50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Society (page 1 of 2)

The Way We Live Now

Good morning, class.

Money: A Suicide Note and The Way We Live Now are a lot alike. Both are about greed and corruption, individually and globally. Both focus on terrible people—those who have decided on a certain lifestyle that hurts themselves and others. Both criticize the world and the poor choices people make to hold on to money or to get it by any means.

But I can’t stress this enough—I hated Money: A Suicide Note. For all it did to successfully criticize the corrupt and greedy world of the late 20th century, I couldn’t enjoy it and I couldn’t wait to be done with it. That wasn’t the case with The Way We Live Now, which wasn’t my favorite book of all time, but it was definitely more enjoyable. The Way We Live Now did for the 19th century what Martin Amis’ Money did for the 20th—portrayed a society that was as successful and wealthy as it was deplorable, with all the humor, darkness, and drama that comes with the territory.

Unlike with Money, which told everything from one biased perspective, The Way We Live Now is about the lives of a full cast of characters and shifts focus between different intersecting plots. A few main threads keep everything together and keep things moving, such as the love-life drama of Paul Montague (blatant Romeo and Juliet reference), the upcoming election for a seat in British Parliament, and the repeatedly disastrous behaviors of Sir Felix Carbury.

Author Anthony Trollope

Sir Felix is a spoiled son of reasonable wealth—except that he spends all his time and money gambling. His mother, too afraid of driving him away, enables him by giving him money she doesn’t have, despite what it does to her unmarried daughter, who is far less spoiled and yet far less appreciated. But Sir Felix’s spendthrift ways are nothing compared to his commitments to two different women, both of whom he cares very little for, except that they might be able to provide him with more wealth if he plays his cards right. He is the story’s source of carelessness and insincerity—the purest example of insatiable greed and the path it can lead one to.

But honestly, Sir Felix is redeemable, unlike the novel’s true villain—Augustus Melmotte, a man new to the area running for a seat in Parliament, and doing anything he can to get it. He is a typical political evil—a careful liar, a corporate-level thief, a two-faced celebrity, and a cultural phase that brings out the worst in people on a worldly scale. He steals and attempts to cover it up, abuses people close to him that would traditionally be loved ones, and refuses to accept anything that doesn’t go his way. Melmotte is a smiling, charming criminal, and is everything Sir Felix is but worse. Sir Felix is always just out of reach of being his better self, but Melmotte is nowhere near being redeemable.

Paul Montague’s story is the novel’s redemptive quality. His story is about his attempts to remain a good gentleman in the midst of his chaotic love-life—he no longer loves a woman he is intended for, and he loves someone that his closest friend hopes to marry. He makes some serious missteps, but his intentions are never unclear—he means to be a good person no matter what. He juggles his relationships to find the perfect balance, so that he can maintain his friendship, sincerely end his old engagement, and begin anew with the woman he cares for.

An illustration from The Way We Live Now, featuring Winifred Hurtle and Paul Montague

Then, the threads intersect—Montague’s love is Henrietta Carbury, Sir Felix’s sister; Sir Felix is in a threadbare relationship with Marie Melmotte, Augustus’ daughter, and Augustus disapproves of the relationship; Sir Felix is in an even more threadbare relationship with a girl named Ruby, who, after being kicked out of the house for being involved with Felix, finds herself in the same establishment as the woman Paul is trying to disengage with—an American woman named Winifred Hurtle; Melmotte, Paul, and Felix, as well as several other wealthy people, are involved on the governing board of a North American railway company. Every chapter is like a roll of the dice, and no one knows what social, political, or romantic disaster might happen next—and that does make it an exciting read.

Shifting from character to character is a strength—one that author Anthony Trollope uses to his advantage. Trollope sometimes writes from Paul’s perspective and shows Felix as deplorable as he seems, but then he writes from Felix’s perspective, without changing Felix’s actions or motivations, and makes him sympathetic (or we get to hear from the perspective of his mother or sister, to make things that much more complicated). This is a bolder move than it seems, especially for the time—the novel shows its age by having an overly helpful narrator, referring to us as the reader and guiding us on this journey. There’s some of that throughout the story—a balance between the traditional and the changing future, between the conservative and the progressive. It’s a story as time-tested as Shakespeare, and as experimental as Money.

And for all that, the reason it made the list is in the title—The Way We Live Now. This is a snapshot of English culture in the later half of the 19th century, an era more modern than it used to be and not as modern as today. Trollope’s goal was to point out how greed and corruption were plaguing English society, and with this novel, he does that with as much intrigue as balance. By focusing on that theme in its entirety, The Way We Live Now tackled a wide scope of ideas and truly reflected the world at the time, and with good writing to boot, it’s no wonder it made the list.

