Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen Monday, Jul 30 2012 

 

In what may seem like an odd paradox to some, I am not a particularly big fan of Jane Austen but consider Pride and Prejudice one of my favorite books. While it has one or two of the same flaws I’ve found in the other two Austen novels I’ve read (Emma and Sense and Sensibility being the books, and an overly quick ending after a rather slow-paced story being the big flaw), I think Pride and Prejudice is where Austen’s strengths are best displayed, making it her most intelligent and entertaining work.

Even in the novels I didn’t enjoy as much, I have always been impressed with Jane Austen’s characters, and the leads in Pride and Prejudice are probably her best. Elizabeth Bennet is my favorite literary character and easily one of the most important women in fiction. Though not exactly radical or rebellious by today’s standards, Elizabeth refuses to conform to all the expectations of a young woman in the Regency period. She is determined to marry for love (a relatively rare and new concept at that time) rather than settle for a marriage of financial convenience, and she is unafraid to show her intelligence and independent way of thinking, even in front of those who disapprove.  Charming and witty, she stands out among all the other women around her, including much wealthier ones. Unlike many of the other characters in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth is willing to acknowledge her own flaws—namely, judging people too quickly and too harshly—and makes an effort to overcome them.

Then, of course, there is the handsome and wealthy Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, who has become one of literature’s most beloved romantic heroes. That status is hard to understand when the reader first encounters Mr. Darcy; he appears aloof, judgmental, and snobbish. Even when he first falls in love with and proposes to Elizabeth, he obsesses over the difference in social status between them, which only worsens the tension between them. However, like Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy is willing to admit that he is wrong and let his pride get in the way of better judgment, and he makes amends. Eventually, Elizabeth visits Pemberley, Darcy’s beautiful country estate, and gets to see who Mr. Darcy really is: an honest, generous man who cares deeply for his family and friends. As if that were not enough, he also defies his wealthy aunt in continuing to pursue Elizabeth, demonstrating that he no longer considers class difference such a barrier to true love. By the end of the novel, it is clear why Mr. Darcy has become a sex symbol for bookworms like myself (though Colin Firth’s iconic portrayal of Darcy in the 1995 BBC miniseries probably also has something to do with that).

Like her popular heroine, Jane Austen wasn’t especially radical or rebellious—by 21st century standards anyway—in writing Pride and Prejudice. However, through her distinctive characters and endlessly clever dialogue, she gently criticized the conventions of her day regarding wealth, class, love, and marriage. Even if Pride and Prejudice did not shatter the ideas of the late 18th and early 19th centuries when it was first published, it does reflect the changes in practice and attitude beginning around that time. Jane Austen must have been supportive of such changes; the novel clearly suggests that difference in social status should not be a barrier to love, and that marriage should be more about love than convenience or money. Although humorous in its own way, Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with marrying her daughters off to wealthier men highlights the unfairness of the era’s inheritance laws and the precarious financial position of women. Less funny, of course, is the marriage of Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte to the Bennets’ irritating cousin Mr. Collins. Charlotte does not appear particularly enamored with her new husband, but has little other choice if she is to have a secure future.

The presentation of such ideas in Pride and Prejudice suggests a very early form of feminism on Jane Austen’s part. While she still presents marriage as an ideal to which women should aspire, her most famous novel expresses a belief that a woman should marry a man she loves, not a man her family or society demands that she marry. While Mr. Darcy is certainly a wealthy man who will provide Elizabeth with security and a wonderful lifestyle, Elizabeth marries him for love. She follows her heart, and in the process she too defies Darcy’s pretentious aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and frees herself from the annoying, ill-fated machinations of her mother.

Although Pride and Prejudice has something of a fairy tale ending, with the marriages of Darcy and Elizabeth and Jane and Mr. Bingley, the journey to that happy conclusion has more depth than the average fairy tale. Darcy and Elizabeth each make mistakes and are very harsh toward one another earlier in the novel, and it takes a great deal of learning about themselves and each other to improve their relationship, and to finally come around to forgiveness, friendship, and love. Jane and Bingley’s story doesn’t have the same level of depth or coverage in the novel, but the two still deal with separation, disappointment, and misunderstanding. They manage to move beyond all that to realize they still love each other and want to marry. Couples who must overcome obstacles in order to find lasting love and happiness have become commonplace—even cliché—in the romance genre, including in romantic comedies, but I cannot think of any other book or movie that has ever done such a story so well.

