Guide to the classics: written in 1915, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland imagines society without men


Ruth Hollick collection. State Library of Victoria

Donna Mazza, Edith Cowan UniversityRecent television series Creamerie, a dark comedy from New Zealand where a pandemic quickly kills (almost) all men and male animals, revives the concept of an all-female society with a contemporary take on ideas raised by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) over 100 years ago.

Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915) is the kind of novel mentioned by critics who dive into speculative fiction dealing with gender or utopia, but it rarely gets serious consideration as a literary work in its own right.

Authors of feminist dystopia in the mould of Creamerie and The Handmaid’s Tale do owe a debt to Herland, but the work itself was out of print for 60 years and is a scarce gem in libraries and bookstores alike.

Sepia photograph
Charlotte Perkins Gilman photographed around 1915, when she wrote and published Herland.
Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute

Perkins Gilman was an influential suffragette in America, and Herland was originally published as a serial in 1915 in The Forerunner, a monthly journal edited and written entirely by her for seven years. This is an extraordinary output for a single writer in any circumstances or era.

The book was published as a full-length work for the first time in 1979 by London based The Women’s Press Ltd. If not for the foresight of the feminist publisher, it might well have languished for more decades.

The novel is narrated by Vandyck Jennings, a sociologist out to learn all he can, and one of three men – alongside wealthy American Terry O. Nicholson who bankrolls the trip and Jeff Margrave, a smarmy doctor – who are on an adventure holiday into the wilderness of a continent resembling South America.

When their guides tell them about Herland, an isolated country devoid of men, they are keen to go and try their luck with the women; Terry aims to be “king of Ladyland”.

A land without men

Soon after their first journey, the men return so they are not beaten to “the good lookers” in “the bunch” by some other fellows. They take a small aircraft to map the forest, landing on a wide rock “quite out of sight of the interior”.

“They won’t find this in a hurry,” says Terry, even though the women had run out of their houses and watched them fly over: this is one of many subtle digs by the author foreshadowing the way the men underestimate the intelligence of the women.

The original 1979 cover.

The men scamper through the landscape, armed and dangerous, fuelled by the promise of lusty adventures and thoughts of fending off the men they know must be hidden somewhere, as they have seen babies and children on their flyover.

But there are no men. The explanation for 2,000 years of ongoing procreation comes a third of the way through the novel, where a chapter is dedicated to the history.

After escaping slavery in a harem and having “no-one left on this beautiful high garden land but a bunch of hysterical girls and some older slave women” there followed a decade of working together,

growing stronger and wiser and more and more mutually attached, and then a miracle happened — one of these young women bore a child. Of course they all thought there must be a man somewhere, but none was found. Then they decided it must be a direct gift from the gods, and placed the proud mother in the Temple of Maaia — their Goddess of Motherhood — under strict watch. And there, as years passed, this wonder-woman bore child after child, five of them — all girls.

The three men are captured and held in a “fortress” for six months under the watchful eye of older women they disparagingly dub “Colonels” — and kept well away from their trousers and any young women.

Clothed in the same tunic as all Herland residents, they learn the language and are quizzed about the lives of women in their own country. Here, they divulge “the poorest of all the women were driven into the labour market by necessity” and two-thirds are “loved, honoured, kept in the home to care for the children” but it is a “law of nature” the poorest have the most children.




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The men “escape” under subtle observation and soon form bonds with the three young women they met up a tree on their arrival: Alima, Celis and Ellador.

By the end of the novel, Jeff is “thoroughly Herlandized” and all set to live with Celis in this utopia. The narrator, Van, marries Ellador and his social observations lead to some shifts in thinking (their story is the subject of the 1916 sequel, With Her in Ourland).

Wealthy misogynist Terry is intractable in his patriarchal attitudes. He is abusive to Alima, put on trial and expelled from Herland.

The Amazons

The 12 chapters of Herland are structured around topics (“A unique history”, “The girls of Herland”, “Their religions and our marriages”) that might easily be the titles of an anthropological work from the period.

The tone of the writing mimics an authoritative patriarchal voice. This is obviously intended to be ironic. The novel is darkly comic and filled with subtle digs at the male characters and the inequality faced by women in 1915, especially in response to work and economic disadvantage.

The concept of a female-led society has its roots in Ancient Greece, in the work of Homer who captured stories of Amazon warrior-women in Iliad. Amazon women like the fearsome Penthesilea, who battled Trojan warriors, feature in a range of Greek tales, where they are usually depicted as succumbing to the swords or charms of male protagonists like Achilles and Theseus.

The Amazons have been re-imagined by authors in many contexts since, featuring in art, literature — and Wonder Woman.




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Herland pays homage to them, too. The legendary Amazons of Greek myth inhabited a remote homeland at the edge of the “world”; Herland seems to be located in an area resembling the Amazon.

Considering the geography of Herland is a well-forested triangle, the witty Perkins Gilman might also have been intending a symbolic connection with female anatomy.

The Yellow Wallpaper

In her time, Perkins Gilman’s ideas about the public role of women, prevalent male attitudes to women and the structure of the family were radically feminist.

This wasn’t the first work of hers which took up such ideas.

She is best known as author of The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), a short story narrated by a woman locked in an upstairs nursery by her husband — who is also her doctor — to treat a nervous condition with the “rest cure”. The rest cure was commonly prescribed to treat what we now call postpartum depression, which Perkins Gilman suffered for three years. It involved restriction of all activity, including reading and writing, while being confined to bed.




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Deeply disturbing and gripping, The Yellow Wallpaper is an expose on the treatment of women by medical professionals and narrates the woman’s descent into madness in disturbing detail. Perkins Gilman’s own physician, Silas Weir Mitchell, read the story and, as she claimed, discarded the rest cure in response.

The Yellow Wallpaper predates Herland by a couple of decades, but in comparison, the writing in it is more loose and dynamic. Perhaps the first-person male protagonist in Herland was a less comfortable narrative position for the author, with her well entrenched feminist ideals. The writing in Herland is not as rich in motif and layers of meaning. Characterisation of the women in the novel lacks depth, but this may also be ironic.

Overwhelmingly, the purpose of this feminist classic is to critique the social and economic system that restricted American (and other) women through limiting education, financial independence and life choices. As a novel, it reads as ideology-driven and a vehicle for women’s rights — but it is also very funny.Its ironies are still potent, and sadly valid.The Conversation

Donna Mazza, Senior Lecturer in Creative Arts, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: Shakespeare’s sonnets — an honest account of love and a surprising portal to the man himself


Giovanni Cariani, Portrait of Two Young Men. The bulk of the sonnets are addressed to a young man known as the ‘fair youth’.

