The Scarlet Letter (#81)

In all honesty, this isn’t my first time attempting to read The Scarlet Letter. I last picked it up a year or two ago, and called it quits a few pages into Nathaniel Hawthorne’s introduction. In the spirit of full disclosure, after getting a little further into the introduction this time, I again gave up on it and skipped forward to the first chapter without much hope for what it could hold. I was very pleasantly surprised! Once Hawthorne’s writing style was able to purpose itself to characters and plot I was much more engaged and enjoyed it quite a lot. Perhaps one of my favorite things about this book relative to others that I’ve read is that it was written in such a way as to leave the characters open to so many different interpretations. Hawthorne left the ending somewhat open ended, which is not uncommon in novels, but I was left thinking about the characters long after; I’m still not sure I’ve settled on an understanding of what role each character played or what they represented in the grander scheme of things.

I’ll begin with a quick summary, as per usual. The novel opens with our introduction to the scarlet letter and the woman who wears it, Hester Prynne. The letter A over her heart is meant to shame her in the eyes of her fellow Puritan townspeople for her sin of adultery, which has also left her with a daughter – Pearl. Her husband only enters the town in time to see her shamed on the scaffold, and chooses to take on the false identity of a physician by the name of Roger Chillingworth in order to avoid shame himself, and to seek out revenge on the other unknown adulterer. The story then skips forward by a few years, and we are introduced to Pearl not as an infant but as a young child. She is described as “impish” and often referred to by the town people as being demon offspring because she seems to have no real moral code so far as it pertains to the strict Puritan religion. Hester loves Pearl dearly but also believes that she was sent by God to remind her every day of her sin, partly because Pearl is enchanted by the A worn by Hester and constantly points it out or asks questions about it. The townspeople actually try to take Pearl away from Hester, and Hester pleads to minister Arthur Dimmesdale to convince everyone to allow them to stay together, which he does. Hester continues to do charitable work with her incredible talent as a seamstress, and eventually becomes a very benevolent and respected figure in the eyes of her neighbors. The story now shifts slightly to focus on Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, who becomes his physician when the young minister becomes increasingly ill. Though the townspeople and minister himself believe the physician to be a great friend, the reader is able to see that he is in fact only concerned with discovering the secret that torments Dimmesdale, which Chillingworth believes is linked to Hester. In fact he turns out to be right – the young minister is Pearl’s father. Keeping this secret, along with the effects of the physicians influence, have led Dimmesdale’s health to greatly deteriorate until he finds himself atop the shameful scaffold at night trying to punish himself for his sin. Hester and Pearl encounter him in this moment, and the ever perceptive Pearl from then on asks her mother why the minister always has his hand over his heart, and how that is connected to the A her mother wears. In an attempt to flee from the evil in Chillingworth’s heart, Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the forest (which is rumored to be the devil’s playground of sorts) and plan to leave together by boat. Pearl throws a fit when her mother tries to remove the A she wears, and this forces Hester to put it it back on in order to be recognized by her daughter. The day before they are meant to leave, Dimmesdale preaches his greatest sermon but having mentally devolved somewhat in addition to his physical weakness, impulsively decides to mount the scaffold once more and confess his sins to all the townspeople. He then reveals a scarlet A seared into his chest (much to the dismay of Chillingworth who claims this is the only way they could escape his wrath), and dies upon the scaffold.

I think one of the most interesting things about this book was that I wasn’t completely sure who the “main” character was. That is, at first I thought the story was about Hester, then about Pearl, then about Dimmesdale, and so on. Which actually is an interesting tendency I’m now reflecting upon – to want one character to focus upon. The conclusion I have tentatively come to, however, is that the book truly is about its namesake, the scarlet letter. This A is a part of every primary character in some way – Hester wears it, it appears on Dimmesdale’s chest, and Pearl embodies it. And the story itself is about how this A has impacted each life, or rather how the sin it represents taken different shape in each person.

