Rebecca

Rebecca, a novel by Daphne du Maurier, is an engrossing tale told through the eyes of an imaginative young woman as she marries a wealthy English man, and discovers many sinister truths at his beautiful country estate of Manderly.

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A copy of Rebecca

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again”

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again” a simply but haunting line that sets the tone for the narrators recollections. The novel is also teeming with  quotable lines by the way. We never learn her first or maiden name, she is simply called Mrs. De winter after she is married. Even while her narration has just begun, and she still serves as companion to the tactless Mrs. Van Hooper, her tendency to present herself as a very naive, doubtful and imaginative girl is apparent. Well, she never really calls herself imaginative but hardly a chapter goes by where the narrator does not stop to immerse herself in fantasy. If these things irritate you, I doubt you’ll enjoy the novel.

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A still from Alfred Hitchcock’s’ 1940 adaptation

Like everything else in the novel, things take quite a while to unfold, but eventually the narrator finishes her tales of how she married Max, or Maxim de Winter as he’s popularly known. She is still very doubtful and cautious, and Max isn’t very open about his emotions. With their large age difference, Max’s’ reserve, her constant worry and the shadow of Rebecca (Max’s’first wife) hanging over them  you’d assume their relationship was doomed to fail.

When the narrative reaches the vast, beautiful estate of Manderly, where Rebeccas’ presence threatens to leap from every corner, every fear that the narrator refuses to forget seems to be justified. This stretch of the story also introduces Mrs. Danvers, a character who instills the fear of propriety like no other. All is not as it seems in Manderly and the people are more sinister than the narrators many flights of fantasy dared imagine.

Mrs. De winter and Mr De Winter seem to develop a real relationship only as things threaten to get worse for them. It isn’t hard to see the major twists coming (I won’t give it away) but reading it is still thrilling. The many characters introduced, their kindness, their love for Rebecca and Manderly all become sources of tension, of a tragedy just waiting to unfurl itself. A friend declared I was reading this part so hard my eyes threatened to pop out.You’ll probably expect the ending and maybe even accuse it of being a conveniently happy one but Daphne du Maurier is able to translate the many quirks of the narrator into an endearing figure who you’ll be rooting for all across the end.

Some might argue that the ending wasn’t all that happy, the fate of Manderly, and the narrators craving for tea might have been the cause of many future worries and flights of fantasy but I disagree. It isn’t as threatening as the other problems the couples faced,it is no ultimatum, and it is nothing they cannot live without. And I have a feeling that the tragic is something the narrator craved deep down. Perhaps that’s why she loved those fantastic day dreams, those long looks back into the past.

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A young Daphne du Maurier

Jude The Obscure

Its not hard to see why criticism of Jude The Obscure was so severe Hardy vowed never to write another book again.

In Jude The Obscure Hardy points out flaws in religion, morality, marriage, education etc. He doesn’t leave much to imagination and the things he argues for wold be controversial even today. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started the novel. A happy tales of a man overcoming all odds? Something that would tell your all is right with the world and no hurdle was impossible to overcome.

When it was implied that women could use their sexuality and a little victim blaming was thrown around, I shook my head and though I knew where this was going. It was great that Hardy acknowledged sexuality existed, but he was still a Victorian after all. It was too much to expect him to deal with sexuality in a manner agreeable in our modern age. Boy was I wrong.

Sue Bridehead is easily one of the most surprisingly strong and interesting female characters I’ve ever read.  She better read than half the men around to begin with. Its tragic Jude can’t educate himself, but its more tragic that a person who is less interested but more capable than half the scholars around her doesn’t even consider an education. She is able to reason and debate better than anyone around her; she throws away superstition, tradition and religion. She does what she wants regardless of what the men around her say. The fact that her strong will is finally broken by an unhappy life and social pressure is in my opinion the most tragic part of the novel.

Jude himself is a more passive traveler. His determination to study, marry,find a sort of employment is often hijacked by other matters he gets himself into. You can’t help but sympathies with him and all he goes through. His kindness gets him no where, all his efforts at educating himself are futile and are made during the wrong time. He never finds happiness and dies a drunk failure who can’t stand what he used to believe in.

What the many tragic characters do is highlight the problems with Victorian society. The desire to learn means nothing is you aren’t wealthy. An act of kindness such as separating from some one who cant stand you is damnation. Marriage is a bizarre entrapment that contains little love. Sex is sold,exploited or forced. People are also often cruel and judgmental.

