Charles Dickens

A Long Read of Dickens : Dombey and Son

dombeyIn October I decided to begin reading Dombey & Son as it was originally published in serial form. Dickens made this method of publishing popular in England with The Pickwick Papers (no doubt to increase his profit) and I thought it would be fun to try and experience one of his works the way readers originally would have. I chose Dombey for 2 reasons; 1) because I know relatively little about the plot so it’s one of the few of his novels that I can approach “cold,” and 2) the serialization began In October, making it a project that I could start immediately. The first installment (chapters 1-4) was released Oct. 1, 1846 and continued monthly until April 1848, for a total of 19 issues. So I will be reading Dombey and Son until the spring of 2020.

I didn’t get around to writing a summary of the first installment for October so I’ve included both months here.  I intend to summarize each installment as I imagine it will get increasingly difficult as more time passes to keep track of the characters and the plot over such an expanse of time.

October Installment : Chapters 1-4

When the novel begins Paul Dombey is joyous over the birth of his newborn son, also named Paul.  This mirthful tone swiftly gives over to tragedy however when Mrs. Dombey dies shortly after giving birth.  Mr. Dombey’s sister, Louisa Chick almost seems to blame the woman for her own death, saying that she’s clearly not a Dombey and that if she were she would have had the strength to resist death.   Upon the quick suggestion of Miss Tox, Louisa’s friend, Polly Toodle is hired to aid in nursing little Dombey.  Mr. Dombey changes Polly Toodle’s name to Richards, instructs her that she is to have nothing to do with her own family while she’s nursing Paul and that she is also not to form any great attachment to his son.

We also learn that Mr. Dombey has a daughter, Florence, but cares for her very little due to the fact of her being a girl.     When Richards meets Florence, she immediately feels a tenderness for her and manipulates the situation so that Florence can spend time with her little brother in an effort to alleviate some of her loneliness.  When Richards makes this case to Mr. Dombey she claims that it will be of benefit to little Paul, when in reality she is thinking of Florence.

In the last chapter of this installment Solomon Gills and his nephew Walter are also introduced as Walter has just been hired to work for Dombey.  Solomon and his friend, Cuttle echo what has already been established, that Mr. Dombey cares little for his daughter and that his interest is invested solely in his son.  The two also joke about Walter someday marrying Florence.

November Installment : Chapters 5 – 7

Louisa suggests that Miss Tox be made Paul’s godmother and Dombey agrees to this while still insisting that he does not want his son to form any greater attachments than to himself and that the two of them, father and son, will eventually do fine and well enough on their own.

One evening after the children have gone to bed, Chick and Tox are discussing Dombey’s lack of affection for Florence when she comes in and asks to be put in bed with her brother.  Ever oblivious to the real feelings of others, Chick and Tox assume that Florence must’ve had a bad dream, never for a moment considering that she might be upset because she’s overheard their conversation.

Baby Paul is christened in what is an unnecessarily somber and bleak occasion.  Afterwards, Dombey tells Richards that he’s arranged for her eldest son to attend school.  Polly feigns gratitude but is inwardly worried about her son and distressed at not being there as he grows up.  When she conveys this to Florence’s nurse, Susan Nipper, Susan suggests that they arrange to visit even though Richards has been forbidden to do so.

The next day they leave for Stagg’s Garden, where Richards lives.  When she arrives her sister, Jemima, and her children are overjoyed to see her.  However, her son is not there as he’s already left for school.  They hope to have one last chance to see him as he’s walking home from school.  When they spot him, he is being bullied and Polly rushes to his aid.  There is a commotion and Florence runs away, assuming that Susan has followed her.  When she finally slows down and looks around, neither Susan or Richards are anywhere in sight.  A woman who calls herself Good Mrs. Brown approaches Florence and appears to want to help her but instead kidnaps her and steals her clothes. Mrs. Brown gives her rags to wear in exchange along with very specific instructions as to how she is to proceed to her father’s office and make her whereabouts known, under threat of death if she deviates from the plan.   When Florence arrives, Mr. Dombey has left for the day and she encounters Walter who takes her to his uncle’s house where she is fed and cared for while Walter sends word to Dombey that Florence has been found safe.  Susan comes to retrieve Florence and Richards is dismissed as a result of the incident.

In the meantime, Miss Tox is becoming more and more invested in spending time with the Dombeys and becomes indifferent to her old associates, particularly Mr. Bagstock, who is fond of Miss Tox and wishes to win her heart.  Where she once entertained him with her attention, she is now cold and indifferent.


Some of Dicken’s usual themes are already apparent in these first two installments, which come in at about 45 pages each.  The warmth of the lower classes is clearly contrasted with the cool familial detachment of the elite, who are caricatured nearly to absurdity.