I was fascinated by the transformations Hester and Dimmesdale undergo in the course of the book. Hester begins at her lowest point. She is shamed by everyone she knows and outcast from society. She wears her sin upon her breast through a symbol and carries it in her arms in the form of her daughter. However, through all the work that she does to try and make up for her sin via kind acts, she becomes loved and respected by all. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, begins the book revered by all the townspeople. He is seen as the epitome of good works and faith. He keeps his sin a secret, which he claims is to better suffer without relief, and this becomes evidenced in his physical ailment. Though at the end of the novel he is still seen as an incredible minister, it is undeniable that he is also perceived as weak, and in his confession he taints the opinion many had of him. So Hester and Dimmesdale seem to be foils of one another, with the former admitting to and repenting for her sin and being transformed for the positive, and the latter denying it and dying as a result.

As interesting as Hester and Dimmesdale were, Pearl still captured my attention like no other character. I really looked forward to the sections of the book where she was mentioned; while all of the other adult characters were governed by their strict religious beliefs, it really wasn’t clear what Pearl was governed by beyond her own impulses. Her characterization as a child was really excellent – the way she asked questions incessantly and chased sunlight and challenged authority seemed very reflective of the children I’ve encountered in my life. As I mentioned, she is herself the scarlet A which brands Hester. What I think is peculiar about that is the immense beauty she has as a result. Her dresses are all stunning to match her, and this “indescribable charm of beauty” is what actually offends the Puritan townspeople. Is that because since her very existence is based in shame, she is supposed to be ugly as sin? So the fact that God created a beautiful child as the result of sin challenges the belief that all sins and shames are disgusting at all times. The same goes with Hester, though she is an adulteress she is also extremely talented and creates beautiful things, speaking once more to the fact that not all sin and moral code can be black and white, and people can do “bad” things and also “good” things without the two being mutually exclusive. To return to Pearl, I think she serves as a sort of reflection of consciousness. She was raised outside of the framework of Puritan society which gives all the other children strict religious be and so Pearl is free to see the ministers guilty action of shielding his heart with his hand without bias, and serves to give Hester purpose in continuing to do good deeds.

Overall I really enjoyed this novel. The vivid characterization carried the story rather than a plot that was handed to the reader, instead we got to choose how to see things. For example, we can believe that there was an A on the ministers chest or not, much like the narrator who found the A and has crafted his own story to explain it. But it also pushes us to think critically about moral frameworks, and the power of truth versus the power of belief. Hawthorne’s novel provided some fascinating insight into the human condition, and there seems to be one core idea that he was trying to convey, that has so resonated with those who read his book.

Knowers know that we ought to remember to view people as multidimensional figures, and to likewise be receptive to exceptions to our beliefs.

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Emma (#65)

And so we shoot up the list for a book in the top 100, one I have long wanted to read: Emma, by Jane Austen. I really enjoyed it. It was everything that I felt was missing from The Breakfast of Champions in my reflection on it – it had a stable plot with characters I could get invested in and it was of a romantic genre which I simply enjoy more than a science fiction one. I knew from my reading of Pride and Prejudice that I also quite enjoy the free indirect discourse which is a cornerstone of Austen’s writing, and so reading the book was a very pleasant experience for me.

I was first and foremost intrigued by Austen’s claim that she is “going to make a heroine whom no one but [herself] will much like.” Emma Woodhouse is described at the opening of the novel as “handsome, clever, and rich,” but has an incredibly rich characterization that goes far beyond those three terms. Her being an unlikable heroine made her a much more dynamic and realistic character than those featured in other romance novels as the reader is able to see the more negative aspects of her personality, but still feel favorably towards her because they can see the positive ones as well. They can understand her more completely than for other characters as they get both the plot line of her actions and the thoughts she has as well.

