The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

In 2017, Jeffrey Eugenides was one of the writers appearing at the Portland Book Festival (fka Wordstock). I was at the festival to hear him and a few other writers talk about writing, and he is just as entertaining to listen to as he is to read. Unlike some authors, he is an entertaining public speaker with a sense of humor, which comes through in his first novel, The Virgin Suicides (1993). The following analysis includes spoilers, and If you decide to read the novel, be aware that the introduction by Emma Cline includes quotations and commentary that are probably more enjoyable if you encounter them while you read the book. Cline’s introduction was also published separately as “The ‘Virgin Suicides’ Still Holds the Mysteries of Adolescence” (The New Yorker, Oct. 2, 2018).

Virgin Suicides cover

Back to Eugenides’ sense of humor. The Virgin Suicides is a coming-of-age story with the added twist of knowing from the beginning that all five of the Lisbon family sisters commit suicide, turning the narrative into a mystery, as well as a novel-length elegy. Fortunately, the author understands that if you are going to depress your reader right away, some comic relief is necessary. He accomplishes this through the use of detail and imagery, such as when he describes one of the sisters, Cecilia, as having “…colored her lips with red crayon, which gave her face a deranged harlot look….” (24). As a teacher who spends time around teenage girls, I have witnessed a variety of make-up application strategies, including Cecilia’s deranged harlot technique. Later, Eugenides notes how different families in the neighborhood raked their yards. “The Pitzenbergers toiled with ten people–two parents, seven teenagers, and the two-year old Catholic mistake following with a toy rake” (87). Without periodic levity, readers would become disengaged with what would otherwise be a much darker story.

It’s important to note, though, that the author manages to balance the inclusion of detail and humor with moving the story along at a reasonable pace. If you have ever read a novel where you felt bogged down by too much detail, you will appreciate Eugenides’ writing.

The structure of the novel is a fairly straightforward, chronological flashback, but the story is told with a first person plural point of view (hence the ubiquitousness of “we,” “our,” and “us”), and includes commentary from other characters who provide insights into the lives and deaths of the Lisbon girls. Yet, there is only one person employing the use of these pronouns: a middle-aged man reflecting on the experiences of he and his male friends as they tried to socialize with the Lisbons. It would have been difficult, of course, for Eugenides, a male writer, to write the story from the girls’ point of view. The inclusion of the other points of view, though, improves the story in that it accurately reflects an important aspect of adolescence, that is, the tendency of young people to navigate through high school as part of a small group. In this story, it is a group of teenage boys trying desperately to learn as much as they can about a mysterious family by examining every possible clue they come across. And to reinforce the investigatory nature of the story, the narrator recalls various interviews that have taken place, and labels the different items of information as evidentiary exhibits–just as a detective would do in a criminal case file.

Another aspect to the narrators’ point of view is that it is almost always the view of males observing females, and critics (such as Cline) have pointed this out. However, it would be incorrect to say that the “male gaze” makes the story less effective or entertaining. After all, it is a story written from the perspective of a group of men reflecting on their experiences with the Lisbons. On the other hand, would it have been difficult to include narration from a female peer of the Lisbons? No. Eugenides could have created a female friend of the narrators or the doomed sisters, and this kind of character would have given the story more narrative balance, but it may have brought in too much information, thereby explaining away some of the mysteries that give the story its appeal.

Adding to the appeal of the story is the soundtrack Eugenides provides. All of the characters lived in a Midwestern suburb in the seventies, and if you were a teenager during that time, you will probably remember the music the characters play over the phone to each other, holding a phone receiver next to a record player. The importance of music when you are growing up, along with the technology of the era, are more details that the author gets right.

The suburban setting allows Eugenides to use diseased and dying elm trees to symbolize the girls’ inability to escape the contagion of suicide. As a work crew gets ready to cut down a once-healthy tree recently infected with Dutch elm disease, the Lisbon girls (who have formed a suicide pact) surround the tree, ironically, to preventing its death. The narrators, perhaps, were trying to save the Lisbons by continually trying to get as close as they could.

