This Week In My Classes: Lots of Reading

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.

greatexpectationsIn 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”).Oxford

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.

houndIn 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.

This Week In My Classes: Moving Right Along!

We seem to have passed that tipping point past which we hurtle towards the end of term. I feel as if it was only just the weekend, and tomorrow it will be Friday again! Happily, it will also be the Friday before a long weekend, which will give us all time to catch up, or rest up, a bit.

beckIn Mystery & Detective Fiction it continues to be a good term. For whatever reason, I have one of the most lively groups I’ve had in that class, with 15-20 students who pitch in regularly to discussion. In a class of about 80, that’s a pretty good percentage, especially considering that larger classes can themselves be intimidating. It makes the class time go by very fast, and it keeps me on my toes: the closer I stick to the notes I’ve brought in, the less likely I am to be asked a question I can’t answer easily enough, whether it’s about a detail of the plot or a broader issue of interpretation. In my own rereadings I don’t (I can’t) pay equal attention to absolutely everything, and I’m usually focused on the elements that are most important to what I’m planning to talk about. The more open the conversation, the more likely, in contrast, that I’ll discover what I don’t know, or know enough about. I like it, even if it’s sometimes disconcerting. I hope my having to say, occasionally, “Actually, I don’t know,” or “I really can’t remember — can anyone help me out by finding a relevant passage?” doesn’t undermine my students’ confidence in my expertise. Besides, keeping the plot of The Big Sleep straight is hard enough that Chandler himself couldn’t do it, right? This week we’ve wrapped up our discussion of The Terrorists, and tomorrow we start on Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses. In what’s probably becoming a boring refrain about readings for this class, I’ve been wondering for ages about switching it out for one of his longer, richer ones — but Knots and Crosses is usually a crowd-pleaser, and I do enjoy working through its Gothic twists and turns.

In 19thC Fiction from Austen to Dickens we are almost done our time on David Copperfield. It was a rocky start, but the last couple of classes have felt better to me, not just because the level of participation has been higher but because my own sense of what I want us to get out of the conversation is also improving. It has been feeling like a somehow spongier novel to work with than Bleak House or Great Expectations, and though I thought I had a lot of ideas about it, I haven’t been entirely clear in my own mind about how to bring them into focus. The further we read, though, the clearer Dickens’s own patterning becomes, and that has helped. Tomorrow we will have read up to the end of the amazing chapter called “Tempest,” so I’m going to focus on the three major crises of this installment (**spoiler alert**!): Micawber’s take-down of Uriah HEEP, Dora’s decline and death, and Steerforth’s drowning. We’ll talk about them as things that have to happen for David to complete his development — but why? I’ve got some suggestions about Steerforth and Heep as important examples of “not-David”: reflections of David himself that he has to outgrow or reject, figures of what he isn’t, or doesn’t want to be. (There’s plenty of critical writing about this that has been helpful to me as I’ve thought about this, including Oliver Buckton’s essay on ‘Homoerotic Secrets in David Copperfield” and Tara MacDonald’s on ‘race, sexuality, and Uriah Heep‘). As for Dora, I think it’s painfully obvious that she’s not the mature choice for David (some students have already expressed their shock that he actually marries her, instead of realizing his mistake in time). So we’ll talk about his love for her as evidence of his ‘undisciplined heart,’ I expect; I’m interested in why she’s presented with so much pathos and tenderness, too, rather than satirically, given how bad a choice she is. I expect we’ll tie his feelings for her into his love for Steerforth. There is something precious and beautiful in these mistakes, I think: just because childish love is not right (and may even be destructive) doesn’t mean the world would be a better place if we were all smart and knowing and invulnerable to error. My idea for our final class, next Wednesday (after the long weekend!) is to go through some of the claims made for David Copperfield in the context of ethical criticism, looking especially at work by Martha Nussbaum and Marshall Gregory, so trying to get at the value Dickens places on Dickens’s loving mistakes should be good preparation.

