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

On Rereading “Anne of Green Gables”

Cover: Anne of Green GablesMontgomery, Lucy Maud. Anne of Green Gables
Original publication date: 1908

Like most young girl characters who appear in books written for girls, Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables functions for readers as a model of how to be a successful girl. These books communicate and reinforce to children the beliefs and behaviors that society deems appropriate for them to emulate. These messages may be submerged within a colorful narrative, but they are nonetheless there for youngsters unconsciously learning how to fit in and succeed in their world.

I know that I read Anne of Green Gables as a child, and I’m sure that I saw Anne as someone I should emulate. Also, Anne’s acquisition of a loving family is a theme that intrigued me throughout my own unhappy childhood. (I was fascinated at how all the Mouseketters managed to live with Jimmy and Uncle Roy in such harmony in their house on The Mickey Mouse Club.) Yet I don’t remember at all how I felt at the time about Anne or how I reacted to her story.

But on recently rereading the book, I felt a much greater affinity for Marilla than for Anne. This isn’t unreasonable, since now I resemble Marilla, not the young Anne. I was pleasantly surprised to discover how Montgomery includes in the book the growth of Marilla as much as the growth of Anne.

Early in Anne’s life at the Cuthbert farm (Chapter XI), Anne gives Marilla her opinion on the minister’s Sunday text and sermon:

It was a very long text. If I was a minister I’d pick the short, snappy ones. The sermon was awfully long, too. I suppose the minister had to match it to the text. I didn’t think he was a bit interesting. The trouble with him seems to be that he hasn’t enough imagination.

And here’s how Marilla reacts:

Marilla felt helplessly that all this should be sternly reproved, but she was hampered by the undeniable fact that some of the things Anne had said, especially about the minister’s sermons and Mr. Bell’s prayers, were what she herself had really thought deep down in her heart for years, but had never given expression to. It almost seemed to her that those secret, unuttered, critical thoughts had suddenly taken visible and accusing shape and form in the person of this outspoken morsel of neglected humanity.

Although Marilla secretly agrees with Anne, she has never had the gumption to say so. Marilla herself has been successfully socialized into what society considers proper behavior. However, Marilla at least can recognize the truth of what Anne says, even though she takes seriously her job of teaching Anne how to be polite.

Gradually Marilla softens toward Anne. When Anne hurts her ankle while playing at her friend Diana Barry’s house and Marilla sees Mr. Barry carrying Anne home (Chapter XXIII):

At that moment Marilla had a revelation. In the sudden stab of fear that pierced her very heart she realized what Anne had come to mean to her. She would have admitted that she liked Anne—nay, that she was very fond of Anne. But now she knew as she hurried wildly down the slope that Anne was dearer to her than anything else on earth.

Marilla begins to admit to herself her love for Anne, even though she doesn’t know how to express it:

The lesson of a love that should display itself easily in spoken word and open look was one Marilla could never learn. But she had learned to love this slim, gray-eyed girl with an affection all the deeper and stronger from its very undemonstrativeness. Her love made her afraid of being unduly indulgent, indeed. She had an uneasy feeling that it was rather sinful to set one’s heart so intensely on any human creature as she had set hers on Anne, and perhaps she performed a sort of unconscious penance for this by being stricter and more critical than if the girl had been less dear to her. Certainly Anne herself had no idea how Marilla loved her. (Chapter XXX)

When Anne grows taller and needs new clothes, Marilla laments her growing up:

Marilla felt a queer regret over Anne’s inches. The child she had learned to love had vanished somehow and here was this tall, serious-eyed girl of fifteen… Marilla loved the girl as much as she had loved the child, but she was conscious of a queer sorrowful sense of loss. (Chapter XXXI)

Later, Anne tells Marilla that she will always love her and Matthew:

Marilla would have given much just then to have possessed Anne’s power of putting her feelings into words; but nature and habit had willed it otherwise, and she could only put her arms close about her girl and hold her tenderly to her heart, wishing that she need never let her go. (Chapter XXXIV)

It isn’t until Matthew’s death near the end of the book that Marilla can finally tell Anne:

Oh, Anne, I know I’ve been kind of strict and harsh with you maybe—but you mustn’t think I didn’t love you as well as Matthew did, for all that. I want to tell you now when I can. It’s never been easy for me to say things out of my heart, but at times like this it’s easier. I love you as dear as if you were my own flesh and blood and you’ve been my joy and comfort ever since you came to Green Gables. (Chapter XXXVII)

By the end of the book, then, Marilla has learned not only how to love, but also how to express her love. Marilla and Anne both grow through their interaction with each other throughout the novel.