To give as succinct a summary as I can, the plot is driven by Emma’s belief that she is a wonderful matchmaker. She doesn’t want a husband of her own as her father is ill and she is determined not to leave his home during the remainder of his lifetime. Instead, she befriends Harriet Smith, a young woman of questionable lineage, and determines to assimilate her into the high society to which Emma belongs by way of her friendship/mentorship, and a very well-to-do husband. She convinces Harriet to reject the proposal of Robert Martin (someone who she cared for and who was well within her class) and instead set her sights on Mr. Elton. Emma believes that she has orchestrated a good match and that Mr. Elton is to propose to Harriet, only to be shocked at his proposal to herself instead. She rejects him but the proposal breaks Harriet’s heart (and then continues causing her pain as the woman he soon marries is vicious to her), yet Harriet is so devoted to Emma that their friendship remains strong. Next enters Frank Churchill into the picture, an extremely rich young man Emma’s age who is the stepson of Emma’s dear friend and former governess Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston. They become friends and are quite flirtatious, though for a period of time Emma believes herself to love him, she decides this is not the case and is happy to discover that Harriet has actually fallen for him – Emma tries to keep herself from actively matchmaking this time, but still strongly encourages Harriet to pursue her unnamed love. Now a man who has been in the novel from the very beginning is Mr. Knightley, her brother-in-law. He is 17 years her elder and has always been a good friend to her, many times serving as her moral compass and guiding her to be a kinder individual as he seems to be the only person capable of noticing her flaws and inclined to point out their existence to her. The plot thickens once more: Churchill reveals a secret engagement he’s had with Jane Fairfax, a woman who Emma didn’t much like and was unknowingly hurting through her flirtatious relationship which occasionally targeted Jane as the object of a joke. Everyone in the town is concerned about Emma, but Emma is concerned about Harriet being hurt, only to realize Harriet never loved Churchill, but rather meant Knightley to be the object of her affection! This tragic miscommunication leads Emma to realizing that she could not bear Knightley and Harriet being together because she was actually in love with him – good thing for Emma, he was in love with her too! Her joy is bittersweet, however, as she has to once more break the news to Harriet that the man she is in love with as encouraged by Emma, actually loves Emma instead – this time their friendship cannot quite survive the news. Emma is also faced with a dilemma, she cannot marry Knightley and leave her father (and to her credit, she never does even consider doing so for more than a moment, and never does). Luckily Knightley is incredibly understanding and already thought of this, and gives up his home to move in with Emma and Mr. Woodhouse. And Harriet too gets her happy ending, marrying Mr. Martin who she rejected so long ago at Emma’s insistence. Happy endings all around.

Unfortunately that summary which I tried to keep as to the point as possible still lasted ages, but the novel was certainly not at a loss for content. To be honest, I rather liked Emma. I certainly disliked her obsession with social class and the fact that she tried to act as a puppeteer of relationships without much consideration for the fact that she may be wrong and hurt someone, she is without doubt headstrong to a fault, and her folly may be that she is blind to her existence as a character who can be influenced or considered by other characters, but rather sees herself as an influence alone. But I am incredibly sympathetic to the fact that her intentions were almost always good ones. She genuinely believed that Harriet underestimated herself and would be happiest by her side in the upper class, and truly only saw the men as potential suitors who were interested in her friend and not in Emma herself. Further, she was truly attentive to Knightley’s criticisms and always felt genuine guilt when becoming aware of her wrongdoing.

Something I really enjoyed in this book outside of the characters themselves and their abilities to seemingly come alive on the page (like Miss Bates and her droning on and on), was the fact that Austen really managed to transport me to another era. Here I was, accustomed to the free and thoughtless speech of the 21st century, and feminism, and less rigid class formalities, suddenly beside Emma 200 years ago. Something as simply as referring to Mr. Knightley only as “Knightley” was seen as unfathomably rude, and being polite in any and every situation was required. Emma, however, was quite a progressive female character, all things considered. Because of her wealth she did not need to consume herself with worries of finding a husband and is quite independent as compared to the other women whose young lives were focused on developing skills like playing instruments in order to attract a wealthy man. It was refreshing that Emma was a character who truly had a lot of wit and spunk to her, but these qualities were certainly the products of the privilege she had in being born into such high society with a guaranteed large inheritance. She was allowed the freedom to have these qualities because the primary constraints of being a woman who is beautiful and elegant and proper were already satisfied by her birthright.

I am a little bit critical at this day and age of the love story presented by Austen both in Emma and similarly in Pride and Prejudice. This seemingly classic story of the woman falling for a man (the only man) who is critical of her, after spending the large majority of the novel presenting a romantic attachment between the two as unthinkable. The happy ending of all loose ends being tied up: Harriet still marrying the kind man who proposed to her so long ago and who she brutally rejected, Emma getting to marry the richest man in town without having to compromise on her values of staying with her father and without any effort of courtship of her own, even Churchill being forgiven by both Emma and Jane for his actions during the unseemly secret engagement so far below his class and getting happily married regardless. A perfect fairy tale by any account. Moreover such because even in spite of every criticism, this novel has remained such a classic and so highly acclaimed since its publishing in the early 1800’s. So there must be something there, something that people across generations can connect to. So what do Jane Austen and her greatest proponents, the Knowers in question, know that has so touched thousands, perhaps millions, of lives?