Dr Jamie Q Roberts, University of Sydney

Most of us are familiar with Shakespeare’s plays. Even if we aren’t Shakespeare geeks, chances are we’ve waded through five or six in school, seen several movie adaptations and been to an “in the park” production.

And then there is the constant background of Shakespearean quotations and references colouring our lives, from recognisable lines like “let slip the dogs of war”, to the oh, I didn’t know Shakespeare wrote that cliches, such as “one fell swoop” or “wear my heart upon my sleeve”.

However, apart from a few hits, Shakespeare’s sonnets are less known.


goodreads

Fortified with a familiarity with the plays, a virgin journey into the sonnets is as good a literary adventure as anyone could hope for. It is both unsettling and beguiling.

The Shakespeare of the plays is god-like: he is everywhere in his creations as a masterful and unifying presence, and yet he is aloof. If I had to take a punt, I’d say he was wise, wry — the kind of person who knew how to do life right.

Thus it is a shock to meet the Shakespeare of the sonnets. This Shakespeare is frail (sonnets 29 and 145), obsessed (28), judgmental (130), fickle (110) and self-pitying (72). And so we are drawn in. We begin to ponder how much of himself Shakespeare reveals in the sonnets, and, if he is in there, how one of the most remarkable humans could be so like the rest of us.

What is a sonnet?

A sonnet is a short poem, traditionally about love. The “English” or “Shakespearean” sonnet has a standard form. There are 14 lines, each with five “beats”.

Each beat has two syllables, with the second being stressed. This is known as “iambic pentameter”. Try it out with the most famous line from the sonnets: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” (18)

The sonnet has three “quatrains” — stanzas with four lines — and a final rhyming couplet — two lines that rhyme. The couplet packs a certain punch that turns the sonnet on its head or provides the key to the sonnet or something similar.




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A brief overview

When we talk about Shakespeare’s sonnets, we are usually referring to the 154 sonnets published in 1609 when Shakespeare was about 45. The sonnets were likely written and revised throughout Shakespeare’s adult life (though there is debate).

Keeping to the tradition, Shakespeare’s sonnets are about love. But they take us into love’s maelstrom. The sonnets speak, often in the most raw fashion, of jealousy (61), fear (48), infidelity (120) and love triangles (41, 42), but also of the simple happiness that love can bring (25). Because of this, according to poet and essayist Anthony Hecht, young lovers make up the most substantial readership of the sonnets.

The bulk of the sonnets (1-126) are addressed to a young man, often referred to as the “fair youth”.

The dedication to the sonnets.
Author provided

The last 28 are mostly addressed to or about a woman: “the dark lady”. The real-life identities of both figures are not known. However, the dedication to the sonnets, which some consider to be a code, may contain the youth’s identity (see this article by amateur Shakespeare scholar, John Rollett).

Within these two broad sets there are smaller groupings. Sonnets 1 to 17 are known as the “procreation sonnets”, while 78 to 86, which reveal that another poet is drawing inspiration from the fair youth, are referred to as the “rival poet” sequence.

And throughout, two and sometimes three sonnets are directly linked as if they were a longer poem (for instance 66, 67 and 68 — look out here for the objection to the silly wigs everyone wore).




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The fair youth sequence

There are several recurring themes here.

A number of sonnets address the pain of being apart (such as 44 and 45). And in 49 we see the persona’s anxiety about parting permanently when he imagines the time “when thou [the fair youth] shalt strangely pass, / And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye.”

But we also witness the persona drawing on his love for the youth to fortify himself against unhappy memories. The well known 30 begins with:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past, / I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, / And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.

It finishes with the lines, “But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, / All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.”

There are also the themes of time’s destruction of beauty and the horror of death. And hand-in-hand with these, we see the persona searching for ways for the youth to achieve immortality.

In 12, one of the “procreation sonnets”, the youth is encouraged to seek immortality by having children. It finishes with: “And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence, / Save breed, to brave him, when he takes thee hence.”

However, even more poignant are the persona’s many explicit attempts to preserve the youth through his poetry — a quixotic enterprise that, remarkably, has worked. This is best exemplified in 18. We read:

Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade, / When in eternal lines to time thou growest. / So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Portrait by John Taylor, thought to be of Shakespeare.
Wikimedia Commons

A common discussion is whether the fair youth sequence reveals that Shakespeare was gay or bisexual. Unless the sonnets are a wild fabrication, Shakespeare certainly wasn’t straight.

However, we should, as scholar Dennis Kay reminds us, be cautious of “applying a modern understanding of, and attitudes toward, homosexuality to early modern culture.” Read 20 and see what you think.

Not all the sonnets in the fair youth sequence are addressed to the youth. An exception is another of the evergreen sonnets: 116. This ode to the eternal nature of love begins with:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments. Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove: / O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark.

Returning to sonnet 66 (my favourite), although the final couplet addresses love, the sonnet stands out because its focus is not love, but the corruptions of the world.

In it, the persona objects to “folly (doctor-like) controlling skill” and “art made tongue-tied by authority.” Here we are reminded of the battles many who are capable and spirited must fight against soulless bureaucracies and the censorious.

The dark lady sequence

The “dark lady” is “dark” because when she is introduced in 127, her complexion and eyes are described as black:

In the old age black was not counted fair, / Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name; / But now is black beauty’s successive heir, / And beauty slander’d with a bastard shame.

And later in the sonnet we read: “my mistress’ eyes are raven black.”

In the dark lady sequence, the persona suffers familiar torments. But there are also several instances of humor — the fair youth sequence is almost humorless.

In sonnet 135 and 136 the persona puns bawdily and relentlessly on the world “will”: “Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious, / Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?”

But the stand-out is 130. Here the persona pointedly declines to use tired comparisons to praise the attributes of his mistress.

We read: “My mistresses’ eyes are nothing like the sun”, and, “And in some perfumes is there more delight / Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.”

Then come the glorious lines: “I grant I never saw a goddess go; / My mistress when she walks, treads on the ground.”

Their reception

The sonnets were not much read for nearly 200 years after their publication, but since then they have only grown in popularity. This was, perhaps, assisted by Wordsworth’s own sonnet: “Scorn Not the Sonnet”. (I know, it’s hard not to laugh.)

Today, lines from the sonnets turn up from time to time in popular culture. Naturally, in “Dead Poets Society” sonnet 18 is recited.

So what do the sonnets mean for us today? Many things. Most commonly, they have come to stand for perfect love, but this is likely because few readers make it past two of them: sonnets 18 and 116.

For those who do read further, the sonnets provide a more honest account of love, while exploring other substantial themes such as fear of death and the search for immortality.

The sonnets can also be enlisted to support social and political causes, from freedom to sexuality. And then there is the possible portal they provide into Shakespeare the man.