The world isn’t a very nice place for non-conformists. Jude and Sue might have found happiness after breaking away from the many expectations and roles they were obligated to fulfill but it doesn’t last long. Social persecution is immediate and the pair are soon outcasts. They become semi-nomadic and struggle to find work. What little comfort they found was lost once Jude could no longer work and poverty seemed imminent. All their children die as a result and Sues spirit is destroyed. She goes from a strong willed, free thinker who saw no need to conform to the popular ideas of marriage, to a broken woman who desperately tries to find solace in religion and forces herself to marry a man she can’t stand- even going so far as to forcing herself to sleep with him even though the idea used to make her jump out of her window.

Jude is constantly hounded by poverty and class difference. He loses faith in religion, becomes alcoholic and is sickly till his end. Nothing ever comes from all his struggles. Other characters like Richard and Arabella are interesting in their own right.  Richard is also a tragic figure although he is not as prominent in the story. His kindness and unorthodox views cause him to lose all his prospects and Sue never reciprocates his feelings towards him.

Arabella clearly knows how to use her sexuality and is also rather independent. She is shallow and manipulative but she doesn’t really invoke much dislike. Old father time is one of the less believable characters. He seems almost too tragic and depressed to be real -I don’t think children are competent enough to kill two of their siblings and themselves let alone willing. But that doesn’t take away much from the novel.

Jude The Obscure is a dark tragedy that is ruthless in its criticism of Victorian morality, marriage and social divisions. It is a very gloomy novel but engrossing all the same.

Bleak house

Charles Dickens depiction of Victorian life, in his excellent novel, is brutal.

Yes it is a funny,enjoyable novel that makes a very pleasant read. But Dickens includes an unflinching depiction of the many social injustices that existed during the Victorian era. Rampant poverty, exploitation, bad government, gender inequality, child abuse everything is including in Bleak house. The beginning of the novel is quite bleak to say the least.

Esther Summerstone ,the main character, begins life on a very depressing note. She is seen as a cause of disgrace and isn’t well loved by her guardian. She never seems to escape her inadequacy and sense of self doubt even towards the end of the novel. She is constantly convinced that all kindness towards her is undeserved and tries hard [maybe a little too hard] to please everyone who is nice to her. She also picks up this desire to serve, through her education and her own lack of self confidence. Although she does not seem to mind the fact that she subservient it doesn’t seem very fair.

Lady Deadlock is far more tragic. She is forced to abandon Esther ,her daughter from before she married Sir Leicester. She never expresses what she really feels and is eternally bored. She seems quite depressed and isn’t able to properly communicate with Esther when she discovers her. The story of her life and death serve to criticise the many restrictions placed on women. These two women are the cause of much of the plot and are extremely compelling characters.

The criticism of the legal system scathes. The court of Chancery is the butt of jokes and ridicule. Not without good cause of course. Lawyers,Judges and the legal system are all put on trail and make very poor defenses. The legal system seem to be a cause of woe and madness with no real good coming from it.

The many miserable characters like Jo,Mr. Krook, Nemo are obsessed with it or tormented by it. A lot of compelling arguments are made to treat them with more kindness and to understand their suffering. Dickens ability to create great characters really shows here. Many fall in to usually narrow categories of poor or crazy but all of them stand out.

The plot revolves around many mysteries that are very slow to reveal themselves. From Esthers parentage, Nemos identity, the flight of Lady Deadlock etc are extremely engrossing. Mr. Bucket is one of the best literary detective around and his method of investigation is what keeps much of the book fascinating. Other characters like George and Tulkinghorn, who seem very one sided when introduced, becoming compelling figures in their own right.

The many characters with smaller roles are equally interesting and often hilarious. Its amazing characters like Mr&Mrs Snagsby, Mrs Jellyby, Mrs Pardiggle can exist in a novel where Jo,Jenny,Caddy etc also exist. The humor gets quite dark at times, it also jolts you out of serious though at times -in a good way.

I haven’t even begun to talk about Mr Jardyce, Ada or Richard because it becomes very hard to decide which characters are more important than the others. There just so many well developed and compelling characters that you might need several essays to do them justice.

There is so much that going on in any given point of the novel. The many characters and their troubles ,lives, fears, mysteries etc along with much social commentary.

One of the most consistent [and compelling] topics is Dickens view on poverty. The law seems to be very unsympathetic and ruthless towards them. The gloomy dwellings at tom all alone, Charleys life, Jo, its hard not to be moved by them. Dickens is really determined to put his point across. Arguing for the poor, for the rights of women to resist abuse and for women who conceived out of wedlock must have gone against popular morality back them.

The satire is brilliant,the humor very agreeable,the story and characters compelling but Dickens goes a step further and includes a very real depiction of suffering in Victorian England. Characters like Ada, Sir Leicester, Jo might not have very happy endings but by the time you reach Esters happy conclusion, you can’t help but feel the story has come to a pleasant  end.

With an excellent story, intriguing mysteries, compelling characters and great humor Bleak house is well worth a read.