Knowers know that we must be willing, and eager, to at times suspend our belief or rationality to allow instead for a trust in the fantasies of love, and passion, and a good story.

The Breakfast of Champions (#473)

So, I began writing this just as I finished the last word of The Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut, and then sat for about five minutes just at a bit of a loss. I’d certainly say that I can’t remember the last book that left me with such a feeling of being unsettled. That’s not to say I feel disturbed by the book, or shaken up, I simply feel a bit bothered, or perturbed. Here is how I read most books: I devour them. Once I start the first word I can’t put the book down until I’ve read the last, unless I absolutely must stop to eat, or sleep. And to be clear that doesn’t just apply to incredibly well written books, but truly any book, even one that I can’t really connect with or don’t particularly enjoy the plot line, I always need to get to the end. That end, in these books, is typically immensely satisfying (be it because I feel some closure in the plot, or because I’m just glad to be done with it, or anywhere between). Here is how I read this book: with many pauses, as if my brain was coming up for air, punctuated with the emotional equivalent of a shrug alongside the last word. In a bit of a daze, would be an apt description for how I feel.

The best way I can summarize the plot line of this book is to say that it is a story about two old men and their journeys until their meeting. The first man, Kilgore Trout, is a pulp science fiction author, and has “doodley-squat” to his name. The second, Dwayne Hoover, is full of “bad chemicals” and yet “fabulously well-to-do.” When they eventually meet, Dwayne is deranged enough to believe that one of Kilgore’s books contains the secrets of life. This book happens to be written as a letter from the Creator of the Universe to the only non-machine free willed person in the Universe. Dwayne then processes this information by attacking many people who he believes to be robots. To be clear, the meeting of the two men occurs roughly 80% of the way into the book. The rest of the novel describes the two men’s lives thus far, as well as a whole bunch of everything else. From very in depth descriptions of characters who play extremely minimal roles to seemingly random asides defining and illustrating terms like apple, and infinity, Vonnegut spares no detail (including many about his own life, going so far as to insert himself into his own book as an omniscient character rather than narrator).

Now, to be candid, I admit that I haven’t read a single other Vonnegut book, which likely contributed to my confusion during the reading of The Breakfast of Champions, which contains references to characters from Vonnegut’s previous books. I’ll also say, if you haven’t quite picked up on it, that I tend on the less favorable side of the like/dislike divide when it comes to how I feel about this as a fictional piece. I found the most engaging character to be the author, and I felt like I couldn’t relax into a story line because there were too many things happening at once, going back and forth and sideways. It simply isn’t my style. However, and this is a big however, I can see how this book can be ranked in the top 500 of the millions of existing books which are up for consideration as being the greatest books ever written. I didn’t like the book as a story; I respect the book and the author for being able to impart some wisdom nonetheless.

I think that the main plot of this novel, of the two men meeting and the chaos that follows, is simply a vessel for a greater message. Before I go on, I’d like to recognize that yes, this is technically true of all novels, but I ask that you bear with me. What I mean to say is that the journey these characters embarked on to get to the climax of the novel was no odyssey. Further, I think there is little to no significance in the fact that these two characters in particular met, or that they met the way they did, or in what occurred after they met. I would argue that it has as much or as little significance as any of the countless summaries of Kilgore’s books strewn throughout the novel. I mean to say that the shape of the story did not have a critical impact on the message being delivered. As I type those words I can hear dozens of English teachers in my past shouting “everything the author writes has significance!” This is true, Vonnegut chose his words and his vessel very carefully, I’m sure. But I think he wrote his book in such a way that everything has simultaneously both infinite and negligible significance. After all, he said as much himself.

