Tag Archives: literary conscience

A Poem for a Friend, Already Much Missed Though Still Present–“To a Departing Friend”

For the occasion of the publication of this poem, I don’t mind revealing that it is a poem based on fact, and is written for a friend whose presence will be sorely missed.  We’ve all lived through such an experience, when all the little debates and differences of opinion we go through with our friends are suddenly less important than the friend’s upcoming departure.  Debate is often a luxury of presence, and  later unity of mind and temper prevail, so that we can express what we deeply and truly feel, at the last possible moment, when absence will begin to be felt.

To a Departing Friend

Yes, I am full of commonplaces,
Conversational gambits,
Some not new, some all my own.
I say to you,
“‘…the feast of reason,
And the flow of soul.'”
And in search of some universal
(Or at least particular) truth,
You say in frustration,
“Defense mechanism.”
Considering my options,
And reviewing my mistakes,
I say,
“This is all I can do,
This makes me survive.”
In search of making myself and you
A little more perfect,
If such a thing could ever have degrees,
You point to this as my
“Comfort zone.”
Don’t chase your own tail, my friend,
That’s a ploy for kittens and puppies,
Who don’t yet recognize
The other end of themselves following.
The fact is,
That my life has been made so much better
By your intercession for me
With the storms and high winds
Of happenstance
Which precede
The visits of the gods,
And you have for a while
Kept me most divine company
In the space allotted us
Before the great dark.
Who knows if what heaven there is
Is not arranged and populated
By such conversations as ours,
And the sorrow and laughter
We have shared
Are not apportioned out
To all who would live on
Beyond their death?

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 9/29/17

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An occasional poem for the day: “Martin Luther King Day, 2017”

Though I don’t usually write occasional poems, with the Inauguration and (supposedly) a new era just ahead of us, I wanted to write one which references the past, and celebrates the day.  If you don’t agree with me about anything I say, then that is your right, too.  It’s not a perfect poem by a long shot, but I believe it expresses the thoughts in my mind today accurately, and sometimes that’s the most one can hope for.  Have a good day.

Martin Luther King Day, 2017

"You know he cheated on his wife,"
My neighbor says.
"Had affairs, and everything."
This, I think, is meant to indicate
That his public faith with all of us
Wasn't perfect either,
Though even his wife
Revered his public stance.
And what man, anyway,
Or maybe even what woman--
Given an equal chance to do wrong--
Would respect the office
And the private world
As if they were the same?
Said John and Oko Lennon,
"Woman is the nigger of the world,"
And said La Rochefoucauld,
"It pertains to great men to have great faults."
Is it all the outward dance of men
Determined only to do one good at a time,
To have a whipping boy in the shadows
In the form of a woman?
Of is it just that The Public itself
Cannot grasp how a person,
Man or woman,
Needs to fight, with some room reserved
For error, a margin in which to be forgiven?
Now we are at the beginning of what pretends,
At least,
To be a new beginning,
Full of hope for those who've felt neglected
While civil rights made its great footsteps forward.
But why isn't it full of hope
For everyone at the same time,
As civil rights has always purported to be?
And the figurehead at the top:
A man full of error,
Which if error is meant to reassure us
Should surely do us proud.
His spite of John Lewis,
His rejection of memorials for King,
How can these be worked in with
"Of the people, by the people, for the people"?
Who're people?
I am people, you are people, he and she are people.
And we one and all
Must learn to contain
Our furies at each other
Lest the furies that our leaders
Aim at each other--
Playing on the public stage as if they were
Coriolanus, Caesar, or Henry V,
Only with words far less impressive--
Lest their Furies become those of the Greeks,
And shred us all to pieces,
Public and private.
The new figurehead has promised
To put us in the driver's seat,
Though little did we think
That it meant we have to drive the venerable jalopy
Without capsizing it, since he has abdicated
Acting responsibly, drinking in the back seat
And fondling those public figures who would always
Be fondled, whoever has the lead role.
Be brave! my fellows,
And cast doubt from your minds,
For though it is not now our kingship,
We have had a king fight nobly and well,
We have had a model of a man
Whereby to set the measure of all others.
Look forward, hope!  For what we see
With disbelieving, jaded eyes
Is not always the true path
Of our fates.  It is our struggle now
As it was King's, and we for this
Remember him this day.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 1/16/17

Finis, for today anyway.

