Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens

Source of book: I own this

“Selfishness is that detestable vice which no one will forgive in others, and no one is without himself.” ~ Henry Ward Beecher

In classical Greek drama, a tragedy is a story about a great man undone by his fatal flaw. Subsequent tragedies by Shakespeare and others have continued this tradition, highlighting the effects of the fatal flaw on the central character of each play. In most cases, this flaw is pride.

To a degree, Martin Chuzzlewit is a tragedy written as a prose novel; or rather, several tragedies. Pride is not the fatal flaw in this book, however. Dickens chooses selfishness as his central theme. This fatal flaw afflicts the majority of the major characters, and threatens to lead each to his or her doom.

The title of the book is ambiguous, as it could refer either to Martin Chuzzlewit, the old man; or to Martin Chuzzlewit, his grandson. Selfishness on both sides (mixed with pride) causes a rift between the Martins when young Martin desires to court young Mary, who old Martin has essentially adopted as his ward. The rift develops in spite of the fact that old Martin ultimately desires the match, but wanted it to be his idea.

Selfishness also drives old Martin’s brother Anthony and Anthony’s son Jonas, who becomes so consumed that he…well, I refuse to spoil the plot. You will have to read it for yourself.

The most selfish character of them all, however, is the unforgettable Seth Pecksniff.  Pecksniff: the name has entered the vernacular as a synonym for hypocrisy.  His selfishness is the worst of all because he disguises it with false humility and fake virtue. Interestingly, this false face is convincing to many, but fails to fool the most selfish of the other characters. Anthony sees right through it, as does Montague Tigg, the con artist extraordinaire. Pecksniff is in this way, the most important and unforgettable character in the book. It is his eventual comeuppance that is the most satisfying: I felt a twinge of pity for every other character at one point or another, but relished the schadenfreude far too much when Pecksniff took his delightful fall.

Dickens was an optimist, however, and did not allow the fatal flaw to destroy all of his characters. Young Martin is able to overcome his selfishness and change his destiny after an ill fated trip to the United States.

The episode in America is the turning point in the drama that reverses the course of events; but it also caused the most controversy among Dickens’ American fans for its harsh depiction of the American character.

Dickens travelled to the United States for a tour in 1842, when he was already a major celebrity. Although he was acclaimed and the tour could be considered a success, Dickens apparently was left with a negative impression. Martin Chuzzlewit, written in the two years following the tour, reflects Dickens’ view of the United States at that time. His descriptions lack his usual sense of humor and good will, and have a rather bitter flavor. This is particularly odd given Dickens’ general ability to write kindly about the various laughable and flawed characters found in his native England. From Oliver Twist’s Nancy to David Copperfield’s Mr. Micawber, to this book’s Mrs. Gamp, Dickens is able to leave a redeeming feature or two in all except for the true villains. In this case, however, he is unable to make even one of his American characters sympathetic. All that is reserved for the British expatriates.

Admittedly, Dickens does have some points in his criticism. He was an abolitionist, so slavery bothered him – rightfully so. However, he demonstrates, perhaps, the natural intolerance present in one recently converted. (Recovering alcoholics are generally the most intolerant of alcohol, for example.)  Britain abolished slavery throughout the empire in 1833. Dickens visited the US in 1942, less than 10 years later.

There is also another likely reason for Dickens’ vitriol. International copyright laws were not yet establish, so unauthorized re-printings of Dickens’ works were readily available in the United States – and Dickens received nothing from these in royalties.

This might explain why Dickens wrote so harshly about American manners. In my opinion, he was a bit hypocritical in this. He viewed them as savages, much in the same way Americans (and the British) viewed African-Americans.

Dickens is on firmer ground writing about the land scandals and swindles common in the United States at the time. Dickens also effectively mirrors these swindles later in the book in the episodes involving Montague Tigg and the Anglo Bengali Life Assurance Company.

Back to the transformation of young Martin, who has traveled to America with Mark Tapley, the eternal optimist. Young Martin is first influenced by Mark, and is truly transformed when he, for the first time, performs a selfless act in nursing Mark through an illness. Young Martin’s change of heart leads, although not immediately, to a reconciliation with old Martin, and redeems that part of the story.

As is usual with Dickens’ longer works, there is a mix of strong and weak writing. Maintaining the quality throughout 800 or more pages released as a serial in a magazine over the course of a year is difficult, to be sure. Dickens did a good job of maintaining the readers’ interest, but sometimes let things get ragged around the edges.