Ultimately though, we read on because of Shakespeare’s inimitable commingling of beauty and truth — if the two can be separated. And because each reading reveals that we are still only splashing about in the shallows of an immeasurable ocean.The Conversation

Dr Jamie Q Roberts, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the Classics: Montesquieu’s Persian Letters at 300 — an Enlightenment story that resonates in a time of culture wars


Knox Peden, The University of Queensland

We have recently seen a spate of books defending the Enlightenment, the period of efflorescence in 18th-century Europe that helped shape the modern world.

At the vanguard has been the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who titled his most recent monument to scientific progress Enlightenment Now. The book earned Bill Gates’s endorsement but was widely criticised by historians since it was not an assessment of the Enlightenment at all, but a compilation of data showing us why life was now better than ever.

Other advocates have been more subtle, stressing that what set the Enlightenment apart from preceding eras was less its confidence in reason per se, than its focus on the secular (as opposed to the sacred) as the space in which happiness ought to be pursued and quite possibly achieved.

Readers might wonder: who could be against this? But Pinker and his allies are pushing back on a tendency to see in the overweening self-confidence of the Enlightenment a blueprint for the horrors of the 20th century. The view is not without merit. The Enlightenment may have given us a new way to think about rights, but it also gave us the atom bomb.

Moreover, its conviction that the same naturalistic perspective that led to scientific innovation could be applied to populations has given rise to social engineering in multiple, often sinister forms.

This year marks the 300th anniversary of the publication of a book that contemporaries saw as inaugurating the Enlightenment in France: Montesquieu’s Persian Letters.

Given its exalted status, one would expect to find in Persian Letters an ode to human ingenuity and a confident projection of progress. But its contents are much more surprising — and relevant — than that.

The book’s author, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu — Montesquieu, for short — was an odd sort, an aristocrat with a sympathy for republics and a voracious intellectual appetite.

Born in 1689, he came of age at a time of French predominance in Europe. A lawyer by training, he began writing during the “Regency”, a period of social dynamism that followed the death in 1715 of Louis XIV, the Sun King, when his great-grandson Louis XV was too young to rule on his own.

A new kind of fiction

In 1721 Montesquieu introduced France to a new kind of fiction, a novel composed entirely of letters, mainly authored by Usbek and Rica, two Persians who have travelled to Paris and delight in reporting their bemusement at its customs. The device allows Montesquieu to make the more familiar features of European life appear idiosyncratic.

An anonymous painting of Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu.
Wikimedia Commons

The nature of the work also gives Montesquieu ample space to deal with subjects that still divide us: the varieties of government, the extravagances of metaphysical speculation, and the dilemmas of tolerance.

In this regard, we can see Persian Letters as a set of working notes for the book that earned Montesquieu his place among the giants of modern political thought: The Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748. With its case for a “separation of powers” as crucial to a well-functioning republic, this volume inspired Thomas Jefferson and the authors of the US constitution.

Providing a typology of regimes — republics, monarchies, despotisms — and tracing their relationship to material factors from climate to geography, The Spirit of the Laws more or less launched the discipline of political sociology. More prophetic still was the book’s concern for how despotism lies in wait for any regime that sees a loss of civic virtue.

All of this material is dealt with ironically in Persian Letters. The worry about despotism is signalled through what passes for a plot in the book. As Usbek becomes accustomed to Parisian society, he becomes distant from his seraglio (or harem) in Persia.

Persian miniature by Hossein Behzad.
Iranian National Museum.

A revolt ensues in which the women, corrupted by having to live in a degraded state and no longer fearful of their absent authority, stage a bloody uprising. The story ends with a letter from Usbek’s favourite wife Roxane, who is committing suicide, pen in hand.

Constant vigilance

This ghastly conclusion makes for an instructive contrast with the playful tone otherwise permeating the book. Throughout the letters, there is much mirth at Frenchmen who distract themselves with philosophical rumination while their society becomes mired in conflict and sedition.

The irony is to the point; political stability is a matter of constant vigilance, irrespective of the nature of the regime in question.

With his portrayal of the seraglio, a question insists: is Montesquieu indulging in Orientalism, a projection of his Western prejudices on to figures from the East?

Perhaps. And yet Montesquieu never loses sight of the fictional nature of his construction. To see Europe through the eyes of another is to imagine yourself in the position of the other, not to occupy it.

Not coincidentally, this relationship between how we present ourselves and who we are is one of the key themes of the work.

In one of the early letters, Rica recounts the wonder he aroused walking the streets of Paris.

I therefore resolved to set aside my Persian clothing and dress instead as a European, to see whether anything in my appearance would still astonish. From this test, I learnt my true worth: stripped of my exotic finery, I found myself appraised at my real value, and I had good reason to complain of my tailor, through whom I’d lost, in an instant, the attention and esteem of the public.

In reflecting on whether the clothes make the man, Rica suggests the social nature of our identities. In effect, we are as we are seen. But recognising this fact only increases Rica’s desire for public approval.

Elsewhere Usbek remarks that in order to remain powerful a monarch must supply not only necessities, but luxuries. And yet the obsession with luxury — both as a pleasurable experience and opulent display — affects or indeed infects everything, even religion, which is mercilessly pilloried throughout Persian Letters.

Louis XV in Coronation Robes, Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1730.
Wikimedia Commons

The society Montesquieu satirises is one in which moral debates fail to find resolution because agreement is hardly the goal; vindication is. The need for social vindication breeds conflict. We seek out peers who advance what we take to be our interests rather than working with others to discover sites of common interest.

In this aspect, the paint on Usbek and Rica’s portrait of modern life hardly seems dry.

“The reader is urged to note,” Montesquieu wrote in a later edition of Persian Letters, “that the entire charm of the work resides in the constantly recurring contrast between actual reality and the singular, naïve, or strange manner in which reality is perceived”.

The mirror Montesquieu presents to society is one in which its vanities appear in all their absurdity.

With earnestness an increasingly dominant virtue in today’s culture wars, we’d likewise do well to rediscover the charm, indeed the humility, in appreciating the inevitably partial nature of our views.

More than celebrations of science or promises of progress — both of which tend to a self-righteousness foreign to Persian Letters — this seems to be a form of enlightenment we could use, for now.The Conversation

Knox Peden, Senior Lecturer in European Enlightenment Studies, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the Classics: Voltaire’s Candide — a darkly satirical tale of human folly in times of crisis


Atelier de Nicolas de Largilliere, portrait of Voltaire at 24.
Wikimedia Commons

Matthew Sharpe, Deakin University

“Italy had its renaissance, Germany its reformation, France had Voltaire”, the historian Will Durant once commented.