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The Portrait of a Discontented British Artist in Canada–Damian Tarnopolsky’s “Goya’s Dog”

A gifted novel about a Wyndham Lewis-like painter visiting Canada from his native Britain during WW II, Damian Tarnopolsky’s Goya’s Dog was a nominee for the 2009 Amazon.ca First Novel Award, formerly Books in Canada First Novel Award.  The book transitions from an initial state of what my mother used to call “cross questions and silly answers,” a state in which people are talking at usually unintentionally comic cross-purposes, through a series of vignettes in which the main character, the artist Edward Dacres, gradually realizes that he is a guest artist because he has been mistaken for someone else, to a finally quasi-tragic, quasi-uplifting ending.

From the first moment when I encountered the angry, frustrated, almost savage eye turned on Canadians and Canadian society by the main character Edward Dacres, as he repeatedly tries to make the best of his situation through amusing himself at their expense if nothing else, I was struck with his resemblance to another comic character of the early part of the twentieth century.  Though I cannot claim that Tarnopolsky in fact had P.G. Wodehouse in mind when he wrote Dacres, Dacres reads very like an avatar, sadder, more cynical, more anarchic and down-at-heels, of the Bertie Wooster “man-about-town” comic creation.  I say this with the proviso that I am not considering Edward Dacres’s indifference to the WW II effort as similar by design to P. G. Wodehouse’s own suspected collaboration with the Germans while in a European internment camp (a charge which was later fully investigated by MI5 in 1999 or 2000 and found to be baseless except for Wodehouse’s basic naïveté).  Tarnopolsky’s farcical characters (farcical as seen by the main character, that is) jump into and out of relation with each other with nearly the same alacrity as Wodehouse’s, but with a deeper seriousness lurking beneath their interactions:  for, Bertie Wooster’s pockets are well-lined; Edward Dacres’s are moth-eaten.  It is only their desperation, their comic clutching at weak straws, which for a time makes them alike.  We cannot imagine Tarnopolsky repeating his comic creation from book to book in different characters (as Wodehouse did, like a vaudeville performer with a “sure thing” of an act), or being called “a performing flea” as Wodehouse once was, though certainly unfairly.  This is to say that while the satirical lyricism flows with the same easy pace as did the elder author’s, with his background in the libretti of musicals, the stakes and consequences are those tied to far more serious issues, such as the real issues of cowardice (Bertie Wooster only “funks it” in a humorous way), misanthropy, and the role of art in wartime.  If forced to account for my sense of the elder comic genius lurking, I would have to say that the early sections dealing with women in general or one in particular (the main current romantic interest of the book, Darly Burner) have “comic turns” particularly situated around these relationships which are reminiscent of the earlier writer’s work.  Dacres finds a woman attractive, with the woman playing the role (as in Wodehouse) of “straight man” who also finds him desirable, while Edward Dacres is the desperate eiron who is deceiving her or himself about something to do with his state, his prospects, his intentions, etc.  The difference is that Dacres has a genuine tragedy in his background, the death of his own young wife of their happy mésalliance years before, in a car crash which he caused.  This is the “problem” which I would liken to some neurosis that might emerge in psychoanalysis, like a squid from its sea of ink, only slowly.  Though I have spent a lot of time on this authorial comparison, I don’t mean to overemphasize it, for this masterly and serious novel does not move as quickly as Wodehouse’s do almost from punchline to punchline.  But the manner in which Tarnopolsky deals with the women’s other claimants, such as fathers, suitors, relatives, and social acquaintances, smacks of the older author quite strenuously.

I’ve said this is a serious novel, and part of the source of the sombreness and the sense of tragedy which looms over Goya’s Dog, instituting from the frenetic pace rather a tense agony mimetically on the reader’s part, is the forced wait to find out if the artist will ever be able to make himself paint again.  There is the fact, for Dacres, that he simply cannot repeat the past, recreating one muse with another, and so the bittersweet ending is as much a victory and vindication as it might initially seem a defeat.  There is the sense, at the end, that he will be able to return to work, though when and how exactly is left undecided.  It does seem, however, that he is finally on his own tick, and will not be playing any more fool’s games with fate.

