Wednesday 27 February 2019

Reader Morality

* Spoiler alert – this post discusses Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, The Phantom of the Opera, and American Psycho and you may find some parts to spoil the plot *

Last year I finally got round to reading Rebecca, and although it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, it is a book that inspires debate. The final quarter is by far the most engaging section of the novel as Rebecca’s murder and true character are revealed. Of course, Maxim’s depiction of her may well be skewed – their marriage did not end well and he’s unlikely to admit to murder in the same breath as praising his deceased wife. There are hints from other characters that suggest she was not as perfect as others would have the new Mrs de Winter to believe. Assuming that we believe Maxim’s tale, does this justify the reader in rooting for him to get away with it? Does the fact we know it’s fiction lessen the moral dilemma? I would argue that we are more accepting of extreme behaviour within the confines of fiction, and yet it can help us to see the world in less black and white simplicity.

The point of view of the narrator will play a large part in our reaction to events. We have witnessed the story unfold through the eyes of Maxim’s new bride and although she is not particularly likable and seems self-centred to the extreme when discovering the sticky end of Rebecca and feeling only relief that she no longer has to live in her shadow. Yet, because we have never met Rebecca except through the reminiscences of other characters, it is easier to side with Maxim. We experience the events through the loving eyes of his new wife and so it is her desire for evading the law that is projected on to the reader.

Often it is either the narrator’s voice that sways us as readers or the knowledge of mistreatment that has led to their otherwise unforgivable actions. Take Heathcliff for example; he behaves abominably through large chunks of Wuthering Heights and yet generations of fans hold him up as a romantic hero or misunderstood man. Popular adaptations lean heavily toward this interpretation, cutting many of his wicked deeds, yet many readings of the novel are also often reluctant to condemn him. Why? Is it because we see his mistreatment at the hands of Hindley and abandonment by Cathy and hold on to the sympathy this evokes? Regardless of this, can we really justify his abuse of the next generation who have done him no harm? Is it fair to look the other way because of childhood trauma? Would we feel the same way if it were real life?

Similarly in The Phantom of the Opera we are led to feel pity for the Phantom. Again, popular adaptations downplay his villainy, but even in the popular musical he kills somebody. In the book he has a torture chamber that we see put to use in horrifying detail, but we are also told that even his own mother would not kiss his head. His rejection is total. This sense of him having been wronged throughout his life through no fault of his own, to begin with at least, encourages us to feel more compassionately toward him. These characters show humans to be much more complex than simply good or bad. We seem to find this almost easier to accept in fiction than in life.

In both Wuthering Heights and The Phantom of the Opera we don’t have the story told to us by the perpetrators themselves but pieced together through other narratives. This suggests that it is knowledge of hardship that plays with our reactions more than the narrative point of view. If we look at a more recent example, American Psycho, we are reading a first person narrative, experiencing crimes in uncomfortable detail, and I can’t imagine many readers making excuses for Patrick Bateman’s actions as we have in the previous examples. Why does he not hold this same ambiguity (for the purpose of this post, let’s assume the crimes are real and not figments of his imagination, as is the belief held throughout the bulk of the book)? Consumerism and the shallow society he lives in seem to be his main driving factors, seeing humans as little more than commodities. This admittedly does not spring from the same abuse that our other examples have endured, yet there is the suggestion that he is mentally ill and therefore not entirely culpable for his actions. Why is this not enough? If we witnessed Heathcliff’s actions against Isabella in similarly gruesome detail would we find it as easy to make excuses for his behaviour? Does Bateman’s lack of regret close him off to us where in others there is some inkling of remorse? Do we need this as something we can relate to on a human level?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these famous characters, what books have raised moral questions for you, and if the experience translated into altered world views? Let me know in the comments below.  

Wednesday 20 February 2019

Waitress, Adelphi Theatre London, 14/02/2019

In 2016 the creative team behind Waitress the musical made history by being the first all-female production team on Broadway. The story will resonate with women the world over as we witness the challenges and triumphs of Jenna and her friends as they struggle to find their freedom and happiness. Adrienne Shelly, writer and director of the film from which the musical sprang, championed women’s right not to have to choose between having a career and having a family. The positive message of the story continues to empower viewers.

Success on Broadway and the release of an album by Sara Bareilles of the songs she wrote for the show left British fans eager for Waitress to come to the UK. After much anticipation it opened at London’s Adelphi Theatre on 8th February 2019 with a cast headed by Katharine McPhee as Jenna. The set is as much like an American diner as you can create on stage and the exaggerated accents leave you in no doubt as to where it is set. This did at times seem to interfere with the quality of singing but in later scenes all three leading ladies had the chance to show off their vocal range. Jack McBrayer was brilliant as dorky Ogie but despite his excellent rendition of Never Ever Getting Rid of Me the sentiment is an uncomfortable one.

