Annoying Encounters of the Literary Kind Tuesday, Nov 20 2012 

Let’s face it: when you read a lot, you’re going to meet some characters you love and others that you, well, don’t like so much. Sometimes you’re not supposed to like these characters; their irritating qualities are meant to prove a point or demonstrate the themes of the book. Then there are some characters that the author wanted you to like, but you just can’t. Here, I have compiled a list of some of the literary characters that have annoyed me the most—some of them were destined by their creators to annoy readers, while others just couldn’t convince me to like or care about them. Feel free to share your most annoying literary encounters in the comments!

Mrs. Bennet, Pride & Prejudice

There are worse, crueler parental figures in classic literature, but I’m not sure any of them are quite as annoying as Mrs. Bennet. She spends the entire novel whining about her “poor nerves” and obsessing over finding rich husbands for her daughters, all while being too stupid to realize she’s embarrassing said daughters and possibly scaring away potential suitors. To make matters worse, Mrs. Bennet also constantly indulges her youngest daughter Lydia, raising her to become an obnoxious, selfish young woman with no regard for her own family. Lydia could’ve easily gotten her mother’s spot on this list, but since her horrid behavior is largely her mother’s fault, Mrs. Bennet is the most annoying character in this novel.

Ashley Wilkes, Gone with the Wind

Southern gentleman Ashley Wilkes endures a lot of hardships over the course of Gone with the Wind, but don’t expect to feel all that sorry for him. Weak and indecisive, Ashley is barely able to cope with the realities of post-Civil War life and never stops being hopelessly impractical. Most famously (or infamously, if you prefer), he claims to return Scarlett O’Hara’s love for him but marries his cousin Melanie to fulfill his family’s expectations. He then spends the next twelve years being emotionally unfaithful to Melanie and leading Scarlett on about his feelings for her. What Scarlett ever saw in Ashley Wilkes, and why she obsessed over him for so many years, I will never, ever understand.

Daisy Buchanan, The Great Gatsby

I guess since Daisy Buchanan is meant to symbolize the American Dream’s failure to bring happiness to those who seek it, she was bound to be an annoying character. Still, when I read about the way she toys with Jay Gatbsy’s feelings and refuses to do anything the least bit unpleasant (from attending a funeral to paying attention to her own child), I wish I could reach through the pages and smack her in the face. There is more to life than fancy clothes, fancy houses, and fancy parties, but Daisy is too shallow and too lazy to look for any of it.

Percy Weasley, Harry Potter series

Uptight and arrogant, Percy Weasley is basically that know-it-all kid who made everyone else in the classroom roll their eyes all through their school years. After graduating from Hogwarts, he becomes so loyal to his new employer, the Ministry of Magic, that he severs ties with his own family when his father disagrees with the Ministry over the issue of Voldemort’s return. Despite this, he continues trying to boss his brothers around from afar. Although Percy eventually makes amends and reunites with his family, his love of authority and overestimation of his own intelligence will always make him one of the more irritating characters in the Harry Potter universe.

Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye

If Holden Caulfield were a real person, I would go out of my way to avoid him. While I understand that a lot of readers identify with Holden’s teenage angst, it troubles me that so many make him into their literary hero. He is a superficial hypocrite who judges everyone he meets and accuses them of being “phonies” without ever really getting to know any of them. I’m sure Holden’s judgmental nature and perpetual complaining are intended to make some sort of point, but that doesn’t make the character any less annoying. Anyone so unable to accept growing up and so unwilling to change his rude behavior shouldn’t be deemed a role model.

Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, Twilight series

Once I realized how shallow and abusive this blockbuster paranormal romance really was, I decided not to finish the series and stopped recommending it to people. Both characters lack personality, and their relationship seems to be based largely on Bella thinking Edward is gorgeous and Edward liking the way Bella smells. What is far more annoying, though, is that Bella gives up her individuality and her friendships in order to be with Edward, and her entire happiness revolves around him. Edward, meanwhile, is a controlling boyfriend whose treatment of Bella is stalker-like and emotionally abusive. It’s hard not to think that readers only let him get away with it because he’s described as being so good-looking. In my mind, this series is not a great love story, but a four-book public service announcement for the kind of relationship young people should learn to avoid.