The sources of this novel are in fact far more complicated than I have given my reader to believe, up to this point, but I have emphasized the particular comic influence (which may or may not have been intentional) because it is what I am myself most familiar with.  To quote from Tarnopolsky’s own words in his “Acknowledgments” (the whole of which I call to the reader’s attention), “The painter and writer Wyndham Lewis spent an unhappy wartime exile in Toronto, and his novel Self-Condemned, along with his letters and the comments of his biographers, suggested much of what happens to Dacres in the first half of Goya’s Dog–together with the Polish writer Winold Gombrowicz’s simultaneous, similar experiences in Buenos Aires, recorded in his amazing Diary.  Dacres shares some attitudes with these men and uses some of their expressions, but he is not a portrait of either of them.  I should note that the “suicide” scene comes from Chamfort, and I think it was Fr. Rolfe who was ferried out of his hotel room in bed; Ovid grumbled definitively about the natives in his letters from Pontus.  And so on–“.  Thus, I have named only one possible influence, which moreover is not one named by Tarnopolsky, for the quite excellent and humorous portions of his important novel, and have had to quote from his own words to explain that and the other parts, which makes me perhaps a less adept reviewer, but certainly makes him no less a creative genius on this, his first novel.  There is in fact a great deal more to say, but I leave it to you, his other potential readers, to help bring about the conversation:  this is such a fine novel that to call it a “fine first novel” is already to be reductive of its worth and importance in the related worlds of fiction and painting.  Do give it a read soon:  you will be amused by a character’s dilemmas, confronted by his demons, and finally, in reluctant agreement with what he does to save his own soul.

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A Nobel-Prize-winning Master’s Use of Extended Metaphor–Jose Saramago’s “Blindness”

José Saramago’s masterpiece Blindness is one of the few novels I have read which manages to use extended metaphor in such a way as not to make me weary of the imposition of values on fact.  What I mean by this is that extended metaphor, if sustained for long enough in a work, makes the work into a sort of allegory in which the reader is always busy imputing other values to literal words and things.  An example is of course Pilgrim’s Progress, in which we are “clued in” to the values which must be read in by having certain words and names capitalized and used repeatedly to illustrate the point the author is trying to make.  But the main value which Saramago uses in an allegorical way, or as an extended metaphor, is “blindness.”  And he keeps the fear of blindness closely enough tied to the actual condition that we can perceive his characters’ predicaments for ones likely to be suffered by blind people in a real-life, literal setting.  As well, the characters do not stand for abstract qualities, but are kept very closely drawn as real people, with realistic feelings and impulses.  They have no names except for example “the doctor,” “the girl with the dark glasses,” “the old man with the black eye patch,” “the doctor’s wife,” etc.  Thus, though their situation is allegorical, they are people whom we can see as very like us in a novel (meaning here “new” or “unprecedented”) situation.

The basic plot is this:  one day, while driving in his car, a man is suddenly stricken with a new kind of blindness, not the “dark” blindness which people have always suffered before, but a kind of “white blindness” in which people see only a white mist before their eyes.  From this uncertain beginning, the disease spreads, even affecting eye doctors and policemen and other people in every walk of life, while authorities try not only to stop the spread of the illness by guessing how it spreads (which no one is actually ever sure of) but also by confining to deserted public buildings those who have gone blind, in the suspicion that they may be contagious.  Our focus is on a small group of characters who have interacted in an ophthalmologist’s office, who all happen to wind up in the same ward of an empty mental hospital used to confine the blind. The ophthalmologist himself has gone blind just as he was attempting to do research on this startling new condition, and only his wife, who has pretended to be blind so that she cannot be separated from him and can go along to help, is fully a witness to what is happening.