Dombey seems to only care for his children to the extent that they enhance his status which is why he makes a greater investment in his son.  Though even with his son he is not particularly affectionate.  He says that he doesn’t want little Paul to form strong attachments to anyone else, yet he does little to endear himself to his son.  Nipper and Richards show more genuine care and affection for both Florence and for Paul than any of their snooty and self-interested relatives.  This is contrasted with the sincerity,  warmth and love clearly present in the Toodle household.  There is genuine remorse when Richards must part from her family and heartfelt joy during her surprise visit.  The contrast is also present with Walter and his uncle.  Florence is more attentively cared for there than she is by her own father, a contrast also borne out by her gratitude.  It almost seems as though she doesn’t wish to leave.

Dombey, Louisa, and Miss Tox are too busy looking down their noses at everyone they see as inferior to see anything for what it is or anyone for who they are.  They are constantly misattributing the feelings and intentions behind other people’s actions.  Their judgements are always based solely on whatever explanation best suits their own purposes and have no basis in reality.


George Eliot

Empathy in Adam Bede


When I purchase a new book I always inscribe the date and the place where I bought it on the inside cover.  When I pulled Adam Bede off the shelf a few weeks ago I was astonished to see that it had been in my collection since 2010, though as with most books I purchase I am always quite sure that I will read it “soon.” I bought it around the time I read Middlemarch, which I loved, but I think perhaps I read it “too soon” in some respects, if that is possible.  Hopefully, it was a valuable first reading that will allow me to approach it as a more experienced reader when I revisit it later this winter.  After Silas Marner and now Adam Bede, I absolutely must read or re-read all the novels of George Eliot in close proximity so I can compare, contrast, and better understand them.

In her biography of Eliot, Rosemary Sprague offers the best succinct, one-paragraph  summary of Adam Bede that I have read so I will quote it in full; **major spoiler warning**

“Adam Bede, the honest young workingman, is in love with Hetty Sorrel, a “farmer’s lass,” who, in turn, is deeply in love with Arthur Donithorne, the young squire.  Adam catches his rival kissing Hetty in the wood; outraged, he quarrels with Arthur –who also happens to be his employer — and demands that he either marry Hetty honorably or tell her in no uncertain terms that he has never had such an intention.  Arthur chooses the latter course, and leaves town to join his regiment.  Heartbroken, Hetty accepts Adam’s proposal of marriage, then discovers that she is going to have a baby.  In desperation, she goes to Windsor, where Arthur’s regiment has been stationed, only to discover that it has been sent to Ireland.  Unwilling to return to her family, she wanders from town to town, finding shelter where she can, until the baby is born.  Meanwhile, Adam has been searching frantically for her; finally, he and her family receive word that she is in prison, charged with murdering her child.  There is a trial, and she is sentenced to death.  During all this time she has kept obdurate silence; it is not until her Methodist cousin, Dinah Morris, manages to come to her prison cell that she is persuaded to confess and seek forgiveness.  Dinah goes to the scaffold with her on the following morning, where, at the last moment, Arthur appears with a reprieve commuting the death sentence to transportation for life.  Eventually, Adam, recovering from his grief, realizes that little Hetty would never have been the wife for him even if she had not transgressed, and that it is Dinah Morris whom he truly loves.  At the end of the novel, he and Dinah are married.”

I didn’t realize until I was well into the book that it was Eliot’s first novel, and immediately I felt in awe.  Even though I wasn’t quite halfway through I knew enough of it to grasp what an incredible achievement it was.  She was 40 years old when she wrote it and though it was her first fiction novel, she wasn’t new to writing so perhaps her mature mind and experience contributed to this early achievement in crafting something with such lucid realism and insight.  Elizabeth Gaskell, after reading it, said she felt there was little point in continuing to write when there were such books as Adam Bede.  Eliot herself wrote in her journal, “Shall I ever write another book as true as Adam Bede?”

Besides the pure reverence I felt for Eliot’s art, after finishing the book I felt that there seemed to be a similar undercurrent to that of Silas Marner, though at first I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.  Eliot handles the characters in completely different ways.  In fact, I was perplexed.  In Silas Marner it seemed to me that there was a very clear preference for the Church of England over the more rigid Methodism, but there seemed to be no such preference in Adam Bede.  If anything, it was the opposite as the Methodist character, Dinah Morris, though devout, is more heartfelt, effectual, and sincere than the Anglican, Mr. Irwine who, although not a “bad” character, is rather distant and unaffecting.