Linton Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights

There are plenty of disturbing characters in Wuthering Heights (to this day, I’m not sure if I love the book because of these characters or in spite of them).  However, Linton Heathcliff, the son of Heathcliff and Isabella, outdoes everyone else in this novel when it comes to being downright annoying. Linton is a selfish, perpetually whiny young man so weak that he allows himself to be manipulated into marriage to Cathy Linton. He then proceeds to treat Cathy terribly, even though she (inexplicably) loves him. Linton is just as full of hatred as his infamous father, but isn’t nearly as interesting to analyze. For a literary character, that is simply unforgivable.

Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, The Scarlet Letter

Fool that I was, I kept hoping Reverend Dimmesdale would own up to his affair with Hester Prynne and accept Pearl as his daughter. Instead, he privately tortures and makes himself ill over his guilt, forcing Hester to face the scorn of the Puritan community alone and destroying any chance at happiness either of them might have had away from Boston. As is often the case in classic literature, Dimmesdale has to be annoying and a disappointment; otherwise, there would be no point to the story. Nevertheless, his failure to take responsibility for his actions is downright infuriating.

Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca

Mrs. Danvers is the housekeeper at Manderley, home of Maxim de Winter, and without a doubt the scariest entry on this list. She remains devoted to the late Rebecca de Winter and is determined to make the second Mrs. de Winter’s life a living hell. She becomes angry at any change Mrs. de Winter attempts to make to the house and does everything she can to ruin her employer’s new marriage. Mrs. Danvers’ obsessive loyalty to Rebecca’s memory is creepy enough, but when unsettling secrets begin to emerge about Rebecca, it becomes even more disturbing. I am not sure whether it’s better to think that Mrs. Danvers was fooled into loving Rebecca or if she admired her mistress because of her true nature, but either way, her rude, malicious behavior toward others deserves a swift slap in the face.

Lucy Snowe, Villette

Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is a brilliant, though not enjoyable, character study of a rather unlikeable character. Lucy Snowe is intelligent, but she is also repressed and narrow-minded. She refuses the reader access to her innermost feelings and showing contempt for anything that does not fit her worldview—the most prominent example being her disgust for Roman Catholicism and insistence that Protestantism is the only right way to God.  Again, considering the themes of the novel, Lucy is not really meant to be likeable, but her self-righteousness and secretive nature made it impossible to sympathize with her at all.

Is there anyone I missed? Do you disagree with my choices? Sound off in the comments or at @AnnasBookCorner on Twitter!



10 Reading Suggestions for the Twenty-Something Woman Thursday, Sep 27 2012 

Thanks to Twitter, today I came across this list of books every girl in her 20s should read. While it includes two novels I love (Pride and Prejudice and The Joy Luck Club), I was taken aback, as a woman in my 20s, at how many self-help books and “chick-lit” novels about shopping it included. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with reading such books, but I couldn’t help thinking that many reading women my age might be looking for something more substantial, which is why I was glad to find this list via Twitter soon afterward. Inspired, I decided to come up with my own list of books I think many twenty-something women would appreciate.

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

Despite the title, this is no dating self-help manual. Flannery O’Connor’s first collection of short stories explores a wide variety of uncomfortable themes, including violence, racism, greed, and religious faith. Even if you don’t agree with all of O’Connor’s conclusions, it’s impossible to ignore the difficult questions raised in her sparse yet powerful prose. She was a woman unafraid to write about the same disturbing characters, settings, and themes as men; A Good Man is Hard to Find and her other works demonstrate a talent that has frequently been overlooked in favor of male 20th century writers.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Set in the not-so-distant future, The Handmaid’s Tale is a frightening cautionary tale about what will happen if political freedom and women’s rights are lost to totalitarianism. Offred, once a woman with a job and a family to love, is separated from all she’s ever known and earned after an extreme group of theocrats overthrows the U.S. government. This is a call to action for women of all ages, but especially the young, to take seriously their safety, health, and freedom. You can read my recent review of this book here.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Set in late 20th and early 21st century Afghanistan, A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of Mariam and Laila, two very different women eventually married to the same abusive husband. Though unsure of each other at first, Mariam and Laila form a strong bond, setting in motion a heartbreaking but beautiful story of love, family, and sacrifice in the face of their society’s never-ending challenges. Beautifully written and strikingly relevant, this novel presents what is easily one of the most powerful friendships in contemporary literature.

