Reading Notes on Some English Classics 

José Ángel García Landa

University of Zaragoza, 1981-1982
(Online edition 2005) 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Thomas More, Utopia

William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra

William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels

Henry Fielding, Tom Jones

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano

William Golding, Lord of the Flies

Graham Greene, The Human Factor

 

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
 
In reading an alliterative romance of the fourteenth century such as is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I had to get used to two things, namely alliteration and romance. Alliteration as an exclusive poetical device is as strange to me as rhyme would be to a Roman poet. When used too evidently in a poem (as Blas de Otero does so often) it may sound irksome and irritating. That is, I can understand the possible beauty of the technique, but I can't appreciate it; while I was reading the poem I made an effort not to notice all those words beginning with the same sound in the same line.
 
Romance, as most medieval literature, can't be read with the same eyes used to read a contemporary text. Sometimes a medieval work is so different from our own tastes that we must fall back on a purely historical consideration to give it any value at all: it doesn't appeal to our aesthetic sense. Sometimes we need cartloads of data from the age it was written in to appreciate its value. And sometimes we can easily accept its simplicity, with the added value of a quaint air impossible to find in modern works. Such is the case with Sir Gawain. We gladly submit our imagination just as its original audience did, and the fantasy, the beautiful descriptions, the melancholy, are much the same to us.
 
Only at the end, when the plot is unravelled and we know why the Green Knight is green, why he acted as he did, etc., do we exclaim that this is, really, too much, too naïve. If I had written the poem, I would have suppressed all this and would... etc. As this is useless, we have still the historical considerations left. Maybe the poet felt compelled to link in this fashion the story of Gawain to the rest of the Arthurian cycle, as a mere episode of Morgan the Fay's battle against King Arthur.
 
The tale is developed in a cyclic way, following the traditional pattern of initial stage, trial and return.
 
The initial stage is presented as one of mirth and joy in King Arthur's court. The defiance the Green Knight bids is in reality a challenge to attempt reaching perfection (by keeping a fatal promise). Gawain accepts the threat, he will be the chosen one to submerge himself into the unknown and death (the atmosphere of the poem when Gawain leaves King Arthur's Camelot could hardly be more explicite and accurate in the description fo an unknown world, a kind of hell). It is interesting to note that though this descent into hell still has the traditional appearance of a physical travel to a strange land, the forces of evil and the magical trophies are not the traditional ones in folk tales. It is true that Gawain is in the hands of sorcerers, but they are only observers of the real fight between Gawain's desire for purity and perfection and his fear of death, not counting the Lady's "invitations". And it is likewise true that Gwwain wins a magical girdle, but this is not the most important thing. He has won above all the knowledge that a sin cannot be held away from view for a long time, that it is just as shameful to be impure with or without other people knowing it, and, above all, that it is his care for his own life which prevented his reaching perfect purity. "Mortals can't be perfect" seems to be the opinion of the poet, of Sir Bertilak, and of King Arthur and the Round Table. Sir Bertilak understands Gawain and judges him less severely than Gawain judges himself. He even invites him to his castle again. And the green girdle that is to Gawain a public penitence and a shameful token is carried by the other knights as a high distinction.
 
By the way, I ought to wear one of those girdles myself for a hidden sin: I read the book in its modern English translation, and I hope you'll excuse this sin as the Green Knight did.

 

 

 
 
Thomas More, Utopia
 
Utopia is meant to be the model of a perfect society based on Reason; the reader must admire it in order to become aware of the imperfections of his own society. But in its perfection it forgets one important thing­freedom, be it of movement, of speech or of religion (although this last is supposed to exist there, it is only an illusion: all inhabitants share a natural deism, and atheism is outlawed). Let's see an example: A Utopian is caught wandering outside his town without a permission from the authorities. He is severely scolded and sent to his family in shame. Some days later, he is surprised again: this time he is made a slave. Supposing he doesn't find this to be a just punishment, and rebels, he is killed "like a wild dog".
 
Living together in society always implies giving up a part of our individual liberty. It is the clashes between individual wills that provoke conflicts in society. So, More says, a society which doesn't tolerate individual disagreements will be the perfect one. For the sake of society we must crush individualism. More, however, doesn't crush it as throughly as Huxley in his Brave New World, for instance. He allows that "all men aren't good", that is, some men don't submit to social rules of behaviour. So we must allow that Utopia isn't perfect, its inhabitants aren't perfect although most of them approach perfection. It is the institutions that are perfect, because they deal with criminals and individualists in such a way that they are no longer a threat for the vast majority which accepts to follow the path of the law: and because its educational system is appropriate to maintain those perfect institutions by bringing up individuals to respect law. That is, Utopians know God is on their side, on the side of their perfect institutions, and they don't bother to reflect upon justice, or good and evil. They know the status quo is the supreme good. That is, they aren't rational at all, they rely on faith and on tradition. Only one Utopian ever pondered over these problems, seeking to make a better world through the use of reason, and that is the founder of the State, Utopus. He thought for all the others and reached a definitive conclusion, a perfect formula for happiness. The imperfect society he found upon his arrival on the island justified this rational activity. Once Utopian institutions are established, there is no sense in his letting other men spoil his work of art with their own ideas about government, and he prevents that criticism with laws whose aim is to immobilize individualism. And here we find the tragical error of this conception. Utopian institutions are not perfect, as we said before; they are perfect only in Utopus's opinion, and all following generations sacrify their capacity of judgement to that of the legislator. Of course, that big selfish Utopus is More himself.
 