Review: “The Girl on the Train,” Paula Hawkins

Hawkins, Paula. The Girl on the Train
New York: Penguin Group, 2015
ISBN 978–1–59463–366–9

Cover: The Girl on the TrainRachel rides the same train every day on her commute to and from London, right past the street where she and her husband used to live. She’s still reeling with despair over the failure of her marriage two years earlier. Looking at their house, where her husband now lives with his new wife and their baby, is too painful, so Rachel concentrates on a house a bit down the street. Every day she observes the couple living there, a golden couple, as she thinks of them: happy and loving, comfortable with each other. Rachel fantasizes about the couple, whom she calls Jess and Jason, imagining their sophisticated careers and their perfect life together.

We learn early on that Rachel really is an emotional wreck. She’s still living in a college friend’s spare bedroom, where she crashed after the break-up of her marriage—just until she could find a place of her own. And she’s an alcoholic, a fall-down drunk subject to blackouts and lost memories. It’s no wonder she’s so obsessed with Jess and Jason’s perfect life. So when she sees something out of the ordinary going on in their back yard one day, she can’t keep herself from getting involved.

Rachel is the book’s main narrator, but there are also two other women whose viewpoint we occasionally see. As with most cases of multiple perspectives, discovering the truth requires the reader to triangulate the three narratives. The novel’s main theme is love and marriage, but equally important is the theme of control, over both one’s self and one’s life.

This book is often touted as a good read for fans of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which is the reason why I picked it up. Like Flynn’s novel, The Girl on the Train is a twisted love story. But it’s not nearly as tightly written or as compellingly crafted as Gone Girl. Rachel is so overdrawn that it’s hard to believe some of her outrageous actions, even given the circumstances of her life. The use of drunken blackouts and memories that tantalize and then retreat just out of reach is a convenient and common literary technique. And anyone who reads the book even half carefully will most likely figure out the catch well before the big revelation at the end.

Update

There’s an interesting article on Hawkins and The Girl on the Train here. Writer Alexandra Alter offers this insight into the runaway success of Hawkins’s novel:

American crime fiction travels easily abroad; the converse is less often true, unless the author happens to be a J. K. Rowling or a Lee Child. But “The Girl on the Train” may have benefited from a wave of popular and unconventional suspense novels that have eroded the already thin boundary between literary fiction and thrillers. Ms. Hawkins joins the ranks of a new generation of female suspense novelists — writers like Megan Abbott, Tana French, Harriet Lane and Gillian Flynn — who are redefining contemporary crime fiction with character-driven narratives that defy genre conventions. Their novels dig into social issues, feature complex women who aren’t purely victims or vixens, and create suspense with subtle psychological developments and shifts in relationships instead of procedural plot points and car chases.

Classics Club Spin #8: “Revolutionary Road”

Related Post:

rev roadYates, Richard. Revolutionary Road
Original publication date: 1961
Rpt. Random House, 2008
eISBN 978–0–307–45627–4

This novel is most often described as an anti-suburban tract, a condemnation of the life of conformity and veiled unhappiness that flourished in the U.S. after World War II. And it is that. But it’s also much more, because that vision is too simplistic. The serpent in the paradise where Frank and April Wheeler buy a house on Revolutionary Road arises from the geography of the human heart as much as from its suburban Connecticut location, where a serpent of cars continually moves along nearby Route 12.

Frank and April met in New York City, where they enjoyed a carefree life together while planning their ideal future. “According to their plan, which called for an eventual family of four, her first pregnancy came seven years too soon” (p. 65). To accommodate their altered lives, they found a starter home in a western Connecticut suburb, but the serpent has already entered their lives: “The gathering disorder of their lives might still be sorted out and made to fit these rooms, among these trees; and what if it did take time? Who could be frightened in as wide and bright, as clean and quiet a house as this?” (p. 41).

The novel begins in 1955, two years after the Wheelers’ move to the house on Revolutionary Road. Frank and April are both about to turn 30. They have the requisite two children: Jennifer, age 6, and Michael, age 4. Frank has a corporate office job that he hates and, like most men in his neighborhood, takes the train into Manhattan every morning while April stays home and cares for the children and the house.