Maclise DickensI will be a bit relieved to be done with David Copperfield and on to North and South, which I know much better, but I do relish the challenge of working up a new novel, and I do think, too, that I should assign it again before too long, because teaching it is definitely a learning experience for me as well as for the students. I like the open-endedness of working through a novel without a strong pre-existing interpretation or set of priorities, but it is also hard to lead a discussion without being entirely committed to a particular direction! The ideal class discussion is a good blend of purpose and freedom: next time I think I will get closer to that.

The other major assignment I had this week was presenting to our graduate students’ professionalization seminar, something I also did last year (which prompted this post on whether graduate students should blog). I think it went fine! I have lots to say, and there was plenty of discussion and, as far as I could tell, interest. One thing I found myself stressing that I don’t remember feeling as strongly about last year was that there is exciting literate life outside the academy. My understanding is that the majority of our current cohort of MA students are not heading into PhD programs, and of course PhD students too need to be thinking about non- or alt-academic routes. Lately I have heard from quite a lot of students that they think about doing at least an MA because they want to continue the serious discussion of literature that they have enjoyed as undergraduates. So a new part of my “thinking of going to grad school?” talk is “but you don’t have to be in school to do that”! I don’t think I would have really understood that myself, despite having grown up among passionate readers, if it weren’t for the time I’ve spent among bloggers and reviewers in the last few years.

Weekend Reading: I laughed, I cried, I’d read it again!

And that was just the first book I read this weekend …

Maclise DickensI was right that David Copperfield not only gave me great pleasure while I was reading it but restored my flagging enthusiasm for reading more generally. I finished it over the weekend and loved almost every minute of it.

The big setback for me is always Agnes. Dora is insufferable, but the poor thing is set up as a mistake, not an ideal, which is some compensation — and her final chapter still makes me cry, which is kind of embarrassing, but there we are. Agnes, on the other hand, with that damn finger pointing ever upwards: what kind of an alternative is that? Agnes had me wondering, actually, where the (good) sexy is in Dickens. He’s good at lechery, here exemplified by the horror that is Uriah Heep (and there’s the pedophiliac Bounderby in Hard Times as another example of just how creepy Dickens can make lust). He’s good at treachery, here epitomized by Steerforth’s fatal seduction of Little Emily. And he’s brilliant at childish innocence (Dora) and shining purity (Agnes). But healthy adult sexual desire (you know, the kind both parties are pretty excited about) is harder to spot. It’s pretty broadly hinted at that Agnes is wounded by David’s long insistence on seeing her as a sister, but there’s nothing like Dinah’s blush to make sure we understand the nature of her feelings, while David’s feeling for Agnes never seem other than worshipful admiration. Even though they seem better matched than David and Dora, there’s still something awkward about them as a married couple.

However. Whatever reservations I had about the women in David Copperfield were more or less overwhelmed by the many hilarious and touching and vindictively gratifying parts we are treated to as the novel draws to a close–Mr. Micawber’s denunciation of Uriah Heep, for instance, which (like so much in Dickens) is absolutely best read aloud. And the chapter “Tempest” is just splendid, with no “Dickens being Dickens” apologia required.

Unfortunately, though I was energized by David Copperfield to do a lot more reading this weekend, it was just this book that really excited me. I skimmed through Tina Fey’s Bossypants, which I had picked up at the library because it is supposed to be very funny and at the time I felt I could use a good laugh. Meh. At most I got a couple of chortles out of it. Since I have never liked Saturday Night Live and never been tempted to watch 30 Rock, I guess I should have known better.

faultinstarsThen I read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. It went very quickly and I quite enjoyed it: I was engaged from the beginning by the narrator’s voice and the quick pacing and the blend of humor and pathos. But though I thought it was quite good, it also seemed to me a little too self-consciously smart — not just Hazel and her hyper-articulate friends (after all, such teenagers do exist — around here, most of them end up enrolling in the King’s Foundation Year Program, where they continue to talk pretty much like Hazel and Augustus) but the novel as a whole, including the metatextual interaction with An Imperial Affliction. That layer (along with the wry humor of the characters) kept the book from descending into bathos, but it also kept me at kind of an emotional distance: I was not one of those who wept copiously through the final chapters. In fact, a bit to my surprise it didn’t make me cry at all, and here I’ve just confessed to crying over Dora! After I finished it I reread a lot of the discussion of it in this year’s Tournament of Books. I haven’t read many of the other contestants, but I admit I share the feeling expressed by some commenters there that YA literature, however good of its kind and for its intended audience, shouldn’t really compete in the grown-up leagues. And yet it made it to the finals, so what do I know, right?