To put that aside for a moment, since religion and Methodism especially play such an important role in Adam Bede, it was helpful to me to brush up on the history of the movement in England, which incidentally recently attracted my attention while reading To Kill a Mockingbird, as Scout names their most notable ancestor as Simon Finch, a Methodist and follower of John Wesley, who came to America to escape persecution in England.  Richard Altick notes in Victorian People and Ideas that to be a Methodist was to be a dissenter and dissenters were socially stigmatized.  Altick also notes that the movement, which began in the 1730s by John and Charles Wesley, became “distinguished by unrestrained emotionalism and concentrating upon the welfare of the individual soul” rather than the traditional belief that certain people were chosen by God.  He remarks that the appeal was greater among the working classes which is borne out in the plot of Adam Bede by the fact that Dinah’s ministry largely takes place in the industrial community of Snowfield where she believes her gifts are more needed because the people are more needy, and less contented than those of Hayslope (where Adam lives).  Altick says that the surge of evangelicalism from the 1790s – 1830s was largely a result of events in France which people believed were caused by “religious indifference.” Therefore there was a move back to religion after “deistic rationalism” had become the fashion for a time.

It’s of interest to me how George Eliot handles religion in her novels since she was not a believer. She was a devout evangelical in her youth, but changed her mind after studying philosophy and science.  One might expect that there would be criticism or that unbelieving and secular characters might be given a preference and shown in a more positive light in her novels, but that’s not what Eliot does.  Again and again her characters demonstrate that while a person need not be religious to be moral, the religious, from the devout to the lukewarm, can be genuine and sympathetic in equal measure.  While there is criticism, there is very little, if any, bitterness.  In her own life, apparently Eliot staunchly refused to attend church, at first saying that it would be hypocritical to do so, but later she softened her stance, and thought her previous inflexibility to be immature.  She said she had no ill feelings toward those who were comforted by Christianity or ceremony.

While I was at first confounded how Anglicanism could appear to be the preference in one novel (Dolly Winthrop in Silas Marner), and Methodism in another (Dinah Morris), I now think I understand that that seeming inconsistency adds all the more strength to Eliot’s assertion that how people treat each other is more important than their specific beliefs, which is what I concluded after reading Silas Marner.  More important than a group’s creed, belief or lack thereof, is the individual’s commitment to compassion.  So rather than doing what say Jefferson did with his Jefferson Bible and extract aspects of character and morality while discarding miracle and supernatural, Eliot finds acceptance in various modes of religious/irreligious thought, from the fantastical to the rational, provided that a sympathy with the individual is retained.  That sympathy exists in the Methodist Dinah Morris while it is lacking in Silas Marner’s William Dane (also Methodist).  It is present in Dolly Winthrop while mostly absent in Reverend Irwine, both Anglican.

Eliot seems to be saying that each individual, regardless of belief, holds the power to make life better or worse for the people they encounter.  Eliot also encourages a view to our common humanity.   In Adam Bede, the character, Hetty Sorrel (who is both Adam’s and Irwine’s love interest) is not an easy character to like.  The reader knows what her admirers do not; that she is vain, superficial, self-serving, insincere, and even conniving.  If everyone in her life had condemned and excluded her, even before the wretched act of abandoning her unwanted child for dead, I would have thought it to be expected and probably well deserved.   If she had been punished, condemned, or excluded after her wretched act, it would have also seemed perhaps fitting.   But that’s not what happens.  All the important people in Hetty’s life rally around her.  It is through them that we realize that Hetty is not intrinsically evil even though her vanity has led her to an heinous, undesirable place.  Through her family and friends, we are able to muster up our sympathy for her naivety and her desperation, because they do, and they keep right on loving her and trying to do right by her.  Many walks of life are represented by the people within her circle; the secular and industrious Adam, the staunchly traditional and opinionated Mrs. Poyser, the wealthy squire Donnithorne, and of course the selfless preacher, Dinah.  They all in their own way offer a show of support for Hetty.

In the end it is the comfort and attention of Dinah who coaxes a confession from Hetty and a plea for forgiveness.  Is she sincere? Is her confession heartfelt?  Does she turn her life around? We don’t know.   Little is said of what happens to Hetty after she walks away from the gallows.  And it matters not one bit.  It is completely inconsequential.  What matters is that she was shown love and compassion whether she deserved it or not.     And it’s possible, it’s just possible, that made all the difference in Hetty’s heart and in her life.  At the very least, an already bad situation was not made worse by the people around her being equally heartless.

I am more than ever convinced that for Eliot, morality is not a particular set of beliefs. As stated in one of her letters, morality is the ability to “sympathize with individual suffering and individual joy.”  That reminds me of a quote I remember reading after I read Middlemarch all those years ago that art does nothing morally, Eliot believed, if it does not enlarge our sympathies.  That seems to be precisely what she aims to do with her fiction; not pierce, condemn, denounce, or blame, but to understand, and to empathize.  That is what I love most about George Eliot, her empathy.

My reverence for her only grows with each novel that I read, and it is that emphasis on empathy and compassion that makes me believe that she is a novelist sorely needed in our times when people have become so bound to their ideologies – whether good or bad – that those ideologies become more important than humanity, more important than remembering to handle each other with gentleness and with kindness.  Even the best ideas are spoiled if they cause us to treat each other harshly.


