Why You Never Hear Stories about Wicked Stepfathers

You know the story of Cinderella. She’s a princess, dearly loved by her father, the king. When her mother dies, her father eventually marries a widow with daughters of her own. But nothing much changes for Cinderella as long as her father lives and continues to protect her and treat her like the princess she was born to be.

But then the king dies, and Cinderella’s stepmother, the new queen, gains control of the kingdom and the palace. She banishes Cinderella to a life of servitude in the kitchen and presents her own daughters as the princesses of the land.

Yes, we know how the story turns out: the fake princesses are unmasked, Cinderella shines like the true princess she is, and then marries the prince and lives happily ever after. But what I want to focus on here is the stepmother, the one who usurps power and raises her own daughters’ station above that of the true princess, whom she treats like a servant.

Fables and fairy tales supply many examples of the archetype of the wicked stepmother. Often she appears as a witch, such as the one who is jealous of Snow White’s beauty. But there is no male counterpart to this villainess. Why?

The reason arises from the medieval system of laws and customs that gave rise to many of our enduring literary tropes, such as the wicked stepmother archetype. At that time women had very few rights and were dependent on a man to protect them and provide for them. A widow left with children to support—particularly daughters who would need substantial dowries to obtain powerful husbands of their own—would need to remarry. The widow in the Cinderella story would have considered herself quite fortunate to marry a widowed king.

Once a woman was married, she and her children became her husband’s property. A man could treat his wife and children however he pleased. No matter how badly he treated them, he would not be thought of as wicked. He would simply be exercising his rights as a man to use his personal property in whatever way he wished.

No wonder women like Cinderella’s stepmother were so quick to seize power and use it to their own advantage if the opportunity, such as the death of the king, arose. The stories that develop from a particular culture not only describe that culture’s values and beliefs, they also prescribe how people should live their lives. Cinderella’s stepmother would probably have gladly accepted the epithet wicked to describe her actions, as long as she could get what she wanted for herself and her daughters. But she also would have learned, along with everyone who heard this fairy tale, what happens when someone tries to dethrone the rightful heir. She gets her comeuppance in the end, when the glass slipper will fit only the dainty little foot of Cinderella, the real princess. The king may be dead, but his interests prevail in the end.

We have patriarchy to thank for the lack of a wicked stepfather archetype. Those who hold the power control the kingdom, including the cultural narratives. The king is dead. Long live the king!

On Novels and Novelists

10 authors who excel on the internet

If you love literature, here’s your chance to connect with some of the most technologically savvy writers:

a few [writers] are using the etherland as a canvas for experimentation and play. They have moved their storytelling, wit and insight from page to pixel, winning fans and readers in the process.

  • Neil Gaiman
  • Paulo Coelho
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Teju Cole
  • Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Salman Rushdie
  • Gary Shteyngart
  • Haruki Murakami
  • David Mitchell
  • Veronica Roth

What I particularly like about this list is that it proves that technology isn’t just for the young and the hip.

10 Best Dark Books

Here’s Publishers Weekly’s introduction to this article:

Amelia Gray’s wonderfully dark story collection Gutshot features a giant snake bisecting a town and a man, afraid of losing his beloved, soothed by her detached sensory perceptions. Gray, a master of haunting storytelling, picks 10 of her favorite books.

And here’s Gray’s introduction to her list:

Whether it’s borne out of some kind of bizarro escapism or the desire to see the dark mind confirmed and confined on the page, the urge to read and write dark fiction has been steady in my life. Here are ten books that have left their mark on my mind and my work.

I don’t like straight horror, but most of Gray’s choices here seem to pertain more to the dark depths of the human heart rather than to supernatural or unnatural machinations.

Read why she’s been influenced by the following books:

  1. Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates
  2. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
  3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  4. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
  5. Life Is With People by Atticus Lish
  6. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  7. Tampa by Alissa Nutting
  8. Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey
  9. The Wish Giver: Three Tales of Coven Tree by Bill Brittain
  10. Bird by Noy Holland

I do, however, disagree with one of her choices, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. That’s the book that made me decide, many years ago, that I don’t have to finish reading every book that I start.

Kent Haruf’s Last Chapter

I have loved the work of Kent Haruf ever since I read his 1999 novel Plainsong, which became his most popular work. That novel dealt with life on the plains of Colorado, in the fictional town of Holt. Two subsequent novels continue the story.

Haruf died last November at age 71. He completed one last work before his death:

Normally, it took him six years or more to write a novel. But in a rush of creative energy, he wrote a chapter a day. Roughly 45 days later, he had finished a draft of his final novel, “Our Souls at Night.”

Also set in Holt, Colorado, but otherwise unrelated to the earlier novels, this novel focuses on finding love late in life. Its inspiration was Haruf’s relationship with his wife, Cathy.

