This is a thematic post, which is a bit of an experiment for me. I’ve read two very different novels recently and was struck by the contrast in their approach to Christianity, but also religion as having a similar role. The first was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and the second A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.
In Achebe’s wonderful and amazing book it is the arrival of the missionaries which changes society to the point where his socially precarious hero cannot cope. Religion, in its traditional form is good as a way of structuring society, and is embedded in a shared culture which is understood. In contrast, Christianity destroys what the tribe knows and undoes all the usual social conventions. In Joyce, Stephen Dedalus uses Catholicism to understand his life, even if he ultimately realises that he cannot become a priest. Catholicism in many ways is the under girding of life in Ireland, the church is everywhere, in education, in the buildings, in the assumptions of daily life.
What I was struck by was that shared religion is a social glue, something that everyone understands and which structures daily life and the rhythms of the year, but that if that structure is destroyed as it is in Things Fall Apart, it is devastating, whereas Stephen’s atheism doesn’t mean that he can’t function in his society, because he understands the shared rituals other than Catholic Mass. I suppose it’s the contrast between destroying the systems and destroying belief, in that one leaves people adrift and in the other, the individual is making a choice not to believe, to walk away.
It’s a sign of my ignorance of American literature that I didn’t know that these two books were interrelated and thematically fit together as tales of growing up in the South. I read them one after the other, starting with Tom Sawyer, which is the first one in the internal chronology. Both books are firmly and well rooted in the pre-War South, the Mississippi Valley and both deal with growing up. Both are funny and wry, but also a bit nostalgic, in that Twain was writing about his own boyhood on the other side of the chasm which was the Civil War, to commemorate a way of life which had already disappeared by the 1880s.
Tom Sawyer is just fun, he has the most outlandish ideas for adventures, drags others in with him and somehow comes out on the other side intact and grinning so the novel based around him is more light-hearted, boys having adventures and finding treasure. Huckleberry Finn, on the other hand, has a drunk father and doesn’t really have a stable home, so his novel is the darker of the two. His moral dilemma about slavery is heartbreaking, in that he makes the decision to behave as modern morals and Twain’s own would say was correct, but he beats himself up because he has made the wrong decision by his own society’s standards. His journey down the Mississippi is both an adventure but also a serious business, in that he is running away properly, gets mixed up with some charlatans and faces serious danger. The point when Tom reappears and starts an adventure only highlights the difference between his outlook and what Huck has dealt with.
Why why why do people in fandom feel the need to insult other people for interpreting a character/plot/scene/entire show differently?
The wonderful thing about art of any kind, whether it be literary, visual, or musical is that there is no correct answer. Did Bach specify that such-and-such a…
Hmm. I agree that different opinions are good and that complexity will be read in many different ways and that insulting people isn’t good. HOWEVER, opinions need to be backed up and if they are contradicted explicitly in the source, then they aren’t valid unless you want to do a lot of hand-waving about how it isn’t really what the author/ creator intended or meant. If an opinion is badly founded and badly expressed, it is legitimate for others to react and question it.
To continue to use your Tess example, I could build a case using Victorian morality to explain why in feminist terms Tess herself is a victim of the patriarchy rather than a immoral woman who must be shunned. However, to do so I need to be very clear that I’m not using Hardy’s moral framing of the fallen woman even if he is unusually aware of how problematic a narrative it is. What I can’t do is say Tess doesn’t deserve Angel Clare OMG because he’s a saint, without backing it up with evidence, and being willing to at least listen when someone tells me, hang on, have you thought about this bit of text here.
As a historian of the Wars of the Roses, I have to be constantly aware of the problems of texts and the dangers of believing the propaganda put out by the Yorkists and the Lancastrians. I have to be able to say why I interpret things a specific way and I have to be willing to abandon my theory if it is contradicted. “It’s my opinion” isn’t the be-all and end-all, “here is the evidence” is the important thing. I hate a particular book about the Wars of the Roses because its interpretation is awful, but I still need to be able to articulate why it doesn’t work and what contradicts it rather than just hate it. I have to be able to say that his opinion is wrong and most importantly why. I have to listen graciously when someone tells me the same thing.