Overall a feel-good night out that will leave you both singing the songs and wanting pie.

Wednesday 13 February 2019

Victorian Villains, University of Oxford, 9th February 2019

On a bright winter morning a group of Victorian enthusiasts gathered for a thought-provoking study day on the most notorious villains in Victorian literature.

First was an examination of the enigma that is Heathcliff by Dr Sandie Byrne. She spoke of the way modern adaptations of Wuthering Heights underplay his villainy, instead focusing on his victimization, and a skewed version of his love for Cathy. Wrong-footing us slightly, rather than dissecting his character in the tradition of villainy, instead we looked at the different tropes of hero figures and whether or not he could fit into these. The Bront√ęs having been fans of the Romantics we looked to the Romantic hero to which he loosely fits due to his extremes of emotion and fixation on one thing. There were also comparisons to the trend ignited by Henry MacKenzie’s The Man of Feeling which allowed men to be as emotional as women until its popularity waned with a backlash accusing such men as being effeminate, an accusation unlikely to be leveled at Heathcliff, he does nonetheless have a great sensitivity to certain stimuli.

One other possible link to the hero type is being the moral centre of the novel. Heathcliff’s morality is not one that’s held up as being admirable, but Byrne argues he could be seen as the only character in the book that stays true to themselves. Catherine betrays not just Heathcliff but her own true nature by entering the world of the Lintons. His behaviour toward the other characters could be seen as testing them. They repeatedly fail and as a result he sees them as weak. Yet, Heathcliff is full of contradiction. He is hellbent on revenge and yet before it is fully realised he stops, claiming in the famous line ‘I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing.’ Why is this? Has seeing Hareton and Cathy defy his attempts to force a repeat of his own history softened him? Was he merely worn out? Is his desire to be reunited with Catherine in death greater than his desire for revenge? Why does he seem to regret some of his actions yet refuse to reconcile with Catherine on her deathbed? (I don’t hold Heathcliff to account for this, she continued to torment him to the end).

What are we to make of his nature? We see Hindley tormenting him in his youth and Catherine’s desertion of him wounds his very soul. Yet as Byrne points out, these actions skew traditional morality – he has done nothing wrong at this point, it is not punishment. There is much we don’t know of his history however, was it the actions of the Earnshaws that led him to becoming bitter and vengeful, had something in his past that we aren’t privy to affected him so deeply? Or, perhaps, Emily is expressing in him her belief that people should act according to their nature, like animals, and be held to no account? Heathcliff could therefore be seen as simply having a violent and fierce nature and living out his inevitability. A strange stance you may think from the daughter of a priest, and yet some have gone as far as to claim she was not a woman of faith at all. Fundamentally, it is this unknown surrounding Heathcliff that has made generations of readers fascinated, dissecting his character, pitying or reviling him.

Dr Charlotte Jones then led a discussion of the villains in Dickens’ Hard Times. In this we questioned what it meant to be a villain during the Industrial Revolution. Jones took us through a whirlwind history of the term, explaining how words that once denoted social rank became moral terms during the sixteenth century. The drastic changes brought about during the Victorian period raised questions once again of how we measure morality and it is this that Dickens bases his villains on in this novel. Thomas Gradgrind is the first character we meet and he is introduced to us as a villain, obsessed with utilitarianism, losing sight of what makes us human in his obsession with facts and figures. The fact he has fundamentally misunderstood Bentham’s philosophy make his character almost comically distressing, and somewhat sympathetic. He does not set out to make people miserable and yet his actions do, raising questions of what makes a villain.

On the other end of the spectrum is Bounderby who has created his life on a fantasy, lying about his past to fit into the ideal of the self-made man. Samuel Smiles’ Self Help was hugely popular at the time and emphasized the perceived difference between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, intended to stimulate action as it frames the gentleman as a moral status rather than an economic one. In pretending to have come from a life of poverty and abuse to create financial success for himself Bounderby is abusing his position and making a moral judgment on those less fortunate than himself. In having these two opposing villains Dickens broadens the definition of a villain.

Jones argues however, that labour is in fact the main villain in the novel. Dickens was writing for a specific audience – literate and wealthy enough to buy journals. In writing about a world alien to them he was attempting to open their eyes to the problems of factory work. It is widely acknowledged that working conditions at the time were dangerous and grueling and yet he seems to be suggesting that the most pervasive problem was the repetitious inevitability of life. The monotony wears the workers down and makes them miserable. In his description of Coketown everything looks the same, from school to hospital to gaol, the workers leave home at the exact same time every day, and in the descriptions you begin to feel how claustrophobic and tedious this is, the writing begins to reflect the repetitive monotony of life in industrial towns at the time.