Our Souls at Night will be released on May 28. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy.

Can’t wait for “True Detective 2″? Dive into Ross Macdonald’s California noir masterpieces

The legendary writer of psychoanalytic mysteries captured the culture of postwar California better than anyone

Noir-heads and private-eye fans have long known that the detective novels of Ross Macdonald hit a sweet spot between plot-driven pulp writing and character-driven literary fiction. Inspired by the work of Dashiell Hammett (especially “The Maltese Falcon”), taught about symbolism by W.H. Auden, hailed by Eudora Welty for “serious and complex” work, he wrote 18 novels driven by the gloomy, ambiguous detective Lew Archer.

Scott Timberg interviews Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan for online magazine Salon. Says Nolan:

He felt that the character of the detective was really not the most important character in the books. In fact, he started out thinking the perpetrator was of more interest than the detective — there was opportunity for tragedy, with the criminal — but in later years, he felt the victim was the most important or significant character.

Timberg also quotes Salon music and culture critic Greil Marcus, who has read all of Macdonald’s books:

“If you read Macdonald’s psychoanalytic mysteries in order, as the theme took on greater and greater power for him, the feeling that comes up builds book by book: that just as the reader is scared to reach the ending, so is Lew Archer, and so is Ross Macdonald.”

Top 10 (unconventional) ghosts in literature

Author Judith Claire Mitchell examines the function of ghosts in literature in this piece for The Guardian:

When Barry Hannah, the late novelist of the American south, taught fiction workshops, he would begin by writing those two words on the blackboard. All stories, he’d say, are ghost stories. Something haunts the work and the reader turns the pages to find out what it is. As a student of Hannah’s back in the day, I took these words to heart. Literary ghosts didn’t have to scare; what they had to do was haunt.

“In literature,” says the writer Tabitha King, “the ghost is almost always a metaphor for the past.” This is true for literal ghosts who manifest in graveyards, and it’s true for figurative ghosts who are no more substantive than insistent memory.

Here’s Mitchell’s list of “the phantoms that kept me turning pages, the ones I never forgot when I finished the book”:

  1. Michael Furey in James Joyce’s “The Dead”
  2. The highboy in Alison Lurie’s “The Highboy”
  3. Holiday in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones
  4. A missing child in Kevin Brockmeier’s The Truth About Celia
  5. Rebecca in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca
  6. The parrot in Robert Olen Butler’s Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot
  7. Americans like me in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior
  8. The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
  9. Beloved in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
  10. Any of the demons in Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons

Rereading “Caddie Woodlawn” by Carol Ryrie Brink

caddie woodlawnBrink, Carol Ryrie. Caddie Woodlawn
Original publication date: 1935
rpt. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007
eISBN 978–1–4424–6858–0

Part of the charm of rereading, as an adult, books that I read as a child is understanding and appreciating how I must have reacted to the books back then. I didn’t remember much about Caddie Woodlawn when I put it on my Classics Club reading list except that I enjoyed it. Now I see why.

Carol Ryrie Brink based the book, and the character of Caddie, on her grandmother’s stories about her own childhood. The book opens in 1864 with a description of 11-year-old Caddie Woodlawn, “as wild a little tomboy as ever ran the woods of western Wisconsin.” Caddie and her sister Mary had both been frail and sickly when the family first came to Wisconsin from Boston seven years earlier. After Mary died, Mr. Woodlawn told his wife, “I want you to let Caddie run wild with the boys. Don’t keep her in the house learning to be a lady. I would rather see her learn to plow than make samplers, if she can get her health by doing so. I believe it is worth trying.” So Caddie was allowed to run free with her brothers, Tom and Warren, all over the area surrounding their farm.

Their adventures would have appealed to me because, as a young child, I also spent much of my time exploring the world around me in a small, rural New England town. I didn’t have siblings to accompany me, but some of my happiest memories are of sitting in the crotch of an apple tree below my house during apple blossom time and watching the bees buzz among the flowers. I also often tried to catch field mice in the unmown meadow with a coffee can, but I never succeeded. My parents had a troubled marriage, and I learned to take refuge outdoors.

Another feature of this book that would have appealed to me was the strong family life it portrays. I did not share that experience with Caddie’s family, and throughout my childhood I was drawn to books and television shows that offered alternate visions of what family life could be like.

Rereading the book now, I wonder how I reacted to the gender message that it carries. Although Caddie’s adventures appealed to me, I probably simply glossed over the gender issues. Children’s books entertain while at the same time imparting the message of what one’s society considers proper behavior, especially which behaviors are proper for boys and which for girls. Other members of society question Mr. Woodlawn’s approach to raising Caddie along with the boys. Early in the book the visiting circuit preacher asks, “When are you going to begin making a young lady out of this wild Indian, Mrs. Woodlawn?”