Born François-Marie Arouet, Voltaire (1694-1778) was known in his lifetime as the “patriarch” of the French enlightenment. A man of extraordinary energy and abilities, he produced some 100 volumes of poetry, fiction, theatre, biblical and literary criticism, history and philosophy.

Among his myriad works, Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism (1759) is widely recognised as the masterpiece. A darkly satirical novella taking aim at human folly, pride and excessive faith in reason’s ability to plumb the deepest metaphysical truths, it remains as telling in this era of pandemics and wild conspiracy theories as when first published.




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Theological shockwaves

In his earlier works Voltaire had propounded an almost naive optimism, but the decade from 1749-1759 was not easy for the philosopher-author.

Personally, his great love, Émilie du Châtelet had died in 1749. Politically, he had been forced from exile to exile for his criticism of monastic and clerical privileges in France and his Essay on Universal History, the Manners, and Spirit of Nations (1756), which treated Christianity as just one world religion, rather than the final revealed truth.

In 1755, meanwhile, on November 1, a huge earthquake had struck the Portugese capital, Lisbon, followed by a tsunami. Within minutes, tens of thousands were dead.

The recriminations soon began. Protestants saw in Lisbon’s destruction divine judgement on Catholicism. Catholics proposed, with equal implausibility, the especial sinfulness of the Lisbonites as the disaster’s cause. Pyres were erected in the streets to burn heretics, as scapegoats for the disaster.

This combination of senseless death and even more senseless human responses outraged Voltaire. His first response was the impassioned “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster” of 1755:

As the dying voices call out, will you dare respond
To this appalling spectacle of smoking ashes with,
[…] ‘God is avenged. Their death is the price of their crimes’?

Then, several years later, came Candide.

A depiction of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of November 1, 1755.
Wikimedia Commons

A simple lad

As his name suggests, Voltaire’s hero, Candide, is a simple lad. Raised in a magnificent castle in Westphalia, in North-Western Germany, he is moved by just two passions. The first is abiding love for his sweetheart, Cunégonde.

The second is admiration for his teacher, Pangloss (“all tongue”), an exalted Professor of “métaphysico-théologo-cosmolonigologie” possessed of the happy ability to explain everything that happens, despite appearances, as “for the best”.

It is demonstrable,“ said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for […] all is necessarily for the best end. Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles — thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings — and we have stockings […] Pigs were made to be eaten — therefore we eat pork all the year round. Consequently, they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said: all is for the best.”

In Pangloss, Voltaire is satirising German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and the British poet, Alexander Pope.

These two men had defended what the former called “theodicy”: the idea that a perfect God could only have created the best possible world. Hence, the human perception that events like pandemics, earthquakes, massacres and tsunamis are bad must be mistaken.




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Frontispiece and first page of an early English translation by T. Smollett et al. of Voltaire’s Candide, 1762.
Wikimedia Commons

Candide’s fate is set up by Voltaire as a reductio ad absurdum (reduction to absurdity) of this optimistic theory. Our hero is first expelled from his Edenic childhood garden, when Cunégonde’s father comes upon she and Candide illicitly experimenting in what Voltaire delicately calls “natural philosophy”.

In Candide’s ensuing wanderings around Europe and the Americas, Voltaire treats his hero to a veritable guided tour of all of the evils of war, lust, avarice, vanity and colonialism.

Fleeing war, rapine and zealotry in Bulgaria and Holland, Candide arrives in Lisbon just in time for the earthquake. He is selected for execution by fire as a heretic, before escaping to save Cunégonde from disputing, lustful representatives of the West’s two great biblical faiths, Judaism and Christianity.

The lovers flee together to the Americas. In Buenos Aires, however, the Spanish governor seizes Cunégonde for his wife. Candide and his servant, Cacambo, are forced to flee through yet more bloody misadventures in the new world.

In a rightly famous passage, which finally sees Candide recant of his teacher Pangloss’ theodicy as the “abomination […] of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong”, they come upon a crippled African slave whose masters are Dutch merchants in Surinam:

“Yes, sir,” said the negro, “it is the custom. […] When we work at the sugar-canes, and the mill snatches hold of a finger, they cut off the hand; and when we attempt to run away, they cut off the leg; both cases have happened to me. This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe.”

Candide and Cacambo meet a maimed slave of a sugar mill near Surinam.
Wikimedia Commons

To this Europe, the increasingly disillusioned Candide returns. The riches he acquired in the new world are soon fleeced by cunning social climbers in Paris and Venice. He is reunited with Pangloss, who has recanted nothing of his optimism, despite being enslaved, flogged, hanged and brutally maimed, explaining that “I am a philosopher and I cannot retract […]”

Soon enough, Candide also hears news that Cunégonde is now a slave in Turkey, after her own litany of unlikely sufferings. So, he hits the road one last time. Reunited at last with his half-broken beloved, they retire to a little farm with their friends near Constantinople.

Here, despite everything, Pangloss still sometimes comes to mindlessly philosophise, as the story famously closes:

“There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: […] if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.”

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”

Laughter

In the entry on “wit” (esprit) in his famous Philosophical Dictionary of 1764, Voltaire reflects that it is:

the art either of bringing together two things apparently remote, or of dividing two things which seem to be united, or of opposing them to each other […]

It is the art of Voltaire’s Candide to leave readers unsure whether they should be weeping, screaming, laughing or all at the same time. Atrocious sufferings are recounted with the innocence of a children’s fairy tale.

Elevated questions of metaphysical philosophy, which for a century had divided the greatest Western minds, are brought crashing down to earth amid the clamours of warring armies, collapsing cities, inhumane barbarism and slavery.

Voltaire’s chateau, with garden, at Ferney, where he eventually lived for 20 years.
Wikimedia Commons

It is easy to see why critics have read Voltaire’s novella as a document written in despair. But the laughter of the book suggests this is only half the story.

Voltaire is enraged at human cruelty and idiocy. He scorns the Panglossian pride, which pretends to justify the unjustifiable with blithe self-assurance and vain sophistries. He despises any theory clever enough to explain away human suffering, but not humane enough to decry it.

But this is because he believes human beings can be better. For Voltaire, we can and should challenge all fair-sounding ideologies reconciling us to indignities visited on others we would not accept for ourselves.




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Let us crush the infamous!

Voltaire at 70.
Wikimedia Commons

Stateless, Voltaire had ended up in 1758 in rural retreat in Ferney, near the Swiss-French border. At the tender age of 65, he embarked on a legendary campaign against religious fanaticism — associated with his famous slogan: Écrasez l’infâme! (let us crush the infamous!).