What happens, but very gradually, is that order breaks down and chaos reigns, as blind crooks lord it over the other inmates and make them pay with valuables and women’s sexual favors for their very food rations.  The soldiers who are supposed to be monitoring the activity and the distribution of food are powerless (by choice) to affect change, because they are afraid to get too close to the blind lest the condition is contagious by sight of them.  They in fact repeatedly threaten to shoot any of the blind who step too close.  The halls are covered in excrement and other offal, including sometimes the bodies of those who have died, because there is no one in charge who can restore order and who will make sure that all the dead are buried.  Thus, the halls of the mental hospital quickly become more and more polluted with things which actually are likely to cause contagion.  The doctor as a figure of wisdom often has good ideas about what can be done, but it’s his wife who as a figure of mercy “steals the show” in the book.  Because she inexplicably remains sighted, and resists or seems to have no selfish impulses, she is the moral compass of the book.

The characters’ blindness is basically the condition all humankind is in as it goes through its own petty or even important concerns from day to day, unaware of others or not taking them into account.  Their new blindness forces them to calculate what others owe them and they owe others, and illuminates the human condition of desperation which can arise when there is not enough food, clothing, shelter.  It is a question posed by life as to whether or not humans will become savages when they are driven into close competition for basic needs and services.  They are only able to hear of the outside world when someone admits to having a radio, but then the voices from outside go dead, and the radio’s batteries are exhausted just after, so they must assume that things are chaotic on the outside as well.

Because of a fire, the seven characters find their way out of the hospital and into the broader world outside with the doctor’s wife leading them due to her still having her sight, but now they “see” that the mental hospital they were confined in is an apt symbol for the life outside in the world.  Everyone has gone blind, domestic animals are eating from dead bodies, people are breaking into the homes of others in order to have somewhere to sleep safely.  The doctor’s wife finds a small food store, and they are able to stay in a safe place, but their meetings with others everywhere are fraught with fear.  They are afraid even to let others know that they have someone with them who can see, lest she have too many importunate demands placed on her or figuratively be torn limb from limb.

At this key juncture, I’m going to stop my synopsis, not because any highly unlikely series of events takes place and I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but because the novel is resolved with such feeling and compassion and insight that I don’t want to ruin your reading.  This book is so deceptively simple as it moves from step to step, and we can understand each step in the series of events that take place.  We can “see” and feel how and why the people act as they do; the motivations that Saramago gives them are easily accessible to our own feelings, as we put ourselves in their place.  This book is a cautionary tale which asks humankind when it will begin to “see,” to respond to others adequately and to save itself thereby. From having opposed interests, you against me, the characters learn to cooperate and have lesson after lesson before them of what happens to those who cannot compromise.  Above all, this work is a masterwork about ordinary people, even those among them who find it possible to be extraordinary.  The doctor’s wife, the moral center of the book, is “sighted” in more than one way:  she knows that it is through no virtue of her own that she has not lost her sight too, so she is always ready to help those who rely upon her, because she for some unknown reason has an advantage.  This is not a matter of superiority of status or condition, but merely a matter of chance.  Blind chance, as one might say.  Thus, we all of us have some chance of someday being extraordinary because we are able to help someone else, and yet we will only be people with no particular status or name other than “the doctor’s wife,” “the doctor,””the girl with dark glasses,””the boy who cried for his mother,” etc.  This is the promise and the state of all humanity, to be able to extend itself to others empathetically when necessary, if we only take advantage of the opportunity.  This is the uplifting message of José Saramago’s book Blindness.  I hope that you will have a chance to read it soon.

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“The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire,” and “Mockingjay”–or, Incitement, the Turn Against Repression, and Outright Rebellion