Thematically, the novel attempts to answer the question of why people–particularly young (and presumably healthy) people–kill themselves. Within the story, there is a certain amount of speculation as to the reasons why the suicides occurred. Eugenides, wisely, refuses to give us a clear answer, and his narrators are haunted by this mystery throughout their lives. Often, popular writers wrap everything up neatly for their readers, answering every question, as if unresolved issues and ambiguities are problems that must be solved by the end of the story. They aren’t. In fact, leaving some questions unanswered is one of the ways great literature makes us think.

Then there are the questions you have when there appears to be something going on that doesn’t make sense in terms of realism. Eugenides includes realistic detail, such as Dutch elm disease and specific songs, but we also have moments of magical realism, too. An example of this technique is the Lisbon girls’ failure to simply leave their house, which they could have done easily, but didn’t. Instead, they allow themselves to be imprisoned in their home with their parents. Their lengthy absence from school is tolerated by the community, even though Mr. Lisbon is a local teacher.

During this internment, one of the sisters, Lux, repeatedly has sex on the roof, but neither she nor any of her visitors are ever caught by her parents, despite Lux being observed by others. The improbable nature of this scene reminds one of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Whether the magical realism detracts from the quality of the story is a question best answered by individual readers. For me, it made the story more entertaining, but I happen to like that particular writing technique.

Lastly, some book group advice: The 25th Anniversary edition (pictured above) notes that he won a Pulitzer prize for his 2002 novel, Middlesex, which is a little over 500 pages long, twice the size of The Virgin Suicides. So which one should you read first? When I read someone’s writing for the first time, I like to start out with their first (and usually, shorter) work. In addition, the inclusion of an introduction with this edition provides someone else’s insights to discuss.

The Dead (Dubliners) by James Joyce

The Irish author, James Joyce (1882-1941), wrote Dubliners, a collection of fifteen short stories set in Dublin, while he was working as an English teacher in Pola (Croatia), then in Trieste; followed by a job at a bank in Rome. He returned to Dublin in 1909 where he attempted to operate a cinema and submitted his manuscript to a publisher, Maunsel and Company. The cinema project failed, and the publisher decided not to publish Dubliners. Finally, in 1914, Maunsel & Co. changed its mind and printed Dubliners. Although Joyce is probably more famous for Ulysses (1922) and Finnegan’s Wake (1939), it is really Dubliners that forms the artistic foundation for Joyce’s later works (Scholes & Litz), and it is one story from the collection, The Dead, that I am going to discuss in this post.

Dubliners cover

I read the Viking Critical Library edition of Dubliners (pictured above), edited by Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. The text of Dubliners is approximately 200 pages long, but the Viking edition includes an additional 300 pages of material: biographical information, a chronology, maps of Dublin, notes explaining Irish colloquialisms and culture, and a number of critical essays. Although casual readers do not need all of the extras to enjoy the gist of Joyce’s stories, I found much of the information very useful–particularly because I may include one of the stories in the English class I am teaching. It is this edition that provides much of the factual and critical information forming the basis of this essay, so page numbers appearing by themselves refer to the Viking edition. I have also relied upon How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, who is much more knowledgeable than I am regarding the history and symbolism in Dubliners.

Rather than analyze every single one of the fifteen stories in Dubliners, or attempt to criticize the entire work in a general way, I will focus on the final story, The Dead. It is set at a Christmas party attended by Gabriel Conroy and his wife, Gretta (178). Specifically, it is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, January 6th–also known as “Epiphany” (Foster, 233). Further, the theme of epiphany appears at the end of The Dead (Scholes & Litz, 249). The midwinter setting allows for the use of weather as part of the story, and the story’s title almost mandates its placement at the end of the collection. As I was thinking about these things, it occurred to me that the beginning of January would be a similarly fitting time for me to write about The Dead.