His Treatise of Toleration of 1763, was sparked by anger at the wrongful execution of Protestant Jean Calas by Catholic zealots in Toulouse.

In 1778, the legendary author and advocate for multi-faith society finally returned to Paris, to be hailed as a hero. Fatigued by the journey, Voltaire died soon after, claiming: “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.”

In 1791, the revolutionary government honoured Voltaire as an inspiration. His remains were re-interred in the Pantheon.

There is no pandemic in Voltaire’s Candide, and today’s conspiracy theories make Pangloss’ inhumane, hyper-rationalism look balanced.

But there are few other books you could read with greater sympathy in 2021 than this little gem of irony, calamity, and restrained outrage at human folly and prejudice. And none that are more cutting and entertaining.The Conversation

Matthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — still for the heretics, dreamers and rebels



Walt Disney Animation Studios, Walt Disney Productions

Dr Jamie Q Roberts, University of Sydney

Alice! A childish story take
And with a gentle hand
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s withered wreath of flowers
Plucked in a far-off land.

What is it that draws us back to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Alice for short), both individually and collectively? What is it that makes Alice, in the words of literary critic, Harold Bloom, “a kind of Scripture for us” — like Shakespeare?

For we are drawn back. Since the publication of Lewis Carroll’s story, in England in 1865, it has never been out of print and has been translated into around 100 languages.

There have been numerous movie adaptations and many other works inspired by the story. Perhaps the greatest is a little-known, 1971 short film by the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare encouraging children not to do drugs.

One fears the film might not have had the desired effect: while the speed-addicted March Hare provides a salutary example of how poorly things can go on his drug of choice, the Mad Hatter’s performance on LSD is a little too compelling.

Beyond the page and screen, a quick Google search reveals Alice-inspired art — from graffiti to Dali — tattoos, music, video games and shops.

Alice has strong mainstream appeal; this was entrenched by Disney’s 1951 movie Alice in Wonderland (which is also responsible for people getting the title of the book wrong). However, Alice has become iconic for many subcultures, especially those with darker proclivities. Try exploring “zombie Alice” or “goth Alice”, or watching the new Netflix series, Alice in Borderland, which is set in Tokyo. (Alice is big in Japan).

And this brings us again to the beginning of the conversation (Alice reference here for the boffins): What draws us back?




Read more:
Guide to the Classics: The Secret Garden and the healing power of nature


Striking a blow against the adult world

The story begins with bored, seven-year-old Alice sitting on a riverbank with her older sister. Alice doesn’t care for the book her sister is reading because it doesn’t have pictures. She falls asleep and follows a dapper but flustered rabbit down a rabbit hole and into Wonderland.

In Wonderland she moves through a series of surreal vignettes in which she verbally tussles, but struggles to connect with, a stream of characters, such as the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, the Duchess, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Queen of Hearts.

Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen of Hearts in Tim Burton’s 2010 film version of Alice in Wonderland.
Disney Enterprises Inc

We are drawn back to the book by the first-rate banter between Alice and these memorable characters. Consider the following from the Mad Hatter’s tea party:

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”
“It is the same thing with you,” said the Hatter[.]

Notably, many of the creatures Alice meets stand for the real adults in her life, in that they scold her, order her about, try to teach her morals and make her recite poetry.

It is this transformation of the adult world into a mad place and the elevation of the viewpoint of the child that also draw us back. When we read Alice, not as children, but as adults, we strike a blow against the adult world, which some of us, at least, have never quite adjusted to.

The Cheshire Cat provides the greatest indictment of Wonderland-as-adult-world when he says to Alice, “we’re all mad here”. The cat is the only creature in the book who connects with Alice. Mark this, reader: It is the one who can connect with children who is also able to see the world for what it is — mad!

A champion of childhood

The West does have a long history of romanticising childhood. Wordsworth, in his 1807 Immortality Ode, writes:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy.

But even if the “romantic childhood” is a creation of bourgeois 19th century England — of the likes of Wordsworth and Carroll — it is a powerful and arguably noble notion. So let us follow it a little farther down the rabbit hole.

While Alice is the child-hero of the story because she pushes back against the mad adults in Wonderland, she herself is on the cusp of adulthood.

Alice Liddell, photographed in 1862.
Wikimedia Commons

This tragedy is alluded to in the poem, dedicated to the real Alice — Alice Liddell — with which the book begins (the key stanza appears at the start of this article).

Liddell was, in her childhood, Carroll’s friend. The first version of Alice was told to Liddell and her two sisters in 1862 on a boat ride along the Thames in Oxford.

A 1907 edition of the book.
Wikimedia Commons

The tragedy of growing up is reinforced in the story itself. While Alice’s imagination is able to create Wonderland, it cannot sustain it. In the final scene in Wonderland, Alice is watching a trial where many of the characters are playing cards. Frustrated by the illogical trial, she shouts, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” and is transported back to the real world.

This leads us to think Wonderland itself is the hero of Alice: the champion of childhood. It is in Wonderland that time has stopped — as we learn at the Mad Hatter’s tea party — and where authority is impotent. Despite the Queen’s repeated edict, “Off with her/his head”, no one ever really dies.

‘The Carroll myth’

Lewis Carroll aged 23.
Wikimedia Commons

However, beyond Alice and Wonderland is Carroll himself. As Karoline Leach writes, in her remarkable book about “the Carroll myth”, at the centre of Alice lies, “the image of Carroll; a haunting presence in the story, a shifting dreamy impression of golden afternoons, fustiness, mystery, oars dripping in sun-rippling water.”

Lewis Carroll is the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (not easy to say quickly, unlike “Lewis Carroll”), who taught mathematics at Oxford.

The “Carroll myth”, which was as appealing in the 19th century as it is now, is that Dodgson, through his alter ego Carroll, and his many (chaste) relationships with children, in particular, Alice Liddell, found a way back to the immortality of childhood that Wordsworth spoke about.

So, when we read Alice, we are ultimately communing with this mythical Carroll, and this is no small thing.




Read more:
Guide to the classics: Orwell’s 1984 and how it helps us understand tyrannical power today


Trolling pieties

Beyond the banter and the homage to childhood, we are drawn back to Alice because it contains a timeless contribution to the 1860s version of our own culture wars. Where we have political correctness, the 19th century Anglophone world had its own buzz-killing piety, at times foisted upon children — and adults — through verse.

David Bates, a 19th century American poet, is likely responsible for the now thankfully forgotten poem, Speak Gently (“Speak gently to the little child!/Its love be sure to gain/Teach it in accents soft and mild:/It may not long remain.)

Carroll’s glorious parody, which is spoken in Chapter 6 by the Duchess, a negligent mother, is:

Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes:
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.