There is much more that could be discussed about how love, class, family, and environment in Pride and Prejudice and the impact they all have on the characters’ lives. While I do love the novel for its sharp look at the conventions of its time and the literary discussions and questions it inspires, what makes it one of my favorite books is the wonderfully written love story between two wonderfully written characters. That love story is exactly what has given the book such wide and lasting popularity (it was first published almost two hundred years ago!) and has made its numerous film adaptations so successful. Elizabeth Bennet is still one of the greatest heroines of all time; her wit, intelligence, and insight set her apart from many other fictional women, even contemporary ones.  There is something refreshing, even now, about such a smart woman getting a happy ending and a central role in a romance, rather than just being the clever but secondary character in such a story. And while Edward Cullen and Christian Grey may be getting more attention among readers right now, it is doubtful that either will have the lasting power of Mr. Darcy, who impresses readers not just with good looks, but with a willingness to change and an unshakable love for his family, his friends, and the woman he wants to marry. What could be more romantic than two such great people living happily ever after?

 

 

Reflections on Harry Potter Tuesday, Jul 19 2011 

Like much of the world, this past weekend I went to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. The movie was absolutely fantastic—emotional, exciting, and visually stunning. It was exactly the kind of movie I had hoped would bring this great series to an end. The film also got me thinking about what Harry Potter has meant to me since I read the first book in 2000, and I’d like to talk a bit about that now.

Harry Potter didn’t make me love reading; I loved to read long before I ever heard of these books. It didn’t get me interested in other fantasy fiction. I read each of the seven books only once and don’t remember many of the details as well as some other fans do. I never attended a book release or a midnight showing of a new movie, let alone dress up as one of the characters for such an event. Harry Potter didn’t change my life and was never really a central part of it. Nevertheless, the series is still special to me for all the entertainment it provided for the past eleven years.

The universe J.K. Rowling created, full of rich details, suspense, and humor, is one that I always enjoyed visiting. I loved how intricate the magic was and how much Hogwarts students had to learn. The wizarding world proved to be as complicated and full of drama and politics as the real world, and just as gripping, if not more so. I can still remember being so absorbed in the final chapters of several of the books that I couldn’t even move from my chair until I finished reading. Harry’s showdown with Voldemort in the Chamber of Secrets, the Dark Lord’s return to power at the end of the Triwizard Tournament, and, especially the Battle of Hogwarts were all especially captivating and suspenseful for me. On the lighter side of this universe, I always loved that the portraits talked and moved and even left their frames to visit other portraits, that Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans really did come in every flavor (including a few you wouldn’t want to think about…), and that the Weasley twins always knew the perfect prank or joke for every situation. The Harry Potter books could certainly be very dark, especially later in the series, but it’s things like these that I remember most fondly about the books, and they still make me smile.

While I don’t think I’d go so far as to say that I “grew up” with the Harry Potter characters, I always liked that J.K. Rowling made them relatable and gave them many of the same problems that adolescents face in the real world, from unrequited crushes to fights with friends to the obsessive drive to be a brilliant student.  Harry, Ron, and Hermione could sometimes be irritating, and they didn’t always get along perfectly, but I never stopped rooting for them or their friendship. I found Luna Lovegood hilarious and appreciated that Rowling made her deeper than her eccentric behavior and beliefs. But I think the Hogwarts student I came to love most was Neville Longbottom, who started off as awkward and fearful as could be, but grew up to be a brave and loyal friend who played a critical role in protecting his classmates and bringing down Voldemort once and for all. Then there are the teachers and staff at Hogwarts, especially the now iconic Professor Snape, who is easily one of the most complex characters ever included in a series written for children. The characters, though not all as well-developed as I would have liked, never seemed remote to me; they reminded me a lot of myself and people I knew, except that, well, they could perform a lot more magic than anyone I ever met.

What I appreciate most about Harry Potter as I look back, though, isn’t simply reading the books and watching the movies. It’s the memories my friends and I have from being fans of the series. Harry Potter led to so many jokes and discussions among my friends that I couldn’t possibly name them all here. We spent a lunchtime trying to match our high school teachers with the Hogwarts professors they were most like. We debated our favorite characters and which of the books and movies were the best—or worst. At one birthday party we sampled some of the candy based on the series, though I don’t remember what conclusion we came to about it now. We imagined what it would be like to go to Hogwarts and joked about transferring there when frustrated or bored with our classes in the real world. Sometimes we even mused over which male characters were the cutest, though as I recall, I never really thought of any of them that way. There was always a lot of spirited conversation and laughter when the subject of Harry Potter came up, and our shared enjoyment of the series was a wonderful addition to the camaraderie we already had. I’m still hoping to get to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter down in Orlando with a few friends someday; I can’t even begin to imagine how much fun that could be.