Next up, I’m working my way through Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier—another novel that serves as a snapshot of the era, the early 20th century. More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Welcome back, class.

From the start, I was comparing Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Both focus on characters with mental illness, as well as the concept of mental illness, while tackling loosely related problems like American culture, sexism, and the conflict between the individual and society. But that’s it. Beyond that, the books are as different as The Diary of Anne Frank and the Harry Potter Series.

And what makes them so different? Kesey’s novel is only about mental illness on the surface. There are clearly characters who are mentally ill, including the narrator, but that illness is simply the backdrop for a larger story—a story about oppression, anarchy, identity, and society. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest isn’t about curing those who are ill, but about freeing those who are enslaved. There are issues with that approach, but the story is good enough to rise above those issues.

First of all, the writing is SOLID. Everything about Kesey’s style is original, enjoyable, clever . . . it’s audible and graphic and is meant to immerse you into the vivid and uncomfortable world of a mental ward. On this ward, tragedy and terror happen without warning, and the smallest of details cause the biggest impact—the writing reflects that, and the few peaceful scenes that occur take such sharp turns into chaos that, after a while, the reader realizes there aren’t any peaceful scenes at all . . . only anarchy and the build-up to it. The genius of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is in Kesey’s portrayal of the story’s events, and if there’s only one reason it made the list, look no further. Knowing full well I can’t do his amazing style justice, I encourage you to read it yourself and see what I mean.

Then, there’s the story itself—Randle P. McMurphy is a criminal who pleads insanity in the courtroom, and winds up on the ward with the actual mentally ill. Within hours, he sees that the situation on the ward is a step above prison, but the countless restrictions make life about as flexible as concrete, and he decides that he won’t stand for it. The leader of the ward is Nurse Ratched, a domineering woman whose sole pleasure seems to be rigidity and order—every move she makes is to perfect the lives of her patients whether they want it or not. McMurphy and Ratched become fast enemies, and the rest of the patients get caught in the crossfire.

It’s easy to see McMurphy as the hero and Ratched as the villain, and while Ratched has next to no redeemable qualities, McMurphy is a far cry from a great leader or liberator in any scenario. His criminality alone isn’t a series of innocent slips—it’s implied he’s done some terrible things. He has moments of kindness, most of which are veiled maneuvers to try to get what he wants—more freedom on the ward for something trivial, or at least the ability to upset the power dynamic and throw Ratched off her game. But there are moments of rebellion on behalf of the other patients, and those moments make McMurphy more complicated and more interesting. Kesey refuses to let McMurphy fall into labels that trap him like “hero” or “anarchist” or “revolutionary.”

One of the flaws of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is its Hemingway-esque focus on masculinity—this is a novel about men and for men, with a sexualized woman as the villain. In this world, men are celebrated for things that are crass and inexcusable, disguised as rebellion against the established order. But, to be fair, in a world where the established order is a specific kind of oppressive—sexless, muted, inflexible—performing revolutionary acts that flaunt morality or social code may be inherently good. What bothers me is that these acts tend to be for men at the expense of women, and Kesey created a story that allows for that, knowing that to soften the backward-ness of these dynamic characters would be to weaken the story. The good and powerful themes of this novel come at that cost, so be willing to pay it when you pick it up.

Despite that backward-ness, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has a violent wit and a very, VERY well-told story. It may be played for crazy at the expense of the mentally ill, but it’s a novel that presents the distinction between society and its marginalized individuals with force and flare. I encourage others to read it with eyes open for the good, the bad, and the ugly.

That’s FORTY BOOKS DONE. Only ten more to go! There are some books in this final round that I’ve already read, and some that I know absolutely nothing about, so we’re not going into unfamiliar territory but we are reaching the end of our journey. I feel more enlightened already.

Next up is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, similarly controversial for very different reasons. I hope I can do it justice, because I’ve read this novel several times, and I’ve loved it and hated it, and even felt a high-school-indifference to it. We’ll see how it goes.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“‘I discovered at an early age that I was—shall we be kind and say different? It’s a better, more general word than the other one. I indulged in certain practices that our society regards as shameful. And I got sick. It wasn’t the practices, I don’t think, it was the feeling that the great, deadly, pointing forefinger of society was pointing at me—and the great voice of millions chanting, “Shame. Shame. Shame.” It’s society’s way of dealing with someone different.'”

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

” . . . you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy.”

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

“‘ . . . in this country, when something is out of order, then the quickest way to get it fixed is the best way.'”

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

Gulliver’s Travels

Welcome back, class.