Notable Quotes:

“…if i have read religious history aright — faith, hope, and charity have not always been found in a direct ratio with a sensibility to the three concords; and it is possible, thank Heaven! to have very erroneous theories and very sublime feelings.  The raw bacon which clumsy Molly spares from her own scanty store, that she may carry it to her neighbor’s child to ‘stop the fits,’ may be a piously inefficacious remedy; but the generous stirring of neighborly kindness that prompted the deed has a beneficent radiation that is not lost.” 


“Nature, that great tragic dramatist, knits us together by bone and muscle, and divides us by the subtler web of our brains; blends yearning and repulsion; and ties us by our heartstrings to the beings that jar us at every movement.”


“When death, the great Reconciler, has come, it is never our tenderness that we repent of, but our severity.” 


“…the existence of insignificant people has very important consequences in the world.”


“See the difference between the impression a man makes on you when you walk by his side in familiar talk, or look at him in his home, and the figure he makes when seen from a lofty historical level, or even in the eyes of a critical neighbor who thinks of him as an embodied system or opinion rather than as a man.” 


“For there is no despair so absolute as that which comes with the first moments of our great first sorrow, when we have not yet known what it is to have suffered and be healed, to have despaired and to have recovered hope.” 


“Doubtless a great anguish may do the work of years, and we may come out from that baptism of fire with a soul full of new awe and new pity.” 


*book image my own

George Eliot

Community and Compassion in Silas Marner


At the most basic level, Silas Marner is a tale of the redemptive power of love.  It is deceptively simple coming from the author of the monstrously complex epic, Middlemarch.  There are few characters and the main moral of the story is pretty clear.  It reads almost like a fable as we follow the course of a weaver as he transforms from a lonely existence to one full of love, community and friendship.

The story begins in Silas’ young adulthood in Lantern Yard where he has everything that should bring one happiness; a trade, friendship, and a fiancée. But all of that is shattered when he is framed for a theft that he did not commit, and by none other than his best friend who goes on to steal his future wife.  Silas suffers from seizure-like fits and his friend uses this to further condemn him, convincing others that they must be the result of evil.  As a result, Silas is banished and must begin a new life in Raveloe.  Hurt and disillusioned by all that has happened to him, when he arrives in Raveloe he becomes solitary and reclusive.  In place of human companionship, his meager but slowly growing fortune becomes his only friend and he spends every evening counting his coins.

Silas’ fate shifts once again when his fortune is stolen and he is forced to confront the community he’s been hiding from and entreat their help.  A more marked change immediately follows when shortly thereafter a toddler wanders into his cabin.  When the girl’s mother is found deceased in the snow, Silas assumes responsibility for the child. As Silas cares for the girl, who he names Eppie, he becomes human again and through Eppie he is restored to a life of community and friendship.

Though all of that is pretty overarching and obvious, it wouldn’t be Eliot if there wasn’t more going on between the lines.  Though not an atheist, Eliot was critical of organized religion and grapples with religion an morality in her novels.  She doesn’t tend to be overwhelmingly didactic in her approach.    In Silas Marner her criticism is not overt, but it is there in the contrast between the religion and its effects on the people of Lantern Yard vs. Raveloe.  The religion of Lantern Yard is devout and the people are watchful to steer clear of evil.  Silas can never fully be himself in Lantern Yard where his knack for finding natural plant based remedies for ailments is looked at with suspicion.  At Lantern Yard, Silas’ friendship with William is formed around their discussions of salvation, a matter on which William expresses complete certainty and not a shred of doubt.

The other parishioners are so focused on the tenants of their religion, on identifying good vs. evil that they fail to see the individual.  They don’t truly see Silas or their judgement would’ve told them that his committing the crime William accuses him of was unlikely.  They don’t feel the need to look any further than the superficial details in front of them which allows them also to be duped by William. The situation is misinterpreted because they only consider the outward adherence and manifestation of their religion rather than the individual.

Contrast that with Dolly Winthrop, who Silas eventually befriends in Raveloe.  Raveloe’s religion is a less distinct blend of tradition and superstition, which the citizens of Lantern Yard would no doubt condemn.  However, while the parish in Lantern Yard is tightly knit, it is Raveloe where Silas eventually finds true community, friendship, and connection.  When Dolly brings him her lard cakes, she does so not out of any sense of Christian piety or duty, but because she is motivated by fellow feeling and an intrinsic sense of compassion for Silas.  She is not even sure what the religious writing that she puts on her lard cakes means, she only knows that there’s good feeling behind it and she wishes to pass that good feeling onto Silas.  That good feeling is more valuable than being “right.”

In addition to Silas’ redemption through caring for Eppie and directing his attention outward and beyond himself, Eliot also seems to be demonstrating that love wins over piety.  When one’s beliefs become so stringent that they cause one to perhaps become more concerned with what to embrace and what to condemn than consideration for how their actions affect others, this is limiting and potentially hurtful rather than expansive and righteous.   In essence, how people treat each other is more important than their specific beliefs.