Along with the two hostesses (Gabriel’s aunts) the guests include Freddy, a young man known for showing up drunk, Mr D’Arcy (who sings), and various others from the community. Gabriel, as one of the more educated and cultured guests, is somewhat of a VIP, and wonders if he should bother to go through with a speech he had prepared because it would include poetry “which they could not understand” (179). Joyce describes him this way to give us a sense of Gabriel’s egoism.

After a piano performance, the guests begin dancing and Gabriel has to defend himself from the various recriminations of his dance partner, Miss Ivors, who has discovered that when he isn’t teaching at the university, he spends some of his time writing a column about literature for a local newspaper. Ivors gently insults Gabriel by calling him a “West Briton” after he snobbily declines her invitation to spend a month with her family in West Ireland by saying he preferred to vacation on the continent. Not long afterward, Gretta expresses an intense interest in accepting Ivors’ invitation to West Ireland, but he insists on sticking to his other plans; his self-centered nature winning out over his wife’s travel wishes.

The dinner portion of the party begins with Gabriel sitting at the head of the table where he has been given the honor of carving the goose. Once the meal has been finished, Gabriel gives a moving speech about good manners, hospitality, and how his relatives exemplify these qualities. At one point, he mentions the sadness of “absent faces,” then warns that “were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living” (104). As he concludes his speech, some of the guests are moved to tears and begin singing. Then the guests begin leaving and the party starts to wind down. And it is here where one would ordinarily expect a story set at a party to wind down, too, but Joyce is just getting started.

Up to this point, the party seems like a normal holiday party (albeit an extravagant one considering the modest means of the hosts and guests)  except that Gretta has not really appeared in the story, yet. Now, though, Gabriel notices his wife standing on a flight of steps, positioned above him, listening to Mr. D’Arcy singing a song that includes an expression of grief (210). It has an effect on Gretta, and Gabriel notices how beautiful his wife is. Although they are middle-aged and have been married long enough to have children, he is still attracted to her. It is a quality in Gabriel that endears him to us, despite his otherwise arrogant nature. They leave the party and as they walk together through the slushy snow to their hotel, he continues to think about how much he is in love with her. He begins anticipating their time alone together, and feels a “keen pang of lust” (215).

The tension builds as the couple enters the hotel and are escorted to their room by the porter. And as readers, we think we know what is going to happen once Gabriel and his wife are finally alone. We are there with Gabriel, caught up in his emotions:  lust, impatience, anxiety, elation, then…frustration. He can tell that Gretta has something on her mind and begins asking her about it. She suddenly begins crying as she explains that the song she heard earlier was once sung by Michael Furey, a young man who had fallen in love with her. At first, Gabriel becomes jealous and suggests that Gretta wanted to vacation with the Ivors so she could see him again. Gretta does not respond to her husband angrily, though. Instead, she pauses, then explains that Furey was dead. Gabriel feels humiliated and “ludicrous” at first (220), surmising that while he had been recalling their happier times together, she was probably thinking of her old lover.

Gabriel is also irritated, and cannot stop himself from questioning Gretta regarding the nature of Furey’s death at a young age. It turns out that although Furey had been very sick, he had visited her one night by standing in the rain outside her window after she had told him that she would not see him for several months. In response, he said he did not care to live if he could not see her. She sent him home, anyway, where he died one week after she left.

Once she finishes telling her husband about the young man who risked his life for her love, she is guilt-ridden, exhausted, and cries herself to sleep. Gabriel is still too self-absorbed to feel sympathy, though:  “It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life” (222). He watches her sleep, and tries to imagine what she looked like as the young woman Furey had fallen in love with. “He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death” (222).

When we reach this point in the story, Joyce has us convinced that Gabriel is a complete jerk. However, this also means that Joyce is going to rehabilitate his main character through the use of an epiphany.

Joyce accomplishes this by noting how Gabriel “thought of how she…had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live,” and how “[g]enerous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love” (223).