My point is that interpretation is not an absolute where all interpretations are valid and must be taken seriously. All interpretations need to be explained, backed up and thought through. Saying that someone is insulting you because you [generic you] are told, hang on, that doesn’t fit isn’t a good reaction. People can be wrong and other people can call them out for it.
Ooh- will do! I enjoyed both Waverley and Ivanhoe and was planning on reading Rob Roy so it’s great to have an actual recommendation. Thank you!
I’ve got mixed feelings about this one. Scott does his usual antiquarian, historical romance narrative persona, which amuses me even as it infuriates me because it shaped so much of the perceptions of the Middle Ages. The Robin Hood element was fun, particularly since it was subtle, although now I’m wondering if this was the novel that reignited the Robin Hood cycle in popular culture.
Rebecca is the more interesting woman, and Ivanhoe marries Rowena. It”s the Victorian trope that the good girl gets the longed-for marriage, and here it is at least made understandable by the religious differences and the long-standing semi-engagement between Ivanhoe and Rowena. It doesn’t play in any way differently from the women of Waverley, where Flora ends her days an exile. Similarly, the Saxon Norman divide parallels exactly the divide in Waverley between the victorious Hanoverians and the sympathetic but vanquished Jacobites. Here, the Normans rule, but the Saxons get the better lines and the sympathy, even from the ‘good’ Normans such as Richard the Lionheart. Of course, Richard shows up- he must have been on the history curriculum so he gets his role here as a known character, a type the audience expects. I can’t have been the first to spot him before he is introduced as himself.
Ivanhoe is a page-turner as it is amusing and twisty. Scott’s characters are always interesting, from Wamba the jester to the knights around Prince John. He wouldn’t like the comparison necessarily, but he is very like Malory, writing a fun version of history to entertain his audience, and to confirm their view of what happened. However, it does have a more serious side to it, the condemnation of the treatment of the Jews is interesting because I think this was published before Daniel Deronda with its strong portrayal of Zionism. Rebecca and Isaac are in many ways the most sympathetic characters and their involvement is crucial to the plot.
This is brilliant; it’s so long that I wasn’t sure if I’d even finish it but the narrator and the story are so engaging that I wanted to keep on reading. The moral commentary from the omniscient narrator is so pointed, so fun and yet so lacking in maliciousness that it feels like superb irony. Thackeray was the master of the nice pointed comment; he never condemns Becky, his anti-hero, despite happily pointing out her moral flaws and failings. He also is keen sighted about her opposite, the perfect Victorian maiden Amelia, who equally fails in significant ways. His comments about politics and society are always acute and amusing as his use of the motif of Vanity Fair for society, an echo of the fashionable Mayfair district.
Thackeray’s story is about the two women, their contrasts and their differing approaches to the problems of family, marriages which are not satisfying, money, society and more. It manages to make the entanglement of their lives work and not feel contrived. It is also about how polite society, to use the Victorian phrase, condemns and judges badly and on the wrong grounds, while itself failing morally. It’s particularly sharp about the role of money in the creation and maintenance of reputation, as both Becky and Amelia struggle with lack of money in differing ways. Money is also sub-plot for the Crawley family who also feature heavily, as inheritance schemes, wills and estate expenses influence their behaviour.
I loved that it was set against a colonial and military background, with Waterloo an important plot point and Amelia’s brother in the Indian Civil Service. It felt like the possibilities and consequences of the Napoleonic Wars were important to the characters, not just a convenient stage for them. It was important, for example, that Rawdon Crawley, Becky’s husband, and Amelia’s husband, George Osborne, were soldiers together and the different ends to their careers. Also important was the variety of people, from the high aristocracy to the merchants of the City, to the impoverished working people. That Thackeray managed to pull it all together and make it work is amazing, particularly since the narrative was stronger than in many DIckens novels of similar length. I’m surprised that it isn’t more widely read because it is a fabulous example of a Victorian novel.
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