words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Character


Good morning, class.

I’ve made it to the final book on the list—Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. There are parts I like and parts I don’t like, but one thing continues to stand out to me: Frankenstein is considered by many as the birthplace of science fiction. The genre has a reputation for being male-dominated—as though Star Wars and Jurassic Park are only meant for men—and yet, science fiction seems to be established by a woman. It’s a reputation perpetuated by sexism and confounded by Frankenstein‘s very existence.

The blueprint of the story is well-known, even though the details have been undone and remade over two centuries of reinvention. An ordinary man, Victor Frankenstein, sets himself to the extraordinary task of creating life, and in a way, conquering death. He becomes a now-stereotypical mad scientist, unrivaled in determination and unthinking of consequences; and his creation is much more monstrous than he anticipated. The monster, sympathetic as he is, rampages through Frankenstein’s life until a devastating climax, and we readers are meant to learn our lesson: mindless ambition, even for the right reasons, can cause serious harm.

The original story is much more literary than it’s several reimaginings. It’s framed in a handful of narratives and allows for different perspectives on morality, fault, religion, and science. Most importantly, the monster himself is a fleshed-out character—thinking, learning, and speaking monologues on par with Frankenstein himself. It may not be realistic, but it’s the key to understanding who this creature is, what he wants, and why he acts the way he does.

The monster may be terrifying, but he is equally a victim of humanity’s abuse and hatred. It’s made very clear that the monster’s villainy exists because he has known nothing but misery—he was never loved, and that makes him as evil as he is. He is rejected and feared by all, and to defend himself, he quickly learns to fight back against those who mean him harm. He learns the ways of violence and revenge to survive, and the blame is traced back directly to his creator.

It’s a fantastic story, and a revolutionary concept. But it isn’t my taste—it drags on quite a bit, with Frankenstein’s inner turmoil egregiously taking up most of the story. The middle of the story—about 7 chapters—is told from the monster’s perspective, and while I appreciate the narrative need for this section, it’s just so tedious. I want the storytelling approach to be different, so it’s hard to enjoy the book, even with so much to like.

Author Mary Shelley

But after all this, there so much it does that redefines science fiction. My favorite interpretation of Frankenstein portrays Victor as a sexist (and knowing that Mary Shelley’s mother is Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, this holds up well). Victor’s approach to creating life removed any female presence, as though in his eyes, creating life should be a male enterprise. The resulting monster is one made without female influence, and it’s Victor’s manly actions that continue to antagonize the creature, the consequences of which are irreparable. With Frankenstein, Shelley defined sexism through a male lens (as a story told by a man) and she proved that the simple act of excluding women results in disaster.

It’s clear why Frankenstein makes the 50-books list. It’s Gothic literature at its core, and science fiction before science fiction existed. It’s a story that stood the test of time and continues to affect its genre. And no matter my taste, it is a good story—one worth reading at least once.

That’s 50 books! This blog is nearing its end, and I’ve got to more posts to write—my definitive ranking of all 50 books, from least favorite to favorite, and one final review of my experience as a whole. And that’ll be it!

Thanks for reading,

Prof. Jeffrey

The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated by his discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”

—from Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Hello again, class.

I have mixed feelings about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’ve read it a lot, and I’ve hated it, loved it, misunderstood it, and been indifferent to it. I’ve thought of Mark Twain as a genius, and sometimes I’ve thought of him as a glorified hillbilly whose works we read for unknowable reasons. More often than not, I land on the idea of appreciating Huckleberry Finn from a distance, never quite sure what to make of it while knowing that it’s worth reading—that’s the mood for today.

If only reviewing books was a simple task.

The book opens with a notice, explaining that anyone attempting to find motive, moral, or plot in this story will be subsequently prosecuted, banished, or shot. From the opening page, this book flaunts narrative, which is a hole-in-one from where I’m standing. The story that follows is a series of funny and dramatic events with a few well-developed and desperate characters and a barrage of side-character kooks to keep things light and interesting. It’s meant to be a delightful adventure story, through and through.

Or is it? One of my issues reading Huckleberry Finn is also one of the things that has kept it popular in the century-and-then-some that came after—the story itself is more than it claims to be. No one narrative-identity sticks—it can never be limited to “adventure story.” The series of adventures do have some underlying meaning, even if the notice at the beginning tells the reader not to look for it.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself—the only way this anti-narrative story even remotely works is because it has good characters. Huck is a boy in the American South, and he comes from an impoverished world with an abusive father. He views himself as a wrongdoer, or as trash, so he oscillates between wanting to do what’s right and giving up to do wrong. This puts him directly on the path of running away with an adult slave, Jim, whose relationship with Huck is tumultuous, subtle, carefree, and one of the strongest examples of friendship literature has to offer.