In this particular book, Dickens did a better job with the plot than some of his others. It is a bit less unrealistic than many of his others, and relies less on sentiment and coincidence.  It is also well paced, with the jumps between parallel stories adding to the suspense. Dickens also does a good job of keeping incidents for the most part in line with the narrative arc. He sometimes struggles with this, creating characters which seem there for mere comic relief that have nothing to do with the story.

Where this book is weaker is in the ever present temptation to preach rather than show. I can think of a few passages in which I felt that Dickens had already made his point through the story or dialogue, and didn’t need to hammer it in with a lecture. This is, of course, a notable flaw in Dickens as a whole, and not limited to him either. Plenty of authors simply cannot resist saying, “In case you didn’t get that…”

Dickens’ also has his usual problem with female characters. The caricatures are well done, as usual – quite recognizable as familiar types from the era and place. Gamp, Todgers, Lupine, Mrs. Hominy.  Dickens can write a good female villain, although not in this book. He generally writes scoundrels well.

The two main females fit the Dickens stereotypes: the good, quiet, small, helpful yet helpless sorts. The “ministering angel”, if you will. They seem to have no opinions of their own, and never change or grow. It would be easy to set this down to Victorian chauvinism except for the fact that strong females were present prior to Dickens (see Jane Austen, Jane and Sir Walter Scott). Furthermore, Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, and others wrote compelling female characters. The objection is not only in the “little woman” personality but by the lack of dynamic characters. If women are to be humans, not decorations or caricatures, they must grow, change, and develop as the men are allowed to do.

Martin Chuzzlewit does contain a gallery of memorable characters, in true Dickens fashion.

Mark Tapley is of the few Dickens characters who is both good and non-nauseating. He is essentially, Dickens’ voice in the book – the good humored side of Dickens. He may be unnaturally cheerful, and have a heart too good to be true, but he also is so laughably hard on himself that he can’t be hated.

 I can’t decide for certain if Tom Pinch is annoyingly good or not. On the one hand, he is far too good and patient to be completely likeable. On the other, there are two redeeming qualities. First is that his goodness and his timidity are so intertwined that you want to yell at him to “buck up!” Thus, it is so satisfying when he finally gets his dander up and tells Jonas off. The other is that he is humanized by his unrequited love for Mary. He endures such sorrow throughout the book that one feels he is human – he indeed feels pain and struggles with it.

Mrs. Gamp is a memorable caricature with her own peculiar version of selfishness. The imaginary friend who flatters her is a stroke of genius by Dickens.

Young Martin is a truly dynamic character, and more representative than Dickens’ early protagonist, Oliver Twist. Martin is less loveable than many heroes, particularly at first. His transformation is a key to the story, and it is fairly believable, resulting from hardship and selfless action rather than from a mere epiphany. One also senses that he has a bit more to grow.

I also wanted to mention a particularly interesting parallel between Montague Tigg and his Life Assurance Company and a now defunct local real estate company whose demise also led to widespread losses and criminal charges. In each case, the proprietor used ostentation to give credibility. In both cases, this was quite effective, and also a good reason to be wary of those who flaunt their wealth and good taste.

As a final remark, this book is an inspiration toward living beyond one’s self. The characters that find happiness are those that learn to look beyond their own selfishness and seek the good of others.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Source of Book: Borrowed from the Library

“No one expected you to amount to much. Lori was the smart one, Maureen the pretty one, and Brian the brave one. You never had much going for you except that you worked hard.”

Jeannette Walls heard these words from her mother after she attained success as an adult. Her ability to work hard was the one quality lacking in her eccentric and incompetent parents. Despite their education and intelligence, and even some financial resources, they ended up living homeless in New York City.

I stumbled upon a mention of this book somewhere – I think on a blog – but I’m not completely sure, in connection with a discussion about helicopter parenting. As I have taken to doing the last few years, I jotted down the title and author on my “library list” for future reading. This ever-expanding list primarily contains books that I wouldn’t consider buying for myself, but would prefer to borrow from the library or a friend.

By the time Amanda brought this home for me, I had forgotten what it was about and why it was on the list. However, once I started reading, I had difficulty putting it down. This finally culminated in yet another late night (and early morning if truth be told) spent reading and a groggy day bolstered by coffee. I guess some drag into class or work hung over on ethanol. Books do it for me.

Jeannette Walls was a gossip columnist living in New York State when her husband persuaded her to write about her childhood and family. Walls had essentially hidden this part of her history from the world, worried that revealing it would cost her friends, employment, and respect.