And his conception isn't as bad as it could bee, if seen in the context of the Renaissnace. But seen in that context, it has a terrible defect. It is utopian, and More knows it very well. On the whole, though it must be confessed that he is both a very learned man, and a person who has obtained a great knowledge of the world, I cannot perfectly agree ot everything he has related; however, there are many things in the Commonwealth of Utopia that I rather wish, than hope, to see followed in our governments.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra
 
I expected this play to be, above all, a love tragedy, but I found a history play instead. There is too much of Pompeius (junior), Octavius and Lepidus, and too little of Cleopatra. Shakespeare intended this play to be the continuation of his Julius Caesar. That play ended with the final defeat of Caesar's murderers at the hands of the triumvirs Octavius, Antony and Lepidus. In Antony and Cleopatra we witness the gradual struggle between Antony and Octavius: only one of them can emerge out of it holding absolute power, and that will be Octavius. It is interesting to compare the endings of both plays: in Julius Caesar the words refer to Brutus, in Antony and Cleopatra to Cleopatra:
 
Julius Caesar:

According to his virtue let us use him,
With all respect and rites of burial.
Within my tent his bones to-night shall lie,
Most like a soldier, order'd honourably.
So, call the field to rest: and let's away,
To aprt the glories of this happy day
(V,iv) 
Antony and Cleopatra:

She shall be buried by her Antony (...)
their story is
No less in pity, than his glory, which
Brought them to be lamented. Our army shall,
In solemns show, attend this funeral.
(V,ii)
   
In both it is Octavius who speaks. The two plays can be seen as the inevitable run towards the concentration of power in a single persona and the effect that this sort of destiny has on those who are caught in it (Caesar, Antony, Octavius) or those that thy to prevent it (Brutus, Cassius, Casca). Brutus loved Caesar, but he killed him nevertheless, trying to run counter the course of History. Antony and Octavius were friends, but it was inevitable that one of them should kill the other. In the words of Agrippa,

And strange it is,
that Nature must compel us to lament
Our most persisted deeds.
(Antony and Cleopatra V.i) 

So much for history. But of course, the main interest in the play is in Antony and Cleopatra, just as in Julius Caesar it was in the tragedy of Brutus, and not in the historical events. Antony is accused of being a toy in the hands of Cleopatra: to the other Romans he is "adulterous Antony," who "is become the bellows and the fan / to cool a gypsy's lust" (Antony and Cleopatra I.i). But Cleopatra sees (or at least makes Antony see) things in a very different way:

Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows bent; none of our parts so poor
But was a race of Heaven
(Antony and Cleopatra I,iii)
And Shakespeare draws Cleopatra in such a way that both accounts of the facts can be true; in fact they are both true, because the value of facts is in the interpretation we make of them. Cleopatra betrays Antony and sometimes uses him ("If you find him sad , / say I am dancing; if in mirth, report / that I am sudden sick. ­ I,iii)., but she doesn't laugh at him; she just can't help being like that. Sometimes Shakespeare seems to laugh at the limitations of man's subjective point of view. For instance, in the last scene, Cleopatra is preparing her suicide and is, therefore, feeling in a tragic mood. But the person who brings the aspics which must bite her is a clown, and his mood is completely out of key with Cleopatra's; she tries to dismiss him all the time to return to her "immortal longings." The problem is that the reader or spectator is in Cleopatra's mood, too, and the clown nearly spoils the whole tragedy.
 
  
 
 
 
 
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
 

I cannot say I have liked this play. In fact, I have only liked some scenes with Ariel and Caliban. Idon't find the rest of it to be especially intelligent, amuising or even capable of holding the reader's attention through suspense. Perhaps it is different for an audience; some of the scenes must be very colourful on the stage, but that depends more on the producer than on the actual text. There is no real plot, just people walking around on an island till they finally meet. The story of Prospero does not take place on stage, it is told by him. And the play isn't about his problems to recover his dukedom: on that point he simply says to his brother "give me back my dukedom" and he gets it back. Miranda and Ferdinand would serve to fill up time in a normal play; their story isn't too interesting. And it would take a primitive audience indeed to believe that Sebastian and Antonio's plot on one hand, and Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban's on the other had the least chance of succeeding. Besides, it would take good actors to make the comic scenes of this last trio really comic.

I only find interesting Caliban's relationship with Prospero and Miranda at first, and with Trinculo and Stephano later. If Caliban appeared in the dress of an American Indian, Shakespeare would be a prophet. Anyway, it would be interesting to know which sources he used for the character of Caliban. And it is a pity Caliban tried to rape Miranda, for that shows Shakespeare is on Prospero's side. Of course, I am on Caliban's.

