The Idiot Learns to Read #16: The Scarlet Letter

“The vulgar, who, in those dreary old times, were always contributing a grotesque horror to what interested their imaginations, had a story about the scarlet letter which we might readily work up into a terrific legend. They averred that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth, tinged in an earthly dye-pot, but was red-hot with infernal fire, and could be seen glowing all alight whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the night-time. And we must needs say it seared Hester’s bosom so deeply, that perhaps there was more truth in the rumour than our modern incredulity may be inclined to admit.”

I know that it seemed like it took me a long time to finish this book, but I actually had to put it down for about a month or so to take care of some other things.  It was pretty much a quick read, not too long, not too wordy.

Sometimes you read a book that isn’t very good.  Sometimes you a read book that is well-written but the story kinda sucks.  Sometimes you read a book and you’re like, what the fuck.

Yeah, this is that kind of book.

The Scarlet Letter was written in the 1850s but set in the 1640s, during the height of the Puritans and all their strict beliefs.  It is about a woman who has an adulterous affair and what happens to her and the people around her because of her affair.  To be quite honest, the story was a little bit like something you’d see on Maury Povich.

The story opens and Hester Prynne (our adulteress) is standing on a scaffold in the town square.  She is very obviously pregnant and it’s very obvious that her husband is not the father because it has been rumoured that he might have been lost at sea.  Back in those days women did not have affairs, whether they were married or not.  They did not have babies by men other than their husbands.  As in all societies since the dawn of man, usually it is the women who suffer strict punishments while the men get off scot-free.

So Hester is up on this scaffold and everyone is like, “Who is the baby daddy?”  She absolutely refuses to say.  The reverend, the ministers and all the town elders are interrogating her, trying to figure out who the baby daddy is.  She just won’t say, so they throw her in jail.  She stays in jail the whole time she is pregnant.  When the baby is born they drag her back out to the scaffold and demand to know who the baby’s father is.  Again, she won’t say.

Enter the Scary Old Man, Roger Chillingworth.  Even his name is scary:  Chillingworth.  He is a stranger to the town and he happens to arrive the same moment Hester is up on the scaffold with her bastard baby.  He wants to know what is going on and the townspeople tell him about Hester the Hoe.  Roger Chillingworth says, “You know, I’m a doctor.  Why don’t you let me talk to her.”  Back then they thought everything was somehow medically related.

The town elders allow Roger to talk to Hester alone.  When he goes into the jail cell, Hester is surprised to see him.  Lo and behold, he is her husband!  But get this, he’s like, “Okay, so I’ll talk to the town elders for you and see if I can get you out of jail but don’t tell them I’m your husband.”  What?  Yeah, but for whatever reason Hester agrees to this.  Roger is somehow able to talk to the elders and they release her.

Hester has to wear a giant letter “A” on her chest so that everybody will know that she is an adulteress.  I know it’s symbolism but really, don’t you think that’s a little bit extra?  They live in a small village.  She has a baby.  I think we all know that she is an adulteress.  We don’t need her to wear a large red “A,” but apparently they think it’s necessary.  Of course she is shunned by society.  They make her live on the edge of town by herself.  She is a very good seamstress and that’s how she makes a living.  She can make everything except virgins’ wedding dresses.  *eyeroll*  It’s just so ridiculously unfair.  She didn’t magically have the baby alone.  I know she did not want to name the father, but it’s just too dumb.  I know that I am using my 2011 brain and social mores against 1642 but still…

Let’s talk about the Reverend Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth.  Now you remember that the reverend was among the people on the platform demanding to know who the father of the child was.  Roger is her husband that’s also a doctor that managed to get her out of jail.  Because Roger is new to town he has no where to live so he ends up staying with the Reverend Dimmesdale, a young man who appears to be neglecting his health.  Reverend Dimmesdale is very well respected in the community–after all, he is the reverend.  He always gives very timely sermons that seem to go well with whatever is going on in the village that moment.

Almost immediately you know that something is up with this guy.  He is pretty much the only person to ever visit Hester, and he always does it secretly.  At first, you’re thinking that he doesn’t want to tarnish his good name by being seen in the company of a woman of ill-repute but then you start to realise that he is the father of Hester Prynne’s daughter Pearl.


The middle of the novel started to stagnate a little.  There was a lot going on about the damn scarlet letter Hester had to wear on her chest.  Her daughter is growing up and constantly asks what the letter means.  Pearl is described as this fae like creature because of her parentage.  She is beautiful and flighty like a little bird.  There is even a scene where she acts like she doesn’t know who her mother is when she takes the scarlet letter off.  I think Pearl was even wise enough to know that Reverend Dimmesdale was her father, even though she was only seven years old.