Significantly, Caddie turns 12 during the year of the book’s narrative, the traditional age of puberty that marks the progression into adulthood. After her birthday the gender message intensifies. Near the end of the book, Caddie’s mother punishes her for treating a visiting cousin badly, while the boys, who also participated, go free. Later Mr. Woodlawn “thrashes” the boys because he thinks it only fair that they share in the punishment, since he has raised Caddie, Tom, and Warren the same way.

Then father explains to Caddie:

It’s a strange thing, but somehow we expect more of girls than of boys. It is the sisters and wives and mothers, you know, Caddie, who keep the world sweet and beautiful. What a rough world it would be if there were only men and boys in it, doing things in their rough way! A woman’s task is to reach them gentleness and courtesy and love and kindness. It’s a big task, too, Caddie—harder than cutting trees or building mills or damming rivers. It takes nerve and courage and patience, but good women have those things. They have them just as ich as the men who build bridges and carve roads through the wilderness. A woman’s work is something fine and noble to grow up to, and it is just as important as a man’s. But no man could ever do it so well.”

You will not find a better description than this of the Victorian notion of separate spheres of life for men and women. This notion prescribed that business, finance, and politics were men’s world, while home and church constituted women’s world. There could be no overlap in these spheres of distinction. This concept also gave rise to the view of woman as a tender flower who had to be protected from the unsavory aspects of the world. This view conveniently kept women in their place and kept men in charge.

Like other young girls, I would have unconsciously and unquestioningly absorbed this vision of reality as truth. Caddie certainly does. After her father’s talk, she falls asleep.

When she awoke she knew that she need not be afraid of growing up. It was not just sewing and weaving and wearing stays. It was something more thrilling than that. It was a responsibility, but, as Father spoke of it, it was a beautiful and precious one, and Caddie was ready to go and meet it.

Thank you, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, for shattering the notion of that view of life as a “thrilling responsibility, beautiful and precious,” that all girls should rush forward to meet as they grow up.

Psychological Text Analysis

Shakespeare’s Plays Reveal His Psychological Signature

A hot trend in literary criticism is the use of computers to analyze text, a field known as digital humanities. Recently Ryan Boyd, a graduate researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, and James Pennebaker, the Liberal Arts Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology at the university, conducted one such analysis to determine whether Shakespeare wrote a play whose authorship has been disputed for centuries. Their results have been published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The play in question is Double Falsehood, published in 1728 by Lewis Theobald. Theobold claimed that he based this play on three original manuscripts by Shakespeare that were later destroyed in a library fire. The true authorship of the play has been disputed since its publication. Some scholars believe that Shakespeare was the true author, while others think the play was an original work by Theobold that he tried to pass off as an adaptation. Although today no author would want to pass off an original work as an adaptation from another author’s work, Theobold would have benefited at the time from an association with Shakespeare.

Boyd and Pennebaker used text-analyzing software to establish psychological profiles of the Shakespeare, Theobold, and John Fletcher, who sometimes collaborated with Shakespeare:

“Research in psychology has shown that some of the core features of who a person is at their deepest level can be revealed based on how they use language. With our new study, we show that you can actually take a lot of this information and put it all together at once to understand an author like Shakespeare rather deeply,” says researcher Ryan Boyd.

They examined 33 plays by Shakespeare, 12 by Theobald, and 9 by Fletcher. The software examined the use of function words (such as pronouns, articles, and prepositions) and words that represent various content categories (such as emotions, family, sensory perception, and religion). The software analyzed the themes present in each of the works to create a thematic signature for each author.

The researchers also had the software examine how “categorical” the writing in each work is:

Categorical writing tends to be heavy on nouns, articles, and prepositions, and it indicates an analytic or formal way of thinking. Research has shown that people who rate high on categorical thinking tend to be emotionally distant, applying problem-solving approaches to everyday situations. People who rate low on categorical thinking, on the other hand, tend to live in the moment and are more focused on social matters.

By combining the thematic signature with the categoricalness of the writing, the researchers created a psychological signature for each author. They then analyzed the text of Double Falsehood who determine which of the three writers was the most likely author of the play. When they analyzed the disputed play by acts, the results suggested Shakespeare as the most likely author of the first three acts, and either Shakespeare of Fletcher as the likely author of the fourth and fifth acts. They concluded that Theobold’s influence on the text appeared to be minor.

By using measures that tapped into the author’s psychological profile, Boyd and Pennebaker were able to see that the author of Double Falsehood was likely sociable and fairly well educated — findings that don’t jibe with accounts of Theobald as well educated but also rigid and abrasive.