Finally, I tried a few more chapters of May Sarton’s The Magnificent Spinster. Though I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Sarton, it just has not been going very well: I’ve been finding it prosy and portentous. The narrator insists a great deal that Jane, the spinster of the title, is magnificent, but I’ve been getting no authentic sense of that myself. I like the formal conceit, with the attention to Cam’s problems writing Jane’s life story as a novel. And I like the idea of taking us through so many important historical moments from the perspective such an unusual and individual experience. But with my time running out for summer reading, and with the new term looming along with deadlines for reviews and essays and book clubs, I’ve decided to put this one back on the shelf for now. It’s just not ripe yet (or I’m not). I’m certainly not giving up on Sarton, though: I long to get my hands on Journal of a Solitude.

Saved by the Inimitable!

Judging from a few recent blog posts and twitter updates I’ve seen, a lot of us have fallen into reading slumps lately. I blame my own partly on a phase of duty reading: I was sampling books with an eye to assigning them for a course, which means a lot of them were books I would probably not have picked up otherwise, and while that can lead to some exciting discoveries, it can also just be frustrating, which is what I was finding. As a result I was putting down a lot of books unfinished, which always makes me feel a bit shabby. I have had some fun with a couple of lighter books, including Cotillion, but I’ve been hoping for a book to exhilarate and challenge me the way, say, The Once and Future KingThe Paper Garden, or the Patrick Melrose novels did last summer, and this summer seems to have been light on that kind of reading. I thought May Sarton’s The Magnificent Spinster might be the magic bullet, but I’m about half way through and frankly, it’s kind of dull and prosy so far.

copperfieldWhat a fool I’ve been. It turns out that the solution was right there next to my reading chair all this time: the handsome Oxford World’s Classics edition of David Copperfield I’ve ordered for my fall class on the 19th-century novel. This too is duty reading — or, properly, rereading, as of course I haven’t made it this far without having read it before (including out loud to my husband, years ago when this was the kind of thing we did). But I haven’t read it in a long time, and I’ve also never actually assigned it for a course. My go-to teaching Dickens has been Great Expectations (it’s very good, after all, plus it’s short, for Dickens), with Hard Times a frequent alternate and Bleak House a favorite in terms when I’m not also assigning Middlemarch. Oh, and once or twice, A Tale of Two Cities. But I finally felt kind of tired of Great Expectations, and I did Bleak House last term, and it seemed like a good time to mix things up a little, so I put David Copperfield on the book list for next term and on my summer reading list so I could get started on my class prep. It’s been sitting there looking reproachfully at me for weeks (I mean, look at that cover — it practically screams “you’re not doing your duty!”) and I’ve puttered away at it a little, but only yesterday did I put everything else aside and just read it for a few hours — and I feel all my reading mojo coming back.

I’ve never been personally passionate about Dickens the way I am about George Eliot. If for some strange reason I had to choose between them, no question: she gets my vote. But happily, as I’ve said before, literary greatness is not a zero-sum game, and it’s also not something for which there are or need to be common measures or standards. (There are also people who don’t think either of these writers is great — and while I feel kind of sorry for those people, I’m sure they are perfectly happy with their Proust or their Henry James or their Virginia Woolf or their precious Jane Austen, and we’ll just leave them be.) For me personally, Dickens is fabulous precisely for all the things he does that aren’t what Eliot does, and that’s the magic of it all. Dickens is fantastic at being Dickens, and if you get caught up in that Dickensian spirit (which, I know, not everybody does) it’s sheer delight. And sheer horror. And sheer pathos. And … well, you get the point — his is not a particularly subtle world, but gosh, it’s such a lot of fun.