I like Gulliver’s Travels for being exactly what it is. It’s not my favorite, but I can’t help but enjoy the things that make it good. I enjoy it for the same reason I enjoy Shakespeare’s plays (and for the same reason I am currently enjoying Don Quixote, which I’ll write about soon)—the author, Jonathan Swift, takes his favorite ideas from a huge body of literature before him and makes those ideas his own in Gulliver’s Travels, which has enough flare, depth, humor, and meaning to have lasted hundreds of years.

On the surface, Gulliver’s Travels is the simple story of Lemuel Gulliver, who goes on four loosely connected adventures in his lifetime to the far reaches of the undiscovered world. He goes first to Lilliput, where he meets a nation of people mere inches tall, then to Brobdingnag where he meets a nation of giants ten times his size. His third journey involves a set of smaller adventures, notably his visit to the airborn island of Laputa. His last adventure is to the land of the Houyhnhnms, a culture of knowledgeable horses that teach him their ways.

Lemuel Gulliver on the island of Lilliput.

Ask any English teacher and they’ll tell you—Gulliver’s Travels is satire at heart. It uses the surface story of a man on a series of impossible adventures to point more than a few obvious fingers at politics, society, and humanity. I usually associate Gulliver’s Travels with The Colbert Report, if only because they accomplish the same thing in very different ways. Both use humor, absurdity, and criticism to make bold statements about the world, forcing readers and viewers to use a greater degree of logic.

Gulliver’s Travels made the list because it clearly embraces the use of satire to great success, and it did so in a way never before seen in its time. This is of course debatable—several works before Gulliver’s Travels have used satire, such as any number of Shakespeare’s works and Don Quixote. But nothing seems to have left an impression like Jonathan Swift—the entirety of Gulliver’s Travels is a dark joke, and you, gentle reader, are likely the butt of it.

Author Jonathan Swift

Swift at some point discovered that satire is one of the best forms of shaming people and calling for radical change while still being art. Somehow, in the reality we live in, the thoughts spoken meaningfully can get lost in the clutter of everyone speaking at once, but saying the exact opposite of what we mean while being facetious enough to get our point across makes people shut up and listen. In the meaninglessness of Swift’s fantasy worlds is where we can find meaning.

But Swift wasn’t entirely meaningless—a lot of passages, especially from his fourth adventure, are honest and sincere. As Swift’s narrator, Gulliver is more than a finger for pointed critically at society. We see these adventures take a serious toll on his life and directly affect his view of his family. In speaking with the Houyhnhnms (probably some of my favorite passages), he confronts some of the uglier parts of humanity and changes irreversibly.

And yet, for the most part, Gulliver is the kind of character that functions as a blank slate—a way for Swift to paint a picture of the world as he sees it, with the flare of fantasy for good measure. Gulliver’s flaws as a character help us see what Swift intends, and Swift intends a lot. His relentlessness towards society’s mass imperfections have enough detail to fill a history class, and yet are broad enough to apply to the flaws of several societies centuries later. Gulliver’s Travels is not my favorite, but it’s a work of genius everyone should get to know.

Up next is Don Quixote! I’m enjoying it so far and I’m excited to write about it.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

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

Anna Karenina

Hello again, class.

The first thing you notice about Anna Karenina is how long it is. Hopefully, the second thing you notice is how short the chapters are—all of them, two or three pages a pop. It’s really easy to read a chapter a day, and most chapters pick up in the exact spot where you left off last—that’s why, for the past 15 books I’ve written about for this blog, I’ve been reading Anna Karenina on the side. It’s hardly made a dent in my time, even though it took several months to read.

I’ve heard that Anna Karenina is the best novel ever written. Though my vote for that spot is still Ulysses, I can see why Tolstoy’s novel is preferable—Anna Karenina uses a large cast of characters and their diverse inner thoughts to tell the kind of story you can’t look away from, where passion leads to terrible decisions and societal systems punish everyone, without regard to right or wrong. For that, Anna Karenina makes the list of books to read before you die.

Actress Greta Garbo as Anna in one of the several movie adaptations of Anna Karenina.

The novel follows two major stories that intersect and branch out from each other. One story is focused on Anna, a married woman who falls in love with another man and begins an affair, setting in motion the events of the novel. The other story focuses on the landowner Konstantin Levin and his relationship and eventual marriage with the noble Katerina (Kitty). It’s almost like reading two different novels, except for the moments when one story affects the other.