Together, these findings clearly show that exploring the psychological dimensions of a literary work can offer even deeper insight in the process of textual analysis.

Also see the University of Texas at Austin news release Shakespeare Wrote Contested Play, Suggests Psychological Text Analysis.

The Classics Spin #9

It’s time for The Classics Spin #9.

For this exercise, Classics Club readers are to make a numbered list of 20 unread books on their original reading list. Then next Monday, April 6, the club will announce a number between 1 and 20, and by May 15 we are to read the book with that number on the spin list we created .

The assignment suggests that we pick books from several categories for the spin list to challenge ourselves:

For example, you could list five Classics Club books you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)

However, I know that the next three months (April-June) are going to be very busy for me. Not wanting to set myself up for failure, I’m choosing from among the shorter books and the easiest to read on my original list.

So here’s my list of 20 for the upcoming spin:

  1. Faulkner, William. Sanctuary
  2. Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row
  3. Brink, Carol Ryrie. Caddie Woodlawn
  4. O’Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh
  5. Morley, Christopher. Kitty Foyle
  6. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
  7. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire
  8. Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men
  9. Wharton, Edith. Ghost Stories
  10. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
  11. Masters, Edgar Lee. Spoon River Anthology
  12. Wilder, Thornton. Our Town
  13. Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon
  14. Styron, William. Darkness Visible
  15. Agee, James. A Death in the Family
  16. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five
  17. James, Henry. What Maisie Knew
  18. Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle
  19. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin
  20. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from the Underground

Update

We have a winner! It’s #2.

So I’ll be reading Steinbeck’s Cannery Row by May 15. Excited! Believe it or not, I’ve never read this book before.

On Novels and Novelists

Face it, book snobs, crime fiction is real literature – and Ian Rankin proves it

On the occasion of Ian Rankin’s becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Allan Massie discusses the author of the John Rebus novels and crime fiction in general. Massie bets that having been “received into Scotland’s intellectual elite or, if you prefer, Establishment,” won’t change Rankin.

Massie discusses the common criticism of mystery and crime novels, that they are mere genre fiction and therefore don’t deserve the same respect and attention as literary fiction. I’ve long disagreed with this view. Mystery and crime novels probe the most sensitive inner secrets of the human psyche, the places we try to hide from other people and, just as often, from ourselves.

Massie dismisses such differentiation between crime novels and literary fiction: “Many of the greatest novelists have crime at the centre of their work.” As examples he offers Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Balzac, and Dostoevsky.

Massie offers another advantage crime novels have over literary novels, one that I had not thought of:

Today, as Rankin recognised early, the crime novelist has one advantage denied to authors of the straight or literary novel. Unlike them, he can range over all levels of society, for crime breaches the barriers of class. These barriers mean that the modern literary novel is too often confined to the horizontal, because, to be realistic, it will tend to deal only with one layer of society, with people all leading much the same sort of life. But crime permeates society. It runs through it from top to bottom, and may make connections between them.

Perhaps I failed to notice this advantage because class distinctions are more a part of society in the United Kingdom (see Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution than in the United States.

But no matter where crime novels are set or where readers live, these novels reveal the dark truth beneath the surface of society and of individuals. For this reason, some of the most important literary work comes from writers of crime and mystery novels.

9 Ways Reading Joyce Carol Oates Will Make You Feel More Powerful

“Joyce Carol Oates doesn’t shy away from darkness.” Laura I. Miller’s opening to this piece from Bustle snuggles her material comfortably up next to the previous piece. “Her portrayals are so lovely, her prose so seemingly effortless, that her work’s murky, disturbing depths often creep in unnoticed.”

In this article Miller focuses on how Joyce Carol Oates’s power of exposing social injustice, particularly that involving women, “using story as a way to empower those overlooked by society.” See why Miller says that reading Oates’s work will make you feel empowered in these ways:

  1. You’ll Realize Just How Much You’re Capable Of.
  2. Any Preconceived Notions of Young, Petite Women Will Be Shattered.
  3. Details About the Characters All Around You Will Suddenly Appear.
  4. You’ll Appreciate the Complexity of Navigating Adolescent Womanhood.
  5. Other People’s Opinions Will Cease to Matter.
  6. You’ll Grow Fond of Your Deeply Introverted Tendencies.
  7. Your Vocabulary Will Increase Drastically.
  8. The Limitless Bounty of Story Will Open Its Doors to You.
  9. You’ll See Right Through Everyone Else’s BS.

I can’t help but mention here that I wish it were possible to see the content without all those annoying animated GIFs, which seem to be de rigeur at Bustle.

What Writers Can Gain From Seeing the World Through Different Eyes

Since one of my other blogs is Change of Perspective, there’s no way I could pass up a piece about literature with a title like this, in which author Tania James explains that “[t]he best prose comes from experimenting with new perspectives.”