Vonnegut, or Philboyd Studge, as he refers to himself in the preface, claims that he sets out with the goal of “[clearing his] head of all the junk in there” for his 50th birthday, as if this will be the last novel he writes (though it wasn’t), and so he wants to get every accumulated bit of writing out of himself. Essentially, this book is a comparable to someone going up into the attic and dredging up some old boxes of stuff with the intent of finding something, though they might only have a vague idea of what, and as a result sitting for hours exclaiming at every tidbit which appears as if it is of great importance. If that comparison didn’t strike your fancy, another would be that this book is like someone shopping at their own garage sale of ideas. And yet, we see Vonnegut, or Studge, say that his own life has been changed by one of his minor characters, who likens every human’s awareness to an unwavering band of light (rather than to some meat machine conglomerate of rubber bits and chemicals, as Vonnegut had thus far been taken to doing).

This is what I do appreciate about the way in which the novel is written: it is true to the idea that each and every thing in it has significance to it. A band of unwavering light, perhaps. I struggle to think of a character that was only mentioned once, without being later reconnected to another through some bizarre relation, or without a thorough description of some seemingly random feature of that person’s existence. At one point in this novel, Vonnegut says that he “[resolves] to shun storytelling. [He] would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out” in an effort to allow others, the readers, to make sense of it all. To go back to some earlier points I made, this is why I think the actual main plot line is somewhat meaningless, and why I was left with a dislike of a story that wasn’t at all the main feature of the book.

So, what are the ideas that do hold meaning in this novel? The idea that at the end of the day we are all equal as random compositions of chemicals (or metal), that the black robots were exactly alike the white ones, that everyone is subject to life as determined by chemicals outside of their control (and as such are equally susceptible to the bad chemicals taking over). We as readers are led to question free will and its frailty in the face of these bad chemicals, or the creator of the universe, or the author, or even other characters. And Vonnegut even manages to criticize the socioeconomic cruelties he observes in the American world, as well as the environmental ones. So really, The Breakfast of Champions is full of social criticisms and commentary, sprinkled throughout pages filled with seemingly random asides, strange science fiction stories housed in porn magazines, and the occasional illustration of an asshole.

Having written all of this and spent a few days and reflected a bit more on the novel, here’s the valuable lesson I learned from Vonnegut: I shouldn’t expect the plot line to deliver the “so what” of the story to me. The author has no obligation towards his reader to find a greater meaning in the world and then mold it into an easily digestible quaint little story. Rather, Vonnegut took the opinions he accumulated over the years and presented the reader his own perspective on the world. As he embedded himself in his own novel, we were shown the characters and the world through the eyes of the creator of this particular universe. He pointed us towards the things which stood out to him, and doesn’t try to force feed us some moral to accept. It is my responsibility as the reader to take these facts and the perspective they were presented through, and decide for myself what I think it all means. Not at all a bad lesson to take with me as I continue on this book reading journey of mine. So what is it that Vonnegut has led me to believe that Knowers know?

Knowers know that we must take care to remember that the world exists not only as we see it, but as others do as well, and that it is up to us to bring order to the chaos.

Fahrenheit 451 (#242)

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, is the first book I decided to read and respond to as part of this journey. Not even in the top 100, as ranked by the Greatest Books list, it may seem like an odd choice to start off – enough of a “classic” to be recognizable by name, but the name doesn’t carry as much weight as Don Quixote, or War and Peace, or the Odyssey. So why choose it? I had actually been struck by an image I saw of the cover of the book, which includes a match in place of the “1” in the title, and a spine of gritty striking material like along the side of a matchbook. A book complete with the materials necessary to destroy it. That certainly caught my attention (a match which struck my interest, so to speak), wouldn’t it catch yours?

Personally, I can’t bear the thought of damaging a book. Every since childhood, even the thought of something as seemingly straight forward as writing my name inside the cover of a book I owned would horrify me, let alone bending in the corners to mark my place, or God forbid writing in the margins or taking a highlighter to the page. I’ve always associated the word “book” with words like “pristine” or “perfect;” to say I find them sacred wouldn’t be a stretch. Now, I wouldn’t say that after reading Fahrenheit 451 I’m prepared to set the book ablaze and watch it turn to ash (I actually cringe at the mere idea of it). I will, however, gladly report that reading the book led me to quite a bit of reflection regarding why I feel this way about the perfect preservation of books, and what that instinct is actually geared towards protecting.

