resonance.

From its first pages, Heart of Darkness leaves room for the reader to make assumptions and interpret events for him or herself. The novella is structured as a frame story, featuring two narrators with distinct voices and views, as demonstrated by the opening scene. The first narrator, who remains unnamed, describes the sun setting on a river port and speculates that this river has “known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled” (Conrad 47). Here he reveals his European perspective, seeing conquests as causes worthy of titles and remembrance. However, the main narrator, Marlow, reflects sarcastically on his time spent in London, saying, “I was loafing about, hindering you fellows in your work and invading your homes, just as though I had got a heavenly mission to civilize you” (Conrad 51). Although he speaks humorously, Marlow is mocking the Eurocentric belief that white men have the right to invade the lands of those considered uncivilized. By immediately presenting these opposing views, Joseph Conrad creates the opportunity for the reader to decide which narrator, if either, to believe and sets the precedent for the development of a core theme: the ambiguous nature of reality. In Literary Themes for Students: Volume I, Anne Marie Hacht explains that the frame tale structure, with its capacity to present differing accounts and opinions, allows for the reader to generate his or her own interpretation as well because there is no set standard. The inherent unreliability of these narrators serves a similar purpose. For instance, Marlow declares vehemently to his listeners, “I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie,” yet at the end of his tale, he lies to the Intended, telling her that Kurtz’s last words were about his love for her when they had actually been vague cries of terror (Conrad 77, 145). This proves him changeable and deluded in his view of self and is exactly what Diane Telger discusses in her essay in Novels for Students. She explains that “by presenting a… narrator whose interpretation of events is often open to question, Conrad forces the reader to take an active part in the story’s construction.” Thus, by layering the novella as a frame story told by narrators with dubious views on truth, Conrad has rendered it essential for readers to fill in the narration gaps with their own ideas and alludes to the theme of the uncertainty of reality.

The gaps left for the reader to supplement with his or her own ideas are also used throughout the novella to communicate the central theme of the ambiguity of truth. Perhaps the strongest example of this is in the death scene of Kurtz, the powerful agent at the root of Belgian imperialism in the Congo. Before he dies, Kurtz utters the famous line, “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad 139). This line is remembered by all who read Heart of Darkness, yet Conrad offers no obvious explanation as to what it means. Do these dying words indicate a revelation? Are they a cry for forgiveness? Or are they simply the meaningless babble of a lunatic? No definite answer is presented and thus each individual reader is made responsible for deciding their significance. This not only gives readers further opportunity to complement the text with their personal responses, but advances the overarching theme of the ambiguous nature of truth; just as there is not a clear understanding of this line, truth is, according to the evidence in Heart of Darkness, undefined. Therefore, as readers formulate their own interpretations of this exclamation, they create their own truths and the theme of ambiguous reality is made apparent beyond the pages of the novella. In her critique of Heart of Darkness, Jennifer Lipka quotes Joseph Conrad, saying that the only “fundamental truth of fiction” is its enigmatic quality; it serves no purpose and cannot effectively convey its themes if it does not allow for the reader to wonder and develop his or her own opinions. In the same way, the light and dark motif is used as a building block in establishing the larger theme of the indefiniteness of reality. For instance, as the first narrator and Marlow wait for the tide to turn at the beginning of the novella, the setting is described using both light and dark imagery. The rapid fluctuation between descriptions such as “glowing white” and “immensity of unstained light” are immediately contrasted by phrases such as “brooding gloom” (Conrad 46). The reader is presented with two conflicting descriptions of the initial setting and must decide whether to envision it in the light or the darkness and then decide what each of those views might represent. Anne Marie Hacht explains in Literary Themes for Students that the use of light and dark imagery is employed “to convey ever-shifting meanings.” This furthers the central theme of the uncertainty of truth and compels the reader to take a definite stance as the focus of the novella itself flickers abruptly between light and dark, good and evil, clarity and confusion. Both the death scene of Kurtz and the light versus dark motif exhibit the speculative quality of the novella; by requiring the reader to make assumptions based upon his or her own experiences, the reader’s response is rendered vital to expressing the concept of truth as an ambiguous ideal, differing from reader to reader.

Similarly, the response of the individual reader to Heart of Darkness allows for its elements to be examined through different lenses, not only demonstrating the theme of the ambiguity of truth, but offering different ideas as to what this illusive truth could be. For example, the novella never makes it clear whether it is in favor of or satirizing the racist ideals of imperialism. While Conrad’s primary narrator, Marlow, uses derogatory terms such as “savages” to describe the natives of the Congo, certain passages such as that describing a young agent as “gentlemanly… with a little forked beard and a hooked nose” personify the Europeans as devils, indicating that perhaps he does not view them as superior after all (Conrad 73). The stance on racism, like truth, is kept in obscurity and readers must attempt to provide their own answers. Author Chinua Achebe once criticized Heart of Darkness as “an offensive and deplorable book” that does not deserve to be included in the literary canon due to what he considered to be its racist message. However, this is only his view; other critics such as Mark Kinkead-Weekes consider the novella to be “an imaginative counter to European arrogance and blindness about Africa.” Which is the correct answer? That, being an absolute truth, is never revealed by Conrad and the reader must decide based on his or her own knowledge and intuition.  The necessity of the reader to supply possible answers to the questions posed by Heart of Darkness is further evidenced by the scene in which Marlow comes across a curious portrait.  The painting depicts “a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch” on a “somber-almost black” background (Conrad 75). Blindness in literature generally indicates a failure to see truth and this, combined with the recurrence of the light versus dark motif in the torch and the black background, possibly indicates a failure to know truth, but a determination to pursue it despite the surrounding night of ignorance and confusion.  Granted, this is merely a speculation, as the novella offers no further explanation of the portrait. However, by providing multifaceted details that pose complex questions rather than presenting the reader with simple concepts and unequivocal answers, Conrad has painted his novella to allow for the representation of numerous viewpoints. This also serves to open the door for healthy controversy between readers with differing ideas and is exactly what Joseph Conrad aimed to do as an author. He once said that his goal was not simply to tell tales, but “to make you hear, to make you feel- it is, before all, to make you see.” Through details such as the portrait of the blind woman and the consistent lack of clear meanings, Conrad encourages his readers to form their own answers to the questions suggested by Heart of Darkness, thus opening their eyes to new ideas that extend beyond what is written in black and white. The truth remains undisclosed and reality undefined, but the reading experience, according to Anne Marie Hacht, is rewarding, for it fosters a new realm of independent thought.

The frame-tale structure, dominant theme of the ambiguity of the truth, and lack of answers to significant questions all indicate that the reader is left responsible for filling in the gaps of Heart of Darkness. Without allowing for the varied responses of the readers, the theme of the ambiguity of truth that is essential to the novella as a whole would fail to be developed. In the same way, Heart of Darkness would be lost in time as a work with a limited era of relevance; without allowing for interpretations to evolve and vary between readers of different times and places, it would have failed to remain resonant into the current generation. When Heart of Darkness was first published, it shocked its Victorian audience, but now it is acclaimed as one of the best English novellas ever written because the views of its readers have changed over time and the impressionistic quality of the novella has allowed for these altered views to be incorporated into new interpretations. As Joseph Conrad said, books hold a fascination for mankind because they act as mirrors, reflecting their readers within their pages and changing alongside them. Heart of Darkness, with its enduring theme of the ambiguity of truth and reality, is a prime example of this, for without the readers filling in its gaps, it would become like the pitiable Kurtz, hollow at the core with only empty words remaining.