In her recent novel The Tusk that Did the Damage, “James channels three starkly contrasting voices to explore the bleak sphere of South Indian elephant poaching.” She learned how to write disparate voices, including that of a traumatized bull elephant, by reading:

Peter Carey’s Booker-winning  The True History of the Kelly Gang—written as a single long letter composed by a 19th-century Australian outlaw—taught her about how to speak convincingly in an adopted tongue.

James says that Carey invents a language for notorious Australian outlaw Ned Kelly: “There’s something thrilling about watching a writer invent a new lexicon before your eyes.” I haven’t read Carey’s novel, but it sounds as if James is describing the same technique David Mitchell uses for the long pivotal section, set centuries in the future, of Cloud Atlas. Like James, I found that after a short initial period of adjustment, reading the newly invented language was invigorating. Perhaps the thrill comes just from knowing that you’re smart enough to have figured things out, but I suspect that some part of the thrill also comes from knowing that you are working along with the author to share the fictional experience.

I speak from a reader’s perspective. Read what James has to say about this kind of language use from a writer’s perspective. But whether you’re a reader or a writer (or perhaps both):

Adopting an unfamiliar perspective helps you observe the world in fresh, revealing ways—helps you see things you might never have glimpsed through your own eyes.

In His Words: Rafael Yglesias on What Fiction Does Best

Rafael Yglesias writes that it took 16 years and four revised drafts to produce his recently published novel The Wisdom of Perversity:

The revisions were made to clarify and refine my understanding of The Wisdom of Perversity’s delicate subject matter: the long-term effects of being sexually misused as a child — as I was when I was eight years old.

But, he continues, roughly forty percent of the manuscript remained unchanged through all those revisions. The unchanged portions are written from the point of view of three children==two eight-year-old boys and an eleven-year-old girl—who are seduced and bullied by a forty=year=old pedophile:

Those passages, written as if you are in the skin of the children, vividly depict that the predator’s technique is seductive and that the children-victims are initially turned on by their rapist’s insinuating touch. The point of the passage is that what makes the effects of molestation so long-lasting is the confusion it creates for the victims, that their first experience of sexual pleasure from another person happens without either their desire or understanding. The novel gives voice to a childhood trauma that is usually summarized in medical and legal jargon, well-intended language that unfortunately obscures what is most persistently destructive about the crime.

What Yglesias says about the purpose of those passages sounds much like Tania James’s notion of taking different perspectives in the piece above. The purpose of looking at something from another perspective is to try to understand someone else’s experience. His novel, Yglesias writes:

seeks to do what fiction does best: place the reader inside the consciousness of another, to live with three characters who have experienced what most people consider to be an unmentionable and unthinkable crime and who have struggled for decades to forget and regain control of their ability to feel pleasure.

He wrote the book to help both victims and the people who love them “better understand how to speak of the unmentionable, how to think about the unthinkable, and how to live in a present no longer haunted by the past.”

Stephen King to share writing tips in new short story collection

One of the best books about writing that I’ve ever read is Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, published in 2000. Now, the U.K.’s Guardian reports, King will publish a new work in the fall, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, that will feature 20 short stories plus introductions for each that will provide “‘autobiographical comments on when, why and how he came to write it’, as well as “‘the origins and motivation of each story.’”

Gore Vidal’s bitter feuds

As a Gore Vidal novel written under the pseudonym Cameron Kay is republished, here are some of the writer’s memorably bitter feuds, including with Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and William F Buckley

To call Gore Vidal, who died in 2012, a curmudgeon would be overly kind. Here you can read about the author’s colorful feuds, including that with the cult of Abraham Lincoln, about whom he once wrote, “Nothing that Shakespeare ever invented was to equal Lincoln’s invention of himself.”

Review: “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson

winesburgAnderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio
Original publication date: 1919
Rpt. New York: Random House, 1947

Sherwood Anderson’s masterpiece, Winesburg, Ohio, is a collection of 23 interrelated sketches—Anderson calls them “tales”—that portray life in a Midwestern town in the early years of the twentieth century. The unifying thread throughout is the coming-of-age story of George Willard, an 18-year-old news reporter who dreams of leaving the confines of his home town and making his way in the larger world as a writer.

