Sunday, June 03, 2007

brit lit

About two months ago, I decided that I was burning through Terry Pratchett too quickly, and that the stories were starting to blur together. Also, there is a limit to how many times I can watch Rincewind run away in terror and still find it humorous. So I decided to "improve myself" by reading a few classics: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.

Brief reviews from my middle-brow perspective.

The Canterbury Tales: a mixed lot of pompous and raucous stories. The stodgy, respectable stories got a bit dull and excessive after a while, while the racy ones were amusing. I found the Wife of Bath to be anti-climactic after years of having heard her built up. But times change, and these days she's wouldn't be considered so rebellious or novel. I enjoyed the overt depictions of corruption in the clergy. Then there's the tale about Griselda, the woman who suffered in silence while her lord and husband hid her children from her for twenty years, pretending that they had been killed. Um, bad role model. Repulsive story.

Basically a mixed bag. A good view on medieval life in England.

Great Expecations: I had seen the modernization of this story with Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Robert deNiro, so I knew roughly what was going to happen. I also watched the recent Masterpiece Theater version of Bleak House at roughly the same time. My previous expose to Dickens had been restricted to A Christmas Carol, which is just a silly fantasy, and A Tale of Two Cities, which wasn't very compelling to a 14-year old. Let's just say that Great Expectations the book was much better than I was hoping for. I'd thought of Dickens as being just an author of serialized stories about the poor in London in the 19th century, but he does quite a bit more than that. His ability to define all the class distinctions in England is masterful, but he also is very good at drawing characters.

And that brings us to Wuthering Heights. Like many people of my generation, my first exposure to this song was from the Kate Bush song. (Ohmigod this video is priceless! Kate Bush makes Elaine Benes look like a controlled, restrained dancer in comparison.)

I've always loved this song, but I wonder how I would have felt if I'd seen the video a long time ago.

A few years later I saw the film with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. That was quite tedious! My first inkling that perhaps Olivier was overrated.

Anyway, the book was reasonably good, and I can see why people like it so much. It's hard for me to do this, but it's important not to view it through a realist's lens. I'm very tempted to dismiss Wuthering Heights as "a lot of emotional misfits get sick and die". Certainly Brontë doesn't show the variety of human experience that Dickens does. But I can also see why this story became iconic for Romantics. There's a lot of stuff going on in this story, even though the writing isn't as polished as it might be.

I was really stunned to read the entire history of the Brontë's. Wow. They all died young - out of a family of six, not one made it to the age of 40!


whispers said...

Whispers at literary criticism: "a lot of stuff was going on".


Peter Mc said...

Great Expectations has one of the all-time great marriage proposals: 'Barkis is willin'

Chiaroscuro said...

I urge you to reconsider "A Christmas Carol." Dickens might have been writing about Bush and the ghastly religious right when he wrote:

"There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit [of Christmas Present], “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us."