Finally, towards the end of the story Dimmesdale and Hester decide they can’t live like this anymore.  He is in poor health.  She has been wearing that damn letter for seven years.  It’s time to move on.  They make plans to run away together and take Pearl with them.  All this time Roger has been kind of spying on Dimmesdale and he too soon figures out that Dimmesdale is the father.

Something I could not quite understand is why Roger Chillingworth was so bitter.  First of all, when he and Hester were married in Europe, he told her to go on ahead to America and he would follow behind after he concluded his affairs.  She had been living in America for years.  Remember that everyone thought he was dead because too much time had passed.  Back in those days it wasn’t unheard of to be lost at sea.  Yeah, I get that his wife had a baby by another man but he could have easily just walked away from the whole situation the minute he arrived in town and saw that she had a kid.  He didn’t even have to make his presence known to her.  He could have kept it moving.  I guess guys always feel slighted no matter whether was real motivation or not.

Roger decides he is going to stop them going away together.  He has already allowed Dimmesdale to torment himself beyond belief.  It is like he wants this guy to go over the brink.  Hester and Dimmesdale had plans to board a ship right after the new governor is sworn into office, but he is first expected to make a sermon.  At the end of the sermon, he sees Hester and Pearl standing by the scaffold, the scene of their original torment and for whatever insane reason he just jumps onto the scaffold, dragging them with them and announces to all and sundry that he is the father.  Then he rips off his shirt to reveal that he has carved a letter “A” into his chest and has been scarring it since the day Hester was first forced to wear her letter “A.”

I mean, is that melodramatic or what?  To make it even more ridiculous, he dies, presumably from infection of having a fresh, open wound on his chest for seven years.  Roger Chillingworth is pissed.  He was to have his revenge but since Dimmesdale has died, there is nothing he can do to him.  Then Hester and Pearl disappear quietly and now he really has no one to torment.  Roger dies a year after Dimmesdale.  Randomly, he leaves Pearl all of his money, making her the wealthiest heiress in the area.

Years later, Hester returns to her little cottage by the sea but she is without Pearl.  They never really say where she went, but it’s likely she married someone in Europe.  Hester becomes kind of  counselor to the women in the town.  They all realise how they wronged her because of her indiscretion.  They all realise how they too have suffered a mistake and the price they have paid, so they come to her to seek her advice on various issues.  Eventually, years on down the line, Hester dies and she is buried in a new grave next to Dimmesdale’s old grave.

Like I said before, I kept trying to put 2011 into this 1642 tale.  My sensibilities were offended at the fact that she had to walk around with this “A” on her chest and that she had to live on the edge of town, everyone shunning her.  I didn’t like how Dimmesdale never came forward in all that time.  He would have been ridiculed too but probably they would have been forced to marry and then everyone would have forgotten about them eventually.  But that is just like a man for you, never one to take responsibility.  I don’t care if he “suffered in silence.”  Hester suffered openly.

I thought the book was well-written even if it did kind of linger too long on stuff that seemed irrelevant.  Or maybe it was pertinent and I just didn’t understand it.  At any rate, it was a pretty good book.  I’m sorry it took me so long to read it; I just got sidetracked on other things.

I give it a B+

Next I am going to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, since it’s on my reading list for a class.

The Idiot Learns to Read #15: Jane Eyre

Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you?  Do you think I am an automaton?–a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup?  Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?  You think wrong!–I have as much soul as you,–and full as much heart!  And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.  I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;–it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,–as we are!

This has easily become one of my favourite books.  It is a story that I knew well but had never actually read.  There are dozens of movie versions available, but I always say, nothing can compare to a book.  Jane Eyre is a love story, but not in the sappy rom-com style.  You aren’t laden with drivel and sugary sweet words, “I love you” every five minutes.  It is torturous.  It is painful.  It is dark.  It is intelligent. 

The story begins with Jane Eyre as a little girl.  Her parents died when she was but an infant, leaving to her live with her bitchy Aunt Reed who doesn’t seem to care for her very much.  Aunt Reed and her three children treat Jane as a poor relation, even though she promised to care for Jane as one of her own.  Instead, she sends Jane to live in a school for orphans.  This school is typical of the time period:  dark, dreary, lonely and full of oppressive religion.  The students are starved, beaten, and mistreated.  Jane’s best friend dies after an outbreak of typhoid at the school.

Jane stays at the school until she is 18, but she desires to see something else of the world.  So far, most of her life she has spent it someplace where people don’t really care for her.  She decides to take out an advertisement in the paper for a new job.  She ends up at Thornfield Hall, and this is where the real story begins. 