That’s what I’m recovering with the help of David Copperfield: the sense that reading is about how fun it all can be. Even if you aren’t a Dickens-lover, I think you have to admit that his books radiate delight in words and stories and imagination. Their excess is not a mistake: it’s the point. As Nick Hornby says, these days we seem to take it as given that “spare is good,” but why?

Where would David Copperfield be if Dickens had gone to writing classes? Probably about seventy minor characters short, is where.

What a loss that would be! Not a loss to the tautness of the storyline or the unity of the themes, but if that’s what you’re reading Dickens for, you need a little re-education. (OK, yes, I don’t want to underestimate the unity of his themes, but brilliantly coherent as they can be, both conceptually and aesthetically, still, I think we all get the point long before we’re done with the novels.) Hornby’s example is a great one: “Dickens being Dickens, he finds a bit part for a real rogue of a secondhand clothes merchant, a really scary guy who smells of rum and who shouts things like ‘Oh, my lungs and liver’ and ‘Goroo!’ a lot.”

One thing I’d forgotten is just how laugh-out-loud funny David Copperfield is. I cherish Eliot’s humor, but my marginalia in Middlemarch, though it frequently includes little smiley faces, rarely says “LOL.” There are a few really funny bits in Great Expectations (Joe’s hat on the chimney piece  being one) — none, though, in Hard Times. Aunt Betsy and the donkeys, though? Hilarious! Barkis’s courtship of Peggotty? Spit-take warning: not safe for e-readers! Mr. Dick and Charles the First — irresistible.

CopperfieldPhiz

(illustration by ‘Phiz,’ scanned by Philip Allingham)

And in contrast, while I hadn’t forgotten how pathetic David’s early childhood is, I hadn’t read about it since I had children of my own, and his loneliness and abandonment and desperate yearning for love hit me really hard this time:

I was not actively ill-used. I was not beaten, or starved; but the wrong that was done to me had no intervals of relenting, and was done in a systematic, passionless manner. Day after day, week after week, month after month, I was coldly neglected. I wonder sometimes, when I think of it, what they would have done if I had been taken with an illness; whether I should have lain down in my lonely room, and languished through it in my usual solitary way, or whether anybody would have helped me out.

And the suspense! Dickens loves his foreshadowing, and it’s pretty heavy-handed, but the mounting sense of dread is still wonderfully effective:

 ‘I’m not afraid in this way,’ said little Em’ly. ‘But I wake when it blows, and tremble to think of Uncle Dan and Ham and believe I hear ’em crying out for help. That’s why I should like so much to be a lady. But I’m not afraid in this way. Not a bit. Look here!’

    She started from my side, and ran along a jagged timber which protruded from the place we stood upon, and overhung the deep water at some height, without the least defence. The incident is so impressed on my remembrance, that if I were a draughtsman I could draw its form here, I dare say, accurately as it was that day, and little Em’ly springing forward to her destruction (as it appeared to me), with a look that I have never forgotten, directed far out to sea.

    The light, bold, fluttering little figure turned and came back safe to me, and I soon laughed at my fears, and at the cry I had uttered; fruitlessly in any case, for there was no one near. But there have been times since, in my manhood, many times there have been, when I have thought, Is it possible, among the possibilities of hidden things, that in the sudden rashness of the child and her wild look so far off, there was any merciful attraction of her into danger, any tempting her towards him permitted on the part of her dead father, that her life might have a chance of ending that day? There has been a time since when I have wondered whether, if the life before her could have been revealed to me at a glance, and so revealed as that a child could fully comprehend it, and if her preservation could have depended on a motion of my hand, I ought to have held it up to save her. There has been a time since-I do not say it lasted long, but it has been-when I have asked myself the question, would it have been better for little Em’ly to have had the waters close above her head that morning in my sight; and when I have answered Yes, it would have been.

    This may be premature. I have set it down too soon, perhaps. But let it stand.