There’s been a lot of analysis of Harry Potter over the years, just as there usually is with any book series or any successful entertainment franchise. People have accused the books of promoting witchcraft, debated their literary merits, drawn parallels between the Death Eaters and Nazi Germany, suggested other symbolism, and talked about the moral lessons that one could glean from them. The controversies and commentary on the book are interesting and worthy of discussion. But ultimately, I think what matters most about these books is that they were entertaining. While I already loved to read by the time I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in fifth grade, I know that Rowling’s powerful imagination and her ability to mix humor and suspense are what got many children interested in reading. The books were not only fun, but also a major turning point in their lives; reading was no longer a chore to them, but something they enjoyed and of which they wanted more. For me, the series was simply a joy to read and, for the most part, to watch. It was a fun experience to share with friends and gave me a lot of great memories. I hope Harry Potter will continue to entertain both children and adults for generations to come, and that they will get as much out of it as I did—and maybe even more.

Wuthering Heights: The Strange, Twisted, Brilliant Novel that Changed My Life Sunday, Jul 10 2011 

Wuthering Heights is one of those classics that tends to elicit strong reactions in those who read it. Thanks to a cast of unsettling characters, an uncomfortable Gothic setting, and the obsessive, amoral love story at its core, Emily Brontë’s only novel is one that fascinates some readers while simultaneously boring or infuriating others. Even fans of other works by the Brontë sisters are divided on Wuthering Heights; some love it as much as or more than Jane Eyre, while others vehemently insist that Charlotte Brontë’s novel is far better written and far more enjoyable.

Having read Wuthering Heights in both high school and college, I consider it not only my favorite book, but also one that changed my life. Reading it in English class during my sophomore year of high school opened my mind to so much about literature. I came to realize just how complicated literary characters could be, how setting can reflect plot and themes, and how much more interesting a book can be when there is no clear hero and little distinction between the good and the bad. While some readers have decried the twisted love story between Catherine and Heathcliff and especially Heathcliff’s bitter vengeance on Catherine’s relatives and their descendants, I was instantly enthralled with the strange relationships between the characters, the way Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange reflected the lives of their residents, and the themes we discussed in class. Simply put, Wuthering Heights was the novel that made me want to study literature like never before and lead to my decision to major in English in college.

Toward the end of my college career, I once again found myself reading Wuthering Heights for an English class. While I was excited to read it again, I also wondered if I would love Brontë’s novel as much as I had several years beforehand. I was thrilled to find that after several years of honing my critical thinking skills and learning more about literature, Wuthering Heights was better than ever. I had the chance to explore fully Heathcliff’s racial difference from those around him and its potential implications for the novel, as well as what may have inspired Brontë to include a Roma character. The brilliance of the structure of Wuthering Heights became clear to me; there is a reason, and perhaps even multiple reasons, for its framing, story-within-a-story format. With a deeper, more complex reading of the novel, its themes became more powerful and its plot more disturbing. While I had read and discussed plenty of other books between my first reading of Wuthering Heights and my second, seeing the novel again through sharper eyes made me remember exactly why I had chosen my major, and just how rewarding the study of literature could be.

I believe that the things that cause many to dislike Wuthering Heights are exactly the things that I love about it. Centering a novel on a mysterious, bitter individual such as Heathcliff provokes questions that would be impossible with a more likable main character. Especially after my second reading of the book, I found myself simultaneously despising and pitying Heathcliff, as well as finding much more to discuss and analyze about him than I would have a more conventional, romantic hero. As for the love story between Heathcliff and Catherine, I think it might shock some readers to find out that it isn’t the beautiful romance they often expect from literature, or that they had been told was part of Wuthering Heights (the 1939 film adaptation, which excludes the second half of the novel, has shaped many people’s image of what the book is really like). I’ll admit that I was initially a bit taken aback myself at the bizarre, obsessive nature of their relationship. I had not expected their passion to be so destructive and unchanging, especially in the years after Catherine’s death. However, their love story, if it can indeed be called that, is now a large part of what keeps Wuthering Heights so vibrant in my mind. It is a relationship in which both parties are entirely obsessed with one another, yet completely selfish. Their passion ruins others’ happiness and continues to do so for years after one of the lovers has died. The relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff is unlike any other I’ve encountered in literature, and it too inspires discussions that would never happen with a more typical love story.

I could go on forever about Wuthering Heights from a number of perspectives, but I won’t. I doubt that my praises here will change many minds, but for me, this will always be an extremely fascinating and special book—one that changed my life and my outlook on literature forever. Feel free to leave a comment about what you love or hate about this legendary novel, and how it has affected you.