The book is not particuarly long and the language is very simple to read, but there is quite a lot going on.  It’s hard to summarise it, and now I know why the various movies I’ve seen based on this book skip over some parts.  Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall to be governess to a little girl Adele.  Jane loves her new job but doesn’t meet her new master until some time later.  When she does finally meet Mr. Edward Rochester, she doesn’t fall immediately in love with him, like how you find in most romance novels.  I like this.  I think he falls in love with her first, while she realises that she is just a governess, a poor one and that it is too ridiculous for her to start dreaming above her station.  Jane is very practical and logical.  She approaches everything in life with sound reasoning. 

For some reason, as I write this, I can’t seem to summon the words to summarise this novel properly.  I think I am not meant to.  This is a novel you must read on your own to get its fullest enjoyment.  You might ask, “Well, how can I know I want to read it, if you don’t tell me what it’s about?”  As I said, it’s a love story with twists and turns, lies and deceit, regrets and misfortune.  Just when you think there might be a happily ever after, there’s something waiting to rain on your parade.  Jane, a resourceful woman, is not one to dwell on woulda, shoulda, coulda and she does what she has to do to preserve her peace of mind and sanity.  Mr. Rochester, the love of her life, is the one who is tortured by the decisions he has made. 

This is not an adventurous tale, but one that makes you ask you the question, “What would I do if I were in love with someone that was forever divided from me?”  Would you move on with your life and try your hardest to forget?  Would you forgive the one you loved if he had deceived you in the worst way?  If he begged you to stay, would you, knowing that you two may never be together in the way that you want?  Could you love someone else after that?

I give Charlotte Bronte an A+.  I am almost torn between this one and her sister’s Wuthering Heights.  That was a great book too.  Next I am going to read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The Idiot Learns to Read #14: Heart of Darkness

Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances.

Fail.  Fail.  Fail.  Epic fail. 

I don’t even know how to begin writing about this book.  It was incredibly boring.  My mind kept wandering, forcing me to re-read parts.  I also could hardly understand what was happening, the way it was written was so confusing.  I have to say that this is one of the worst books I’ve ever read.  If I hadn’t already failed at Great Expectations I would have put this book down.  It was short, so I pushed through it, somehow. 

Why was this book terrible?  Besides being boring as hell, I couldn’t understand what was going on.  The book is narrated by an unknown person, telling the story of a man named Marlow.  Nobody else in the story had a name (except one other guy) and I started to get confused who was who.  Then the narrator would speak Marlow’s words, and have a conversation with other people, and I got lost trying to figure out who was talking, who did what, and who was who. 

Second, the book appeared to have no point at all.  What was this story about?  Charles Marlow, a steamboat captain on some Godforsaken river in Africa….and what?  I don’t know.  Marlow’s aunt helps him get this job on a steamboat on the Congo River in Africa.  It describes him getting on the boat with four other men (who are nameless and appear to have no use) and some cannibals to go up river to get this guy Kurtz.  Kurtz is some kind of jack-of-all-trades, genius, ivory hunter, or some such.  I never could exactly figure out why they had to go to get Kurtz. 

Then there was a good deal about the river and how gloomy and dark everything was in Africa.  Something about the natives (referred to as niggers) being poorly treated and how they looked like animals because of how broken down they were.  I think Kurtz somehow becomes like the natives and he’s participating in raids attacking the white colonists.  Then he’s sick (the narrator never exactly explains what’s wrong with him). 

They find Kurtz, put him back on the boat and he’s dying.  He has some papers that he wants Marlow to hang on to for him and give to his fiancee back home.  Kurtz is apparently feeling a little guilty about the things he’s done in his life, but I’m sorry to say, I couldn’t exactly figure out what was so bad about him.  He dies, crying out, “the horror!  The horror!” 

In fact, all of this I’m telling you I got from the wikipedia page, and not from the actual book because I couldn’t understand what the fuck was going on.  When I got to the end of the book, I was like… huh?  Normally, I would go back and re-read some sections but I just couldn’t force myself to do it.  It just wasn’t worth trying to understand. 

This book was supposed to represent themes of the darkness of mankind, the darkness lurking beneath the surface of a civilised person (again, stolen from Wikipedia).  I guess I am not as smart as I think I am because I just did not get it.  I did not enjoy this book at all.  I didn’t understand it.  It’s not even a book I could say I hated but yet learned something from it.  I feel as if I have wasted two weeks of my life–two weeks that I will never get back.

I don’t know how decides what gets to be a literary masterpiece, but if I were in charge, this book would be set on fire.