The French Lieutenants woman

Reading John Fowles The French Lieutenants woman after George Elliots masterpiece was an excellent decision.

Its quite easy to see how they’re comparable- both take place during the same time period and in a way are quite similar in what they aim to do. Elliot and Fowles both have stories that take place in Victorian England and a ensemble of strong male and female characters. So what difference do you find between an 20th century American man and a 19th century woman who write on similar themes?

The obvious and cosmetic similarities first. Both use references/extracts from other authors/poets to give context to chapters. Elliot uses Classical literature apart from poets and authors from her time, Fowles uses scientists  apart from poets and authors from his time. Both involve love, marriage and ideas about righteousness. Both include slightly tasteless remarks about Jews and  seem a bit orientalist.

The most obvious differences are the ones that arise due to the fact that the author of the French Lieutenants woman is someone who is looking back on what is to him – history. He ,unlike Elliot, is able to look back without as much attachment or biases that arise from living during a particular age. So unlike Elliot he is not restricted to the niche that she is [That of the upper class]. This is not to say that Elliot is oblivious to the poorer sections of society, but she is more comfortable and concerned with the gentry,the clergy and merchants. Or maybe Fowles is just able to see things that would not have been though of being worth mentioning back then.  Fowles has the ability to look back, knowing what is going to happen and is aware of statistics and facts about the Victorian era that might have shocked most Victorians.

The most important tools he seems to have in his possession are his understanding of science and Marx. Science is used to address the way of life, religion, lifestyle and various Victorian habits. Since the novel is set in a time of change where technology was uprooting old styles of life, Fowles use of science is essential to let the reader know about the world the story revolves around. Fowles incorporates everything from evolution to psychology in a love story. A no mean feat.

Fowles is also able to sneak in some criticism of science, psychology in particular, arguing for the need to be more humane in its approach. He makes a good case for why not everything can be chalked up to insanity or hysteria.

There’s a lot of talk on morality and changing social hierarchy too. This is where Fowles seems to use Marxism the most. I think it was rather brave of Fowles to quote Marx and go about talking about class divisions during the era of McCarthyism. He uses it effectively adding his already excellent description of Victorian England. The differences between lower and upper class, the attitudes of the employers and social hierarchy are all elaborated on using Marxist critic.

Both authors are rebels- or nonconformists if your feeling really miserly. Elliot is breaking away from the expectations of the stories that women were supposed to write, from popular morality,happy endings, and criticized certain aspects of society. I’d say her novel is better because of characters and a story so intresting its almost hypnotic. However Fowles is clearing trying to do more with his novel. Elliot seems a softer rebel, she does break away but not radically.

Fowles regularly breaks the third wall, appears in the story [literately] and is at the mercy of where his characters want to go. Fowles is able to say a lot about the role of the novelist in a story, the way he/she plays god and what the novelist must do. The novel includes three very different endings.

The first is a very safe and Victorian one, the one you might have seen coming. The second is not as expected since it does involve quite a lot of moral decisions [and sex] Victorians disapprove of. It is still a very pleasant ending. The final ending is the one that seems to break from tradition the most. It isn’t a very happy one and you wonder if Sarah was crazy,Charles bitter or deluded etc. The last two endings are equally likely according to Fowles.

Offering the reader endings to choose from could be called lazy from any other author. Here it is done masterfully. You realize the book was only disguised as a Victorian novel. The author enters the story and explains his position, the traditional endings he is expected to write, the godlike role he occupies and he plays/ experiments with all these rules. Each ending throws up questions about authorship, traditional styles in writing.

Sex and women empowerment are the most important themes in the novel. Sarah is clearly struggling to cope with the rigid formality and repression in Victorian society. She longs for more freedom and her affair with the French lieutenant is an act of rebellion. Historical anecdotes repeatedly make it clear that few Victorians where as chaste as they claimed to be. Fowles at times seems to suggest that the Victorians had better sex than anyone in his century, I don’t think that’s really true. But it is interesting to see why he makes the argument. Sarah whatever her intentions is clearly a very strong woman who is an intellectual equal to Charles.

Watching Charles ,a Gentleman who exists in an age where Gentlemen are quickly dying out, deal with the rebellion against gender roles that Sarah causes is both an engrossing story and a very accurate description of the outlook towards changing Victorian morality during the time period.

The only real weakness I saw was his description of America. It seemed a little too idealistic and reeked of patriotism. It doesn’t really harm the novel it just makes you roll your eyes a little too often.

The French Lieutenants Woman is a fascinating read. It is a Victorian love story but more, it is a story about an Gentleman  in the 19th century but the story is driven by the strong female characters, its can be both a tragedy or a pleasant happy ending. Fowles has done quite a bit with a simple story and has done it masterfully.