Once again, a younger person has been instrumental in getting me to read a fiction he has enjoyed, and once again, the person is my nephew, Charles.  In this case, it was a slightly longer proceeding, because from the time I continually saw him sitting around engrossed in The Hunger Games trilogy to the time when I could pry the books from his fingers to read them was longer.  I’m just joking, though, about his reluctance:  he was quite enthusiastic about having me read the series.  And as I read and let him know over the phone what book exactly I was on, he eagerly asked each time “How do you like it?”  I was able to be just as happily engaged with the books as he expected, though I did point out that in this book as in others I’ve read in the YA category from time to time, the author has neglected to observe some grammar rules, such as the difference between “who” and “whom.”  It happens to everyone from time to time, because our society has become so casual in its observance of some parts of grammatical precision that even quite well-read and literate people have been known to slip up.  And of course, his rejoinder was to remind me of the last book he had me reading, The Wide Window from the A Series of Unfortunate Events series, in which a character named “Aunt Josephine” continually corrects grammar (I also reviewed that book for this site).  So now, on to the review of the events of the books themselves, which will probably be shorter, however, due to the fact that I don’t want to have to issue spoiler alerts, but instead want to leave those who have not yet read the books or seen the movies to their own discoveries.

The first thing I noticed about the books, even early on, and which I was surprised about and would highly commend is that in them, Suzanne Collins didn’t pull her punches.  Tragedies were not just things which took place in the past, well-drawn and well-liked characters die and suffer in the present as well, and even though there are repairs which can be made surgically to the competitors in the games, or to those fortunate enough to be able to afford them, more and more the sense grows in the books that some things can’t be changed, some misfortunes must be lived with, some bad things will have to be lived through again and again and again in the memories and sorrow-filled dreams of the main characters, those who survive, that is.  This is a series of books which, with a few changes, a very few indeed, could easily be marketed to an adult audience.  And yet, the difficulties approached by the characters are ones easily understandable and accessible to a youth audience:  it’s just that the book makes no attempt, fortunately, to “dumb down” or “soft-pedal” suffering, no matter whose it is.  There is no condescension in these books, and I can see why they have easily won a loyal following among parents and young people alike.

Next, I appreciated the slight amount of retelling that was necessary in the later two books in order to link them with the first.  Often, authors make the mistake of retelling large swatches of the plot or of characters’ histories in series, in order to play to the market either of people who were not paying attention in the earlier parts or to pick up new readers who are too indifferent to begin at the beginning.  Collins has clearly chosen to regard her audience as both intelligent and energetic enough to start with the first book and keep on going, and trusts herself to maintain their interest.  That her trust is not misplaced is I think obvious in the great enthusiasm with which people discuss the series.

Finally, what people these days call “the story’s arc” is both very accomplished and very insightful about the nature of slavery, rebellions, and resolutions of conflicts.  I have said the story begins with the “incitement” that the Capitol offers the known-to-exist twelve districts by forcing them to participate in the Hunger Games; follows this up with “the turn against repression,” which draws in some of those originally with the Capitol and aligns them with the gradually more and more rebellious people in the districts, which begin to revolt; and concludes with the picture of a whole society as it experiences “outright rebellion,” including quite intelligent assessments of both sides in the combat as first of all run by individuals with conflicting aims and desires, whatever their side.  Among the thanks which Suzanne Collins includes to her colleagues, friends, and family in the back of the third volume, are these tributes:  “Special love to my late father, Michael Collins, who laid the groundwork for this series with his deep commitment to educating his children on war and peace, and my mother, Jane Collins, who introduced me to the Greeks, sci-fi, and fashion (although that last one didn’t stick)….”  Certainly, these dedications are quite apt, as the force of them shows everywhere in the books (even in the playful tweaking of the nose of the “fashion police” who appear in the series).  I would gladly recommend these books for their teaching abilities and their warmth of heart, their ability to educate young people in both their methods of forming allegiances and their gradual and growing awareness of when something isn’t as it should be.  These books, like the folk song taken from Scripture, proclaim “to everything there is a season…and a time to every purpose under heaven.”  Only, having read them, young people may well emerge with a stronger sense of the right time for each and every purpose which confronts them.  These books, far from being just for entertainment, are for the mind and the spirit as well, and I can think of nothing better to advise than that adults as well as young people read them, not just to keep an eye on what their children are reading, but to keep an eye on their own strengths, weaknesses, decisions, and impulses as well.  This is a family book in the best sense of the term.

