It’s not so much that we are doing a lot of reading this week in particular, but that cumulatively by now, in both classes, we have done a lot of reading. I like this middle phase of term: the logistical confusion of the first couple of weeks is behind us, the frameworks for our class discussions have been established, we have a body of completed work to lean on (bounce off?) as we move along — and the end of term is still far enough away that we aren’t distracted by planning for it.
In 19th-Century Fiction we’ve finished our first two novels, Villette and Great Expectations. Although Villette is a fascinating novel, I had more fun (rather to my surprise) rereading Great Expectations. I’ve read and taught it so often that my own expectations were kind of low as we started it up, but I fell right into it, especially the climactic confrontation between Pip, Estella, and Miss Havisham after Pip’s world has been up-ended:
‘You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since — on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil. But, in this separation I associate you only with the good, and I will faithfully hold you to that always, for you must have done me far more good than harm, let me feel now what sharp distress I may. O God bless you, God forgive you!’
In what ecstasy of unhappiness I got these broken words out of myself, I don’t know. The rhapsody welled up within me, like blood from an inward wound, and gushed out. I held her hand to my lips some lingering moments, and so I left her. But ever afterwards, I remembered — and soon afterwards with stronger reason — that while Estella looked at me merely with incredulous wonder, the spectral figure of Miss Havisham, her hand still covering her heart, seemed all resolved into a ghastly stare of pity and remorse.
I know some people recoil from Dickens’s rhetorical excesses and emotional manipulation, and when my defenses are up I can feel the same impatience. But he’s also better than any other novelist I know at ripping the bandage off our wounded humanity and creating moments as morally thrilling as this one. There’s also something fantastic (in both senses of that word) about just how fearless his language and his stories are: his relish for both is practically tangible.
I’ve been thinking about Dickens a lot in the context of the ongoing discussions about YA fiction: why, for instance, should Henry James be the touchstone for grown-up reading? There’s a quality in Dickens that runs afoul of that rarefied, over-intellectualized ideal, but Christopher Beha’s description of the rewards of reading James (and other “adult” fiction) describes Great Expectations astonishingly well:
Much is taken from us as we pass out of childhood, but other human beings who have suffered these losses have created great works of art, works that can only be truly appreciated by those who have suffered the same losses in turn. These works are among the great recompenses that experience offers us.
One of the things we discussed in our last session on Great Expectations is whether it’s worth having made Pip’s mistakes, having suffered as he suffers, because in the end he is capable of narrating the novel — something Joe, for all his admirable qualities, could never do. Dickens, in other words, has built his own novel around just that trade-off between pleasures that can “easily be enjoyed by a child” and hard-won moral and literary maturity. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with Beha’s commentary on James (though I’m on record as not finding James that pleasurable to read — for me, he’s more on the mortgage-payment side of adulthood): I’ve just been thinking Dickens has a more interesting role to play in this conversation than he is usually given (in Beha’s essay, a passing reference to him as someone who wrote “inviting, event-packed novels”).
Next up for us in this class: Middlemarch. As you can imagine, I’m looking forward to this! I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years thinking and talking about Middlemarch, but I haven’t actually reread it patiently for a while. I started on it this morning while the class was writing their short test on Great Expectations, and even as I winced watching Dorothea be so, so wrong, I was reminded all over again how funny the first few chapters are.
In Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve wrapped up not only The Moonstone but Sherlock Holmes and a sampler of other great detectives as well (we read one story each by G. K Chesterton, R. Austen Freeman, and Jacques Futrelle). Today we started our discussion of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I enjoy using Christie to spark discussion about canonicity: I point out that despite being possibly the best-selling novelist of all time, she has no literary standing compared to her contemporaries Henry James, Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, which gives me a chance to suggest that modernism set a lot of the terms for discussions of literary merit that we now often take for granted. This means talking about things like linguistic or syntactical difficulty, which on the face of it, Christie is having none of: her prose is remarkably lucid. Next time, though, when all is known, we’ll go over just how tricky she actually is — telling us everything while keeping everything from us. Is this its own kind of difficulty, or is it just trickery, and if so, is that somehow a lower order of skill? To some extent I am playing devil’s advocate in asking why she should be taken any less seriously than Woolf: for me, conversation about Christie flags pretty quickly once the game is played out, and for my money there are other mystery novelists who are a lot more interesting to think about. But she’s excellent of her kind, and I think it’s worth provoking a conversation about whether it makes sense to value some kinds more than others. This is the “genre fiction” version of the YA debates, of course.
Once we wrap up Ackroyd, it’s midterm time in this class, and then we turn to Hammett and Chandler.