It seems that this work is Shakespeare's most evolved conception of stage action. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but I'd prefer it to be an entertaining evolved conception.

 
 
 
 
 
 
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels
 
I first read this book several years ago, and I didn't remember it to be so funny or so sharp. Perhaps at the time I let myself fall into the trap that Swift sets for the reader: the completely serious tone employed by Gulliver can fool you into thinking that Swift identifies himself with the ideas of his character, and you believe his words and swallow increasingly cynical statements until you reach the end of the book, where you accept a phrase like this without thinking:
 
As soon as I entered my house, my wife took me in her arms, and kissed me; at which, having not been used to the touch of that odious animal for many years, I fell in a swoon for almost an hour.
 
I suppose it was that attitude which many of Swift's early readers adopted. But it is much better to dissociate the created author, Lemuel Gulliver, from Swift, and to think all the time of Swift while Gulliver is speaking. Then we see to what extent the Dean is pulling our leg, and hundreds of passages reveal themselves as ironical:
The servants cut our bread into cones, cylinders, parallelograms and several other mathematical figures.
 
For the law thinks it reasonable indulgence, that those who are condemned without any fault of their own, to a perpetual continuance in the wold should not have their misery doubled with the load of a wife.
 
. . . in most herds, there was a sort of ruling Yahoo . . . who was always more deformed in body and mischievous in disposition than any of the rest.
 
etc, etc etc.

 

 
But not everything in the book is satire. Swift gets really involved in the story he is writing; he loves to give an impression of reality through the use of detail and the picturesque. Sometimes details are there in order to enliven the satire, but very often they are used for their own sake. Rabelais, another satirist who made use of giants, very rarely indulges in the picturesque descriptions we find here. His are exaggerated and seek only humour; Swift cares about the verisimilitude of his details. After all, this is the century of the novel, and even though Swift's work cannot be called a novel, it shares the same spirit of realism which is found, for instance, in Robinson Crusoe.
 
I liked very much chapter IV.viii, which deals with the virtues of the Hoyhnhnms. It is indeed a marvellous society, with no need for emotions or other low feelings. And everything is so well organised: even the number of foals one couple mush have is determined by the needs of society. Pure eighteenth century. Not even Huxley would have been to devise a braver new world.
 
 

 


 


Henry Fielding, Tom Jones

"The provision which we have here made is no other than human nature" This statement by Henry Fielding in the first chapter of his work The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling may account for the nearly 850 pages of the novel, to be sure the longest I have read. Of course, it is rather the author's way of presenting the content which inflates the book: as he himslef says in the second chapter, "Reader, I think proper, before we proceed any further together, to acquaint thee that I intend to digress, through this whole history, as often as I see occasion, of which I am myself a better judge than any pitiful critics whatever."

And digress he does. The novel is divided in eighteen books, of which every first chapter is purely digressive. Fielding himself says these introductory chapters might very well have been interchangeable, and even used in a different work. They consist in general in the author's reflections over the "new province of writing" he claims to have established. Though these, Fielding says, are a mere means to augment the reader's interest in the main story by arousing his impatience, they are written in such a pleasant and good-humoured style that the reader finds them as entertaining as the rest, and they do not seem at all stranger to the plot. Furthermore, sometimes the plot seems stranger to them, because the author's voice starring in these chapters totaly dominates the narrative in the others. This voice doesn't allow the reader to forget he is only reading a novel, and sometimes the characters seem mere puppets. This voice usually comments on the actions, referring them to a general pattern, or follows the trend of the century by making mock epic invocations to the muses in an ironical way, etc. It could be said that Fielding's attitude towards his work and his way of narrating are an hypertrophy of certain attitudes of Cervantes. This influence has also been seen in the opposition of Tom Jones and his servant Partridge, which reminds of that existing between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, but this can't be pushed too far.

That habit of making general comments on the plot, judging the actions and referring them to established patterns, isn't casual: Fielding wants to depict human specimens, not as individuals but as representatives of a "humour", as Ben Jonson would put it. Though the author warns the reader against this interpretation, the fact is that his characters are conventional: some are meant to be good, some others bad, and so we find the perfect bigot, the perfect hypocrite, the perfect young woman, etc. Some of the characters wear their self on their name, following the tradition of Ben Jonson and the morality plays, a little disguised. Thus, Tom Jones's benefactor, the man of perfect goodness, is called Mr. Allworthy, and lives in Paradise Hall. Squire Western's "shadow" is called Parson Supple; the typical eighteenth-century philosopher who stresses Reason, the "eternal fitness of things", and Morality, is called Square; and the bigotic clergyman who educates Tom using a large amount of birch is called Thwackum, a name which doesn't lack onomatopoeic qualities.