In the end, it is not dogma that transforms Silas, but compassion, his own and others’, and through that an awakening to the wonder, mystery, and majesty of Life.

Thomas Hardy

Re-Reading Hardy : Jude the Obscure

I have been wanting and meaning to return to Hardy for some time now.  I often call him my “first love in literature.” His Tess of D’Urbervilles was one of my first classic novels Processed with VSCO with f2 presetand within the year or so after I read it, I devoured all of Hardy’s major novels, a fair number of the minor ones, and a selection of his poetry.  It wasn’t long after I started down that path that I abandoned most of my other reading interests and stuck with “the dead authors.”  Hardy was the first classic author who showed me how literature can enhance and reflect all that is Life.

So far this year I have only revisited Hardy once, with Jude the Obscure.  I meant to at least re-read his four tragedies, but as the year nears its end, it doesn’t appear that will happen.  In any case, I am now once again faced with the overwhelming task of trying to figure out what to focus on as Hardy has a lot brewing with Jude.  This is all the more overwhelming as I’m only just (barely) getting back into the habit of composing my thoughts after I read, but here goes…

***contains many spoilers (and ramblings!)***

Childhood Lessons Parallel Harsh Adult Realities

I forgot how much I like those early descriptions of Jude, his thirst for knowledge, his love and kindness to animals, his painful but still gentle early lessons that sometimes life does not “rhyme” quite as you think it should.

One of those first instances occurs when Jude is engaged in scaring off crows from the corn field for a nearby farmer.  He allows the crows a few kernels of corn before he scares them away, is caught by the farmer, and ultimately fired from his job, which makes Jude feel conflicted, not understanding why “what was good for God’s birds was bad for God’s gardener.”  This is a rather mild lesson from which Jude quickly recovers.  Some of these early lessons seem to mirror later, harsher realities, as Jude gets older they become increasingly more difficult to bear, gradually chipping away at his idealism.

Jude bears this early disappointment by retreating into his dreams.  He goes to Brown House where he can catch a glimpse of Christminster, a place which has lived in his imagination since his friend and mentor, Phillotson, moved there to become a “University Man.”  Jude calls it a “city of light.” It is a place of scholars and intellects and a place unattainable to Jude by virtue of nothing other than his lower social standing and thereby lack of education.  Jude, however, believes he can educate himself well enough to cross the boundaries to get there.  In the meantime, he attributes to the place a kind of mysticism.  He becomes so romantically attached to it that he blushes to speak the name of the place.

His first step toward reaching his goal of self-education leads to another harsh life lesson.  He makes an agreement with a traveling quack physician that he’ll get orders for his phony remedy pills in exchange for the man’s childhood grammar books.  When Jude meets with him again, the man remembers Jude’s promise to obtain the orders but has conveniently forgotten his own end of the bargain, having not brought the books.  Jude weeps bitterly over this setback, but persists, next determining to get a request to Phillotson for some second-hand books.

When Jude finally has these beacons of knowledge in his possession his disappointment is perhaps more bitter than not having the books at all, with the realization that obtaining the knowledge within is not going to be as easy as he thought. He had imagined that the books would be like a secret cipher, that once learned would allow him to transform words of another language into his own like magic.  Instead he finds that it’s more “like that of Israel in Egypt.”  This disappointment causes him not just to weep as he had previously, but to wish he did not exist.

Even as the lessons for Jude become increasingly brutal he persists in pursuit of his dreams.   He delivers bread for his aunt and rigs up the reigns so that he can simultaneously hold a book and read while he’s on the job.  He determines to learn biblical texts with the goal of becoming an apprentice to a stonecutter to earn more money which he accomplishes, securing a position in the nearby town of Alfredston.  Jude still returns every weekend to his hometown of Marygreen and it is on one such walk home when a pivotal thing happens to Jude.

He is ruminating on all of his accomplishments blended with what he hopes to do both immediately and eventually.  This rumination goes on for the expanse of a page or more, when suddenly, “something smacked him sharply in the ear, and he became aware that a soft cold substance had been flung at him.”  That soft cold substance turns out to be none other than pig flesh and it was flung by none other than one Arabella Donn.  Now you wouldn’t think this would be fodder for romance, but somehow it is.  Within the space of a few moments and a few exchanged words, all of Jude’s plans collapse, “he knew not how.”  He became “as simple as a child” and easily led along by the scheming Arabella.  In a short time, Jude is no longer reading his books at all and becomes all, Books? What books?  Did I say I liked books?  Pfft.  What are books to loving a woman anyway?

Just as Jude is coming to his senses regarding his relationship with Arabella and determines to return to his original goals and intentions, she delivers the news that she is pregnant.  Jude, never one to be dishonorable, promptly marries her.  Again and again Jude will try to do the right thing only to have his intentions backfire on him.