The book is significant historically for its use of common speech to portray its characters, the common people of Winesburg Stylistically, Anderson influenced Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

The book is also significant historically for its place in the development of American realism and naturalism. Realism, which developed in France in the second half of the nineteenth century, emphasized the influence of social environment on characters. As realism developed, it shifted into naturalism, with an emphasis on impersonal social, economic, and biological forces on individuals. With its focus on the psychological and biological impulses of its characters, Anderson’s book illustrates the beginning of this shift. Here, for example, is the narrator’s description of Kate Swift in “The Teacher”:

Day by day as she worked in the schoolroom or walked in the streets, grief, hope, and desire fought within her. Behind a cold exterior the most extraordinary events transpired in her mind. (p. 191)

Most of the tales recount characters who have internal hungers and desires—ranging from pedophilia and God’s approval to fame, wealth, and human companionship—that they struggle to submerge in the belief that no one else harbors such secrets. For example, inn “Queer” Elmer Cowley, unable to make friends after moving to Winesburg, feels that he’s always strange or abnormal, somehow different from other people:

George Willard, he felt, belonged to the town, typified the town, represented in his person the spirit of thee town. Elmer Cowley could not have believed that George Willard had also his days of unhappiness, that vague hungers and secret unnamable desires visited also his mind. (p. 234)

Anderson’s use of such subject matter is more subdued than other authors of the same time period such as Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris.

Winesburg, Ohio opens with “The Book of the Grotesque,” which defines the term grotesque. In the beginning, when the world was young, there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. “Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts” (p. 4). All these truths were beautiful. Then people came along and snatched up the truths. “It was the truths that made the people grotesques… . The moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood” (p. 5).

In this tale an old writer contemplates “something inside him [that] was altogether young” (p. 2). “He imagined the young indescribable thing within himself was driving a long procession of figures before his eyes… . They were all grotesques” (p. 3). The old writer wrote a book about the grotesques but never published it. “It was the young thing inside him that saved the old man” (p. 5).

“Sophistication,” the second-to-last story in the collection, describes George Willard’s coming of age in similar terms:

In youth there are always two forces fighting in people. The warm unthinking little animal struggles against the thing that reflects and remembers, and the older, the more sophisticated thing had possession of George Willard. (p. 294)

Earlier, in “The Teacher,” Kate Swift, who had once been George Willard’s teacher, tries to explain to George “the difficulties he would have to face as a writer”:

“If you are to become a writer you’ll have to stop fooling with words … You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say” (p. 192)

Like the old writer whose tale opens the book, George must grow up while at the same time keeping the young thing inside him alive. To become a writer, he must learn to look beneath the surface of what people say to understand their inner thoughts and desires.

The tales throughout this book tell stories of human desires thwarted and human connections unrealized. The last thing that George Willard must learn as he leaves Winesburg to embark on his life as a writer is how to exist in such a world. In “Sophistication” George meets up with Helen White, a young woman he feels attracted to:

George Willard sat beside Helen White and felt very keenly his own insignificance in the scheme of existence… . the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same thought. “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,” was the substance of the thing felt. (pp. 295–296)

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Joan Didion Documentary by Griffin Dunne and Susanne Rostock — Kickstarter

We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live is the first and only documentary being made about Joan Didion. While her writing is fierce and exposed, Joan herself is an incredibly private person. We have the privilege to know Joan as a subject and also as a member of our family. Our director, Griffin Dunne, has known Joan his entire life. Joining Griffin as co-director is award-winning filmmaker, Susanne Rostock.

We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live traces the arc of Joan’s life through her own writings, and in her own voice. Our film will tell Joan’s story through passages she has chosen and will read aloud from her work, as her friends, family, colleagues and critics share their accounts of her remarkable life and writing.

via The Joan Didion Documentary by Griffin Dunne and Susanne Rostock — Kickstarter.

Gothic Elements in Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”

The Classics ClubGothic literature features characteristics such as magic, mystery, chivalry, horror, clanking chains, ghosts, and dark castles to create a spooky atmosphere rife with foreboding and possibility. Over time Gothic emphasis changed from reliance on these external trappings for their own sake to a focus on the inner workings of the human psyche that the Gothic atmosphere represents. Shirley Jackson’s deliciously creepy 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle demonstrates the power of the Gothic in the hands of a master craftsman.

Brief History of Gothic Literature

The first Gothic novel was Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), set in a medieval castle featuring dark stairways, mysterious rooms, trap doors, and underground passages. Between 1789 and 1797 Anne Radcliffe wrote five romances, the most famous being The Mysteries of Udolpho, that helped make the form popular. Radcliffe emphasized setting and story over character.

As the Gothic novel spread across Europe, it became the backdrop against which authors examined the relationship between humans and the supernatural, with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) perhaps the best known example. Gothicism also influenced other literary forms, particularly poetry of the romantic period in works by Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, and Keats. In the United States Charles Brockden Brown took up the form of the Gothic novel with Wieland (1798) and five subsequent romances.

Early Gothic novels focused on creating a spooky setting appropriate for a story of suspense, dread, foreboding, and, finally, terror. As Gothicism developed, it incorporated elements of the psychological that allowed a focus on character as well as on setting, as evident in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Still later works such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) employ literary devices that developed from the Gothic novel.