With such premises, the work turns out to be a fight between the forces of good and evil. The plot consists basically in how Tom, a foundling, manages to get the reward he deserves for his natural goodness in spite of the treacherous and evil doings of his half-brother Blifil. The reward consists in Mr. Allworthy's fortune, originally intended for Blifil, and the hand of his true love, Sophia Western, despite the many material difficulties and misunderstandings that seem to open a gap between them. This plot is developed perfectly, each detail contributing to the whole. I think it is due to this that Coleridge, or some other, ranked Tom Jones with The Alchemist and Oedipus Rex as the best plot in all literature. Since then, we have read Agatha Christie and we find this construction too artifactitious. When Sophia falls down from her horse, the reader says to himself that that incident will be referred to later on, and out of the fiction we go again. The ultimate end of that architecture is to explain how Tom could get caught in the nets of his enemies notwithstanding his good intentions, and how experience changed his nature from wild to mature, so as to m make sure that he is worthy enough to marry Sophia without any risk of ther being deserted later on.

The curious thing is that this radical change occurs in less than one month. But we can't blame the author, since he has all the time handled his characters' feelings at his own will, with some unaccountable changes of attitude of a lesser scope. Anyway, one thing is sure: the "history of Tom Jones" is as completely finished with the protagonist's marriage as it could be with his death. From the moment Tom is married he is supposed to lose all interest, which is another of the many irritating features that an eighteenth-century novel has for the modern reader.

Indeed, if an author thinks proper to abandon his hero in this way, it is probable that we will find there a clue to which were the ideals that inspired such a work. Tom is born an illegitimate child, but finds a great benefactor, Allworthy. His excessibly emotional temper and a love affair with an undeserving girl lead him to lose this protection. Now we have a penniless young man alone in the world: he can use his good looks to get out of the pit, but fidelity to his true love prevails, and at the end it is his good actions that reconcile him to Mr. Allworthy. Tom is now at the top of goodness, but he has gained the experience of evil (Blifil's plans, the rigid bigoty of Thwackum, the mischievous artfulness of Lady Bellaston, etc.). With this and the acknowledgement of his past errors, he is prepared to lead a righteous life without any danger of becoming a gullible instrument in the hands of the baddies, as was Mr. Allworthy with his perfect goodness. Perfect goodness, Fielding says, is incapable of confronting evil.

By the way, what is goodness and badness? Goodness: Love, Moral Righteousness, Generosity, Tolerance, Fidelity. Badness: Greed, Hidden Schemes, Hipocrisy, Bigotry, Quarrelsomeness. Poetic justice dominates the whole, but in a temperate way: the punishment of the bad ones has to be inflicted by the good ones, and so it can't be very rough. It is enough to see their ambitions frustrated.

Other characters can't be classified as good or bad. They are rather neutral, moved by the ideals of their particular social level and not by a mischievous or righteous mind. Such is Mr. Western, Sophia's father, who wants his daughter to marry Blifil because he is rich and a legitimate child. It is not greed or morals that lead him to act thus, but simple habit. Social life in the high spheres of London is depicted as dull and false; religion is fossilised under attitudes stranger to it, and common people, such as innkeepers, are moved by their sole interest. But all these are dealt with in comic episodes, and the author is seen contemplating the scene with an ironical smile. He continually appears to be saying that it takes all kinds of people to make the world. And it is precisely this good-humoured presentation of the contents that makes this book not only readable, but very agreeable and not a bit tiring in spite of the previously mentioned 850 pages.

 


 

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

An old convict, Abel Magwitch, has made a fortune in Australia, and decides to use it to turn a boy, who once helped him when he escaped, into a gentleman. But his reasons aren't simply kindness or gratitude: he wants to get a kind of revenge on society by "owning" a gentleman. Magwitch has a daughter, though he be lieves she died. She has been brought up under the name of Estella by a rich old woman, Miss Havisham. Neither are her reasons unselfish: she has educated her so as to turn her into a woman without feelings, destined to break the hearts of men and perform Miss Havisham's revenge on the male sex: she had been cheated by her fiancé. The novel tells the young gentleman Pip's life: he is used in his childhood to "train" Estella's power on men, and he dreams of becoming a gentleman so that he may have a chance with her; he wants to escape from the forge where he is an apprentice to his friend Joe. When his dreams become true, he falls into believing that Miss Havisham is his secret benefactor. He thinks he only has to let things follow their way to make him happy. But his dream turns into a nightmare when he discovers the truth and when Stella marries an odious, worthless rival. Pip has to abandon his great expectations and return to reality. When he meets Estella several years later she is no longer the proud woman he knew: she, too, has suffered as the result of letting another person shape her at her will.