Once Gabriel realizes that he loves his wife despite the fact that he is competing with her memory of another man, The Dead concludes with Gabriel thinking about how the snow is falling not only their hotel, but on all of Ireland and, in particular, the grave of Micheal Furey, miles away. An irony for Gabriel, of course, is that a short time after he gave a speech cautioning everyone that they must not let memories of the dead prevent them from getting on with their own lives, the memory of Michael Furey is doing exactly that to Gabriel and his wife. Nevertheless, Gabriel now has a clearer understanding of his more modest place in the universe:  just as the snow falls everywhere and on everyone, death will descend upon us, too, regardless of how important we think we are.

The very last line of The Dead is beautiful and often quoted. But I am not going to spoil that for you here if you have not read it yet….

Middlemarch by George Eliot

George Eliot’s Middlemarch, published as a full-length novel for the first time in 1874, is one of the longest, most complex and influential works written during the Victorian era. Its realistic depiction of small-town English life is superb at a number of levels. Consequently, a truly comprehensive review is outside the scope of this blog. I read (and recommend) the second Norton Critical Edition of Middlemarch by W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2000. It includes a variety of criticism and background information about the novel, the text of which is 515 pages long. The entire edition is 678 pages, and the textual references in this blog are to Eliot or one of the other writers included in the edition.

George Eliot from The GuardianGeorge Eliot, courtesy of The Guardian.

The novel’s influence is illustrated by the fact that Virginia Woolf referenced Middlemarch in her novel, To the Lighthouse (a book group selection), by having one of her less literary-minded characters note that she had not been able to read the entire book! (Shelston 656). Shelston also notes that “George Eliot and Virginia Woolf…shared the distinction of being probably the most well-read of the novelists of their respective generations” (Id.). Henry James wrote about the work, and I will discuss his opinion later.

“George Eliot” was the pen name for Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880), a woman who moved from her home in provincial England to London where she lived with a man she was not married to, and did so openly (Edwards 623). This was an independent and courageous act for a single woman from the provinces in the Victorian Era. She defied society’s expectations and achieved financial independence through her writing, but had to do so by adopting a male pen name. Lee R. Edwards’ analysis of Middlemarch, “Women, Energy, and Middlemarch” (The Massachusetts Review, 13 (1972)) is an insightful piece written by a woman who felt, in the beginning, that it was one of the books of her life. She compares Eliot’s life to her own, stating that “Like her, I felt harassed by pressures to marry some nice young man and abandon my private and no doubt weird ideas” (624). Yet, Edwards confesses that she “misread” the book, and concludes her review by saying that “it can no longer be one of the books of my life….I am alternatively angered, puzzled, and finally depressed” (625, 630).

I share Edwards’ puzzlement at certain aspects of the novel, but it did not leave me angry. For example, the book could have been more interesting if the character of Dorothea Brooke (modeled on both St. Theresa and, loosely, on Eliot) would have run away with Will Ladislaw to London, reflecting more closely Eliot’s own life. Dorothea’s first husband, Casaubon, was significantly older and died, leaving a will that eliminated Dorothea’s right to a significant amount of property if she should marry Ladislaw (371). Couldn’t she sell the property, put the sale proceeds in the bank, and then marry Ladislaw?  Unless a character died, every marriage in the story was in existence at the end, presumably because divorce was not an option for Victorians. Not surprisingly, some of those relationships were unhappy, particularly that of Dr. Tertius Lydgate and his wife, Rosamond Vincy–if one goes beyond the fact that he eventually became a successful doctor, and his wife remained with him. We are, of course, going to go beyond that fact after considering the thoughts of Henry James.

Henry James, the author of The Turn of the Screw (read by this book group) and other stories, reviewed Middlemarch in 1873, calling it “a picture, vast, swarming, deep-colored, crowded with episodes, with vivid images, with lurking master-strokes, with brilliant passages of expression; and as such we may freely accept it and enjoy it. It is not compact, doubtless; but when was a panorama compact?” (James 579). James’ positive impressions are not carried through the rest of his review, though. He takes issue with Eliot’s decisions to emphasize some characters over others. In particular, the emphasis on Fred Vincy versus Will Ladislaw, the latter being far more important in James’ opinion, yet still “the only eminent failure of the book” (580).