Washington Square by Henry James

In 19th century New York City, rich but unsophisticated Catherine Sloper leads a lonely life under the thumb of a father who constantly berates her. She falls hopelessly in love with Morris Townsend, failing to see that he only wants to marry her for her family’s fortune. It’s not one of the most exciting novels you’ll ever read, but there is something very satisfying about Catherine’s journey away from insecurity and a need for male approval and toward a more independent life. Also be sure to check out The Heiress, the excellent 1949 film adaptation of the play based on Washington Square. It’s one of those rare cases where the movie is even better than the book.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

In the Old Testament, much is said about Jacob’s many sons, but there is only a brief and violent passage about Dinah, his only daughter. In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant crafts a story of Dinah’s life and gives voice to other women largely ignored in the Book of Genesis. These women form their own society within the one dominated by the men of their family, where they support one another through difficult times and defy many of the beliefs of their husbands, fathers, and brothers. This is a gorgeous and moving novel that brings a forgotten character to life and questions the restricted, simplistic view of women in the Bible.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

After marrying the wealthy widower Maxim de Winter following a brief courtship, the unnamed narrator returns with him to Manderley, his country estate. There, she immediately finds herself living in the shadow of Maxim’s first wife, the charming and beautiful Rebecca. Soon, the second Mrs. de Winter is also caught up in the mysteries and secrets of Manderley—and of what really happened to Rebecca. The romantic suspense is the main draw here, but Rebecca is also an exploration of the challenges a woman faces when married to a much more powerful man, as well as of the frustration of being compared to other women in beauty and sophistication.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Chances are you already read this classic in high school or perhaps college, but if it’s been a while, I encourage you to give it another read. I read it three times between eighth grade and college graduation and found something new and deeper in it every time. Jane herself is a sympathetic but flawed heroine, torn between her love for the brooding Mr. Rochester and the possibilities of a freer life away from him. Her life story is not only a legendary romantic melodrama, but also a powerful commentary on the place of women, orphans, and the poor in the early Victorian era. Whether you’re a student of literature or simply enjoy a great story, this one is worth a second, third, or even fourth look. (Bonus: read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys for a postcolonial take on Jane Eyre and a look at the shortcomings of the book’s 19th century feminism.)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

The lesser known of two novels by the least known Brontë sister, this book was considered coarse and controversial when it was first published in 1848. A feminist work in a time when feminism didn’t have a name, it tells the story of Helen, a woman abused by her alcoholic husband but strong enough to fight back for her own sake and for the well-being of her child. Though its questioning of Victorian social mores and English law horrified some critics at the time, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was revolutionary in its brutal honesty about marital abuse, and it remains relevant for women today.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

In Renaissance Florence, Alessandra Cecchi is fascinated with art and shows a talent for drawing. Unfortunately, her family disapproves of this interest and discourages her from pursuing it, eventually forcing her into an arranged marriage with a much older man. Despite this marriage and the turbulence in her city, Alessandra finds ways to explore her love of art and her attraction to a gifted painter employed by her family. It’s a lighter read than most on this list, but historical fiction fans will undoubtedly enjoy the incredible Renaissance detail, and it certainly provides an interesting story of a woman finding her place in a world where she’s told she doesn’t belong.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I’ll be the first to agree that this classic love story never gets old, but it’s not about getting your “happily ever after” through “sass and perseverance.” It’s about questioning the typical standards for women and marriage during Austen’s time, and about finding love through personal growth, forgiveness, and learning to be less judgmental. And please, when you’re finished with the book, skip the good-but-nothing-special 2005 film adaptation and go for the 1995 miniseries instead; it’s much longer but also much better and more faithful to the book. You can find more of my thoughts on Pride and Prejudice here.