The plot is well written, maybe even too well. For instance, I see no need for Stella to be Magwitch's daughter, or for Magwitch to work for Miss Havisham's ex-fiancé. I like more the characters and ambiances, such as Miss Havisham at Satis House, in her old wedding dress, with the clocks stopped at the hour when she knew she had been cheated, and her wedding cake on the table, turned into a heap of cobwebs and dust. Or the "abject Pumblechook", who belongs to a special Dickensian type: the character is handled so as to make him odious to the reader, who longs for his punishment. He is never punished. Indeed, the old principle of poetic justice doesn't work at its best in this novel. The hero loses the heroine to the most loathsome character in the novel (if we except Pumblechook). When they meet again at the end, their time has passed away, and they are not in love. Only theblacksmith Joe and his wife Biddy are happy, because they don't yearn to reach impossible heights, as Pip does. Their love is based on kindness and good nature, not on admiration, as is that of Pip towards Stella. When Pip realizes he has become a snob and has not returned to Joe and Biddy the love they gave himm, he decides to go back to them; after all, his expectations had already disappeared. Bu t he finds it's too late: he once despised Biddy for Estella's sake; now he finds she hasn't been waiting for him, she has done what he ought to have done years ago ­ she has married Joe, who is a gooda man, instead of looking for dangerous and brilliant roads to follow. That is, we must forget our great expectations. It seems Dickens was already an old man when he wrote this book.

 

 

Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

I had never heard of Hardy before I decided to read this book, which was because of its title ­ Far from the Madding Crowd... that sounds like black humour, something between Swift and Lautréamont. Surely it is worth reading, I thought. And worth reading it was, although it is not at all the kind of thing I expected. In fact, the little humour it contains is by no means black.

It is a kind of realistic pastoral, with a leaning towards tragedy and regional novel. The story tells of Bathsheba Everdene's gradual "taming" until she accepts the simple life and simple love that Gabriel Oak offers her. In one of the first chapters of the book, when Oak is a farmer and Bathsheba has no possessions of her own, he goes to her aunt's house to make a proposal of marriage, and he gets the double refusal of Bathsheba and her aunt. The young girl thinks she is too good for him.

At the end of the book, Gabriel is a simple shepherd, an employee of Bathsheba's, who is now the owner of a large farm. But it is she who goes one night to his poor house and accepts the ancient offer. Now experience has badly treated her wantonness and her faith in romance. The former led her to marry a rich farmer, Mr Boldwood, who fell in love with her and led a miserable life. The latter is shattered after her marriage with Sgt Troy, a kind of Don Juan who doesn't love her.

Bathsheba doesn't care about the future results of her actions: she thinks she can have fun at the present moment and that the future will come by itself. But it is ourselves who make our own future and that of those around us: each of our actions may leave a long trail behind it, and hurt other people. Bathsheba sends a valentine to Boldwood and then forgets about it. And later she is terrified when she sees the effects of the letter on him. Then she tries to repair that evil by being kind to Boldwood, and gives him hopes of marriage. But that was another false step: when Troy enters the scene she can't keep that course of action, and Boldwood gets even more hurt. It is only when her turn comes to suffer, when she is despised and abandoned by Troy, that she learns her lesson.

At the end we get a good display of poetical justice: Troy is killed by Boldwood, and Bathsheba marries Gabriel. Troy had to die, that is clear. Otherwise, Gabriel's love would be perpetually frustrated. He is never pleasant to the reader, and at the end has become a mean character, who only reappears to torture Bathsheba and try to lead an easy life without any work. And Boldwood has to be his killer, to remove a further obstacle from Gabriel's way; his obsession, his rude manners and his nearly ridiculous vehemence make him deserve his end. He couldn't wait, and that ended by making him odious to Bathsheba. Oak, on the other hand, waits until the last minute, and he gets his reward.

I like Hardy's style best when it is the narrator who speaks; some of his descriptions are really beautiful, and his moral and philosophic ideas aren't negligible. But when he lets his characters speak, he nearly ruins the book. Take for instance Bathsheba's and Oak's first conversation, or again that of Boldwood's love declaration to Bathsheba. The dialogues between minor characters are just as unreal, but as they are clearly ironical, with a nearly comic function, the effect is not so conspicuous.

 

 

 

 

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

I expected a great deal more from this book. I first heard about it when studying American literature; it was supposed to be an ambiguous horror story, dealing with a governess who sees ghosts ­ maybe real ones, maybe real ones, maybe imaginary ones. The interpretation implies that the governess is a hysterical woman, who projects her own fears and torments on the children she believes to be saving.

But I found nothing like this in the book. The tale is told in the first person by the governess. The reader always trusts the narrator without any need of anyone telling him to do so. But in this case Henry James takes care to have the story introduced by someone who knew this governess very well, and that someone tells us she was a person of great common sense. This is rather superfluous for the reader, who doesn't have any reasons for believing in this character's reliability: we might as well ask for a third person to swear he was telling the truth, and so on. The effect of this episode is rather the opposite. The immediate sumbission of the reader to the story disappears; now the story is seen merely as a "ghost story" told among many others; we are separated from real involvement in the action and assume a double role of spectators. It is more difficult to feel fear in this situation.

Of course, we also become aware of another problem which is introduced by this episode. Is the governess lying? Now we no longer accept her veracity in an implicit way.

But this doesn't alter the sense fo the book. If the governess lies, we have no means of knowing it, since she is our only source of information. We cannot judge objective facts apart from her viewpoint because she is the one who tells us about the facts, just as she tells us her intepretation of them. If we believe she is inventing Miles's reaction just before his death (and his very death, indeed), we might as well close the book and forget it, for those facts can only be explained if we accept her point of view.