And the betrayal, all the more devastating because we, like David, have been warned:

I was up with the dull dawn, and, having dressed as quietly as I could, looked into his room. He was fast asleep; lying, easily, with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school.

 The time came in its season, and that was very soon, when I almost wondered that nothing troubled his repose, as I looked at him. But he slept-let me think of him so again-as I had often seen him sleep at school; and thus, in this silent hour, I left him.

 -Never more, oh God forgive you, Steerforth! to touch that passive hand in love and friendship. Never, never more!

Looking at these excerpts, I can readily see why (to paraphrase Miss Jean Brodie) people who don’t like this sort of thing don’t like this sort of thing. It’s too much! It’s sentimental, and manipulative, and he uses exclamation points! But I’m loving it. What a relief! Like David, I am once again “reading as if for life.”

From the Archives: The Last Time I Taught Bleak House…

bleakhouseoupFor some reason this phrase has been running through my head to the tune of “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” I don’t know why I would be feeling nostalgic about teaching Bleak House, though it was rather a while ago–it was Fall 2008, to be precise. Because we’ve started work on it in my 19th-century fiction class this week, I’ve been reviewing old notes and also old blog posts, which prove (among other things) to be a valuable archive. Because (so far at least) my ideas about the novel haven’t really changed in the meantime, and because a lot of people who might stop by and read this post almost certainly never read my earlier ones, I thought I’d repost a couple of them, starting with this one about the beginning of the novel and the beginning of my class discussions of it.


From the Novel Readings Archives: Fog. Mud. Smoke. Soot. Gas. Fog.

Bleak House Shadows (Phiz)

No, that’s not today’s prediction from Environment Canada (though there is something implacable about today’s weather, even if it’s not yet November). This week in one of my classes, it’s time for Bleak House–by comparison with which, nothing else I’m doing at work really matters. The introduction to our Oxford World’s Classics edition remarks that the opening ‘set piece’ is ‘too famous to need quotation.’ Well, I don’t know about that, especially because I consider it an aesthetic accomplishment self-sufficient enough to render critical commentary not just redundant, but irritating. Here are the first four paragraphs, then (three of them composed entirely, it’s worth noting, of sentence fragments).

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time–as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Sure, there’s plenty to be remarked about this passage, beginning with its literary virtuosity and metaphoric ingenuity. Dinosaurs and compound interest? Snowflakes in mourning? ‘Fog’ used 13 times in one paragraph? Gas that’s ‘haggard and unwilling’? I’m reduced to the exclamatory mode some critics objected to in James Wood’s How Fiction Works: “What a piece of writing that is!” It puts to shame other writers called ‘Dickensian’ for no apparent reason except that they write multiplot novels with quirky characters and lots of emotion. There’s also its extraordinary efficiency at launching both governing ideas and dominant images of the vast novel it introduces; fog, mud, and infection order the thinking of Bleak House as much as webs do the same for Middlemarch. But really, the point of this passage is just to read it, to experience it, and then to carry the impression of it with you as you read on. (Is this response ‘aesthetic’? I’m not sure, or at least I’m not sure I could separate my admiration for the literary features of this passage from my sense of its ethics–or, better, its ethos.)

Today I’ll give a brief introduction to Dickens and some context for the first publication of Bleak House. Then my chief concern is to help my students find some reading (and note-taking) strategies to make their experience of the novel rewarding, which means helping them organize the mass of material (and the array of characters) they will be rapidly confronted with. We’ll do some ‘getting to know you’ work first of all: who do we meet in each of the first few chapters, and how are they connected? I’ll encourage them to keep a list of characters in each plot or location and to draw lines between them as relationships are discovered. They will have a chaotic criss-cross of lines before too long, which of course is the point–everything and everyone is connected, as Dickens challenges us to realize with his disingenous questions in Chapter 16:

What connexion can there be, between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of sunshine on him when he swept the churchyard-step? What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!

