Tag Archives: classics

Alexandre Dumas, père — The Count of Monte Cristo

When listening to you, existence no longer seems reality, but a waking dream.

Two stories about The Count of Monte Cristo:

  • I inherited my love of reading from both of my parents but my taste was strongly shaped by my father early in life. As a child though, he himself didn’t enjoy reading until fourth grade—he just had no interest. That summer, though, he stepped on a wasp and it stung him all along the bottom of his foot. While he was recovering, his father gave him The Count of Monte Cristo to read while he was stuck inside. He said he read it in three days and that it’s still one of his favorite books. My Grandpere is gone, but I like to think that he’s responsible for we two younger generations loving this book… I’ve yet to re-read it after his death. It’s going to be weird thinking about it in that context.
  • The only time I ever got detention in high school was because of The Count of Monte Cristo. I hated my ninth grade honors English teacher because she had a doctorate but she was possibly one of the ditsiest people I’d ever met. Of course I gave her attitude when I shouldn’t have and she hated me too. One of those arguments began because I complained about having to read an abridged version of The Count as the new assignment (it was a sixth grade reading level). I was promptly given detention for “insubordination.” The first and only time.
  • Anyway, about re-reading the actual book.

    It is perhaps the finest and most complicated novel about revenge ever written. Edmond Dantes is wrongly imprisoned as a result of the jealousy of an associate. He spends years trapped in a dungeon, bettering himself with the help of an elderly fellow prisoner. Eventually, he escapes, and with the help of his fabulous wealth (of course he managed to find a smuggler’s treasure), begins to set in motion a plan that will destroy those who have wronged him throughout the years. The question, of course, is who will he harm and what will it cost to accomplish this–is the cost worth the price?

    In the end it would seem that it is not. You turn the page compulsively as Edmond’s masterful revenge unfolds, though in the end it may be too horrible even so. And what has he accomplished, really? The last few chapters, especially his conversation with Mercédès, are incredibly affecting. Throughout, the reader becomes so invested in the wrongs perpetrated against Edmond, his emotions and feelings, that the denouement is incredibly satisfying in some ways and incredibly frustrating in others. Some get their just desserts, but innocents are also hurt in the process.

    If you can say one thing about Dumas, it’s that he writes a lively and captivating adventure story. With a good translation (and the Modern Classics version that I have isn’t awful), his language still feels modern and fresh and exciting, which I think is definitely a testament to his abilities.

    Joy takes a strange effect at times, it seems to oppress us almost the same as sorrow.

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    Jane Austen — Persuasion

    Persuasion is tied with Pride & Prejudice as my favorite Austen novel, in fact, it might be my favorite… It’s certainly up there, either way. This slim novel was also published posthumously, and presents something of a departure of form for Austen; instead of a young girl, Anne Elliot is 27, an old maid by 18th century standards. The bloom of youth has gone, and she still remains unmarried, and considering what times were like back then, is unlikely to ever marry, especially considering her father has bankrupted the family with his extravagance. Anne’s tragedy is that when she was young and tractable, she fell in love with a young Naval officer, and was about to marry him, but was talked out of it by her older, wiser friend, Lady Russell, a decision she has regretted ever since. And now, Captain Wentworth has returned to her village, and Anne is confronted with life choices she has made in a way that she probably never expected to have to deal with.

    It’s been said that Anne is a bit of a wet blanket, as well, but somehow I sympathize with her much more so than Fanny Price, for example. She isn’t necessarily shy, she’s just a bit thrown by events. Certainly she was “persuadable” in her youth, but Anne Elliot at 27 is quite a different creature. While she’s polite and reserved, she’s also quite intelligent, and witty when she wants to be. It’s a more subdued wit than Elizabeth Bennett’s, somewhat reserved, but definitely there. She stands up for her opinions in a quiet way, but she does it. She is probably a little too caring, but willing to sacrifice her own happiness for that of those she cares for. And in the end, she is able to stand up for her own chance at happiness. As I said, I like her. It’s easy to feel for her.