I think that the opposition good-bad in the book is not ambiguous at all. It would be bettter to interpret the book as a simple sotry of innocence threatened by corruption ­ a theme not so uncommon in Henry James.

As a ghost story it is certainly not exciting at all. The least we can ask from a thriller is to be thrilled by it, but there is no horror in this book. The ghosts are not frightening at all for the characters, except for the housekeeper, who doesn't see them. And the heroine faces them like normal people, explaining that, strangely enough, she is not frightened by them. The reader can't be expected to experience any emotion with these premises.

In my opinion, Henry James didn't try to write a mysterious story, but a clear tale in which innocence and corruption face each other in a chemically pure state.

 

 

 

 

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Right from the beginning of this book, you realize you are in a new and strange world, a world seen through the eyes of a man who not only is a great artist, but also knows he is a a great artist and is proud of it. When you close the book, you are convinced that Joyce must have been a great egotist. That is, if Joyce = Dedalus. Perhaps Joyce read other books than those of Dedalus, or perhaps his religious feelings were not quite the same, but Joyce's attitude towards life must be that of Dedalus.

I had no idea that a series of sermons such as chapter III, dealing with Hell and sin, could be so interesting to read. But the best moment of the novel is the end of chapter IV, when Stephen meets the bird-girl at the beach. The worst, on the contrary, is the conversation on art in chapter V. It is boring and wholly uninteresting. It isn't even original.

Each of Joyce's narrative passages is vivid and beautiful; each of the conversations is realistic (and sometimes obscure). Stephen's diary at the end is specially attractive, though I don't wholly understand the allusion to Dante Alighieri and his apparatus.

I've liked all five books [by Golding, Hardy, Huxley and Shakespeare], and I will read more by each author. But of all five, I will only re-read this one, egotistic though its author be.

 

 

 

Aldous Huxley, Point counter Point

"The essence of the new way of looking is multiplicity... What I want to do is to look with all those eyes at once. With religious eyes, with scientific eyes, economic eyes, "homme moyen sensuel" eyes..."

Thus speaks Philip Quarles, alias Aldous Huxley, when he explains to his wife, Elinor, a new novel he is planning. If Quarles had written his novel, the result would have been very much like Point Counter Point. The novel has dozens of significant characters fluttering around each other, each with his peculiar view of the world. However, Huxley's assertion seems to imply that he is going to be some kind of invisible spy, just recording other people's views. This is a fundamental lie, not only because he doesn't do so: he doesn't even try. The characters in the novel are only characters, although magnificently drawn ones. This is a good reason to be suspicious about any claim of objectivity. Secondly, Huxley judges his characters, not in a direct way, but following a treacherous technique, consisting in the criticism of "reliable" characters, or the irony of presenting the characters' actions in such a way that they contradict their ideas; that is, the actions are shown with an implicit judgment, and the characters are not given the right to tell how they interpret what they do.

No character is, however, entirely reliable, except maybe Mark Rampion, the artist who appeals to feeling in a world of thought. Philip Quarles is reliable only in his own field: intelligence, ideas. But when it comes to real life, he is seen to be completely maimed. His defect is an excessively intellectual view of things. For instance:

Philip and Elinor are watching a fascist parade led by their friend, Everard Webley. Both are moved by the greatness of the scene, but their reaction towards that feeling is different. Elinor surrenders to it; Philip dissects it intellectually, he analyzes the sound of the trumpets, the economic ideas which are hidden behind the moving speech Everard delivers. He grasps the truth, or at least a fair approach to it, but at the price of killing his feelings. And he does it all the time. By the way, Everard Webley is another "good" character: he is uncorrupted by intellectualism. He doesn't think about his actions, and sit with the others to analyse himself. He acts, he feels, and everything he does is done in a downright way.

Elinor is an intermediate character: at the beginning, she is judging with ideas that are not her own, but those of her husband, of her social environment. She finds Everard's love declaration ridiculous, but she likes it nevertheless. She chooses to follow her heart and not her mind.

Spandrell and Illidge do the opposite thing. They murder Webley, but at the end they are disgusted with themselves because they were driven by ideas, not by feelings. They belong to a secret Communist association. Illidge believes in thoose ideals, while Spandrell is simply a weary aristocrat in search of strong emotions. Spandrell uses Illidge, he drives him to murder in order to prove his commitment to the cause and his decision. But he himself is also an instrument of his confused mind: he likes to see himself as the incarnation of evil and corruption. He doesn't like corruption, but the idea of it. His sin is the same Quarles commits, and he doesn't even have Quarles's clear intelligence.

There are many other problems and solutions in the book. Lord Edward is the "scientific eye": he heas the broadest point of view. He sees man as a natural being, a dirty animal that destroys natural balance. Obviously, this is the ultimate truth. But Lord Edward misses completely the point when it comes to everyday life. He is like a person with his sight on the horizon that stumbles with a stone under his feet.