Fahrenheit 451 is “the temperature at which book-paper catches fire, and burns,” as revealed to the reader on the very first page. Set in a 24th century wartime, it follows Guy Montag, a fireman whose job is not to put out fires, but set them. To books, specifically. The rationale behind the banning of literature in this society and the burning of any which is found rests on the idea that books and their teachings allow for disagreement, and by eliminating them a government can eliminate conflict. Guy Montag initially subscribes to this philosophy without question, but as the book progresses he finds himself increasingly repulsed by the lack of purpose or joy or life in those who surround him, like his wife who relies on television to be her family, and increasingly drawn towards the forbidden poems and prose within the very books he’s tasked with burning. He eventually acquires a collection of books, which are burned at the hand of another fireman, who he then murders, culminating in his being the subject of a nation-wide manhunt. He does manage to escape and find companionship among fellow outlaws who were forced to leave lives as career intellectuals, where he is introduced to the idea that each man is also the text which he remembers reading. That is, they each embody a book, or an author. All three are one and the same, and so the books can live on through those that read them and lived to tell the tale.

To say that this book got me thinking would be an understatement, and I’m not sure where I should start, so I suppose I’ll start anywhere and go from there. Firstly, if the premise of the burning of these books is to avoid conflict, isn’t it ironic that the society the novel is set in is overcome with children murdering other children for amusement, and war? It would be more accurately described as censorship in an attempt to avoid conflict against the government, but I think that the fact that the majority of characters in the novel are unable to see this and truly accept the fact that books are evil speaks to how effective the removal of these great books actually was. They removed from these people the critical thinking tools that would allow them to see the injustice taking place. They were fed lies about books and war and told to accept them as fact, and pummeled with pleasant media until they were content enough to not want for anything more.

This brings me to my second stream of thought: is this what “make America great again” would entail? Trump’s ideal America, where unbecoming news is flagged as fake, disagreeing facts as alternative, science as fabricated, citizens as insignificant and expendable, dissent as threatening. An America where the general public would choose ignorance as bliss, and lose their humanity to the point of reporting even your loved ones for the sake of an entertaining show, and to ensure that they themselves aren’t targeted. If the banning of books can do that, what is it that books contain without which we lose our humanity, and perhaps further our sense of life?

And so I’ve arrived back to what I started to discuss, what it is that this novel has left me with. As I’d mentioned, something about books has always seemed sacred to me, as if marring the surface would somehow destroy the integrity of the book, and lessen its value. This novel led me to recognize and then challenge that notion, particularly in the final pages. Perhaps the real value of a book lies instead in what it is able to teach you, or even just the fact that it is able to critically engage your mind, while the physical medium through which this is achieved is irrelevant. The ending of Fahrenheit 451 actually lends itself particularly well to the question I’ve set out to answer – what is it that Knowers know? In the novel, the “Knowers” were those who were able to keep a piece of a book with them in memory, because they sought out knowledge in spite of danger. They knew that the benefit of this preservation of knowledge far outweighed the risk and suffering involved, because this knowledge from these books is what gives people their humanity, and their freedom.

Knowers know that the value of literature lies its ability to bring freedom of thought to those who seek it.

The Greatest Books Journey

For centuries, human minds have debated every subject imaginable. We study mathematics and sciences, philosophies and religions, hoping to find… something. Answers, perhaps. Or the path to happiness, or peace. We look within ourselves hoping to find something beyond ourselves. Unfortunately, this introspection rarely leaves us at the same conclusion as others, leading to conflict spanning from the age old questions of ethics, to the more modern debates over how to address climate change, or poverty. I’d like to think, though, that even within this world consisting of questions that only lead to more questions, there must exist some higher truths to be found. How else are we to explain thoughts and ideas that resonate with people not only across the world but also across the eras? Writing has the power to leave a person feeling enlightened, or uplifted, or repulsed, or afraid, or simply ravenous for more. Each piece of writing touches each person differently, and I think it is worthwhile to see how the same works that have touched millions of other lives can touch mine. So I set out on my journey to read the greatest books from the greatest minds, in the hopes that maybe I will be left with the something that I’m looking for, even if I don’t yet know what it is.

What is that something? What is it that Knowers know?