Imagine that Mr. Micawber (from David Copperfield) and Pappy (from Huckleberry Finn) combined their worst traits, but somehow retained a brilliant mind and heart capable of feeling when not completely dulled by alcohol. This would be a decent approximation of Walls’ father Rex. Her mother Rose Mary, on the other hand, drowned her disappointments and pain in her painting. In the middle were Walls and her three siblings.

Walls describes how the family lived as nomads in the California, Nevada, and Arizona deserts during her early childhood. Rex would get odd jobs here and there, but eventually got fired, and the family would flee their creditors to a new place. Later, lacking money and motivation, they settled in West Virginia and a life of crushing poverty. Rex drank away most of the money, and Rose Mary chased her dream of artistic freedom rather than submit to the indignity of employment. Rose Mary inherited some oil land in Texas, and supplement their small income with its royalties, but never determined the value of the land or attempted to sell it. She also stubbornly held on to an inherited house in Phoenix, refusing to either sell or rent it – or even live in it after they moved to West Virginia.

The kids had to fend for themselves. Walls was severely burned at age 3 while cooking. By that time, she could read, and prepare food for herself and the others, but failed to understand the dangers of wearing a tutu.

Not everything was bad, by any means. Walls’ treatment of the story has been described as “generous”, a word that fits perfectly. Walls does not sugar coat anything, but retains a remarkable ability to see the good along with the bad.

The title comes from a house that Rex was always intending to build for the family, if he ever got rich. A competent electrician and draftsman, he drew detailed plans. He also taught the children an amazing variety of things, enabling them to do well in school on the rare occasions they attended.

The early years, particularly, were an example of “free range parenting” combined with a home school style education. Unfortunately, Rex could not beat the alcohol, and things progressively went downhill for him in every way. The good that was there was gradually drowned.

While the story of Walls’ parents is a tragedy, the story of Walls herself and her siblings is much more positive. Their ability to rise above the circumstances forms a notable contrast with the corresponding inability present in the parents.

There are many things to like about this book. First, this is a fascinating story. Walls has a good memory, and a knack for storytelling. The reader is eager to discover what comes next: how bad can it get? Will Walls and her siblings find a way to survive each challenge? Walls does this, not with suspense and drama, but by good writing and superb pacing.

Another strong point of the book was the way that Walls writes each episode from her mind at the time it took place. Her early childhood memories are told with an adult’s command of the language, but with a child’s understanding. The reader is able to feel like a 3 year old, a 7 year old, a teenager, as the story progresses. Thus, the early impressions of her parents give way to the anger and frustration of a responsible young woman.

I also appreciated that Walls does not try to do too much with this book. She avoids the temptation to preach or indulge in political statement. She steers clear of attempting to explain her parents, or worse, psychoanalyze them. They, and the others in the book, remain recognizably human. The language is clear and direct, and best of all, invisible. It never gets in the way of the story.

All said, a worthwhile book, with better writing than I expected.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Source of book: I own this – and so should all poetry lovers
Copyright information: Public Domain

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

This line is one of the best known, and most clichéd lines in all of English poetry. This is unfortunate, as the sonnet from which it comes is much deeper than the misuse of its opening line would suggest.

For those who have followed my continuing posts on poetry, a few things have probably become obvious. First, I am a hopeless romantic. Second, I am partial to poetry written by women. (Emily Dickenson was my first love, followed by Christina Rossetti.)

It was natural, then, that this collection should become one of my most read and most treasured volumes. Elizabeth’s musings on her legendary romance with Robert Browning feel deeper and more delicious every time I read them.

How legendary was her romance? It puzzles me that, so far as I can determine, Hollywood has ignored the story since the 1930s, making only a single movie about her life.

How can this be? All the ingredients are there. Elizabeth Barrett’s tyrannical father forbade all of his children from marrying. Indeed, he disinherited and disowned those who did. Elizabeth was a bit of a prodigy, writing her first poems around age 6, and becoming fluent in Greek and Latin by her early teens. She then contracted an unknown illness at age 15 which left her practically an invalid, and continued to affect her throughout her life.

She continued to live at home, her poetry gaining in both popularity and critical praise. All expected that she would remain an old maid. However, in 1844, when she was 38, a rising young poet named Robert Browning read her latest collection, and was smitten. He began a correspondence with her, meeting her in person a few months later.