Walter Bidlake, the "homme moyen sensuel", is, on the contrary, too near-sighted. He suffers too much because of his affair with Lucy, which is a completely intrascendent thing when seen with an average scope. Although Huxley promises a series of slices of life, disposed in a musical way (a counterpoint) without any plot, each character is the hero of a little novel, with its plot and its ending. There are few loose threads: John Bidlake, little Phil, Webley and Spandrell die at the end, Marjorie finds relief from Walter's infidelities in religion, Burlap succeeds in seducing Beatrice and in getting rid of Ethel Cobbett, etc.

On the whole, the book is a sort of indictment of our modern world and its ideals, a realistic Brave New World. By the way, what were Huxley's political ideas?

 

 

 

 

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

It is a relief to read a book of essays like this after so many novels. It brings you in contrast with the real world, even if it is the world of the 1930s, in a much more direct way than a novel. Of course, its claims to be considered literature diminish accordingly. This is above all a pamphlet, and any literary shape it may have is there in order to make detail more vivid. In a novel (if it is a good novel) the opposite happens: reality may be there in various degrees to create an aesthetic effect.

Of course the problems usually found in novels are just as "real" as those Orwell deals with, but when confronted to them, they seem more trifles. Novels dealing with these subjects ­ the misery of the lower classes ­ rarely manage to be so impressive, to render such a gigantic picture of this world. They tend to concentrate on one person or family, instead of giving the whole image. Only Germinal, by Zola, made such an impression on me.

Orwell deals first with the working conditions of miners, then with the problems of housing in the slums of the industrial cities, and then with the situation of the class system in Britain. He finishes by giving some advice on Socialist parties improving their images.

The part dealing with the class system is, in my opinion, the best of the book: Orwell seems to be continually watching himself to avoid his falling into the trap of forgetting that class distinctions are much subtler than we think and that it is useless to believe that the barriers don't exist any longer or that anyone who tries can jump over them.

But the last section, the one dealing with ways for Socialists to improve their image and win the votes of the larger part of the population -­ is completely crazy. He says that all people wearing sandals ought to be driven off the parties, because they prevent "decent people" from taking Socialism as seriously as they ought to.

I, as a spokesman of the guild of sandal-wearers, solemnly accuse Orwell of being a Fascist Pig and a Running Dog of the Bourgeois Capitalist Militarist System.

 

 

 

Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano

I have finished this novel with the impression of not having fully appreciated it, for several reasons. First, to understand it fully you must sit at your table with a reasonable quantity of bottles of tequila, mescal, anisette, absinthe, wine, beer and rum. You'll get a little closer to the Consul's sensibility.

Then, this book is one of those that demand a second reading. The first chapter takes place one year after the rest of the book, and it only makes full sense if read once you know the story. And the rest must be much more enjoyable once you have "made friends" with the rest of the characters, which is by no means easy in this case.

Be as it may, it is a book which must be read slowly; its style is baroque and complicated, full of references to things that have been mentioned earlier; it reminds me of Faulkner, above all of Absalom, Absalom! The approach to the stream of consciousness technique is also similar: we don't get the characters' impressions directly, as the character experiences them. We are instead presented with them through the author's voice. The author is almost invisible: it is a mouthpiece for the characters' observations and feelings. The moral judgements belong entirely to the characters.

The theme of the book is in its deepest sense the absurdity of human life. The three main characters ­ the Consul Geoffrey Firmin, his wife Yvonne and his half-brother Hugh ­ feel this absurdity and react to it in different ways.

The Consul escapes the horror of seeing things as they are by means of drink. His problem is not that he can't stop drinking; indeed, drink is the only thing which keeps him alive. If he were cured from it, he would probably commit suicide.

Hugh's way out is "senseless action." His case is not so desperate as the Consul's, but it is of the same kind. These characters have a monstrous self-knowledge; they understand life too well to bear it. The Consul tries to kill his thoughts by drinking, Hugh tries to act so as not to think. But it is too late: he knows the motives which lead him to act, he doesn't behave "innocently," but in relation to a world of ideas. This is made clear, for instance, when we are told of his life as a singer and as a sailor, especially when he changes ships, from the Philoctetes to theOedipus Tyrannus, just because the latter was older, dirtier, more alike to the idea he had of ships before he decided to face adventure. Hugh leads a kind of life, externally interesting and fortunate, which would be envied by many people. But when seen from the inside, he feels it is boring and rotten.

Yvonne is much less of an intellectual mind, and she sees hope in life, although she despairs of the one she has led up to the moment. She thinks that Geoffrey and her can start anew, they can "be reborn." But he must leave drinking and settle somewhere else, in the North, far away from surrealistic Mexico, where corruption seems to be in the very air. For one moment she will convince the Consul and Hugh that a different life is possible. But at the end she feels how the little house in the woods she had dreamed of is afire. The characters would have to change their souls to make that life possible. But a change is no longer possible, and it is false to pretend it, as Hugh does. These people have entered a labyrinth from which they cannot get out, but we also know that, if they got out, they would be impoverished:

The Consul felt a pang. Ah, to have a horse, and gallop away, singing, away to someone you love, perhaps, into the heart of all simplicity and peace in the world; was not that like the opportunity affroded man by life itself? Of course not. Still, just for a moment, it had seemed that it was.