My other main strategy is to get them thinking in terms of themes and variations. Today, for instance, we’ll look at how many ways the idea of housekeeping is refracted across the different story lines. Finally (though this is certainly not my last priority) I will try to convey, and make contagious, my enthusiasm for Dickens’s language in the novel, and to get them thinking about how his literary strategies (including the kinds of wild metaphors we get in the first few paragraphs) are important to his conception of the ‘condition of England question,’ and to his answer to it.

[originally posted October 27, 2008]

This Week in My Classes: Fun with Fiction

In Close Reading we have finished our poetry unit (yay, say the students–no more scansion!) and been working on short stories. The basic idea is the same: our focus is on paying attention to the various ‘technical’ elements in them, to see how they work to support the effects and ideas of the stories overall. The process of picking out individual elements often feels somewhat artificial, but there’s also a useful discipline in it. Often, we work backwards from a general impression, of a character or scene, for instance, to figuring out how we got that impression. So far we’ve talked about point of view, narration, characterization, and setting. Because one of the guiding principles of the course is that it provides portable knowledge and skills, I’m having some fun bringing in illustrative examples from all kinds of books in addition to our officially ‘assigned’ reading. Here are some of the excerpts we considered as examples of different approaches to characterization:

Dorothea knew many passages of Pascal’s Pensées and of Jeremy Taylor by heart; and to her the destinies of mankind, seen by the light of Christianity, made the solicitudes of feminine fashion appear an occupation for Bedlam. She could not reconcile the anxieties of a spiritual life involving eternal consequences, with a keen interest in gimp and artificial protrusions of drapery. Her mind was theoretic, and yearned by its nature after some lofty conception of the world which might frankly include the parish of Tipton and her own rule of conduct there; she was enamoured of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractions, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it.

He belonged to that class of men – vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever – who were unaccountably attractive to women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so. And it helped that some women believed he was a genius in need of rescue. But the Michael Beard of this time was a man of narrowed mental condition, anhedonic, monothematic, stricken.

Macon wore a formal summer suit, his traveling suit—much more logical for traveling than jeans, he always said. Jeans had those hard, stiff seams and those rivets. Sarah wore a strapless terry beach dress. They might have been returning from two entirely different trips. Sarah had a tan but Macon didn’t. He was a tall, pale, gray-eyed man, with straight fair hair cut close to his head, and his skin was that thin kind that easily burns. He’d kept away from the sun during the middle part of every day.

 He had a great relish for feminine beauty; he was addicted to observing and analyzing it; and as regards this young lady’s face he made several observations. It was not at all insipid, but it was not exactly expressive; and though it was eminently delicate, Winterbourne mentally accused it – very forgivingly – of a want of finish. He thought it very possible that Master Randolph’s sister was a coquette; he was sure she had a spirit of her own; but in her bright, sweet, superficial little visage there was no mockery, no irony.

Dear Joan,

 I do hope I know you well enough to say this.

 I think you ought to forget about your leg. I believe that it is something psychological, psychosomatic, and it is very hard on Charles. It is bringing both him and you into ridicule and spoiling your lives.

 Do make a big try. Won’t you! Forget about your bodily aches and pains. Life is a wonderful thing, Joan. I have discovered this great fact in my work with the Dying.

 Your sincere friend,

   Eliza (Peabody)

We were talking about the role of description or exposition, speech (including thought) and action, external points of view, and what I called ‘accessories’–all the things on or around a character that help communicate who they are, from literal accessories to homes or occupations or hobbies or what books they are reading in a scene. I quoted David Lodge’s remark, from The Art of Fiction, that “all description in fiction is highly selective; its basic rhetorical technique is synecdoche, the part standing in for the whole”: that seems to me a helpful principle to keep in mind. It was interesting how much information we could glean from these small pieces, especially as nobody in the class had actually read any of the novels I took them from. I think (I hope!) they could see the point of the exercise, which was to help us realize how we know what we (think we) know when we’re reading along. Working on fiction in this way you always have to resist their tendency to get caught up in the plot, so using examples out of context, which might seem perverse in other contexts, is actually helpful in this particular course.