Feel free to share some of your own reading suggestions below.

The Great American Novel: Is There Such A Thing? Wednesday, Sep 19 2012 

The idea of the Great American Novel dates back to 1868, when John William DeForest discussed the concept in an essay for The Nation (you can read part of the essay here).  DeForest defined the Great American Novel as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” After dismissing the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne as potential candidates, he named Harriet Beecher Stowe’s controversial 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the “nearest approach to the desired phenomenon,” but seemed discontent with that choice as well.

Over 140 years after DeForest’s essay, there is still no consensus on the Great American Novel, and new books enter the debate every decade. The potential Great American Novels I probably hear cited most often are Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but the list of contenders is quite possibly endless. Cases have been made for The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Beloved by Toni Morrison, among many others. Ask anyone of a literary mindset what they consider to be the Great American Novel, and they will most likely answer with the one they learned the most from, the one that they believe changed their lives, or even the one they simply enjoyed the most.

This brings me to the first issue I have with the Great American Novel: like every other art form, literature is subjective. All readers approach a book with differing points of view about genre, character, writing style, and what literature is generally meant to accomplish. What one reader sees as a beautifully written, insightful novel, another sees as a boring tome with irritating characters. I do not believe it is possible to name any piece of literature definitively as “the greatest” and transcendent of nearly all literary biases and arguments.

Even the concept itself could be considered subjective. Should the Great American Novel extol the virtues of the nation or expose its flaws? Should it celebrate or criticize the American Dream? Does such a novel have to define the American spirit and experience throughout the entirety of U.S. history, or does it just have to capture the atmosphere and issues of the time in which it was written?

These questions lead, finally, to the main reason I do not believe in the Great American Novel. America has changed a great deal since DeForest wrote his essay, but even in the 1860s, it was hardly a homogeneous society. Experience of America has always depended a great deal on race, gender, class, and where one lived. As the nation has become larger and more diverse, this has continued to be true. The contenders for the Great American Novel (at least the ones I have read) capture some aspect of U.S. history and the American experience very well. I found The Great Gatsby a brilliant portrait of the excesses of the 1920s and the frequent failure of wealth to bring true happiness, while The Grapes of Wrath offers heartbreaking insights into the financial and emotional strain of the Great Depression. Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird both explore racial themes and realities about growing up. These are all important novels, but not one can completely define America or its people by itself.

In a 2010 article for The Daily Beast, author Malcolm Jones wrote, “The authors who have caught America on paper best did it incrementally, not all at once. It’s the sum of Twain and Wharton and Faulkner that delivers their versions of America, not any single book.” This quote and the article make an excellent point; any writers who too self-consciously attempts to write the Great American Novel could ruin their own productivity, not to mention end up with a novel too bogged down with themes, characters, and plotlines to be coherent or meaningful to readers. Besides, America is such a diverse and complex place that its story has be told in increments by an equally diverse group of writers. No author and no book can say everything there is to say about America as a whole, or even about American in a particular time and place. Like literature itself, America is very subjective.

For as long as there is a United States of America and for as long as there are novels, I am sure the debate over the Great American Novel will continue. I am also sure that authors will continue to attempt writing it. Those aren’t necessarily bad things; the discussion is still interesting, and as an aspiring writer myself, I can understand an author wanting to take on that challenge. All that being said, I think there are so many great American novels (with plenty more to come) that we don’t really need one Great American Novel. Why single out one novel when there are so many important and incredible American stories to tell?

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?



The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain Friday, Jan 20 2012 

Despite taking four years of high school English and majoring in English in college, I had never read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn until recently. Having finally read this classic novel, I find myself categorizing it with several other “classics” I’ve read over the years: books whose significance I appreciate, but which I cannot say I actually enjoyed reading.

The novel is disjointed, and most of the subplots are just variations on the same basic storyline—Huck Finn gets involved in a sticky situation and manages to lie his way out of it, with varying degrees of difficulty. On the surface, the book felt more like an adventure story written for children than a serious novel worthy of the discussion and dissection it has received. I realize Mark Twain must have intended for the book to read somewhat haphazardly, but I found it tiresome after a very short time. I did not want reading this book to feel like a chore, but I was soon pushing myself to continue and finish it. While I liked the two central characters well enough, I found many aspects of the story irritating and dull, and I was relieved to be done with it.