 

William Golding, Lord of the Flies

 We could classify this book as a typical representative of a subdivision of the utopian genre: the "shipwreck" genre. The utopian genre deals with the best way of organizing a perfect society; generally the author describes an isolated society on an island, or something like that. The "shipwreck" gentre differs in that it is the individuals of our own society who must organize a way of life in a place where they can start from nought. This can be used to test social conventions; some are kept by the inhabitants and some are abandoned. The idea of the book is very similar to the plot of a novel by Jules Verne, A Two Years' Holiday: a group of boys are lost by accident on a desert island, they organize their own society, problems of leadership arises and they break into separate bands, and at last they are rescued. But Golding gives the story a much wider scope, making it an allegory of the fight between reason and irrational emotions in our own societies.

Ralph, the oldest of the boys, is elected chief; under the influence of Piggy, who is reason and morality itself, he tries to preserve a democratic society: he organizes assemblies, he divides the different tasks between the children, he keeps a fire lit on the top of a mountain in hope that they will be rescued some day. But gradually his leadership is forgotten and the boys follow Jack, who is an absolute chief, a primitive leader. He appeals to their instincts, not to their reason, and he gets an immediate answer that Ralph was unable to obtain. He seems to offer more protection from the monster that seems to haunt the island. Jack offers fun, hunting, war-paint, in contrast to Ralph's "little England." The boys become savages, warriors. Simon (who had discovered there was no monster) and Piggy are murdered, Ralph is hunted all through the island, and only the arrival of a British cruiser saves him from being caught and tortured to death. Now it is evident that he had been right all the time: there was a chance that they would be saved, they had to stick to the old ways. Now Jack's masquerading looks like a tragic error, an unremovable sin. But that was only a question of chance: Jack's ways, not Ralph's, were the adequate ones to that island and those children, as they themselves prove. Civilization was only an outer couch of paint, easily removed if the circumstances make it necessary. But golding doesn't doubt who are the good ones and who are the bad ones. The circumstances, he says, are not enough to force us down the wrong way: we can always rise against them, and we must, even if we know we shall be defeated. For instance:

Jack has killed a pig and has left its head on a stake as a means to kip the monster away (a "gift to darkness," Golding says). Simon is looking at ti t and wondering why things are beginning to turn the wrong way. He finds the answer in that pig's head. The Lord of the Flies (Baal Zebub, the devil, is often represented with a pig's head), the lord of darkness and fear, is receiving the submission of man. It is fear that makes everything turn wrong. Simon overcomes his fear and climbs the mountain to discover that there was no real monster. But when he returns to tell the others, they mistake him for the monster, and he is killed. Disorder, lack of a rational organisation, is another of the tratis of the bad side of human nature.

I wonder whether all the good old British virtues are on the good side.

 

 

Graham Greene, The Human Factor

This is the best spy story I have ever read, perhaps because I don't read too many, but perhaps because in it espionage is not focused on for its own sake. It is an excuse to present a conflict between several kinds of duty. The hero, Maurice Castle, has conflicting commitments. He loves his wife, Sarah, and her son, Sam, and so he feels the need to keep them safe. He works for the Intelligence Service, and he has a duty towards his country. He was helped by Communist agents to escape from South Africa with Sarah, and he is indebted to them. Castle knows he has a tendency to "give back too much"; when he was a child he was easily cheated by his friends, and used to exchange his favourite toys for a bar of chocolate or some other thing below their real value. Now the same happens to him.He weighs his responsibilities inadequately, and loses Sarah as a result of being excessively grateful to the friends of the man who helped him win her. When he realizes this it is already too late: he is a prisoner in Moscow as much as Sarah in London, although both are supposedly free.

The view of Russia and the Russians is the usual one: bureaucracy, unfulfilled promises, a suffocating ambience... But Britain is not much better: the Intelligence Service is ruled by irresponsible and amoral men, who do the things they allegedly fight against and that they condemn in others. Doctor Percival kills Davis, Castle's friend, whom he believes to be the double agent who passes information to the Russians, without any proof, and experiences no remorse at all when he discovers his error. Nobody will judge him for his action: his superior is his friend, and he is just as irresponsible as Percival. The reader sees Castle, the traitor, with much better eyes. Castle is "the human factor," something that the leaders of the Intelligence Service could never be, because they are completely inhuman. Doctor Percival only cares about fishing trout: he is unable to have a normal relationship or a decent conversation with anyone except those who are as inhuman as himself.

As I read the novel I had the impression of some kind of defect in Greene's style in the episode when Castle is escaping from Britain. The ambience suddenly turns from realism into a strong impression of unreality. Perhaps this is intended to stress the confusion Castle is feeling at the moment, but it lessens somewhat the reader's attention and it confuses him, too.

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