In his youth, Jude is tricked by the traveling physician, leading to a minor disappointment, and as an adult he is tricked into marriage by Arabella with more devastating consequences.  Almost immediately after marriage Jude gets a taste of Arabella’s duplicity.  Her hair is not her own, she has a former life and employment of which he was not aware, and she is in fact, not pregnant.  Jude remains optimistic in regards to the first two but the matter of Arabella’s false pregnancy causes him for the first time to question the entire institution of marriage.

“There seemed to him, vaguely and dimly, something wrong in a social ritual which made necessary a cancelling of well-formed schemes involving years of thought and labour, of foregoing a man’s one opportunity of showing himself superior to the lower animals, and of contributing his units of work to the general progress of his generation, because of a momentary surprise by a new and transitory instinct which had nothing in it of the nature of vice, and could be only at the most called weakness.” 

The following chapter in Part 1, chapter 10, seems to be the moment in which most if not all of Jude’s childhood idealism is destroyed, when he and Arabella argue over the proper method of slaughtering a pig.  Arabella chastises Jude for wanting to lessen the animal’s suffering, saying that he’ll thereby lessen the quality of the meat.  This is a harsher reality of an earlier learned lesson, “what was good for God’s birds, was bad for God’s gardener.”  I think this might be the final stab of death for Jude’s idealism.

Bitterness sets in for Jude as he reflects,

“Their lives were ruined, he thought; ruined by the fundamental error of their matrimonial union: that of having based a permanent contract on a temporary feeling which had no necessary connection with affinities that alone render a life-long comradeship tolerable.” 

Just as he wished for death in a moment of despair as a child, as an adult he actually attempts suicide.  When he is unsuccessful he decides to get drunk instead.

Perception vs. Reality

There is a disparity between what is perceived and what is real both regarding Jude, the individual as well as the community/society at large.

The introduction of Arabella brings on one of the first of several instances in which what Jude imagines is quite different from what is the reality.  After he meets and agrees to call on Arabella he attempts to simultaneously carry on with his studies but his mind becomes distracted and consumed with thoughts that Arabella might be waiting for him to call and may waste her whole afternoon in waiting if he does not turn up.   Not wanting to be the source of another’s disappointment, he abandons his books and goes to Arabella.  Jude’s preoccupation reminded me of a George Eliot quote from The Lifted Veil,

“I magnified as usual the effect any word or deed of mine could produce on others.” 

Another example of this occurs when Jude passes the spot where he and Arabella first kissed.  He is so moved as to stop and examine their footprints in the dirt and feels the void of her absence as he walks there alone.  Later, she passes the very same spot, but flippantly, without so much as a passing thought.  To Arabella, Jude is merely a fish to catch for her own personal advancement.

Jude’s insignificance is further magnified when (much later in the novel), he meets Phillotson in Christminster.  Jude has placed a great significance and importance on Phillotson and imagines that he’s meeting an old friend and someone who has made a great difference in his life.  He even puts off seeking out his former teacher when he comes to Christminster because he seems to imagine that Philloston might be disappointed that Jude hasn’t made more of himself.  But when he finally encounters Phillotston, he doesn’t even remember Jude and only has a vague recollection of sending him the grammar books. Jude is just one of many students he’s taught over the years, and doesn’t stand out from the rest. On another note, Phillotson also serves as a foil to Jude.  How can Jude expect to achieve what even the more well stationed and educated Phillotson has not?  Interestingly, when Jude brings up Phillotson’s Christminster dreams, they seem almost as vague to him as his memory of Jude.  Though of a higher station than Jude, Phillotson is still held back by being of a lower class.  But he gave up on transcending those barriers long ago, resigning himself to more realistic pursuits, and doesn’t appear to be particularly despairing over it.

Just as there is that individual disparity that is a cause for angst, there are numerous times when societal perceptions have a disproportionate outcome on the plot, regardless of what is actually the truth of the matter.


Jude’s plight of self-betterment reminds me of Pip from Great Expectations, except they have almost opposite journeys.  Pip is bitter and antagonistic in his childhood and adolescence but resolves this and becomes more content as he matures. Jude, on the other hand, is hopeful and optimistic in his youth and only becomes bitter after each knock and setback as he realizes that his years of labor and learning will likely come to naught.  They are both characters in limbo.  Their aspirations isolate them.  They are strange and removed from their peers, but at the same time they are repelled and spit out, if you will, by the circles they aspire to inhabit.

Even after Jude makes it to Christminster with his restoration work, he is really no closer to the life he wants, often working such that only a wall separates him from those with whom he shares that “common mental life.” It is “Only a wall, but what a wall!”   Though closer in geography, he’s no closer to the life of the university than he was when he was squinting to see Christminster from the roof of Brown House.

Not all of Jude’s barriers are physical.  He is also walled in and confined by his lower social class which puts up a figurative wall that, try as he might, he cannot pass through.  As a last resort after all his labor and dedication he writes to a selection of professors at Christminster and receives a reply from only one, advising that he’d be better off remaining in his own “sphere.”