In Victorian Fiction we are nearly done with Great Expectations–already! One of the things I like to think about with this novel is the development of young Pip into the Pip who is morally capable of narrating the novel. One of the most moving chapters in the novel for me is Chapter 44, in which Pip first confronts Miss Havisham and Estella with his new knowledge of the real identity of his benefactor. He hasn’t yet moved all the way from confusion to compassion, but already he is working to make something right out of the wrongs he–and they–have done in pursuing their false ideas, and to restore some sense of love and forgiveness to their devastated lives. “You will get me out of your thoughts in a week,” says Estella as Pip, overcome with grief and horror, begs her not to throw herself away on the malignant Bentley Drummle. Pip’s response moves not only us, but also, against all expectation, Miss Havisham:

`Out of my thoughts! 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 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.

That ability to touch someone’s heart is fundamental to Dickens’s fiction, isn’t it? This moment makes an interesting comparison to the climactic encounter between Dorothea and Rosamond in Middlemarch, which also turns on an encounter with someone else’s ‘center of self’ and on the morally inspirational effect of generosity…and yet the scenes are arrived at so differently and belong in other ways to such different worlds.

This Week in My Classes: The Morals and the Stories

Though everyone is looking a bit peaked around the department these days–students and faculty alike–and I’m certainly feeling the usual pressures as we move into the term’s final phase, I am also finding myself intellectually invigorated by the novels we’re working through in all of my classes. It is just such a pleasure to be spending time reading and thinking about them, even under less than optimal conditions.

In The Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ we are finishing up The Mill on the Floss. Although I love the early volumes of this novel, with their evocative (if also rather vexed) representation of childhood, and their wonderful blend of sly humor and philosophical reflection (not to mention, of course, the brilliant characterizations of Tom and Maggie and their whole mish-mash of a family life), Books VI and VII really get me excited. I know they are disproportionately short, and who wouldn’t love it if Eliot had written out the great conflict between duty and desire more fully–but then, there’s something apt, too, about the headlong rush to the ending. Though we had read only to the kiss on the arm for today, it was clear from our discussion that the students both grasp the complexity of Maggie’s situation and are interested in it: there aren’t easy answers, the way there are in Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for instance. Brontë’s narrative is complex in other ways, but that there is a right way out of Helen’s difficulties is far less difficult to grasp, just as it is easier to see where she went wrong in the first place. Her attraction to Arthur Huntingdon, while understandable, is a sign of her moral immaturity. Maggie’s attraction to Stephen Guest, on the other hand, while equally misguided in its own way, is a symptom of something much deeper and much further from her control. I was struck on this reading with how much Eliot emphasizes that Maggie and Stephen are initially motivated by unconscious forces, feeling as if “in a dream,” unable to recognize or articulate the “laws of attraction” that compel them. Their drifting down the river is hardly a deliberate act, or at least its impelling motives are hardly clear to them–which of course is much of the use Eliot is making of the metaphorical pattern of rivers and water and currents and drifting right to the end of the book. Once Maggie wakes up, though, into full consciousness, then sexual attraction ceases to be an accidental cause and becomes a force to be reckoned with, and that reckoning is the process of morality–the engagement of human reason in “the labor of choice.” Though it’s possible (I reluctantly suppose!) to find something mechanical in Maggie and Stephen’s impassioned debate, I find it very moving precisely because it represents that struggle to think through feeling to right action:

Maggie trembled. She felt that the parting could not be effected suddenly. She must rely on a slower appeal to Stephen’s better self – she must be prepared for a harder task than that of rushing away while resolution was fresh. She sat down. Stephen, watching her with that look of desperation which had come over him like a lurid light, approached slowly from the door, seated himself close beside her and grasped her hand. Her heart beat like the heart of a frightened bird; but this direct opposition helped her – she felt her determination growing stronger.

‘Remember what you felt weeks ago,’ she began, with beseeching earnestness – ‘remember what we both felt – that we owed ourselves to others, and must conquer every inclination which could make us false to that debt. We have failed to keep our resolutions – but the wrong remains the same.’