Next, Barrie Bullen led us through the complex world of villains and Greek gods in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The two main villains are Alec D’Urberville and Angel Clare. Alec claims to be a villain and yet Bullen believes he is merely ventriloquizing bourgeoisie values. There’s no doubt he doesn’t treat Tess well, regardless of what you believe happened the night he impregnated her. Yet, Bullen claims it is Angel’s rejection and desertion of her that is the far crueler villainy enacted on her.

He believes they are symbolic of something much more significant than mere stage villains. Likening them to Dionysus (Alec) and Apollo (Angel) he points out that even Tess and Angel’s courtship mirrors the solar year, beginning in Spring, attaining its passionate climax in summer and then the abandonment by winter. The scene at Stonehenge and discussion of sacrifice to the sun is appropriate as one in which Angel plays a part. In fact, this scene and the earlier scene in the Chase with Alec are carefully mirrored. Bullen pulls out the similarities in the ancient settings, the darkness, dominance of the man, and ultimately, of Tess’s sacrifice. It is in the final lines of the novel that Bullen argues reveals the true villain – the President of the Immortals.

In all of the novels so far it has been shown that their villains are not as straightforward as one might originally have thought, and indeed it is often not the characters that prove to be the most villainous but the environment in which the action takes place or the gods who kill humans for sport. In the final lecture of the day, delivered by Dr David Grylls, we perhaps see the most traditional antagonist in Count Fosco from Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Yet, his character is not all that simple, Collins himself described him as both ‘a brand-new villain’ and ‘the quintessence of a hecatomb of villains’. He meets many of the traits of a classic villain; he is intelligent, subtle, foreign, fallible, and attractive, and yet Collins created a character that he enjoyed writing and that readers often come to admire.

His intelligence is genuine, although disturbing for being devoid of morality. He plays against expectations, when providing Marian with medication the reader is led to assume he is poisoning her when he is not; he is aware of the suspicion he might encounter due to his nationality and he plays up to it, constantly keeping one step ahead of the rest of the characters. Collins can be seen to be mocking parochial xenophobia as it is the least intelligent characters that believe the stereotypes. Percival Glyde, who sat happily in the role of villain in the first volume of the novel, before Count Fosco appears, is soon shown to be clumsy and crude in comparison. As in Hard Times and a number of other Dickens novels, Collins uses opposing villains that complement each other in their disparity.

Similarly, as we saw with Heathcliff, Fosco is full of contradictions. He is physically large yet light on his feet. Once a radical, he abandons his beliefs for social pretension, a fact which ultimately leads to his downfall. His fondness for pets and in particular his mice, is a childlike image yet in every other way he appears cultured and sophisticated, possessing not just the fruits of study but also emotional intelligence. We saw throughout the day that a villain can take many forms, are often strengthened by a counterpart, and need some relatable qualities to make them believable and interesting. 

Wednesday 6 February 2019

Normal People, Sally Rooney

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Marianne and Connell go to the same school in a small town in Ireland – he is popular, she is a loner, her family is wealthy, his mother is a cleaner for hers. They regularly encounter each other when he comes to collect his mother at the end of her shift. It comes as no surprise that they become more than friends, although Connell refuses to acknowledge Marianne at school, a fact that she accepts without argument. In these early days we see the seeds of what will become severe problems for them later – Connell’s social anxiety and Marianne’s lack of self-worth. As they grow and their lives change they are always drawn back to each other.

Marianne’s character feels the more fully developed. We gradually witness the family life that results in her submissiveness with men. There are scenes of abuse that are deeply unsettling. Her seeming determination to put herself in degrading, unhappy situations is hard to read, although you understand how she got there. Connell seems a less complex character, his anxiety never explored in much depth (although there is a touching scene when he seeks the help of a counsellor that is brilliantly written), only being mentioned sporadically, he feels less fully formed. Despite their difficulties, they have a sense of freedom with each other that they don’t always fight for but as a reader you will urge them to.

The chapter headings suggest a linear narrative (five months later, two weeks later, etc) yet frequently we are taken back in time, filling in gaps that arise from the time hops. The structure does maintain a tantalising sensation as a scene ends and suddenly it’s five month later and there’s so much you want to know of what happened in between.

As the title suggests, nothing extraordinary happens; the two protagonists are normal young adults trying to navigate their way into adulthood. It is messy and fraught and there’s no neat endings. It is a well-observed depiction of modern life with all the personal dramas it entails. I was disappointed that by the end, certainly one, if not both, hadn’t really developed psychologically as a result of their relationship, and yet this adds a sense of reality – there is no easy fix where the wounds of time suddenly heal. A contemplative, relatable book.

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