Twain’s portrayal of Jim is remarkable—we see all through Huck’s eyes, and Jim’s actions show him to be far more than Huck can imagine of a slave. Just like the story, Jim is more than he seems, and for all the stereotypes he seems to embody of a submissive and hard-working slave, he subtly flaunts those stereotypes in the story’s stiller, smaller moments. Twain wrote him as both a caricature and an honest deconstruction of slave characters—and Jim is one of the reasons Huckleberry Finn is still read today.

Author Samuel Clemens, a.k.a Mark Twain

Twain’s real writing strength is his humor. Throughout Huckleberry Finn, there are disguises, pranks, puns, hilarious literary references, bumbling idiots and smart people fooled beyond recognition. Two characters known as the king and the duke swindle money from people for a living, and comedy ensues. Huck’s profound misunderstanding of most situations leads to hilarious chaos. One extended joke about two feuding families references Romeo and Juliet constantly, and Twain’s version isn’t half as tragic (that’s what he’d have you believe, in any case). Huck even dresses up like a girl to get information from someone. It’s non-stop, and Twain is a master of hilarity.

I can’t deny, even though I clearly think it’s a good novel, that I can’t stand Huckleberry Finn. Part of it is the overuse of the n-word, but that’s a weak reason—I love To Kill a Mockingbird for the same “fault.” Part of it is that this boy’s adventures are so unlike my life that I have no frame of reference; there’s almost no way his running away with a slave matches any moment in my own narrative. But that’s a weak reason, too—I could say the same about so many books I’ve praised before, including Pride and PrejudiceBrave New WorldThe Color PurpleAs I Lay Dying, and To the Lighthouse.

It probably boils down to taste, and that’s the best answer you’ll get out of me. I’ll praise the genius of Huckleberry Finn while keeping my distance; there are several novels I’ll reread for pleasure, and this isn’t one of them. But I wholeheartedly agree that it’s one of the 50 books everyone should read before they die.

Next up, I’m finishing Moby-Dick—another story that is so unlike my own life that I have little to no frame of reference. But unlike with Huckleberry Finn, I very much enjoyed Moby-Dick even in spite of its flaws . . . but more on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“[McMurphy] sounds like he’s way above them, talking down, like he’s sailing fifty yards overhead, hollering at those below on the ground. He sounds big. I hear him coming down the hall, and he sounds big in the way he walks, and he sure don’t slide; he’s got iron on his heels and he rings it on the floor like horseshoes.”

—from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Missing From the List: The Awakening

Welcome back class.

My impression is that most people don’t know what The Awakening by Kate Chopin is—I definitely didn’t when I read it for the first time for a college class. It’s a novella, 39 short chapters, focusing on a woman’s deterioration and transformation (a lot like The Bell Jar and Anna Kareninaprobably why it didn’t make the list, since it made less of an impact than two other well-known and similar novels).

But The Awakening sets itself apart—what looks like the deterioration of a character may actually be a kind of empowerment. Where Anna Karenina depicts a woman who succumbs to her own loneliness, and The Bell Jar features a woman who attempting to conquer depression, The Awakening focuses on a woman who, above all, breaks free. To the other characters in her life, it looks like hysteria or psychosis. But there may be something more to her predicament.

Protagonist Edna Pontellier is a caged woman—a mother and wife living at the turn-of-the-century in New Orleans. Her cage is her husband, her children, even her own mind’s tiredness . . . she is asleep, in more ways than one. A series of small emotional prods begin to “wake her up” and clue her in to the nature of her life, which she realizes she doesn’t want. Her happiness has been set aside for the sake of who she is supposed to be, but it’s never a life she wanted.

A woman in Edna’s life named Adèle helps her realize her caged-ness, which upends life for Mr. Pontellier and their children. She begins to abandon them and all other “obligations.” But she isn’t searching for her own happiness anymore—that’s too cheap a thing to sacrifice a family for, even one she doesn’t want. Edna abandons the things that she’s supposed to be tethered to by Nature’s command. Societal restraints, emotional attachments, marital vows, human instinct . . . she eventually abandons all of these attachments, even her body’s attachment to life. For Edna, this is what it means to be awake: to break free of the cage Nature has put us in.

There’s no doubt that The Awakening is controversial. It seems to champion suicidal behavior in a way that even The Bell Jar couldn’t boast of. Edna’s decision to abandon her children is sorrowful at best, deplorable at worst. Even seeing Edna’s actions as a kind of awakening is controversial—her choices easily indicate a disturbed mind.