    I really enjoy this book because of its quiet longing, the slow buildup to the realization that everyone has been a bit wronged, but it’s all right. It also features one of the best “romantic” speeches (by Captain Wentworth, of course) I’ve ever read, and in Austen, no less, who normally doesn’t go in for that sort of thing. It’s that sort of flourish that, after a book of painful crossed meanings and missed signals, is a very welcome one. This is a happy ending I can get behind.

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    Jane Austen — Northanger Abbey

    Good lord, I feel like I’m starting off all of these reviews with “In this Jane Austen novel, a young girl…” I’m a bit on Austen overload at the moment as I’m almost done re-reading them in the space of a few weeks. Well, you can say one thing for Ms. Austen, she certainly sticks with what she knows! Still, Northanger Abbey is a bit of an anomaly because I feel as though people really don’t read it that often. It’s much shorter than most of her other books–only about 30 chapters, as opposed to the 50+ that are more usual for the major works, is more flat-out a comedy than any of the others, and also was the first of her books to be completed for publication, so that may have affected things a bit. Still, though perhaps a bit fluffier than some of her other novels, Northanger Abbey is plain fun, and also features one of the more likeable-from-the-start Austen heroes in any of her works yet.

    To really appreciate this book, I think it also helps to have some knowledge with the Gothic novels that were popular at the time Austen was writing, books such as Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, M. G. Lewis’ The Monk (both of which I’ll be talking about a bit more in the coming months). Gothic novels were works that combined both horror, adventure, and romance, and often, incredibly long picturesque descriptions of scenery, as well as an appreciation of terrible thrills and an appreciation of the sublime. It’s pretty fantastic stuff, ridiculous and wildly entertaining all at once. And not only is the heroine of Northanger obsessed with these novels, but Northanger itself functions as a very amusing parody of some of the cliches found in these works. Austen’s skewer is as sharp as ever, even when it’s turned more towards literary foibles than towards human failings.

    Catherine Morland, the erstwhile heroine of the novel, doesn’t start off the story in a way that quite sets her up for heroine-dom. She is plain, a bit of a tomboy, and not terribly good at school. She lives a pleasant, not terribly interesting life with her parents and siblings in a small, calm little country town. And then she discovers Gothic novels, and becomes a bit obsessed. Around this same time, circumstances conspire to draw her out of the quiet life she’s been living and to bring her to Bath, a bit of a social hotbed at the time. While there, she meets Henry Tilney, a young clergyman with a droll sense of humor, a pleasant disposition, and a terribly intimidating father.

    The plot is a total parody of Gothic literature in the sense that Catherine keeps hoping for things to happen in such a way, but is thwarted. One of the funnier examples of this is her discovery, in Henry’s house, of an old chest. She spends a good amount of time attempting to open it, sure that some dread document must be contained within. When she finally wrenches it open, she finds… old laundry lists. Catherine’s own ridiculous expectations provide a lot of the conflict in the novel; more still is supplied by Isabella Thorpe and her brother John, two rakish antagonists in the classic Austen mode, each setting their caps at the Morlands–Isabella for Catherine’s older brother, and John for Catherine herself. In addition, Catherine becomes convinced that Henry’s father is a bit of a villain himself–but is he? And will Catherine finally manage to straighten out all of the messes she caused and find true happiness? These questions, of course, will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, because in Austen novels, everyone gets exactly what they deserve.

    In Northanger Abbey, though, getting there is the enjoyable part. It’s a fluffy book, but a fast-paced, amusing one. Catherine and Henry, though seemingly ill-matched, are quite a pleasant pair, and though she’s a very silly character, she’s also quite fun. If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend a try.

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    Jane Austen — Emma

    In this iteration of the Austen scheme, a wealthy young woman who is given to meddling in other peoples’ affairs in order to gain some amusement in her quiet country town suffers the consequences of being too sure of a know it all. In consequence, of course, she falls in love, though there are numerous trials, tribulations, and comic characters (and a bit of a rake) to be encountered before the happy ending. This book is mostly enjoyable, though again, not within my favorite of Austen’s works. Here, the strengths are the small, closed country circle of the small village, the way in which the social hierarchies are played out within it; also, the sheer charm and vivacity of Emma herself are an attraction. Though some of her actions are a bit questionable at times, she is too well-meaning and simply amusing to hate her too much when she’s doing them.