I am now going to flatter myself by saying that the character intriguing both James and I more than Fred Vincy, Will Ladislaw and Dorothea Brooke is Dr. Lydgate, “the real hero of the story” (James 580). James goes on to say that “The most perfectly successful passages in the book are perhaps those painful fireside scenes between Lydgate and his miserable little wife….There is nothing more powerfully real than these scenes in all English fiction, and nothing certainly more intelligent” (580). Hyperbole? Let’s take a closer look at Lydgate and his circumstances.

Lydgate, the young doctor, moves to Middlemarch to begin a medical practice. He gets off to a good start in the sense that he is an above-average doctor, using his knowledge of modern medicine to successfully treat some of the locals, and begins attracting patients–much to the irritation of the other doctors in town who write bogus prescriptions and still believe in bleeding people. Rosamond Vincy, an attractive local woman, catches his eye and, without much in the way of courtship, marries him. Each has very different expectations as to their respective marital roles. Lydgate expects his wife to defer to his opinion in all matters of importance. Rosamond expects Lydgate to earn enough money for her to be able to enjoy a pleasant middle-class lifestyle. Unfortunately, Lydgate commits the same blunder that many young professionals commit by taking an unrealistically optimistic view of what they will earn when they are young. He borrows too much money to purchase a home and some furniture for his new wife. (Rosamond’s brother, Fred, is in debt as well, but she has nothing to say about that when she argues with her husband.) Soon, the creditors come calling and begin repossessing their furniture. In a small English town, socioeconomic class matters and their indebtedness is humiliating for both of them. While Lydgate tries to extricate himself from this financial hole, Rosamond defies him through various deceptions (408). Her justification for this disobedience is that Lydgate’s financial missteps have ruined their lives, and she feels that she was deceived by him. Therefore, having reasonably expected an upscale lifestyle as opposed to downsizing, she can do as she pleases to better their situation, regardless of whether her husband approves.

Lydgate is depressed and feels guilty about what he’s done, and apologizes to Rosamond about the need to economize. Instead of forgiveness, though, Rosamond is cold toward him, and thinks only of the damage to her social status. She knew that her discomfort took an emotional toll on Lydgate, whereas his difficulties garnered little sympathy from Rosamond. To avoid further embarrassment, she tries to convince Lydgate that they should go to London and start over, but Lydgate was reluctant to agree to this course of action. Then life became worse for Lydgate after he accepted a loan from an unscrupulous banker, Bulstrode. If Lydgate could have paid back the loan quietly, no harm would have been done, but the loan was more than a loan. It was an attempt to discourage Lydgate from publicly repeating anything he might hear about Bulstrode from the seriously ill, hallucinatory Raffles, an enemy of Bulstrode who was in Bulstrode’s home, recovering from a serious bout of alcohol poisoning. Lydgate agreed to treat Raffles without any knowledge of the antagonism between the two men. Lydgate gives Bulstrode some instructions and allows him to watch over Raffles. Bulstrode, in contradiction to Lydgate’s orders, deliberately allowed a servant to unknowingly overdose Raffles (438). To the Middlemarchers, it looked like Lydgate took a bribe to cover up a murder, causing serious damage to his reputation which, in turn, cost him patients and income (451, 457).

Yet why should we care about Lydgate? He is responsible for his own poor decisions, isn’t he? Absolutely, but many readers in modern times can sympathize with a character who is guilty of nothing more than wanting the best for his beautiful, new wife. Further, Lydgate’s lack of income is due, in large part, to his tendency to treat poor people who do not pay him, and to volunteer his time at a local hospital. He is also loyal, never giving up on his wife, and refusing to turn his back on Bulstrode, the man who indirectly impugned his reputation. Other than the occasional attitude of professional arrogance, he is a sympathetic character, and we want to see him succeed.