In Anna’s story, her life falls apart almost immediately—once she meets Alexis Vronsky, the man who becomes her lover, her marriage collapses like wet paper. Her attachments to her extended family, her love for her son, her standing in Russian society . . . all are kindling for the fire that consumes her life. Levin’s story is more traditional—he pines for Kitty, learns to live without her, happily regains his relationship with her, and, once married to her, begins the life expected of a husband. But the subtleties of his story reveal contradictions ingrained in marital expectations.

If the entire novel could be boiled down into one thought, that’s it: Anna Karenina is about the flaws of marriage, and in other systems that society puts so much importance on. More than anything, Tolstoy seems determined to point out how complicated and convoluted the ideas and expectations of marriage are, and to condemn it as part of the problem.

Author Leo Tolstoy

The novel is praised for realism, but be warned: I don’t mean present day realism, I mean 1800’s realism (which means that Tolstoy doesn’t linger on the gory details, but they’re still there). Anna Karenina has that same quality that Modernism abides by—the need to break down traditions and widely held values for the sake of shifty truths. Tolstoy does this in a way that shows off every character and their uniquely flawed perspectives, warts and all. No one character has a complete picture of the events, so it’s up to the reader to decide what the truth is, despite any one character’s beliefs or morals.

Tolstoy’s determination makes Anna Karenina challenging and important. It doesn’t hold back anything—that’s the kind of realism it brands itself with, which works to the novel’s credit.

Next up, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Of what I’ve read so far, there could be several comparisons between the protagonist Esther and Tolstoy’s Anna—I can’t share more detail without spoiling either novel, but suffice it to say that mental illness in women is misrepresented in most literature, and that what Tolstoy didn’t get right in Anna Karenina is sure to be corrected by Plath’s personal experience. I don’t look forward to a happy ending with The Bell Jar. And that’s okay.

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: The Crucible

Good morning, class.

I remember reading The Crucible in 10th grade. It didn’t change my life, but it felt important—it crossed my mind that in a younger grade or an easier class, this kind of story wouldn’t have been allowed. Before this, the hardest thing I’d ever read was Romeo and Juliet, which may seem difficult to a high school student but is simple in retrospect. I was finally getting to the thought-provoking stuff with The Crucible. I was being trusted with something more challenging.

For all the reasons I like it, I have one major criticism: it’s about as subtle as cannon fire. In Arthur Miller’s defense, The Crucible was a direct response to the McCarthyism Era of the 1950s, where the slightest associations with communism could result in unfair trials and defamation—subtlety didn’t abound. The overwhelming panic of the time inspired Miller’s portrayal of the Salem witch trials, where a similar series of baseless claims led to the torture and death of innocent lives. Miller wanted to show America that panic can do irreparable harm to society, especially when we give in to it.

John Proctor, as portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in The Crucible (1996)

For students not in-the-know: the story mostly follows John Proctor, a man in a struggling marriage who despises hypocrisy, and Abigail Williams, who’s had an affair with John and becomes the spark that starts the witch trials. Abigail is clever: she uses the Puritan leadership’s fear of Satan and witchcraft to manipulate life in Salem, and encourages other girls to do the same. Abigail wants to get rid of John’s wife so that she can have him for herself, and her lies fool most of the town into thinking the Devil has his eyes fixed on Salem.

My favorite scene of the play is at the end of Act 3—after a poorly placed lie in the courtroom, an opportunity opens up for Abigail to give the performance of a lifetime. She pretends to see a bird, the shape-shifted form of a the little girl Mary (who betrayed Abigail by trying to come clean about everything). The bird Abigail “sees” begins to attack her and the girls on her side. The presiding judge eats up every word and every gesture, eventually convinced that they are under the thrall of Mary’s witchcraft. John tries to make the judge see reason, and Mary and the girls turn their attention on him, claiming that he is allied with the Devil. John gives up completely—he shouts that God is dead and that he and the judge will burn together in the end. It’s one of the tensest moments in literature I’ve ever read.

As far as characters go, Abigail is pretty simple—she wants John and finds a way to get him, with consequences she couldn’t have imagined. John’s arc is more interesting. He torments himself for betraying his wife, and both Abigail’s antics and the town’s response to them are eating away at his faith. John struggles to understand if he’s good or not; was his lust a mistake of immorality, or was it indicative of an evil he can’t help but succumb to? John’s doubt in himself makes it easier to trust him, in spite of his flaws, and that doubt is nowhere to be found in Abigail—her lack of doubt makes her determination terrifying.

Playwright Arthur Miller

But the real difference between Abigail and John—and the extremes they represent—is the ability to confess falsely. Abigail’s sway over the town came from a confession people wanted to hear, and she gave it gladly. Her lies from that point grow and explode on the town. John’s resistance against these lies make him one of the only sane people left in Salem. Even his own true confession about the affair with Abigail falls flat against her lies—in Salem, lies seem to speak more truth than the truth does.