In the novel’s opening vignette, Frank attends a community theater group performance in which April, who attended “one of the leading dramatic schools of New York” (p. 9), stars. When one of the male players becomes so nervous that he can’t go on and the female stage manager has to stand in for him, the performance falls apart. Even April can’t save it. The incident becomes a source of humiliation for April and foreshadows the collapse of their lives.

This theatrical failure is significant because both Frank’s and April’s lives are based on acting. Frank in particular is always posing as someone, assuming a particular persona. He spent his early twenties “wearing the proud mantles of ‘veteran’ and ‘intellectual’ as bravely as he wore his carefully aged tweed jacket and washed-out khakis” (p. 27). His face has “an unusual mobility: it was able to suggest wholly different personalities with each flickering change of expression” (p. 15). He performs life according to his own mental projections of how he should speak and act, as if seeing himself on stage or in a movie. After an afternoon assignation with a woman from the office, he wonders if he should apologize to her: “the very last thing in God’s world he wanted to do was apologize Did the swan apologize to Leda? Did an eagle apologize? Did a lion apologize? Hell, no” (p. 138). And April vacillates between a vague desire for something more satisfying from like than the role of the sensible middle-class housewife that she simultaneously works at projecting.

The serpent eating away at the Wheelers’ suburban lives is unfulfilled desire, the inability to make their everyday lives conform to their grand yet vague dreams of themselves. In his twenties Frank

“hardly ever entertained a doubt of his own exceptional merit. Weren’t the biographies of all great men filled with this same kind of youthful groping, this same kind of rebellion against their fathers and their fathers’ ways? He could even be grateful in a sense that he had no particular area of interest: in avoiding specific goals he had avoided specific limitations. For the time being the world, life itself, could be his chosen field” (p. 29).

After moving to the suburbs Frank continues to locate what’s wrong with the world in others, never in himself: “It’s all the idiots I ride with on the train every day. It’s a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares any more; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity” (p. 81). He never loses the sense of his own superiority:

“Intelligent, thinking people could take things like this in their stride, just as they took the larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstance might force you to live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were” (p. 27).

It’s April who comes up with a new plan to allow Frank to discover the as yet unarticulated self he dreams of becoming. They will move to Paris. She will get a secretarial job to support them and leave Frank free to find himself. Ironically, April sees her getting a job as a way both to free herself from her housewifely existence and to allow Frank to escape the drudgery of his job. But, like their earlier grand plans, this one, too, proves impossible.

In the end, suburbia is not the cause of their unhappiness but rather the place where it unfolds. There’s a remarkable ambivalence here, for who of us has not had bigger plans that we’ve been unable to fulfill. Between the imagined vision and its achievement snakes reality. We understand the Wheelers’ dreams at the same time as we foresee the inevitability of their downfall.

“Before I Go to Sleep,” S.J. Watson: We Are What We Remember

 

Related Post:

 

Before I Go to Sleep: A Novel
by S. J. Watson
HarperCollins, 2011
Kindle Edition

A woman awakens, wonders where she is, rolls over—and is shocked to see a middle-aged man wearing a wedding ring and with hairs on his back sleeping next to her. She stumbles into the bathroom, where the hand that grasps the soap doesn’t look like hers. When she looks into the mirror, a middle-aged woman she doesn’t recognize, 20 or 25 years too old to be herself, stares back at her in shock. Then the man from the bed comes into the bathroom. “I’m your husband, Ben,” he tells her, and explains that almost 20 years ago, at age 29, she had an accident that caused amnesia. Every morning he has to give her the same explanation, he says, because she loses each day’s memories when she goes to sleep at night.

The first-person narrator of these events is Christine Lucas, age 47. All she knows about her recent self is what Ben tells her before leaving for work; her own memories seem to end in her early 20s. Alone in the house and wondering what to do, she receives a phone call from a man who says that he is Dr. Nash, her doctor, and that they have been working on trying to improve her memory. She has no recollection of him but agrees to meet with him for coffee. Dr. Nash gives Christine a leather-bound book and tells her that she has been writing in as a possible way to stimulate her memory. Eager to learn something about herself, Christine opens the journal and finds three chilling words: DON’T TRUST BEN.

And so begins Christine’s journey to find out the truth about herself and her past. Each night, before going to sleep, she adds more information to the journal. Each morning Dr. Nash telephones to tell Christine to find the journal in her closet and read it. As she accumulates more information, she finds more questions than answers. And as vague snatches of memory start tantalizing her, her intuition not to trust Ben deepens.

