Monday, November 8, 2010

November's books

#7, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1860) and #8, House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)

A two-fer. That's what happens when you (meaning me) miss a day!



Great Expectations is my favorite Dickens novel. I don't think people read Dickens much anymore, although it used to be like the Bible in a way--everyone had their favorite Dickens, their favorite character. But those are "old school" days even I didn't live in, more like Louisa May Alcott (maybe that's where I get it from!).

However: the story of Pip and his expectations is my favorite. I first read it in, yes, a college English class in my freshman year. And again in my senior year. Like Scout Finch, Pip's narration of events matures as he does: his view of people around him, morality, life, and the complexities of th human heart becomes more adult, although Pip remains judgmental, quick to impulse, and foolish. How could I not love him?

It is a complex book about love, revenge, loyalty, friendship, debts, and guilt. The love story--if there is one--between Pip and Estella is al-most a sidetrip, although Dickens finally chose to have it be the destination of the book (not his original plan). I read it again a few years ago, and enjoyed the novel as much as I did when I was 18, and 21... which was a while ago.

The House of Mirth was Edith Wharton's breakthrough novel. Writing it, having it published opned a door into the next, and greatest, stage of her life. This novel was the basis also for the first full-length play I ever wrote, because reading this book and then researching Wharton's life were powerful forces in my own development as a writer and as a woman.



It is also a journey novel, and like Great Expectations, picaresque in structure. The second novel is the story of Lily Bart a beautiful but poor girl with ambitions to marry well. Unfortunately, early in the nvoel her unconscious morality is awakened, slightly, by her encounter with Lawerence Selden, a poor lawyer living on the fringes of the "super-rich" society in turn-of-the-century New York City.

I don't know that anyone reads this any more, but it is a true feminist novel, not interested in waving a screaming banner but in exposing the double standards, the falsehood, the complicity, and the careless cruelty of our patriarchal society, wherein money equals power. The searing honesty of Wharton's view comes of course from her life within this very society and possibly from the freedom her inherited money provided. Sigh. And, hurrah!

She went on to leave her husband, write many more novels, and live in France for the rest of her life, among artists and friends. During WWI she worked for the refugees and the displaced, staying in France during the entire war. I admire her, but this book defnitely changed me, at a cellular level the way all great art should. it is a fearless book that must have cost her friends and acquaintances, must have made her change her life. I believe it made me change mine-for the better.

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