However, while I cannot say that I liked The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I appreciate its significance to American literature, and its importance to understanding the era of American history in which it was written. This novel was one of the first in American literature to be written in the vernacular of the region where the action takes place, with a variety of dialects of Missouri and the Mississippi River region. Twain provides a vivid portrayal of the area where the novel takes place, one that teems with local color. It was one of the first novels to be so distinctively of a  particular region, and literary regionalism would become much more common in the decades after its publication. There is little doubt of the exact setting of Huckleberry Finn, and it is a story that could not take place anywhere else.

The main plot of the novel, which is much greater than the sum of its parts, revolves around runaway Huck Finn’s journey with a runaway slave named Jim and Huck’s efforts to help Jim keep his freedom.  As such, Huckleberry Finn has been thoroughly analyzed over the years for its treatment of race, racism, and slavery—and over one hundred years after its publication, there is still debate about what Twain intended to say about race, and whether the novel is prejudiced or not.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in the mid-1880s, twenty years after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. However, Twain sets the novel in a time when slavery still existed. By the 1880s, it was clear that the end of slavery had not done enough to improve blacks’ lot in life; especially in areas where slavery had once been the norm, they were still subject to an extremely low standard of living and terrible treatment at the hands of whites. I believe in this book, Twain wanted to draw parallels between life for blacks in the antebellum South and their lives after the Civil War. Through the character of Jim, who wants to be freed from slavery and to be reunited with his family, Twain challenged his white readers to realize that blacks deserved the same freedom whites had, and that the abolition of slavery hadn’t been enough to give them that equality. Jim is a man with hopes, fears, and dreams, not a nonentity who is meant to live enslaved on someone else’s land. Slavery here represents black life after abolition, and the harsh reality that little had changed by the 1880s.

However, while many readers believe that Huckleberry Finn is a condemnation of slavery and racism, others find the depiction of Jim to be racist. Jim is portrayed as extremely superstitious and rather unintelligent. I believe it is entirely legitimate to raise questions about Twain’s purpose in characterizing Jim the way he did. The novel is heavy on satire, so was he satirizing the stereotypes of blacks that were so prevalent in 19th century America, exaggerating them to make readers realize how foolish such perceptions were? Or did Twain not consider blacks equal to whites, but still believed they deserved better lives? It is always essential to remember that many abolitionists, including Abraham Lincoln, did not necessarily believe blacks and whites were equal. It would not be surprising if similar attitudes were still common in the 1880s; some whites would believe blacks should be treated better, but still subscribe to common prejudices. While I will not pretend to have any insights into the mind of Mark Twain, I do believe that satire was likely the purpose of this depiction, especially considering the strong presence of satire in Twain’s body of work. However, a sound understanding of American history has to leave open the possibility that there may still be at some traces of racism in Twain’s work, even if they weren’t necessarily conscious ones.

Disheartening as it may be to think that such an important and innovative American writer may not have been progressive enough to move beyond racism completely, it is important to remember that considering the racial situation in the United States in this era, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was still a forward thinking book for its time. Slavery had been illegal for less than a quarter of a century, and Jim Crow laws and violence against blacks were still considered perfectly acceptable. For a writer like Twain to question the justice of such racial inequality was still a bold move. While negative stereotypes are a significant part of Jim’s character, he is also shown to be a loving, good-hearted individual who takes better care of Huck Finn than Huck’s own father does. While Huck constantly questions the legality and morality of helping Jim escape to freedom throughout the novel, Twain clearly regards the moment Huck decides that he would rather “go to hell” than return Jim to slavery as one of important and admirable growth in Huck’s character. While it is certainly understandable to question some aspects of Twain’s approach to race in this novel, I do think that, ultimately, it is a decidedly anti-racist work.