The British Library is currently presenting an exhibition entitled Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination:

Beginning with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Gothic literature challenged the moral certainties of the 18th century. By exploring the dark romance of the medieval past with its castles and abbeys, its wild landscapes and fascination with the supernatural, Gothic writers placed imagination firmly at the heart of their work – and our culture.

In a magazine article about the exhibition:

Lead curator of the exhibition, Tim Pye, says: “Gothic is one the most popular and influential modes of literature and I’m delighted that Terror and Wonder is celebrating its rich 250 year history. The exhibition features an amazingly wide range of material, from stunningly beautiful medieval artefacts to vinyl records from the early Goth music scene, so there is truly something for everyone”.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the CastleJackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Penguin Books, 1962

Mary Katherine, known as Merricat, Blackwood is the first-person narrator of the story. In the opening paragraph she tells us that she is 18 years old and that she lives with her sister Constance: “I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead” (p. 1).

This final sentence of the opening paragraph signals the story’s Gothic emphasis. Although Richard Plantagenet could be any one of several English noblemen, context suggests that Merricat is referring to England’s King Richard III (1452–1485), who is famously believed to have ordered the murder of his two young nephews in the Tower of London. The themes of murder and a family power struggle emerge from this reference. These themes and Merricat’s admitted fondness for a deadly mushroom sharpen our expectations and foreshadow the rest of the story.

Gradually the backstory emerges: Six years earlier the rest of the Blackwood family had died of arsenic poisoning during a family dinner. The dead included Mr. and Mrs. Blackwood (Constance and Merricat’s parents), the girls’ 10-year-old younger brother, and their aunt, whose husband, Uncle Julian, their father’s brother, became very ill but recovered. Uncle Julian was damaged both physically and mentally by his brush with death. Now wheelchair-bound, he lives with Merricat and Constance and is completely dependent on Constance, who takes care of him while her sister largely watches.

Merricat was not at the dinner table that fateful night because she was being punished by having to spend the night in her room without any dinner. That dinner included berries, on which the diners sprinkled sugar that had been laced with arsenic. Suspicion fell on Constance, who did not eat berries and therefore didn’t get sick. She was tried and acquitted of the murders.

This brief outline of the backstory illustrates Jackson’s use of Gothic elements. In addition to the emphasis on death and the sense of foreboding and further impending doom, there are also Gothic overtones in the characterization of Merricat. She goes into the village twice a week for supplies, mostly food and library books, because Constance is agoraphobic. But Merricat must make a game of the trip, with rules about where she should walk and how she should act: “I forced my hands to be still and made a rule for myself: Whenever I saw a tiny scrap of paper I was to remember to be kinder to Uncle Julian” (p. 16). In addition to all her rules for herself, Merricat also buries things around the family property for good luck and even tacks a book up on a tree as a protective talisman. Such actions are examples of magical thinking, the belief that thinking is the same as doing. Magical thinking is normal in young children, who believe that their thoughts and desires cause events that happen around them. But the persistence of magical thinking in the 18-year-old Merricat suggests a deranged mind, another common Gothic element.

Merricat also continues the belief, apparently learned from her parents, that the Blackwoods are better than the villagers and should maintain their distance to avoid contamination from the less worthy:

All of the village was of a piece, a time, and a style; it was as though the people needed the ugliness of the village, and fed on it… . whatever planned to be colorful lost its heart quickly in the village. The blight on the village never came from the Blackwoods; the villages belonged here and the village was the only proper place for them. (p. 8)

Mr. Blackwood put up a fence all around the property and fastened it with a padlock. Merricat makes a ritual out of unlocking and relocating the gate when she leaves the house and when she returns from the village. The Blackwoods’ geographical isolation reflects their feelings of superiority and their fear of the masses:

I always stood perfectly straight and stiff when the children came close, because I was afraid of them. I was afraid that they might touch me and the mothers would come at me like a flock of taloned hawks; that was always the picture I had in my mind—birds descending, striking, gashing with razor claws. (p. 10)

Merricat’s narration of her family’s isolation from the villages bleeds into another Gothic element of the story, its setting. The isolation of the large Blackwood house, fenced off from the everyday world and fortified by Merricat’s magic, fits right into the Gothic picture. Jackson also uses setting to call up another work of late Gothic literature:

The Rochester house was the loveliest in town and had once had a walnut-panelled library and a second-floor ballroom and a profusion of roses along the veranda; our mother had been born there and by rights it should have belonged to Constance. (p. 4)

The Rochester house alludes to Mr. Rochester’s huge house, with his deranged wife hidden upstairs, in Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre.