    Emma also suffers, a bit, from the “young girl is molded by wise older man syndrome,” which bothered me so much in Mansfield Park. However, it is not so marked and creepy, because Emma, at least, doesn’t seem quite so tractable as Fanny Price does. Though she matures in the course of the novel, it is not solely because of Mr. Knightley’s influence, but also a result of her seeing her own actions in a different light. Again, this is not a novel that I return to often, but it has grown a bit on me during the years.

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    Jane Austen — Mansfield Park

    This one’s always a trial, no matter how often I read it. The first time was for some class in college, I don’t remember what, and I remember being surprised to find it such a struggle because I’d enjoyed every Austen book I’d read yet. This one proved to be a struggle. It wasn’t just because of the characters; I found the plot, too, was rather slow. But I was determined to give it a try. Still, it has not improved on reacquaintance, I am sorry to say.

    My main problem with Mansfield Park are the characters. Part of Austen’s charm is her heroines, even when they are slightly ridiculous, they have a certain wit, or verve, that can make them appreciable. Fanny has none of that. She is a bit of an ideal, in some ways, or at least the late 18th/early 19th ideal: patient, quiet, forebearing, religious, constant. It’s hard to relate to these qualities now, in addition, it’s harder because not only does Fanny have all of these “good” qualities, but she’s also delicate, which is not in itself a problem necessarily, but combined with her ill health, depressive moods, and inability to stand up for herself, as well as her slightly sanctimonious judgments on other characters’ actions (which, while socially correct, don’t make her particularly sympathetic), it’s very hard to feel any sympathy for Fanny, or to root for her “happy ending,” despite the fact that you’re obviously supposed to. Every time I read the book, I end up silently cheering for Mary Crawford, even though she’s supposed to be the villain. She’s just so much more interesting.

    It’s also hard to really feel pleased about the “happy ending” because, throughout the novel, it was such a one-sided love affair. Sure, you could argue that Edmund was in love with her the whole time and just didn’t know it, but it goes beyond that to an almost complete obliviousness. He spends half of the novel pursuing another girl, a much more interesting and lively girl than Fanny Price, even if she is mercenary. Up to the end, he’s pursuing Mary, up until she leaves and he suddenly realizes that the consolation prize is more suited to his personality. There’s the added creepiness of the close familial relationship between Fanny and Edmund (actually, in the first chapter, Edmund’s father and aunt discuss the possibility of the two cousins falling in love and their aunt says ‘no, they will think of each other as brother and sister’–and they do, at first). Edmund is a hard hero to admire: he’s religious, but slightly hypocritical; although he doesn’t think The Play is a good idea, but caves anyway because it’s an excuse to make Mary Crawford happy. He’s willfully blind, obtuse, etc.

    The plot is slow, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With more sympathetic characters, perhaps, it might even be enjoyable; such a closed world offers a lot of opportunity for reflective character development… but unfortunately, you end up not caring. In fact, you end up bashing your head against the metaphorical wall. I should probably just stop trying to make myself like this book and give up… she’s got four others that I relatively enjoy, anyway…

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    Jane Austen — Pride & Prejudice

    This is probably Austen’s most beloved book, and for good reason. It has all of the earmarks of a truly fantastic, timeless book: a great pair of leading characters, comical supporting characters, a classic romance, witty dialogue, even suspense. It’s also one of my favorites that she’s written, just a smidge behind Persuasion, possibly tying. It’s just really quite fun to read, and no matter how many times I re-read it (at least once or twice a year) it’s still just as enjoyable as it was the first time. In fact, it’s one of those books that I will occasionally pick up when I’m feeling a bit down and in need of cheering, because Austen’s way of giving everyone exactly what they deserve makes me smile (in addition, the process by which they get there is also cheer-inducing).