Here, and in other Alice poems such as “You Are Old Father William”, Carroll is trolling all those for whom piety is a mask for power. And like the pious, the politically correct are more concerned with their own superiority than with doing good.

An image from the 1951 film version of Carroll’s book.
Walt Disney Animation Studios, Walt Disney Productions

To cement the link between then and now, it is worth quoting from Stephen Fry’s recent objection to political correctness. It is as if Fry is providing us with the key to Alice and even to Carroll himself. “I wouldn’t class myself as a classical libertarian,” Fry says,

but I do relish transgression, and I deeply and instinctively distrust conformity and orthodoxy. Progress is not achieved by preachers and guardians of morality but […] by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and sceptics.

We are drawn back to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because when we read it, we become the heretics, dreamers and rebels who would change the world.The Conversation

Dr Jamie Q Roberts, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Penguin Classics Cover Generator


The link below is to an article that reports on a Penguin Classics Cover Generator.

For more visit:
https://lithub.com/anything-can-be-a-penguin-classic-with-this-handy-cover-generator/

Guide to the classics: Petronius’s Satyricon – sex, satire and naughty boys



Musée d’Orsay

Tom Stevenson, The University of Queensland

The Satyricon by Petronius is an unusual surviving text from the ancient world. It is not a work of history, nor a work of soaring epic poetry like Homer’s Iliad or Virgil’s Aeneid, and for various reasons it is hard to get a handle on.

Its contents are pretty grubby because it is about lowlifes and lowlife behaviour. It depicts petty theft, casual violence, opportunistic sex, prostitution, vulgar gluttony, crass displays of wealth by the most ridiculous social climber and gross disrespect for a range of gods, goddesses and hallowed religious rituals, like funerals and proper treatment of the dead. All the good sleazy stuff for when you’re in the mood for that sort of thing.

Rather than a work about heroes or kings or queens or uplifting examples of how to live a virtuous life, the Satyricon is almost a how-to manual for the opposite.

It is the earliest surviving novel in Latin literature, but it is not even close to being intact. We appear to have bits of three books out of an original 16 or possibly more. So we run into problems trying to understand what the plot of the whole work might have been and whether the bits that survive are representative of it.

As far as we can tell, it’s a tale about the misadventures and love triangle of three young men – the narrator Encolpius, Ascyltus and the younger Gitōn.

They all behave disreputably, all know hunger and poverty, all hurt people, and all get hurt in return.

Encolpius arguably suffers the most when he upsets Priapus, a god of fertility, who renders him impotent. Priapus is normally represented in Roman art sporting an enormous, erect phallus – even weighing it in one famous example. He is a minor deity in comparison to Jupiter or Hercules, but he has one outstanding trait, which means a great deal to the “heroes” of this novel.

Fresco of Priapus, Casa dei Vettii, Pompeii, depicted weighing his enormous erect penis against a bag of gold.
Wikimedia Commons

When Priapus deprives Encolpius of his virility, he strikes at the core of Encolpius’s identity, causing him much distress and forcing him in panic to seek a succession of absurd remedies.

The main characters are not good boys. They are jealous, perpetually randy, violent, unfaithful and capricious. They separate and come back together. They lack depth. And they meet a series of characters who complement their deficiencies with flaws of their own.

They look for food, shelter, sex and sexual restoration. Charlatans abound. Everyone is selfish and untrustworthy. Religion is flouted and abused, even though it plainly has power.

The attitude to religion seems to be “whatever works”, but no one is exactly sure what works, so they indulge themselves in equal amounts of devotion and derision – with predictable results.




Read more:
Friday essay: the erotic art of Ancient Greece and Rome


Our youths seem to be travelling between locations around the Bay of Naples – a notorious region of excess and extravagance, heavily influenced by Greek culture and less constrained by traditional Roman discipline than other parts of Italy.

There is little certainty about this, as with so many features of the tale, but the easy movement between city dives and country villas makes sense in this region.

The banquet of Trimalchio

The most outrageous character they run across is the nouveau-riche pretender Trimalchio, whom they meet through an acquaintance, Eumolpus, who is said to be a poet but is more like a sleaze with intellectual pretensions.

Together they end up at a sumptuous feast at Trimalchio’s villa – the famous Cena Trimalchionis or “Banquet of Trimalchio”.

The feast is a riot of nonsense. Trimalchio, an ex-slave who has bought his freedom, tries to prove he is a man of culture as well as wealth like his free-born counterparts in neighbouring villas and regions. In doing so, of course, he proves only that he completely lacks class or sophistication of any kind and emerges as a self-loving ignoramus.

The feast is ‘a riot of nonsense’, illustrated here by Norman Lindsay.
Project Gutenberg

There is way too much food, especially the meats and sweets. The dishes are too exotic and difficult, especially the tiny birds. They are served in ostentatiously absurd ways by a bizarre collection of slaves and other functionaries. The guests grab greedily and unappreciatively, upsetting plates, cups and each other. The talk is gross and unedifying.

Trimalchio ends up inviting his cronies to a rehearsal of his funeral, which he has planned meticulously on the model of a noble’s or emperor’s funeral. He fails to see how far he falls short. Clothes, and other props, do not make the man.

But there is more to the feast than meets the eye. The vulgarity of the subject matter is especially memorable because it is conveyed by a master satirist or comic genius.

Trimalchio is described with great attention to detail and inventiveness, and with a certain sympathy rather than vindictiveness. Trimalchio and his hangers-on are acquainted with high literature, though they mangle it terribly, sometimes speaking in vulgar Latin and in language rendered comic by its malapropisms and other features. The writer is a virtuoso for pulling off these effects so cleverly.

A comic approach

The key to interpretation is that the text is a satire, as its name implies. It is inspired by the deeds of satyrs: lecherous, half-human creatures of myth, obsessed with sex. They were symbols of the outrageous, the destabilising and the violent.

The youths of our tale are plainly modelled on them. And the text is comic in approach, designed for a festival atmosphere, when it’s okay to release the irrational, the absurd and the bottled-up frustrations that go along with daily commitment to civilised straightness.

The comic silliness of it all is important to consider when pondering the author and purpose of the work. The author, according to the name that has survived with the text, was Titus Petronius Arbiter.

He is generally identified with the prominent courtier of Nero, the senator Gaius Petronius, who was forced to commit suicide in AD 66 for his part in a conspiracy against the emperor. In a famous passage (Annals 16.17-20), Tacitus says Nero looked to this man as his “arbiter of elegance”, as though his judgment of culture and pleasure was admired.




Read more:
Mythbusting Ancient Rome – the emperor Nero


This identification between the author of the Satyricon and the Petronius of Tacitus might be right. Roman nobles were highly educated in literature and philosophy. Intellectual attainment was one of the myriad ways they competed with one another for social pre-eminence. Such a man might well have been capable of the literary virtuosity and wit that is on display in the text as we have it.