Author Kate Chopin

Chopin keeps it complicated. If we as readers are to really believe Edna’s motivations as a true awakening of self, we have to attribute some sense to her actions. But I wouldn’t say Chopin’s goal is to get us to sympathize with Edna’s frame of mind—I think that Chopin’s goal in writing The Awakening was to make us question our motives as human beings, and to question the characteristics humanity lends itself to, like parenthood, desire, loyalty, and even love. What if love is some kind of evolutionary imperative that keeps the species alive? Are we trapped in a cage, like Edna, because of our “obligation” to emotions like love, or concepts like humanity?

To make people ask questions like that is enough reason to put The Awakening on the list of 50 books to read before you die—as it should have been.

I’m still finishing up The Diary of Anne Frank. It’s a complete leap from The Awakening—I’m getting a little whiplash thinking about both at once. Chopin’s fictional story lets me question the flaws in human nature, but Anne Frank’s story will restore my faith in it, even with the stakes she faced.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts on her story next time.

Prof. Jeffrey

The Count of Monte Cristo

Welcome back, class.

Reading The Count of Monte Cristo was a journey of several months, like my experience with Ulysses and The Divine Comedy. But length is no indicator of difficulty—while it was never “easy,” it was consistently accessible, unlike Ulysses and The Divine Comedy. There were things that I wasn’t expecting, and even things I didn’t like, but in general The Count of Monte Cristo was a classic that I’m proud to have read. I could read another Alexandre Dumas novel without hesitation (I’m looking at you, The Three Musketeers).

It starts with Edmond Dantès, who is unjustly imprisoned by men jealous of his success. In prison, an older man befriends him, teaches him the full spectrum of human knowledge, and reveals the hiding place of his inherited treasure. Dantès escapes and finds the treasure, buried on the island of Monte Cristo; using the money, he develops the disguise of the Count of Monte Cristo and uses it to exact revenge on those who destroyed his life.

Illustration of Edmond Dantès

That’s only the first couple hundred pages—about one-fifth of the story. The rest, while at times not nearly as exciting, is the painstakingly long course of events allowing the count to destroy his enemies. It’s not enough for him to take their lives or torture them; he concocts the exact punishment necessary for each enemy, without directly attacking them. There are bumps along the way, each one making it that much more exciting to see him successful, and so the novel spans decades to reach an almost perfect ending—but I won’t spoil it.

The strengths of The Count of Monte Cristo are not in great literary merit or symbolism, like most of the other books on the list. This is a plot- and character-driven story that’s meant to be entertaining, plain and simple. I spent most of my time reading it wondering what Dantès would do next, and to whom; I sympathized with him as much as I feared him. Dantès transforms from a kind soul to a vengeful spirit, and he is as intimidating as he is heroic—the terrible things he commits himself to doing are matched only by the commitment with which he does them. He becomes a legend, and that legend makes The Count of Monte Cristo worth reading.

Author Alexandre Dumas

Beyond that, it’s worth noting that Alexandre Dumas knows exactly how to delay the reader’s satisfaction. Some chapters begin with characters we’ve never met before, and while we sift through who they are and why we aren’t focusing on Dantès, we’ll suddenly realize that one of these characters is Dantès in disguise, subtly manipulating the scene to his own ends. Other times we focus on interesting subplots dragged out for dozens of chapters, only to see Dantès enact his revenge on these extra characters, years of his work successful in an instant. The novel is so long because Dumas teases it out for, if nothing else, dramatic effect. Even when things are confusing, they’re fresh and exciting too, because Dumas tells a good story in the best way.

Next up, I’ve been reading the similarly long novel Anna Karenina, also for several months. I don’t know how I gained the ability to read multiple novels at once, which I know baffles some people, but I absolutely love it. I couldn’t have enjoyed reading The Count of Monte Cristo for so long if I didn’t diversify things with other novels. Surviving college sometimes meant juggling four different novels from four different literature classes—it brings a smile to my face just thinking about it. I just love reading so much.

I’ll leave you with that thought.

Prof. Jeffrey

Welcome back, class.

With the exception of the final few Harry Potter book installments, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the youngest book on the 50-books list, published in 2003. For me, it carried a stigma before I even began reading it—contemporary works are supposed to have a freshness about them, like they’re a new take on what’s been written before. When a novel like this is compared with The Lord of the RingsUlysses, and even the Bible, it has expectations to meet.

Meet them it did.

