My first Thomas Hardy novel was simply fantastic. Emotionally poignant but also socially resonant, Tess of the D’Ubervilles provides an intriguing story about Victorian social and sexual hypocrisy through characters with clear flaws to recognize and appreciate. And yet, although it was clearly a commentary on the social structures and sexual morality in Victorian England, Hardy never once lectured or made his novel about those issues. At first and last glance, the book is a tender one about one poor woman and those who associate with her.
Note: this post contains spoilers for the entire novel.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing in Tender is the Night (published 1934) is impressive. He writes complex sentences with incredible fluidity and rich vocabulary. This seems to give each sentence, each paragraph, and therefore each page a sense of life. Reading Fitzgerald is an exercise in appreciating the complexities and the beauties of the English language. Since I listened to part of the book on audio, I found that as I slowed down my reading, I better appreciated his writing.
However, to be completely honest (because this blog is a record of my honest impressions of what I’m reading), I finished reading Tender is the Night and thought, “Well, what was the point of that?” Even after discussing the book for more than an hour with my book group, I feel no closer to understanding. Although the writing is delicious and satisfying, the characters he creates are nearly unbearable. The story is billed as his most autobiographical, and it is a deeply psychological novel, with occasional action to drive the characters’ inner development.
Tender is the Night is the story of one man’s downfall from greatness into self-absorption, as he loses the drive and the ability to succeed. My problem was that I never felt like Dick Diver was the fantastic man others believed him to be. I felt that he fell from a rather short distance: he just didn’t realize how mediocre he was from the beginning. My book group all seemed to disagree, however. Whether or not Dick was a fallen hero, though, Dick’s story failed to move me to empathy. I wonder what I missed that may have allowed me to really delve in to this classic.
Edna Pontellier is a 29-year-old mother of two in late nineteenth century Louisiana. As befits a woman in her station, she has maids to clean, cooks to prepare her food, and a nanny to care for her young ones. As Kate Chopin’s novella The Awakening (published 1889) begins, she is spending her summer vacation at a lake, where she begins to see her husband’s treatment of her, her pointless “proper” behavior, and especially her own sexual identity in a new light. For the first time, she recognizes herself as more than the superficial image her era dictates her to be. As she develops a friendship with a young man, Robert, Edna becomes awakened to her own limitless possibilities for self-determination.
At once both a feminist tale and a sexual awakening story, The Awakening delves into the complex emotions of a woman searching for herself. Edna searches for ever-elusive happiness, and when society fails to meet her in her newly discovered self, she abandons the social mores and traditions for her self. Although The Awakening is short, I found it to be an intriguing look into society of the late nineteenth century American middle class, as well as a story that may unfortunately be all too resonant to women today. (more…)
In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (published 1814), Fanny Price was the oldest daughter of a poor family, sent at age 10 to live with her generous and wealthy Bertram cousins. Yet, in the lovely Mansfield Park, Fanny was constantly reminded of her lesser status and spent her days for the most part assisting the lazy women of the home in their daily monotony.
As the years pass, Fanny found a friend in her cousin Edmund, to whom she was able to express her frustrations and opinions, although her other three cousins have little patience with “simple minded” Fanny. Edmund knew Fanny, though, and this friendship kept her going. But when her cousins, including Edmund, began courting some of the visitors to Mansfield area, Fanny found herself face to face with impropriety in a society that demanded moral uprightness. She had to decide when she would take a stand and when she would remain silent, all the while considering her own future happiness and her “lesser” status among the wealthy Bertrams and their associates. (more…)
In Jessie Redmon Fauset’s second published novel, Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral (published 1928), one woman struggles to finding her own identity racially and sexually in New York City during the vibrant years of the Harlem Renaissance.
Artist Angela Murray is a light-skinned “coloured” woman in the transitional years of the late 1910s and 1920s. When she gets an opportunity, she leaves her home town in Philadelphia for a life of “passing” as a white person in New York City. The novel follows her subsequent life and choices, creating a complex portrait of her life in an era of conflicting identities. She struggles with her role as a woman, with her choices as a sexually free individual, and also with her challenges to come to terms with her race in a time of both intense racial discrimination and racial contentment in Harlem.
In many ways, Plum Bun reminded me of Nella Larsen’s contemporary novella, Passing (published 1929; thoughts here), in which Irene, another light-skinned woman who occasionally “passed” for white, struggled with her repressed sexuality and her racial identity when she met one of her long-past friends, Clare, who had married a racist white man and always “passed.”
Plum Bun deals with similar issues, but the narrative focuses rather intensely on Angela herself, who is much younger than Nella Larsen’s middle-aged women. Angela’s story is a coming-of-age story, and in many ways I found it more satisfying as a whole because of the intense emotional components developed in the novel as Angela and her sister and their friends aged and experienced the consequences of their choices. Plum Bun is a wonderfully written and developed story that sits solidly in the historical context of the Harlem Renaissance but remains highly relevant to readers today.