Martin Potter as Encolpio in Fellini’s 1969 film adaptation.
IMDB

What is slightly worrying about this identification, however, is that Tacitus gives an appreciative portrayal of a man who sends up and resists a tyrant. Nero was certainly this, as the paranoia and murders of his reign indicate. Yet he was also a great sponsor of culture, especially literature and drama.

Even if the identifications with Tacitus’s Petronius and the reign of Nero are correct, we don’t need to adopt Tacitus’s tone and perspective. The Satyricon does not have to be a work with subversive intent against Nero, and Nero does not have to be read into the story in place of Trimalchio. Petronius does not have to be a social critic who was appalled by the corruption and depravity of Nero’s court.

It’s much more fun if he wasn’t any of these things in this work, but was instead a man who was excellent at satire in a spirit that was fundamentally light and frivolous.

Suggested translations: J.P. Sullivan, The Satyricon and the Fragments, translated with an introduction by J.P. Sullivan, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965. P.G. Walsh, Petronius: The Satyricon, translated with an introduction and explanatory notes, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.The Conversation

Tom Stevenson, Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient History, UQ, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Jane Eyre translated: 57 languages show how different cultures interpret Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel


Matthew Reynolds, University of Oxford

Translators are the unsung heroes of literature. Or, to be fair, largely unsung – they have a share in the International Booker Prize which recognises author and translator, who divide the £50,000 prize money and there is International Translation Day on September 30. It’s a chance to celebrate the small presses which publish translated novels and poems, as well as the amazing advances in online translation and, above all, the human translators whose skills matter now more than ever.

But let’s also remember that translation has always been an engine of culture. Literary classics – as well as modern bestsellers – reach more readers through translation than the language they were written in. Take Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: it has been translated into at least 57 languages, at least 593 times.

This changes how we think about Jane Eyre. What was a thoroughly English book – anchored to Yorkshire and published in 1847 – becomes a multilingual, ever-changing global text, continually putting down roots in different cultures. In Iran there have been 29 translations of Jane Eyre since 1980. When Korean is taught in a school in Vietnam, a translation of Jane Eyre is on the syllabus, as an example of Korean literature.

It also changes how we have to study the novel. I couldn’t hope to grasp Jane Eyre as a global phenomenon by myself, so everything I have found out has been thanks to a group of 43 co-researchers in many different countries, as part of the Prismatic Translation project

Translation is creative

People often think that translations are meant to reproduce their source texts, like a photocopier. But this is a long way wide of the mark, because of course every language is different. In fact, the process is much more complicated – and interesting. Because you can never say exactly the same thing in another language, translators use their imaginations to write the book again, only with different materials, for readers with different expectations. It is more like making a sculpture than taking a photo.

Jane Eyre (Korean edition).
Amazon

You can see this right away from how the title gets re-moulded into different shapes. In Japanese in 1896 it became Riso Kaijin (An Ideal Lady – translated by Futo Mizutani), in Portuguese in 1941 it was A Paixão de Jane Eyre (The Passion of Jane Eyre – translated by “Mécia”). In Italian in 1958 it became La porta chiusa (The Shut Door – translator unknown) and in Turkish in 2010 it was rendered as Yıllar Sonra Gelen Mutluluk (Happiness Comes After Many Years – translated by Ceren Taştan).

My favourite of these metamorphic titles is the Chinese one invented by Fang Li in 1954 and copied by almost every Chinese translator since: two of the characters that can make a sound like “Jane Eyre” can also mean “simple love” – so the title says both those things together: Jianai.

Even small linguistic details can go through fascinating transformations. Take pronouns. In English, we only have one way of saying “you” in the singular. But even languages that are very close to English, such as French, German or Italian, do something different. They have a distinction between a formal “you” (vous in French) and a more intimate kind of “you” (tu). So in those languages there is the potential for a really important moment in the novel which simply can’t happen in English. Do Jane and Rochester ever call each other “tu”?

As it turns out, in French they don’t (or at least not in any of the translations we have studied). But in German they do. One of my co-researchers, Mary Frank, has looked at translations from 1887 by Marie von Borch and 1979 by Helmut Kossodo. She has found that, in both, Rochester only switches into the intimate form of you, “du”, when he first proposes. But Jane does not reciprocate. It is only in the amazing telepathic moment near the end of the book, when she hears Rochester’s voice calling to her across the moors, that she uses the “du” form of the verb to cry out the equivalent of “Wait for me!” Rochester’s tenderness is answered at last.

Should we think of this as a nuance added by the translators? Or as something that was all along somehow present in the English text, though invisible? What would Charlotte Brontë have done if she had been using German – or French (in which she did write essays and letters) with its different resources? These questions are probably impossible to answer – and if you turn to Korean, for example, which has many pronouns for different levels of formalityas I have learned from Sowon Park, the picture gets even more complicated.

Feminist passion

Jane is “passionate” in all sorts of ways. When she is a child she resists bullying by her cousins and stands up for her rights at school; as an adult she feels passionate love for Rochester. “Passion” in the novel can suggest anger, stubbornness, suffering, generosity, desire and love.

By using the word in all these ways, Charlotte Brontë was making a feminist argument. She was saying that, for a woman in the early Victorian period, love did not have to be something passive, a matter of being admired. Instead, it was connected to anger and justice. It could be a means of self-assertion.

Farsi edition.
Amazon

This feminist charge in the novel is part of what has made it so popular across the globe. Throughout Europe in the mid-to-late 19th century, and throughout East Asia in the mid-to-late 20th, some translators and readers have been thrilled – others shocked. And of course, because the cultures and languages are different, the novel’s energies have had to be channelled in different ways.

Most languages have no single word that can cover the same range as Brontë’s “passion”, so they slice up its meanings differently. Interestingly, this often divides the angry (passionate) young Jane from her mature self, and connects her to Bertha Mason, Rochester’s brutalised first wife who is locked up in the attic of his mansion.

In Persian – as Kayvan Tahmasebian has found out – “passion” is translated by a wide range of words that separate the elements of love, desire, anger and excitement. You might view this as loss (the range of “passion” has disappeared!) but it is also a kind of gain (look at all these different nuances!)