The Children’s Edition of the novel

Let’s not talk about plot yet. Let’s talk about how the first chapter is chapter two—every chapter afterwards is a prime number: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, etc. Our main character, Christopher Boone, likes prime numbers, and how they explain the nature of life: like someone has taken all the patterns away, so that you could never figure out the rules.

Like I wrote last week, it is heavily suggested that Christopher has autism, which explains the interesting way he sees the world. It means that his brain limits his ability for social interaction, and that metaphors and abstract concepts usually mean nothing to him. Christopher is also incredibly smart, and the way he tells his story never ceases to prove that.

Author Mark Haddon writes Christopher’s voice matter-of-factly, so that all scenes sound the same. One scene may be Christopher enjoying a math problem, and the next may be Christopher trapped in public, surrounded by strangers that terrify him, with his pocket knife ready in his hand in case anyone touches him. It all sounds the same—Christopher struggles so much with empathy that Haddon forces us do the emotional heavy lifting.

The Original/Adult Edition of the novel

And then there’s the plot. The neighbor’s dog has been murdered—stabbed with a garden fork. Christopher loves dogs because he doesn’t have to figure them out (not like people). So when the dog is killed, Christopher decides—just like his favorite detective, Sherlock Holmes, would do—that he’s going to solve the mystery of who killed it.

His single father doesn’t care for this plan at all, so Christopher has to do his detective work in secret. Of course, he causes far too much mayhem, but the plot thickens with every passing discovery. And like any good mystery (and any good story, for that matter), it’s full of surprising twists, powerful character drama, and a sense of humor.

Haddon has said that this is a story more about difference than disability. Christopher’s view of the world helps with that . . . he sees people in ways others wouldn’t. We get to see his judgement of others on his journey, as well as others’ judgement of him. Similar to novels like The Catcher in the Rye and Ulysses, the characters start looking like cells in a body, each with their own roles and reactions, colliding every now and then for some good and honest tension. And because each character is fleshed out so well, The Curious Incident made it’s way on to the 50-books list.

Up next, I’m diving back into the past with Robinson Crusoe. The promising adventure story has a lot to live up to . . . I’ll let you know how it goes.

Prof. Jeffrey

The Quiet American

Welcome back, class.

I’ve reached maximum blog power here—Graham Greene’s The Quiet American is one of the handful of books on the 50-books list that I had not only never read, but had never heard of before. This is literature obscure enough to have never even appeared before a blogger professor like myself, with all of my years of expertise.

Greene’s protagonist, Thomas Fowler, is a British reporter stationed in Vietnam who swears not to get involved in the conflict; he’s only there to report. His friend, the “quiet American” Alden Pyle, has been murdered, and Fowler begins flashing back through their friendship. Their first meeting, their awkward love triangle with a woman named Phuong, their ideological differences . . . all popping up like a panorama of Pyle’s life against the backdrop of the Vietnam conflict.

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it. It was too political, too subtextual, too circuitous. Happens to the best of us—I appreciated all the novel did, but simply didn’t like reading it. I’ll still dole out one heck of a lecture.

I think the primary reason it made the list is also the most infamous reason—Greene’s 1950s novel predicted the outcome of American influence in Vietnam in the 60s and 70s. This is clearest in Greene’s portrayal of Alden Pyle: Pyle is young, morally motivated, and so inspired to help that he can’t see who he hurts (ladies and gentlemen, a summary of American politics). The novel heavily criticizes American intrusion in world affairs, however good the intentions may seem.

In fact, each of Greene’s main characters represent their countries. Fowler’s refusal to “take sides,” and his failure to do so, is a representation of British transition away from colonialism. Phuong’s representation of her country is laced with racism, as a silent and objectified victim; but her name, which means phoenix, implies an inner quality of resurrection against others imposing their will, much like Vietnam itself throughout the conflict.

The political predictions are not magic—they are a reaction to the World Wars. Fowler and Pyle’s father are called “isolationists,” referring to the United States’ hesitance to enter into any world conflicts. But after America’s efforts heavily influenced world events in the country’s favor, that belief began to die out. Intrusion into countries like Vietnam were ideological wars (which is why Fowler is disgusted with “mental concepts”). Greene was playing out what would keep happening if America made decisions on behalf of the rest of the world . . . and he was very right.

Politics, however, are not the way to my heart. My love is reserved for character arcs and themes.

We spend the entire story inside Fowler’s head. We get his long-standing death wish, his inability to believe in God (or anything that isn’t physical fact), his wayward morals on sex and marriage, and his confusing relationships with Pyle and Phuong. Only a few things tip off his bias, but the major one is his racism—every time he refers to the Vietnamese with the word “they,” superiority fills the air. His subtle comparison between Phuong and Pyle’s dog says more than enough.