There is much more that could be said about Huckleberry Finn, but since my interest in the novel focuses primarily on its discussion of race issues and understanding the book in the context of American history, I would like to conclude this review with a discussion of one of the most controversial aspects of the novel: the frequent use of the N-word. The presence of that infamous word has lead to many difficulties in teaching the book in literature classes, especially, I would guess, at the high school level. There has even been talk of eliminating it from at least some editions of Huckleberry Finn. While I understand the offensiveness of that word, I oppose removing it from any unabridged edition that is not adapted for children. I do not believe in sanitizing history, and I think that in order for the book to have its full impact, readers need to understand how commonly the N-word was once used. It was a word that, back in the 1880s and for decades afterwards, even “nice” people used in everyday conversation without giving it any thought. To eliminate the term from this book, or any other from the era, is to deny how commonplace—and often how casual—racism was for a huge part of American history.

So, while I did not find The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn enjoyable, and do not consider it the Great American Novel (I do not believe in that concept anyway—more on that some other time), I believe it is indeed one of the more important works in American literature. Anyone interested in literature, or in U.S. history, should read it, whether in school or independently. It may feel a bit like taking your medicine, but even if you do not particularly like the book, you will probably still benefit from reading it.

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë Sunday, Aug 14 2011 

Anne Brontë’s semi-autobiographical Agnes Grey is not what I expected from a novel by one of the Brontë sisters. It is a much simpler, less atmospheric novel than the other four I have read by these women, and in many instances feels more like a novel by Jane Austen, though I think it lacks Austen’s witty dialogue and clever observations.

Like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey revolves around a young woman employed as a governess, who later goes on to start a small school for girls. However, neither family that Agnes works for provides her with the same excitement that Jane finds at Thornfield with the brooding Mr. Rochester. Although Anne Brontë eventually provides a love interest for Agnes, the novel focuses primarily on the difficulties she finds in her work—obnoxious pupils, ignorant parents, the contempt with which the rich treat the lower classes, and the challenge of staying true to herself in a world where so much goes against her values.

This novel lacks the powerful gothic elements of the most famous Brontë novels, or even of the other lesser-known ones. The novel does offer some sharp, honest observations about life as a governess and especially about the selfishness and snobbery frequently found among the 19th century upper classes. Having worked as a governess herself, Anne Brontë, according to her sister Charlotte, believed that “none but those who had been in the position of governess could ever realize the dark side of ‘respectable’ human nature.” She is certainly not afraid to share some of her realizations with the reader, though having read plenty of other 19th century novels that dealt with social class issues, nothing I read in Agnes Grey shocked me. I also believe that this novel does not allow as excellent an opportunity for insights into gender, religion, and other social themes as other Brontë novels do, including Anne’s second and final novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. While it would probably be useful for anyone wanting to know more about 19th century governesses, I doubt Agnes Grey would hold up well against a substantial literary criticism.

Agnes Grey is shorter than the other Brontë novels I have read, but while it is a pleasant enough read, I found it rather slow. There is little passion or drama found here, and the protagonist does not change very much over the course of the novel. Her stories about her pupils and the trouble they cause her also get rather repetitive, and there is not much variety, creativity, or humor in how Anne Brontë tells them. I did not need quite so many reminders that the Bloomfield children were cruel and deceitful or that Rosalie Murray was materialistic and vain. There is nothing particularly wrong with the prose here, but there is not anything extraordinary about it either. As I mentioned earlier, the class conflict sometimes leads the novel to take on the feel of one of Jane Austen’s works, and it feels even more like Austen after Agnes meets and falls in love with Mr. Weston. However, Anne Brontë lacks Jane Austen’s gift for crafting witty prose and memorable characters, so it is a rather pale imitation. Funnily enough, though, Brontë also brings her novel to an uncharacteristically hasty conclusion—a habit I noticed in the three Austen novels I have read, and one that I cannot help but find a little annoying.

Agnes Grey is by no means a bad novel, and there is definitely value here for anyone interested in learning more about the lives of 19th century women. However, it is not as memorable as other works by the Brontës—even Villette, which I did not enjoy reading but found incredibly insightful and worthy of discussion. It is worthwhile for fans of the Brontës or 19th century literature in general, but do not expect to get as much out of it as you did other novels from the same era. 

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.