Elizabeth had difficulty believing that Robert was sincere. After all, he was 6 years younger, and she was hardly beautiful. Sincere it was, however, and they eloped against her father’s wishes. He promptly disinherited her, and never saw her again. Robert and Elizabeth were married, happily by all accounts, until her death 15 years later.

Sonnets from the Portuguese was written during the courtship and presented to Robert by Elizabeth soon after their marriage.

I will assume my readers are familiar with the sonnet form. (An explanation follows as a footnote.)

The collection originally numbered 43 sonnets, but one additional poem was added in the last edition before Elizabeth’s death, numbered XLII. The poems trace the progression of the romance from its first stirrings until it blossoms into an intertwining of the two lives. Thus, although most of the sonnets can stand alone, they form an arc which is best read in the order presented.

In the first sonnet, the poet describes how her life seemed destined to end in sorrow, until she was grabbed from behind by a figure she assumed to be Death. However, she is soon informed that she has been captured by, “Not Death, but Love.”

Elizabeth fights her feelings, being sure that love is not for her, that she is too flawed to be loveable. However, she finds that she has become entangled. In sonnet VI, she writes,

                                                            What I do
            And what I dream include thee, as the wine
            Must taste of its own grapes.

Furthermore, she discovers that love is beautiful in and of itself, regardless of her perceived worthiness.


            Yet, love, mere love, is beautiful indeed
            And worthy of acceptation. Fire is bright
            Let temple burn, or flax. An equal light
            Leaps in the flame from cedar-plank or weed.

As she comes to accept love, she writes some of the most poignant and deeply true sentiments about love honestly felt and lived. Witness sonnet XXI on love as both words and silence.

            Say over again, and yet once over again,
That thou dost love me. Though the word repeated
Should seem a “cuckoo-song,” as thou dost treat it.
Remember, never to the hill or plain,
Valley and wood, without her cuckoo-strain
Comes the fresh Spring in all her green completed.
Belovèd, I, amid the darkness greeted
By a doubtful spirit-voice, in that doubt’s pain
Cry, “Speak once more—thou lovest!” Who can fear
Too many stars, though each in heaven shall roll,
Too many flowers, though each shall crown the year?
Say thou dost love me, love me, love me—toll
The silver iterance!—only minding, Dear,
To love me also in silence with thy soul.

Mixed with the ecstasy of love is also contemplation of her dreams, her disappointments, and her fears. She realizes that what she has been given far exceeds all of these. (From sonnet XXVI)

            Because God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.

These poems remain relevant today for any of us who have or aspire to have, true love. Deep love comes from a place unknown to the popular culture of the last several generations. Love cannot be based solely on surface considerations, and cannot be conditioned on what the beloved has to offer. Love is somehow bigger than all these – it cannot be entirely explained.

From the ancient:

            “My lover is mine and I am his.” Song of Solomon

To the modern:

            “If your heart settles on me, I’m for the taking:
            Take me for longing, or leave me behind.”
                        Alison Krauss and Union Station

This truth has been acknowledged. Elizabeth Barrett Browning states it beautifully in one of my favorites.


            If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love's sake only. Do not say
'I love her for her smile—her look—her way
Of speaking gently,—for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day'—
For these things in themselves, Beloved, may
Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity's wiping my cheeks dry,—
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love's sake, that evermore
Thou mayst love on, through love's eternity.  

Finally, let us put to rest the cliché and the trite misuse of sonnet XLIII. This is not a dreamy minded teen playing with flowers. This is not a flippant list. This is a noble attempt to express the intertwining of two souls who shall part only by death.


How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Footnote on the Sonnet form:

The sonnet is my favorite poetic form, both for its intrinsic beauty and for its requirement of rigid discipline.

A sonnet has 14 lines of 5 feet and 10 syllables each. (Iambic pentameter) There are two basic forms for the rhyme scheme.

In the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, used by Browning in this collection, the first 8 lines are rhymed abbaabba, with the second section of 6 lines rhymed in one of several variations. The most common are cdecde and cdcdcd. Browning’s sonnets are generally the second of these.

The first part of the poem typically balances the second. For example, the first may pose a question which is answered by the second. They may provide a contrast.

In the Shakespearian sonnet, there are three groups of four lines each, followed by a two line group. These are rhymed abab cdcd efef gg. The usual format presents an idea in each of the quatrains, with a conclusion stated in the closing couplet.

While the form may seem stifling, some of the greatest poets of the English language have found inspiration in its very rigidity. Milton and Shakespeare in particular mastered the form. I would certainly add Elizabeth Barrett Browning to that list.