But there is something to be said about Fowler’s bottled-up racism—he rarely, if ever, acts on it—in contrast with Pyle’s active infringement on Phuong’s life and the lives of the Vietnamese people. It’s disguised as kindness, but Pyle does more harm than good. Fowler, who holds back the harm he can cause, can’t stand Pyle’s destructiveness. Pyle’s death is caused by his own tendency for chaos and Fowler breaking his rule by taking a side.

That’s the real character arc, and the real reason to read the story: Fowler’s attempts, and his failure, to stay disengaged. He doesn’t like causing pain, and maybe by staying out of all conflicts no pain will be caused. But Pyle is the perfect catalyst for getting Fowler involved, precisely because of how much pain Pyle causes. Fowler makes a devastating choice, leading to Pyle’s death, and Fowler falls back into the story he’s worked so hard not to be a part of.

Like I said, I didn’t like reading it. But I can appreciate it. Now that, students—sincerely and unironically—is the KEY to passing English. Write that down in your notes.

Next up, I’m reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’m a tad excited; this is one of those books that I wouldn’t ever read for fun, but I know I’ll enjoy it. It comes highly recommended by very cool people.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Types of Stories

Hello again, class.

I recently read an article claiming that all stories are the same. Details differ, but the “skeletons” are all based on the same structure. The monsters in a story can take many shapes, like Grendel in Beowulf, the land owners in The Grapes of Wrath, and infidelity in Ulysses, but they’re all monsters. The quest is always about finding something—treasure, peace, home, the damsel in distress, etc. Characters have arcs, plots have acts, and Hollywood has McGuffins.

I see this as a challenge. There isn’t much in this world that’s so subtly threatening as categorizing things. Someone created each of those stories, and if you told them their story was exactly like everyone else’s, you might not get out of there alive. So before we chalk this up as fact, let’s analyze it a bit.

Frankenstein's Monster, a classic example of the monster archetype.

Frankenstein’s Monster, a classic example of the monster archetype.

If all stories are the same, then all plots and characters are based on already-established archetypes. When we talk about a monster or a villain, certain requirements of the archetype come to mind, and an author can adhere to, deny, or parody those requirements with their own creation. The overcoming-the-monster plot is an archetype as well, and certain requirements of that plot are already in place. When we see a hero fighting a monster, we understand the labels of “hero” and “monster” from other stories, and we understand the trajectory of the story from similar stories.

The claim that all stories are the same—like most generalizations—is trapped in labels…and labels are always evolving. The heroes and monsters of Ancient Greece and the Renaissance may not be the same as monsters of today, but we can “translate” the monsters of the past into monsters that we recognize. A character who is imposing, mean-spirited, and violent is a monster, whether it’s a giant one-eyed Cyclops or an angry business-owner. A monster can even be a friendly teenage boy or a devoted parent, as long as the archetype is still upheld—“translated” accurately.

These archetypes are great at doing one of two things: A) helping readers and viewers “figure out” the story by making it familiar, or B) binding the plot and characters unnecessarily, and forcing it to pull its punches rather than tell a good story.

I read another article that clarifies that there are seven types of stories—seven plot archetypes that all stories adhere to. See the article here for a more in-depth look.

  1. bookshelf-illustrationOvercoming the Monster (that’s, like, the millionth time I’ve mentioned this one—take the hint, it will be on the test)
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedies
  6. Tragedies
  7. Rebirth

Even the stories that refute or deny these basic plots are still reflections of them (each one “translated” from the original blueprint). It seems that all stories spring from somewhere else.

The first article I mentioned argues that reducing stories to a formula is like “unweaving the rainbow.” To limit all stories by these boundaries removes the magic of storytelling. I’m not sure I agree though…there is something remarkable about the fact that all stories are connected, as if it’s all one big story. Writers are building on the stories of the past toward stories of the future, and everyone adds a piece.

To quote Walt Whitman, “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” And to quote Robin Williams, “What will your verse be?”

types-of-stories-book-landscapeA professor once told me that there are two ways to start a story—either a stranger comes to town, or someone decides to leave. Whatever happens from there changes everything. Somehow, that simple prompt is both challenging and comforting.

Your homework: I want to see if you have a story that won’t fit in the basic plots listed above. Prove these high brow literature professors wrong (not me, of course—all the other snooty ones). Leave it in the comment section. Don’t feel bad if you can’t find one, though. Yes, those are fighting words.

You can look forward to my post on A Christmas Carol next Wednesday. Thanks for coming to class!

Prof. Jeffrey