‘No, it does not remain the same,’ said Stephen. ‘We have proved that it was impossible to keep our resolutions. We have proved that the feeling which draws us towards each other is too strong to be overcome. That natural law surmounts every other, – we can’t help what it clashes with.’

‘It is not so, Stephen – I’m quite sure that is wrong. I have tried to think it again and again – but I see, if we judged in that way, there would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty – we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be formed on earth. If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment.’

‘But there are ties that can’t be kept by mere resolution,’ said Stephen, starting up and walking about again. ‘What is outward faithfulness? Would they have thanked us for anything so hollow as constancy without love?’

Maggie did not answer immediately. She was undergoing an inward as well as an outward contest. At last she said, with a passionate assertion of her conviction as much against herself as against him,

‘That seems right – at first – but when I look further, I’m sure it is not right. Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us – whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us. If we – if I had been better, nobler – those claims would have been so strongly present with me, I should have felt them pressing on my heart so continually, just as they do now in the moments when my conscience is awake – that the opposite feeling would never have grown in me, as it has done – it would have been quenched at once – I should have prayed for help so earnestly – I should have rushed away, as we rush from hideous danger. I feel no excuse for myself – none – I should never have failed towards Lucy and Philip as I have done, if I had not been weak and selfish and hard – able to think of their pain without a pain to myself that would have destroyed all temptation. O, what is Lucy feeling now? – She believed in me – she loved me – she was so good to me – think of her….’

One of my students remarked that when she studied The Mill on the Floss in another class, they discussed Maggie and Stephen’s relationship as a great romantic love story–thwarted, I suppose, by “society,” though she didn’t go into detail about their interpretation. I admit, I find that a puzzling take on these two, who seem so ill-suited to each other in character and taste, and also, as we see here, in values. That their passion cuts across these factors is precisely what makes it so surprising and dangerous. If only there were a great romantic option for Maggie in the novel! Instead, she’s torn between three loves (Tom, Philip, and Stephen), each with his own demand on her feelings and loyalties. Where is she to go–what is she to do? Short of leaving them all behind and starting over, there is no way forward for her, and she can’t cut them off because as she tells Philip (become, poor fellow, her “external conscience” rather than her beloved), she “desires no future that will break the ties of the past.” Given that, her final choice is as inevitable as its result.

In 19th-Century Fiction we are nearly finished with Hard Times. I was wondering about my decision to rotate it into the reading list again after a few years of Great Expectations and a special turn for Bleak House, but I’m actually finding it really compelling. The structure is taut (if every so often the sentiment is a bit flabby) and it’s such a very dark novel. We were discussing Louisa today and her descent down Mrs Sparsit’s staircase. I don’t know another novelist who could (or would!) stretch out a conceit like that across not just paragraphs but whole chapters. And throughout the novel there is such a tight integration between Dickens’s prose and his thinking, every thought infused with fancy so that as we read we live the novel’s principles. It’s not his most subtle novel, but subtlety will get you only so far, as Trollope conceded when he wrote about “Mr Popular Sentiment” in The Warden: the artist who paints for the millions must use glaring colours, and might make more difference than all his own fine shades of gray. And what subtle novelist could make me cry the way Dickens does every time I read the chapter called “The Starlight”? Before the week is out I want to bring in some excerpts from Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice: it occurred to me during today’s discussion that we could think in more contemporary terms about the social effects of his literary strategies.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction it’s a Victorian kind of week too, because we’ve moved on to P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. James has always been explicit about her interest in 19th-century fiction, especially Austen, Eliot, and Trollope, and I think in many ways Unsuitable Job is very much in their tradition. It is a kind of Bildungsroman, or so I will propose in Wednesday’s class, and the central conflict is between a calculating kind of utilitarianism (on the villain’s part, of course!) and Cordelia’s passionate humanitarianism: “what use is it to make the world more beautiful if the people in it can’t love one another?” she exclaims, and in that moment she is close kin to Louisa as she falls on the floor before her father, Mr. Gradgrind, proclaiming “your philosophy and your teaching will not save me.” Both make the case for the wisdom of the heart over the wisdom of the head.