Gothic features continue as the plot of We Have Always Lived in the Castle unfolds. The precipitating crisis of the book occurs when Constance and Merricat’s cousin, Charles Blackwood, their father’s brother’s son, arrives to disturb the status quo of their existence. As the only remaining male heir, he intends to take over the family mansion and the family fortune. Merricat ratchets up her magic to protect her existence. When a fire breaks out at the house, the volunteer firefighters arrive to try to put it out. That is, after all, their job, even if they don’t like the Blackwoods, the fire chief insists. A truly macabre scene, suggestive of a Satanic ritual, develops as the townspeople implore the firefighters to let the house burn, then set to smashing and looting whatever the flames don’t destroy.

The fire obliterates the top floor of the house. Afterwards, Constance and Merricat continue to live in the small kitchen area while vines overgrow the top. Whereas Merricat had earlier spoken of their home as the house, now she describes it this way: “Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky” (p. 177). Finally, the story comes full circle as the house turns into the isolated, creepy castle characteristic of Gothic literature and all the foreboding of impending doom foreshadowed at the beginning comes to fruition.

 

© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown

Addendum

See also Happy 250th, Ann Radcliffe:

It’s 250 years since the publication of The Castle of Otranto, an anniversary prompting both a British Library exhibition (Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination) and a linked BBC Gothic season. It is Horace Walpole’s only novel that you see on entering the exhibition, and with which Andrew Graham-Dixon’s BBC4 series, The Art of Gothic: Britain’s Midnight Hour (which ends on3 November), began.

Another 250th anniversary, of Ann Radcliffe’s birth, goes unmentioned, an omission reflecting her curious marginalisation in both celebrations – “the great enchantress”, as Thomas De Quincey called her, does figure, but mainly as the hapless novelist (vapid and trashy, you infer) sent up in Northanger Abbey. For the British Library display, the problem looks to be the absence of a visual legacy, of Radcliffe manuscripts and film adaptations; for Graham-Dixon, it may be the absence of a penis. His blokeish version of early literary gothic consists of chaps like Walpole, William Bedford, Thomas Chatterton, Blake and De Quincey, with the equally colourful Mary Shelley as token woman, and their manly wrestlings with political and industrial revolution, masculine identity and urbanisation in turn influence the Victorians.

Monday Miscellany

INFOGRAPHIC: How Long Does It Take to Read Popular Books?

infographicFor visually oriented readers:

Ever wondered how long it takes to read The Great Gatsby (2.62 hours) compared to Atlas Shrugged (31.22 hours)? If so, you’ll like this infographic by Personal Creations.

William Golding Flies classic holds true 60 years on

It’s 60 years this month since the publication of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. To mark the anniversary his family are giving his literary archive on loan to the University of Exeter – including the very different original version of his famous tale of boys fending for themselves on a tropical island.

The BBC looks back at the significance of Lord of the Flies, originally published in September 1954 after rejections from 10 publishers and one literary agent. Golding’s daughter says that her father’s original title for the novel was “Strangers from Within.” An editor at Faber, the house that agreed to publish the novel, had Golding remove much material explicitly about the atomic war the children had survived. The editor also cut material about Simon to make him less a religious figure than in Golding’s manuscript.

Ms Carver [Golding’s daughter] believes the book has remained in demand for six decades for two main reasons.

”Firstly of course it’s so well written. But also it deals with moral questions which were current after World War Two and which I’m afraid are still relevant today.

Century-old Provo literary club holds its final meeting

A sad story about the demise of the Utah Sorosis women’s group:

The literary group, whose unusual name means aggregation, has been meeting since 1897, a year before the Provo Tabernacle (soon to be City Center Temple) was finished. After 117 years this was the farewell meeting of Utah Sorosis. The nearly 20 women who RSVP’d to Van Orman for the weekday luncheon at Provo’s La Jolla Groves did so with “sadness in your voices,” said Van Orman, age 65.

Group members who attended the luncheon that marked the group’s final meeting ranged in age from 60 to more than 90. Several of them said that they couldn’t get younger women to join to keep the group going.

The “serious intent” of the 18 charter members in 1897, all wives of university professors, was to work toward the highest development of its members through study and work.

Perhaps the group is a victim of changing times, now that women no longer need to join a special group in order to study and work.

9 Marquez e-books coming out in English

The Associated Press (AP) is reporting that Penguin Random House imprints Vintage Books and Vintage Espanol have announced the ebook publication on October 15 of English translations of several of Marquez’s works:

Besides “Love in the Time of Cholera,” the releases include the novella “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” and the memoir “Living to Tell the Tale.” Marquez’s classic novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is published in the U.S. by HarperCollins and remains unavailable as an English-language e-book.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982, died in April at age 87.