Success, in a limited sense, eventually comes to Lydgate, but not without a heavy toll, as illustrated in one of those “fireside scenes” James noted in his review. Upon learning of the alleged bribe from her father, Rosamond returned home with “a sense of justified repugnance toward her husband,” even though she did not really know if her husband had acted improperly (467). Lydgate acknowledged the scandal to her and thought to himself, “‘If she has any trust in me…she ought to speak now and say that she does not believe I have deserved disgrace'” (Id.). She says nothing and coolly waits for his explanation instead, bringing to Lydgate a “new rush of gall to that bitter mood” in which he found himself (Id.). There is a long, uncomfortable silence, during which Lydgate paces the room, eventually calming himself to the point where he can begin explaining his side of the story to his wife. As he begins to speak, she directs the conversation to the much less pressing matter of moving to London. In response, “Lydgate felt miserably jarred. Instead of that critical outpouring for which he had prepared himself with effort, here was the old round to be gone through again. He could not bear it” (468).

Ultimately, we learn in the finale that yes, Lydgate gradually became “a successful man” (512) after he paid off Bulstrode with a loan from Dorothea who, quite conveniently, was able to lend the money right before she gave up her wealth to marry Ladislaw (499, 500). The real costs to Lydgate were psychological and physical, as opposed to financial. He married a manipulative, status-seeking woman who cared little for her husband’s feelings, and was unhappy unless she outmaneuvered him to get her way. Her self-centered approach was aptly described by Eliot: “[S]he had been little used to imagining other people’s states of mind except as a material cut into shape by her own wishes” (479). Although Eliot rehabilitates Rosamond’s character a little by having her interact with the saint-like and generous Dorothea, the damage to Lydgate had been done. He died an early death at age 50 of diptheria, feeling like a failure, and always being thwarted by Rosamond, who subsequently married a wealthy, elderly physician and lived a happy life afterward.

It can be said that, with the exception of Lydgate, each character in Middlemarch lived out the rest of their life in a predictable manner, depending on their conduct in life:  Bulstrode left Middlemarch, his reputation justifiably in ruins; Dorothea found happiness by marrying Will; the evil Raffles dies, and Fred Vincy marries the woman of his dreams after finding his vocation in life.  And despite everyone’s financial difficulties, the novel ends with all of the debts repaid.

Lydgate is the outlier in all of this. He is the only one who lives a miserable life without deserving it, and Eliot’s decision to write his character in this manner is an excellent example of realism in literature. Lydgate’s life reflects the lives of many readers, and prevents Middlemarch from becoming a predictable, pastoral romance. Sometimes, good people do not get rewarded in life, and good guys do not always finish first. This brings me to a final question concerning Middlemarch: which is more unjust–the way Lydgate’s life played out compared with other, less complex characters; Eliot’s decision to devote a mere paragraph to Lydgate in the final chapter; or the fact that Eliot died only six years after her masterpiece was published as a novel.

Maybe I am angry after all.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

It’s 1955 in suburban Connecticut. Frank Wheeler, a World War II veteran, commutes to his office job at Knox Business Machines while his wife, April, raises their two children. Their friends, Shep and Milly Campbell, are also their neighbors in the ironically named Revolutionary Hill Estates, where nothing revolutionary takes place. April has the lead in a local theater group’s production, but the play fails, symbolizing the suburbs’ failure to provide a rich, fulfilling lifestyle for its residents. It is this emptiness that Frank rails against during dinner parties with the Campbells. A greater failure, however, for Frank is his fear of leaving the comfortable (albeit boring) suburban life where he can drink his way through business lunches and sleep with a woman from the office stenographer’s pool.  April has a few issues, too, brought about by a childhood marred by rejection and a suicidal parent.