Everyone else in the story exists between these extremes—they are willing to lie, or believe lies, for their own sake. Sometimes, they’re sympathetic—anyone will confess if there’s enough pressure, which makes John that much more of a hero. In other cases, when a character is lying for their own gain, destroying the town as they go, it’s easy to wonder whether or not Satan did have a hold on Salem.

Historical accuracy is worth noting—Miller made some deliberate changes, the most significant being Abigail’s age raised to make her a more malevolent antagonist. He also removed a lot of extra people (for example, there were more girls and judges in the scene I described), if for no other reason than to make it more feasible on stage. Miller takes some liberties, but they’re in the name of his message—again, not subtle—that panic has the ability to destroy society, if we let it. I don’t know of another story that portrays panic so well, without it being a pale imitation of this, which is why The Crucible should have made the list.

I’m just finishing up The Count of Monte Cristo, so that’s on the agenda for next class. I’m realizing that the protagonist, Edmond Dantès, is heroic for the exact opposite reason as John Proctor—Dantès’ conviction makes him a force to be reckoned with against those who ruined his life. He has no doubt that his aims are governed by God, and that he is a divine tool in God’s works. Just goes to show you how widely stories can vary.

Prof. Jeffrey

A Passage to India

Hello again, class.

I would put E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India in the same boat as Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River—a novel on cultural clash, with one nation invading another and a set of characters caught in the racial, international chaos. But where Greene and Naipaul are too cynical and become trapped by racist misrepresentations, Forster’s treatment of racial and cultural tension is careful and even kind, without being naive to its origins or consequences. For that, I enjoyed A Passage to India and highly recommend it.

A flag map of the British Raj, the British rule over India between 1858-1947. A Passage to India takes place in the 1920’s, during the period of the British Raj.

I had never even heard of A Passage to India before seeing it on the list, so I imagine most don’t know the story. In the fictional town of Chandrapore, the English Mr. Fielding and Indian Dr. Aziz befriend Mrs. Moore, who has come to visit her son Ronny, Chandrapore’s city magistrate. Mrs. Moore has brought her young friend Adela, who is potentially her son’s fiancee. This newly formed group decides to visit the Marabar Caves, and what happens there forces the subtle racial tensions within them to explode, affecting the entirety of Chandrapore.

In A Bend in the River and The Quiet American, the protagonists are limited by their own racism, which is shown as an ingrained trait as natural as our own desires. But the treatment of race in A Passage to India reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird—it shows racism as a disease. It infects many characters, but not all, and the ones who rise above such racism are punished by the society affected by the disease.

Specifically for A Passage to India, we move between the minds of each character and see their own struggles with race and racism. Characters like Mrs. Moore and Aziz have a poetic and compassionate view of the world, while Mrs. Moore’s own son thinks with bureaucracy and practicality, even with matters concerning marriage. Ronny views the Indian population as a group who needs governance, while Mrs. Moore believes her role in India is to show kindness to others. In each character, the topic of race—of psychology, humanity, and nationality, too—takes a subtly different form, and each character believes in their own version of racial truth.

E. M. Forster, author of A Passage to India. Portrait by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920.

The story itself can’t have much said about it—it’s well-balanced and careful, to the point that it’s forgettable. The strength in A Passage to India is E. M. Forster’s total understanding of society and of human nature.

I’m willing to bet that most white writers handle race and racism poorly. Forster shouldn’t be any different, but he is (though that opinion is from another white writer, so take that opinion with a grain of salt).  I think, in part, that his careful and compassionate management of race stems from understanding the nature of an outsider, which comes from being a minority himself—though the larger public didn’t know, Forster lived his life as a homosexual man. In England at the time, homosexuality was considered illegal activity, so Forster’s identity was a crime. He could easily imagine the loneliness and stress of being considered criminal by nature, much like the Indians in his novel tend to feel around the English.

Don’t get me wrong: race and sexual orientation compare very little, even in the larger scope of societal treatment. Forster’s hidden minority hardly matches the visibility of racial tension. But the feeling of being an outsider, even in a place one considers home, is something Forster likely knew very well—and it translates to the subtleties of A Passage to India. It feeds into the natural cynicism of the plot, highlighting the inability to rise above prejudice, but Forster handles that cynicism with more grace than most authors do. It made A Passage to India good.

Next up, I’m finishing the His Dark Materials Trilogy, which I’ve been reading for some time now. I won’t say much yet . . . except that I haven’t felt this good about a series since I read Harry Potter. But I’ll save the rest for later!

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

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