    The plot is one common to Austen: genteel upper-middle class village family with financial troubles; daughters must marry well in order to stave off ruin and pauperdom; enter the hero; circumstances and personalities conspire to keep them apart; they marry. In this case, the commonality of the plot doesn’t make it any less fresh and enjoyable, partially because the characters in Pride & Prejudice are so memorable. Here, the titular heroes (that is, Pride and Prejudice) are Elizabeth Bennett, a delightfully unconventional country girl, and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, a snobby (at first), wealthy landowner whose 10,000£ a year doesn’t counteract the fact that he’s kind of a jerk (or at least appears to be a jerk). Of course, they are secretly perfect for each other, though they have some growing up to do, and neither one of them will admit it. Throughout the novel, both of them undergo such changes, ruminations, and realizations about their own personalities and faults that when they finally do get together (seriously, I’m not spoiling anything here), you’re ready to cheer and yell, “FINALLY.”

    In between, Austen uses her characters as a sharp commentary on, as usual, ridiculousness, snobbery, and hypocrisy. Her usual grotesques make their appearance, both in Elizabeth’s family and in Darcy’s; the obsequious Mr. Collins and the puffed-up Lady Catherine are some of her most astounding in this volume. The real star of the show, though, is Elizabeth, of course; her refreshing wit, marked independence, and her charm despite the fact that she is almost the total opposite of what a young woman of her time period is expected to be. Though, of course, she operates within the confines of the time, Elizabeth makes a spirited defense of her own interests and happiness when Lady Catherine attempts to steamroller her into backing down. Yes, it’s a marriage plot, but it’s a marriage plot on Elizabeth’s terms.

    Again, this is a book that I really just enjoy re-reading. The characters are memorable, the writing crackles with electricity in its terse humor, and it’s just generally a fantastic book. There’s a reason it’s my pick-me-up. And alas… from here… it’s on to Mansfield Park.

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    Jane Austen — Sense & Sensibility

    Ah, the first of the authors of which I have several books in this apartment… sometimes a trial. Not so with Jane Austen, mostly, as I always enjoy re-reading her (with perhaps the exception of Mansfield Park–but more on that later in the week.)

    Sense & Sensibility is also, perhaps surprisingly, not one of my favorites. It’s Austen’s first published work, and you can tell–there’s a certain amount of clumsiness, of telegraphing even, that is not present in her later novels. The book centers on two heroines, also unusual for Austen (she generally focuses on one afterward), and you can clearly tell what sort of archetype each is supposed to represent: Marianne wild Romanticism; Elinor a more staid Enlightenment-era rationalism. The novel concerns their disappointments and good fortunes in life and love, from the time their father dies and they are turned out of their home by their half-brother, to Marianne’s fateful meeting with Willoughby, the Regency rake of the novel, to Elinor’s frustrated and protracted love affair with Edward Ferrars, her brother-in-law.

    Jane Austen’s sense of vicious comedy is often undervalued; one of the things I love about her books is that they so often make me laugh out loud. Sense & Sensibility is no different, as she provides a reader with a number of hilarious supporting characters, from Elinor and Marianne’s awful sister-in-law with her monstrous sense of entitled selfishness, to the calculatingly vile Lucy Steele, to the vulgar but loving Mrs. Jennings, to the sardonic Mr. Palmer. All of them are employed to great effect, and you alternately giggle and cringe as they tramp across the pages. It isn’t only the comic creations, but Austen’s very sharp tongue that lacerates them (and our heroines) that makes the book so damn funny. Even here, in the early writings, her trademark dry wit is evident, turning a phrase that, for anyone else, would have been made in all sincerity into an eviscerating comment on a character’s actions.

    Still, this is probably not among my favorites of her work… It’s enjoyable but I just don’t end up feeling quite so attached to Marianne, who is patently ridiculous, and Elinor, who though admirable, is so reserved and perfect in the polite and correctness of her responses that she almost doesn’t seem human sometimes. Worth re-reading every now and then, but not an every-year type of thing.

    Also, quick note about the edition. I have been trying to collect the new Penguin clothbound classics whenever I can find them for reasonable prices, because they are absolutely gorgeous, but this was my first time actually reading one instead of just stashing it on my shelf like a hoarder. I approve! Not only are the colors lovely, but the pages are a nice weight and texture as well. The books feel really substantial when you’re reading them, it definitely adds to the reading experience. I just wish they would stop releasing so many series of them. I only have so much money!

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