The Wheelers’ other neighbors, the Givings, have a mentally ill adult son, John, who gets weekend passes from the local hospital to visit his parents.  As a favor to the Givings, the Wheelers invite them all to their house periodically. In John, the author has an effective literary device who voices aloud brutally accurate observations about the true nature of the Wheelers’ lives. Frank barely tolerates John while saving his Freudian observations for April, who becomes increasingly desperate, lonely, and isolated.

Revolutionary Road was Yates first (and many believe his best) work. He is a clever and gifted writer, using his own background as a World War II veteran, parent, and publicity writer for the Remington Rand corporation to form the basis for the Frank Wheeler character.  It is suburban malaise at its finest.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice (Photo credit: elycefeliz)

A little over 200 years ago, the literary work we currently know as Pride and Prejudice began as First Impressions, a novel that was rejected by at least one publisher.  But like a lot of great writers, Austen was persistent and rewrote the story.  Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813–anonymously–even though it was Austen’s second book after Sense and Sensibility. To worsen matters, there have been some well-known members of the literary establishment (Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charlotte Bronte) who have had unflattering opinions of Pride and Prejudice.  Others have pointed out that Pride and Prejudice should not be taken seriously because it deals with matters that are “domestic” as opposed to weightier subjects, such as the American and French revolutions.  This last criticism misses one of the main attractions of Pride and Prejudice, i.e., as a comical and insightfull look into the economic and social plight of middle-class women in the late 1800s.  Austen succeeds brilliantly in giving us a sense of what she and her contemporaries had to do in order to secure their futures in a society that greatly restricted the roles of women. (more…)

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Screenshot of To Kill a Mockingbird(an America...

Screenshot of To Kill a Mockingbird(an American movie issued in 1962) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Lee’s only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1961) has been read by more people than perhaps any other book our group has read previously (30 million copies sold), with the possible exception of Lolita.  Consequently, it is almost impossible to say something unique about the novel so I am going to address some of the less noted aspects of the book.


Mockingbird is not a perfect book and has its detractors.  Some of the less flattering commentary has been superficial criticism based on Lee’s use of the epithet, “nigger.”  Other critics have complained about the fact that one of the characters, a white woman, was attracted to a black man, then falsely accused him of rape.  Those kinds of reactions are to be expected when a novel of this caliber addresses issues such as race and class, and does so in a divisive, but insightful manner. (more…)

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk (Photo credit: tr.robinson)

As noted in the sidebar, our group focuses on what we generally consider works of literary value.  What makes a work “literary” has always been debatable, though, and we don’t take ourselves seriously enough to forgo reading a cult classic from time to time.  Or, a local writer–especially if they have written a cult classic.  This month, we discussed the cult classic Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (rhymes with colonic!) which won the 1997 Pacific Booksellers Award and the 1997 Oregon Book Award for best novel.  Those awards are not what people typically think of when they think of Fight Club.  Instead, most people remember the film starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter, as well as the “first rule” of Fight Club:  Do not talk about Fight Club.  Well, we ignored the first rule, and there is no rule that prohibits writing about Fight Club.  (Note:  I will follow the convention of italicizing the title when I reference the book, but not when referencing the organization described in the novel.)  (more…)

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Prior to the appearance of Things Fall Apart (1959), there were virtually no novels of literary significance published in the English language by African writers. Of course, that is not to say that Africans were not producing narratives or art.  A major problem for English-speaking readers interested in African literature is that many cultures in Africa have relied on an oral tradition of story-telling.  Consequently, Achebe‘s novel made literary history based not only on the quality of the story-telling, but also on the fact that it was written in English.  As to whether it belongs within the “Western canon” (described more fully by this article, I am not going to immerse myself in that debate.  Our group focuses on quality literature, regardless of its origin.Achebe was born in Nigeria, and was educated in schools within Nigeria created as a result of colonization.  Speaking English was required.  Like many writers, Achebe mines his life experiences – and those of others – for material in creating a story that is, in a number of ways, “English” literature.  Things Fall Apart can be viewed as a summation of African village experience in two parts:  pre and post-colonization.  His main character, Okonkwo, is modeled on the traditional (Western or Greek) model of the tragic hero.  The plot includes oracles, religious figures, omens, folk tales, violence, irony, and conflict with outsiders.  And along with tragedy, there is some humor.  (more…)

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

New Orleans: Statue of fictional character Ign...