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Having a Good Nattering, Chin-Wag, or Gossip with a Book–Maeve Binchy’s “Circle of Friends”

I can remember the first time I was curious enough to mention Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends to another friend who reads, one whose tastes are perhaps a little less specialized than mine.  She said, “You probably wouldn’t like her; it’s not really literary fiction.”  I persisted, and she said “Well, it’s more like popular fiction, kind of gossipy and low-key.  No big symbols or literary stuff to interpret, it’s mostly just about people’s lives in a small town in Ireland, and how they change when exposed to social currents from Dublin.”  So, I thought, well, I’ll see the movie, which got some acclaim, and in which Minnie Driver starred, I wasn’t sure in what role; that seemed like a good way to approach the thing.

But something came up, and I missed the local showings of the movie, and by the time everything was over, I had gone on to something else.  This made me all the more curious when a copy of the book fell into my hands from a free book shelf (don’t ever believe that it really happens that way–it didn’t “fall into” my hands, I regularly prune certain free book shelves with effort and abandon to get books I think I might like to read).

True enough, when I read the book blurb, it didn’t seem like my kind of book; for one thing, it was about a hometowny little friendship between two girls who go on to university together, and it sounded fairly humdrum.  No Pulitzer or Nobel there.  Then I started to read.  I found other reasons not to get too excited about the book; for one thing, it seemed to have a number of places in which the dialogue that should logically have been in the mouth of one character came from another character, or there was a typo, or one character’s name seemed to be given for another character’s.  This was a minor distraction, however, once I got involved in the story.

What I found was that the author was a penetrating judge of character, and though most of her creations were young and just starting out in life, she had a knack also for writing about the older people in the book and their conflicts and disappointments.  Though the young university students and their cohorts are spoken of as the “circle of friends” once or twice in the book and are the central focus, by the end of the book the whole cast has become one whose lives have importance to the reader.  It’s as if we are having a gossip about them all with the village maven.  Every character, no matter how minor, has a fate or an ending, or a new beginning, and though there are no major surprises in the way they turn out, yet everything develops satisfactorily and in line with one’s sense of poetic justice.  This treatment, though it is decidedly not literary in the sense of showing just how arbitrary life can actually be, and how ironies can multiply and interact, is still the source of a satisfactory read.  After all, there are also instances in real life when people do get what’s coming to them, whether for good or for ill, and those can also be written about:  not everything is some huge black catastrophic event or supplies a constantly pointed little fictional essay that baits the reader and leads him or her to expect what isn’t delivered and to be disappointed as a source of entertainment.

Which is to say, when all is said and done, that Maeve Binchy delivers no more and no less than the blurbs have contracted for:  she is a reliable and percipient author who, though perhaps a bit lingeringly romantic or sentimental, never puts the romance or the sentiment in the position of having to carry the entire load of the plot effects.  Circle of Friends, though not a book I would necessarily find it important to reread in order to get anything I didn’t get the first time, might become a soothing anodyne that I would read again because it reassures me about humanity in the main.  I seem to remember that I read of Binchy’s death some time back, and I can now see why her devoted readers created such a stir about her potential absence: she has a kindly, open, wise, and perceptive mode of writing that while not pretending to be full of literary tricks and technical achievements is nevertheless full of human warmth and good humor.  Now I suppose all that remains is sometime to watch the movie and see if the movie magnates have managed to capture the work of her great heart on film.

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Picture this tale for Halloween….

In the play Hamlet, Hamlet’s father’s ghost tells the young prince “But that I am forbid/To tell the secrets of my prison-house,/I could a tale unfold whose lightest word/Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,/Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,/Thy knotted and combined locks to part,/And each particular hair to stand an end,/Like quills upon the fearful porpentine.”  This is, of course, what every good Halloween story tries to do, and so today I’m going to put before you, readers, a supposititious summary of a tale and see if you think you might like to read it.  If so, then I can tell you where to find it.  Here goes:

Picture a tale in which the characters range from extreme youth to old age, and in which a highly imaginative and susceptible child is sometimes treated like a mere encumbrance and even worse, locked up in fearsome places by itself without food or water, where a ghost is thought to roam.  Feature strange lights coming and going in this place, which the child cannot translate into any portion of its known experience.  Imagine next that this child tries to escape this punishing system, only to be put in another wherein children are treated as a matter of course in somewhat the same way by some adults, receiving random kindnesses from other adults, but with no asssurance that this kindness will be available when most necessary, due to the interference of more powerful adults who are mean and petty.  Next, figure to yourself (as the French say) that the child’s best friend dies of a lingering and contagious illness, and that many of the other children around are stricken with another illness due to bad sanitation and poor victuals.  But if the central child of the tale died at this point, the story couldn’t continue, so you must allow in your imagination for the child’s survival.