Both Pip and Jude must adjust their expectations but where Pip finds contentment in the adjustment, Jude is only met with more hardship, tragedy and dreams deferred.

The Confinement of Marriage

Though my mentioning it last may seem to belie it, Hardy’s criticisms of marriage appear to be the main message in Jude the Obscure.  From what I can remember they are more overtly stated – through the mouthpiece of Jude and Sue – than in any of Hardy’s other novels.

After Jude’s first marriage ends in separation, Sue Bridehead captures his interest and attention.   Whereas he meets Arabella and then sort of tumbles into a relationship with her, Jude first watches Sue from afar – rather voyeuristically actually.

As is typical of Hardy’s characters, both Jude and Sue have false starts when it comes to love.  Jude with Arabella, and Sue with Phillotson.  Both of them are walled in by conventionality with their first choices. Jude is groomed in the usual way by Arabella and then feels obliged to marry her when he believes she’s pregnant.  Likewise, Sue likes Phillotson and feels indebted to him for helping her with her teaching career and she  promises to marry him after a long engagement, then feels obliged to make good on her promise even though she knows from the start that she’s not romantically attracted to him.

I have not even cracked the surface with Jude and Sue.  The last time I read the book and wrote about it on a now defunct blog I didn’t manage to touch on “Little Father Time.” And I find myself there again.  Maybe next time… Hardy’s last novel has a complexity that invites, even demands multiple readings.  I know that like Jane Eyre and Great Expectations I will find myself returning to it again and again and hopefully extracting more with each re-reading.

John Steinbeck

The Winter of Our Discontent


My last audiobook of summer was Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, which I first read about two years ago.  The book was Steinbeck’s last novel, and I believe, confirms his already sealed place as a chronicler of the American and the human struggle. Though it does not have the same depth or scope as The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden, it still reveals and grapples with humanity in all its splendor and depravity.  This book is a solemn yet powerful and introspective exploration of the gray area between moral and immoral, and how one man wades through it.  In the same way Hitchcock asks, who is capable of murder, Steinbeck, through the novel’s main protagonist, Ethan Hawley, asks, who is capable of corruption?  Is anyone, given the right motivation, circumstances, opportunity?   What is an otherwise good man willing to give up, to sacrifice, to weaken, in exchange for profit and personal gain?

Ethan is a likable family man, loved by his wife, respected by his children, liked by his neighbors.  He is intelligent, well-read, and educated, yet through a few unfortunate events finds himself enduring the mind-numbingly boring life as a grocery store clerk in an establishment once owned by his family.  At first, Ethan deflects nudges to impropriety, wards off temptations, but over time his inclinations become saturated with the discontented murmurings of his wife and children, the pressures of his associates, and his own dissatisfatcion.   His family insists that they want more and feel that he should want more too.  They want to be able to hold their heads up higher.    Except what they want to prop up their heads is not honor or virtue or dignity or integrity, but wealth, and the status that wealth brings.    Over time Ethan becomes worn down and vulnerable to the temptation of opportunity.

One of the most brilliant and disturbing things about this novel is how it creeps up on you.  It’s told in the first person so you hear Ethan’s private thoughts, you see the world from his perspective.  The reality of what’s about to happen, of what the novel is building up to sneaks up on you, because it also sneaks up on Ethan.  His is not a quick plunge into dishonor, but a gentle fall, and he remains sympathetic and likable even in his moral descent.

In the end, Ethan gains what he hoped for, but he loses his soul.  Having to live with all that he has done and become is almost too much for him to bear.   With the plight of Ethan, Steinbeck seems to also be asking –  How and why is it that some pursue a path of corruption and it appears to favor them, while others are destroyed?

Steinbeck doesn’t answer all of these questions but he grapples with them in a way that is, as always, illuminating.

Notable Quotes

“Marullo was telling me the truth about business, business being the process of getting money.  And Joey Morphy was telling it straight, and Mr. Baker and the drummer.  They all told it straight.  Why did it revolt me and leave a taste like a spoiled egg?  Am I so good, or so kind, or so just? I don’t think so.  Am I so proud? Well, there’s some of that.  Am I lazy, too lazy to be involved?  There’s an awful lot of inactive kindness which is nothing but laziness, not wanting any trouble, confusion, or effort.” 


“Where money is concerned, the ordinary rules of conduct take a holiday.” 


“A man who tells secrets or stories must think of who is hearing or reading, for a story has as many versions as it has readers.  Everyone takes what he wants or can from it and thus changes it to his measure.  Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of prejudice, some paint it with their own delight.  A story must have some points of contact with the reader to make him feel at home in it.  Only then can he accept wonders.”


“A little hope, even hopeless hope, never hurt anybody.”


“If you can hold people tense, hardly breathing, expectant for a long time, they’ll believe anything – not acting, so much as technique, timing.” 