Before I Go to Sleep is a mesmerizing page-turner, the kind that will keep the reader up all night. Who is Christine, really? What happened to cause her amnesia? And who is Ben, the man upon whom she is so dependent? Can she trust her intuition? And what will finally happen when her journal becomes too long for her to read anew every morning? The nature of the novel’s premise requires that the reader occasionally know more than Christine knows as she seeks answers to these questions, and Watson does a good job of inserting the necessary information while at the same time maintaining suspense.

Initially I read this novel on the level of the thriller that it is. But swirling just below the thriller’s surface are aspects of that most basic human question: Who am I? Christine’s drive to discover and reclaim her past is a quest for self-knowledge, for her own sense of identity: “All I want is to feel normal. To live like everybody else, with experience building on experience, each day shaping the next. I want to grow, to learn things, and from things” (p. 155). We need memories to give us a sense of the continuity of our existence. Without the knowledge of our own past, we cannot know who we are in the present. Christine realizes this as she stares at the journal containing the substance of her life: “But, I realized, these truths are all I have. They are my past. They are what makes me human. Without them, I am nothing. Nothing but an animal” (p. 160).

For Christine, finding out who she is involves rediscovering her past life experiences and the lessons she has learned from them. We all create a sense of our own identity by assembling memories of past events into a life narrative that demonstrates how we have become the person we are today. Only by reclaiming the story of her past life can Christine become a unique, independent individual. Christine realizes this near the end of the novel, when she has learned the truth about herself and her husband: “And I will tell him about this journal, that finally I am able to give myself a narrative, a life, and I will show it to him, if he asks to see it. And then I can continue to use it, to tell my story, my autobiography. To create myself from nothing” (p. 274).

This review originally appeared on Metapsychology Online Reviews.

© 2011 by Mary Daniels Brown

Monday Miscellany

Cover: The Golden Thread

Book review: “The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing,” by Ewan Clayton

Anyone who loves books will be interested in this book, which tells the story of typography:

Writing matters, says Ewan Clayton, calligrapher, former monk, design and media professor and visual consultant to Xerox in Palo Alto, Calif., the folks who made the first networked home computer. Not just who cut the typeface, not just the letters and words. But the manner in which over the millennia we’ve inscribed, carved, painted, brushed, printed and now text them. Writing tells us how we inhabit our world, how we move through it and interact with each other.

Bring the literary giants of the great war to life

Thanks to Project Gutenberg and Oxford University’s poetry archive, the literature of the first world war has never been more accessible

As the 100th anniversary of the start of the first world war approaches, many texts—including a few novels, “memoirs galore, and literary curiosities including propaganda by Arthur Conan Doyle”—are entering the public domain and becoming freely available.

The cold equations of ethics

On the University of Oxford blog Practical Ethics, Anders Sandberg considers an article by science fiction author Cory Doctorow about a couple of stories that feature ethical dilemmas:

By imposing the right boundary conditions an author can make even extreme behaviour moral. This makes for good stories, but they are not teaching us how to think well about the future since they depend on a contrived situation. Maybe such contrived situations could occur, but real situations have far less coherent contexts and hence make the moral issues far more non-trivial. Since well written stories are salient and memorable, we often use them as examples when reasoning about the real world… despite the risk of their conclusions being arbitrarily prescribed.

My own favourite example of this kind of induction of conclusions is Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, which is often used as an argument that cognitive enhancement will not be good for people. However, the reason the protagonist suffers is that he and the world is written that way. While it makes for a good story it doesn’t help us think much about the nature of intelligence enhancement despite apparently giving us an argument.

This suggests that writers trying to be moral should do their best to refrain from overly constraining their fictional worlds in order to tell stories that actually help us think about acting morally in the real world.

Sandberg’s point that an overly contrived story that can lead to only one solution does not really help us learn to think ethically is an important one, since it’s easy to be taken in by such a literary work.

And be sure to look at Doctorow’s article, which Sandberg links to in his introduction.

10 Authors from Georgia You Should Read Now

Paste Magazine introduces its 50 States Project with a list of “10 contemporary authors from Georgia who are contributing to the evolving landscape of Southern literature.”

I’m embarrassed and ashamed to say that I haven’t heard of any of these authors. It’s time to expand my reading list.

What’s It Like Reading ‘Peyton Place’ Today?

This week, Thomas Mallon and Anna Holmes discuss what it’s like reading “Peyton Place” today, 50 years after the death of its author, Grace Metalious.

Opposite views of what this historic salient novel, whose title has become part of the common parlance, offers today’s readers.