The most famous sentence in the novel: “Reader, I married him”, is also one of the most provocative, as translations can help us see. In Slovenian – as researcher Jernej Habjan tells me – it becomes the equivalent of “Reader, we got married”. Meanwhile, all the Persian translations we have seen so far have squashed Jane’s self-assertion – they give the equivalent of: “Reader, he married me”. Even today, Jane Eyre has a radical power. It will generate ever more translations.The Conversation

Matthew Reynolds, Professor of English and Comparative Criticism; Tutorial Fellow, St Anne’s College, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: The Great Gatsby



Robert Redford played the golden Gatsby in 1974.
IMDB

Sascha Morrell, Monash University

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece of the Jazz Age, ushers readers into a corrupt but glittering world of cocktails, fast cars, stolen kisses and broken dreams. Status anxiety and conspicuous consumption generate a dazzling, often surreal poetry as the novel unfolds over a single summer in Long Island, New York. Beneath them trembles an ominous sense of malaise.

The novel is narrated in the first-person by Nick Carraway, a well-to-do Yale graduate from the Midwest, whose limited acquaintance with the millionaire Jay Gatsby is the reader’s only window onto the mysterious title character.

Fitzgerald’s editor Max Perkins complained to the author that Gatsby’s characterisation was too vague — that readers “can never quite focus upon him” — but this criticism missed the point. Jay Gatsby is not a man but “an unbroken series of successful gestures”, the product of an age — not unlike today’s culture of Instagrammable celebrity — in which identity is less a matter of innate qualities than of projecting an image.

Fittingly, the only God invoked in Gatsby appears on a billboard, in the famous image of oculist Dr J.T. Eckleberg’s gigantic blue eyes looking down on events in admonition.

Oculist Dr J.T. Eckleberg’s all-seeing eyes, here in Baz Luhrmann’s film, look down on events.
ResearchGate, CC BY

The Great American novel

Although short in length, The Great Gatsby is widely recognised as an exemplar of that most elusive of literary phenomena: the Great American Novel. It achieves aesthetic greatness as a self-conscious tour de force, the product of Fitzgerald’s desire “to write something new – something extraordinary and beautiful and simple [and] intricately patterned” as he wrote in a 1922 letter to Perkins.

Its American-ness is likewise self-conscious: one of Fitzgerald’s working titles was Under the Red, White, and Blue, and Nick’s account of Gatsby’s rise and fall exposes deep flaws and fissures underlying the American Dream of unlimited social mobility.

Jay Gatsby’s mansion represents the realisation of the American dream.
IMDB/Warner Bros. Pictures

Affirming the presence of class prejudice in the land where all men were supposedly created equal, Gatsby constructs a fragile romance across the gulf between old and new money — a gulf that separates Gatsby from his love interest Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan. Whereas Daisy and Tom come from established families, Gatsby lacks pedigree. The sources of his vast wealth are the subject of much speculation as his colossal mansion dwarfs those of other millionaires with freshly-minted fortunes.

Erosion of orthodoxies

Like many of his modernist contemporaries, Fitzgerald was fascinated by the erosion of old orthodoxies and traditional constraints in the aftermath of the first world war. For women, many taboos on dress and deportment were lifting, and Gatsby’s female characters play sports, dance wildly, and drink and smoke to excess — even in the midst of Prohibition. Yet for all its “spectroscopic gaiety”, such license brings little fulfilment.

Shelley Winters starred in the 1949 film adaptation.
IMDB/Paramount

In Chapter 1, the jaded Daisy expresses a sense of crippling ennui: “I think everything’s terrible anyhow […] And I KNOW. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything […] God, I’m sophisticated!”

Those with the right connections can afford to be amoral. When Daisy accidentally runs down Myrtle and flees the scene in Gatsby’s “monstrous” car, Tom manages a cover-up, shifting the blame onto Gatsby. As Nick reflects:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness […] and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Social mobility and the question of race

In the year of Gatsby’s publication, US President Calvin Coolidge announced “the chief business of the American people is business”, and in Fitzgerald’s novel it seems that “the pursuit of happiness” — that vague third term in the Declaration of Independence — has been reduced to the pursuit of material success.

Daisy, played in 1974 by Mia Farrow, is a blue-blooded society belle.
IMDB

Even romance and tragedy obey the logic of boom and bust. Nick reports in stockbroking language that Gatsby’s failure “temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men”, and Gatsby’s love for Daisy — a golden girl whose voice is “full of money” — is as deeply rooted in class and material aspirations as in sexual or personal attachment.

He desires not only Daisy but what winning her would symbolise. Indeed when the penniless Gatsby first met her, Daisy’s social elevation as a Kentucky debutante is said to have “increased her value in his eyes”.

Gatsby’s publication coincided with a high water mark of racism and xenophobia in the United States. The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 introduced strict immigration quotas, while the revitalised Klu Klux Klan peaked at four million members in the same year. The novel has drawn criticism for its marginalisation of African Americans: one would hardly know from Fitzgerald’s novel that the Harlem Renaissance was underway. Fitzgerald is credited with naming the Jazz Age, but largely erases its origins.

Gatsby does lampoon racial bigotry through Tom Buchanan, who spouts “impassioned gibberish” about “the white race” being submerged. Fitzgerald alludes here to two influential eugenicist studies of the period, Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916) and Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color (1920).

Nick calls Tom a “prig”, but he too associates race with class difference when the spectacle of “three modish negroes” driven by a “white chauffeur” prompts his reflection that this is a world where “anything can happen … even Gatsby”.

Sensuous prose

Fitzgerald’s prose is never more richly sensuous than when dealing with the strange alchemy of affluence, and the film adaptations by Jack Clayton (1974) and Baz Luhrmann (2013) struggle to do justice to Fitzgerald’s verbal pyrotechnics.

Even the intense colour and movement of Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby struggled to match Fitzgerald’s prose.

How can one portray “a scarcely human orchid of a woman” sitting in “ghostly celebrity” under a white plum tree, as a Hollywood actress is described? Like the cover of the novel’s first edition, Gatsby’s halls are “gaudy with primary colors”. His parties swell to “yellow cocktail music”, while a “green light” shines from Daisy’s dock across the bay.

At left, Francis Cugat’s original gouache painting for The Great Gatsby. A first edition of the book (right).
USC

In the novel’s closing paragraphs, Gatsby’s faith in this green light symbolises the vagueness of an American commitment to an endlessly receding future glory: “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther”, Americans assure themselves, only to find themselves “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”.

Indeed, Gatsby’s plan for the future is precisely to “repeat the past” by recovering “some idea of himself that had gone into loving Daisy … I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before”.

Neither Gatsby’s ambitions or the nation’s can stand much scrutiny. Even before his fall, Gatsby’s “dream […] was already behind him” in “the dark fields of the republic”, leaving a “foul dust” in its wake.

Still, what Nick most admires in Gatsby is his “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” and Fitzgerald implies that this “extraordinary gift for hope” might be the essence of the American Dream.The Conversation

Sascha Morrell, Lecturer in English, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.