“What a frightening thing is the human, a mass of gauges and dials and registers, and we can read only a few and those perhaps not accurately.” 


“And if I should put the rules aside for a time, I knew I would wear scars but would they be worse than the scars of failure I was wearing? To be alive at all is to have scars.” 


“We can shoot rockets into space but we can’t cure anger or discontent.” 




*Book image is mine

Truman Capote

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood


For whatever reason, in the summer I tend to organize my reading around some particular theme – one summer it was scandalous novels, another American authors.   This summer, starting with As I Lay Dying, I found myself gravitating to southern gothic novels.  It seemed an appropriate choice for humid summer days and sultry evenings of patio reading.

I’ve owned Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood forever.  I collect older Modern Library editions and this was one of the first I ever purchased.   However, I never felt particularly drawn to reading it.  Even after several like-minded readers praised it highly and carried on about how engrossing it is, I knew it just wasn’t my cup of tea.  Now that I’ve finally read it, while he hasn’t won me over to the true crime genre, it did affirm how much I like Capote’s style.

With this book, he was exploring a relatively new and experimental form, the non-fiction novel. It is remarkable that Capote can engage the reader for 350+ pages when readers already know the who and what of the crime.  There is very little suspense by way of the plot.  It is the psychological aspects that make the story absorbing.

First there’s the Clutters, an all American, salt of the earth, picture perfect mid-western farming family who work hard for their living, do right by others, give back to their community, and are mostly universally admired by their neighbors.  They were the sort of family who would have their picture in the small town local paper as they serve fried chicken at 4-H picnics.   There is the injustice of something so horrific happening to people so undeserving.

The killers thought the Clutters had money.  They didn’t.  When they only got about $40 off of them, they killed them anyway.  Because they could.   Their murder was brutal, cruel, and random.  It flies in the face of what people say about certain types of things not happening in certain places or to certain types of people.  It gives one the chilling realization that anyone is fair game for evil.

The Clutter family in their living room at Christmas – the two older children were adults living on their own and therefore not at home at the time of the murders.

The other chilling aspect of the novel is that Capote attempts to humanize the killers.  He and his friend, Harper Lee, who helped him collect documents and interviews for the novel, spent a great deal of time with Perry and Dick, getting to know them and their backgrounds.  A large portion of the novel is devoted to the dynamic between the two partners, their former misgivings, and their childhood experiences.  I didn’t find much to sympathize with either one of them.  Perry is built up as the more sympathetic of the two, with his sad family history and childhood trauma, but even still… Plenty of people have hard lives, tragic pasts, experience abuse and isolation, who never seem to make a go of it or catch a lucky break and yet don’t go around spitefully slaughtering entire families simply for being and having everything they don’t have and never will.

While this is not the sort of novel I intend to make a habit of reading, Truman Capote’s account is captivating nevertheless as there’s always something irresistible in trying to understand why people do the things they do.

Mug shots of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock


*Book image is mine
**Clutter family image from the High Plains Journal
***Mug shot images from Criminal Minds Wiki

Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird : Marginalia : The Roosevelts

There are many allusions in the second half of To Kill a Mockingbird, which I finished reading yesterday, but for the remainder of my sparse marginalia notes I am going to focus only on those relating to the Roosevelts.

Eleanor Roosevelt was often criticized in the south for her support of civil rights, and the references to her in the novel reflect that.  One of those comes from Atticus himself when he speaks of all men being created equal as a phrase often hurled at them from the “distaff side of the Executive.”  He says this when he is addressing the court in defense of Tom Robinson, so perhaps he is trying to build rapport with the jury.

The disdain is more apparent in the remarks of Mrs. Merriwether at one of Aunt Alexandra’s missionary teas.  She is complaining about the sulky behavior of Maycomb’s cooks and maids after the death of Tom Robinson and partly blames Eleanor Roosevelt saying that she “lost her mind…coming down to Birmingham and tryin to sit with em.” The event to which she is referring is the meeting for the Southern Conference for Human Welfare which was held in Birmingham in November of 1938. During the first day of the conference white and black were integrated, however,  as this went against state law, someone reported them and on the second day it was ordered that the seats be segregated. Eleanor Roosevelt refused and placed her chair between the divided sections.


After the events of Tom Robinson’s trial and the aftermath have settled, Scout says that Maycomb was itself again, with just a few changes.  One change was evidenced by the fact that people removed the “NRA – We Do Our Part stickers” from their windows.  When Scout inquires as to the reason, Atticus says it’s because the National Recovery Act is dead. He says it was killed by “nine old men.”

Eleanor Roosevelt standing before the National Recovery Administration’s logo

The National Recovery Administration was established as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in an effort to counteract the effects of the Great Depression.  The program’s codes eliminated things such as child labor and set a precedent for wages and working hours, however, it was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court (“nine old men”) in 1935.


*Image from Wikimedia Commons