Say that we are given some improvements to the main character’s state to up the ante, and then the character begins again to experience more mysterious events, such as hearing dragging sounds, animals snarls, and strange unholy laughter in the nighttime as she is trying to sleep.  The child is now a young adult, and is sharing an old and seemingly haunted manor house with another child, servants who are friendly but keep close-mouthed about the nighttime disturbances, and a saturnine, ironical, and equally mysterious male owner, who deceives her about the sum total of the house’s occupants.

Think next about what the main character experiences when the male owner seems to be responsible for a frightening fire in the middle of the night, and when bedroom doors must be locked at night to prevent strange and unknown dangers from approaching.  And of course we have a seemingly happy interlude to take us off our guard:  guests come to the house, there is festivity and enjoyment, and we unwisely relax and think things are improving.  But then, an ancient and gnarled Gypsy woman appears, who, though she predicts eventual happiness for the central character, is not equally as generous in her predictions towards all the party.  And that very same night, there are blood-curdling screams in the night, animal growls, and one of the guests is stabbed; it would seem to be time for the house’s owner, something like an animal himself in some particulars of appearance, to be more forthcoming with the protagonist,  yet his responses to what has happened are still dark and quizzical, and he only is able to satisfy her fears and curiosity in part.

Now participate in the vision of the protagonist agreeing to marry the owner, only to find at the inception of her new relationship that her own clothes have been vandalized by a hideous vision who wakes her in the night, having somehow gained entrance to her sleeping chamber.  The owner tells her that she must have imagined it, or that it is a servant, and yet this only temporarily solves the manifold problems, one of which is that for some time past, all the frightening incidents in the night and mysteries in the day have caused the main character to have nightmares about crying infants whom it’s impossible to soothe.  With short surcease for joy, the prospective marital pair approach the altar, where the ceremony is stopped and the protagonist finds out that a madwoman locked in the attic of the old manor is not only the source of all the chaos in the house, but that the lunatic is also the homicidal first wife of the erstwhile bridegroom, and is still living!

Is this sounding strangely familiar?  By now it should–it’s the story, re-told with a slight emphasis on its fantastical and seemingly supernatural side, of Charlotte Brontë’s famous novel Jane Eyre.  The rest of the novel focuses, as you may already know, on the year Jane spends apart from her male lead, Mr. Rochester, her receipt of another proposal from someone she cannot bring herself to love, and her eventual return to the old manor house, Thornfield, when she learns that the mad wife is dead, having burned the house to the ground and incidentally maimed Mr. Rochester in the process.  There is only one real supernatural feature of this portion of the novel, and that occurs just before Jane returns, when she is thinking about whether or not to marry “the other guy,” and has a sort of auditory hallucination of Mr. Rochester calling out to her in grief and misery.  It is later when she sees him again that she hears from his own lips that he was in fact calling out to her that very night at that time.  And then, of course, we have our requisite moderately happy ending, charming and no doubt satisfying to Charlotte Brontë in its moral aspects (which I have largely suppressed in order to make the point that this novel resembles a standard Gothic in many of its characteristics).

So there you have it:  a good, suspenseful read for Halloween, which neither neglects the necessary chill in the blood nor disallows that a woman may love a man whom both the more squeamish moralist and the self-appointed judge of male beauty might scorn, a sort of precursor to the love of “monsters” in contemporary horror cult classics.  Why did I deceive you and say “picture this tale”?  Because this novel first reached me (when I was nine or ten) in the Classics Illustrated comic book edition, my generation’s version of the graphic novel. This post represents my third time through the “real thing.”  Now, it’s your turn to have another look at this “bootiful” novel.

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