New Orleans: Statue of fictional character Ignatius J. Reiley from the novel “A Confederacy of Dunces”, beneath the clock where the first scene of the novel finds him. Formerly the entrance of D. H. Holmes Department store, now a Hotel on Canal Street. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Typically, I do some research prior to writing one of these critiques, but this is the first time that I have had to consult a medical dictionary.  Toole’s main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, lives with his mother and is afflicted with a condition that causes his “pyloric valve” to open or close, depending on his level of emotional stress.  Although there is a pyloric sphincter muscle that opens and closes a valve that separates the stomach from the lower intestine, a cursory review of stomach ailments does not support the existence of the condition Ignatius suffers from.  This is a work of humorous “fiction” though, and unless you happen to be an expert in gastro-intestinal issues, you accept it as plausible – not that such acceptance is needed for a comedy.  As for the plausibility of the rest of A Confederacy of Dunces, well, that would depend on your familiarity with New Orleans and your sense of humor.  I haven’t visited the city for a number of years, but his narrative feels real when I read it, and it is very funny.Toole died in 1969 so his Big Easy is set long before Hurricane Katrina.  The absence of references to a catastrophic hurricane and mobile phones are a few things that make the story a little dated, but not by much and certainly not to the point where it interferes with our enjoyment of the story.  Nor are there any references to the Vietnam War, but some of the more paranoid characters worry about them “communiss” being everywhere, and the sexual revolution has begun.  Ignatius, however, is too repressed to participate in the revolution.  Consequently, Toole continuously places Ignatius in situations where his repression results in comic discomfort.  At one point, Ignatius meets “Dorian Greene” (p. 256 of my Grove Press edition) – a reference to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (previously read by this book group) – who invites Ignatius to a party where he dances with another man and is eventually chased into the street by a group of violent lesbians.  (more…)

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller

Herta Müller, Nobel laureate in literature 200...

Herta Müller, Nobel laureate in literature 2009, at the Leipziger Buchmesse 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a previous blog, I mentioned that Wallace Stegner‘s Angle of Repose depicted a specific era of U.S. history not often written about by serious novelists.  Herta Muller‘s semi-autobiographical novel sheds a personal light on an era of European history dominated by the influence of the Soviet Union and the dictators who benefited from such influence.  As one reads The Land of Green Plums, it becomes abundantly clear that there are aspects to life under a repressive regime – namely, fear and paranoia – that can be read about in news accounts and discussed, but cannot fully be understood except by those who have lived under such a regime.Green Plums is set in Muller’s homeland, Romania, and although she does not identify the country’s dictator by name, it is Ceausescu and his police-state regime that she describes.  In her Nobel lecture (included in my Picador edition), she talked about the threats, intimidation and persecution to which she was subjected as a translator in a factory.  In the novel, this experience and others form the basis for the lives of the characters.  One method used by the secret police (the “securitate”) of entrapping Romanians into appearing as “collaborators” with internal spies employed by the secret police was to write fictitious letters to them from relatives.  (A portion of the wikipedia entry for Green Plums does not acknowledge that this was happening to the narrator in the novel, but if one considers the numerous examples of the securitate’s reading everyone’s mail and how the characters used code words in their letters, and hair in the envelopes, then it is obvious.)  Another method of oppression consisted of killing its political opponents, then declaring the death a suicide after a perfunctory investigation.  (Again, part of the wikipedia entry takes the description of Georg’s death as a suicide at face value, but that is probably an incorrect interpretation given the nature of the securitate.)  (more…)