F- for you, Mr. Conrad. 

I think I’m going to go back to gothic fiction.  You can never go wrong with gothic fiction.  I will read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

The Idiot Learns to Read #13: Madame Bovary

Love, she thought, must come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightnings –a hurricane of the skies, which falls upon life, revolutionises it, roots up the will like a leaf, and sweeps the whole heart into the abyss.

This is a sad tale of what happens to people who marry who are not equally yoked.  There are some who are brilliant enough to pass it off, but for the most part, people coming from the opposite ends of life never do well together.  Madame Bovary highlights all the problems of a couple who were entirely ill-suited.

The story starts with a young Charles Bovary finally attending school for the first time.  He’s had an unorthodox childhood, but his mother is determined to see him distinguished in any fashion.  She goes to such great lengths to ensure his education.  He is a young man without much ambition, but because of her machinations he manages to finish school as a mediocre doctor.  He was content to live out his days like that but his mother also wanted him to have an excellent marriage.  She arranges for him to marry a widow.  It would be quite a boring story, the lives of Charles Bovary and his new wife for they are not all interesting, but this wife is not the Madame Bovary we are interested in.

Charles becomes infatuated with the daughter of one of his patients.  The girl is beautiful, unlike anything he has ever seen.  His wife, of course, is jealous, even though she never lays eyes on the girl.  She just knows that her husband is spending all his time on this one patient.  Charles is so middle of the road that he would never dream of stepping out on his wife.  Instead, she becomes ill and dies, leaving Charles free.  Of course, he’s so stodgy and boring that he does wait the suitable mourning period before he begins courting young Emma, a girl who has been educated in a convent. 

When they get married, Emma becomes the Madame Bovary that will captivate you, and eventually disillusion you.  At first, Emma is quite excited to be married and Charles is a devoted husband.  Eventually, however, the days of her marriage seem to run together.  She becomes immediatley unhappy and Charles has no idea why.  She is bored and listless though Charles does everything in his power to amuse her.  She becomes so caught up in her boredom and unhappiness that she makes herself ill.  Charles, who is barely competent as a doctor, hires on another doctor to look after her.  This doctor says the air is what is making Madame Bovary ill and that she should be moved to someplace with more affable air.  Upon hearing this, Emma drinks vinegar to make herself more ill, to persuade Charles to move away from the sleepy little village in which they currently reside.

This is the first evidence you see that points to Emma as a spoiled and wilful woman, uncaring of other people’s feelings  Charles becomes so alarmed that he immediately packs everything up and they move to another town that is more modern. 

That very first day theya rrive in the new town, Emma meets Monsieur Leon.  The two have much in common and it’s evident that they are immediately attracted to one another.  Charles is completely oblivious to all of this.  He thinks Leon is just a polite gentleman to be so kind to his wife. 

Shortly after their arrival in town, Emma and Charles have a baby but you can tell that Emma is not really into the whole pregnancy and motherhood thing.  Charles was quite excited, but Emma seemed distant.  When she was alone, she prayed for a boy because a boy wouldn’t be stuck in the dreary life she was in.  She was extremely disappointed when the child was born female.  To further highlight her disinterest in the child, she took forever in naming the child.  Eventually, they settle on Berthe.

After Berthe’s birth, Emma goes back to her regular mundane life, but slowly realising that she is in love with Leon.  Heretofore, they were merely polite with one another, but she ends up kind of stalking him in a way.  She hangs out her window every time he goes past, trying to figure out where he is going.  She would show up randomly at the house he’s staying at.  Emma would visit the wife of the household in a barely concealed attempt to see Leon.  The more she realises she is in love with Leon the more she realises she hates Charles.  She becomes even more depressed, growing thin and pale.  Charles doesn’t seem to see any of this.  He thinks she is finally settled down and happy now they have a baby.  He doesn’t even notice that Emma is not really that into the baby; in fact, she doesn’t even see the kid.  Emma’s hatred for Charles grows because he doesn’t seem to pay attention to her needs. 

Leon doesn’t make things any better because he also decides that he is in love with Emma.  He sees no point in confessing his love, howeve, because she is married.  It first, it does not enter into his mind to have an affair.  Instead of dealing with his emotions, he decides to pack up for Paris.  When Emma finds out that he is leaving, she sinks into a black depression, leaving Charles completely baffled as to what is wrong with her.

Enter Rodolphe Boulanger.  He is an older man witha large estate near town.  He’s very self-important and arrogant.  In modern times, he’d be called a player.  He has lots of women all over the place and the moment he sees Emma, he decides that she needs to be his next conquest.  He does whatever he can to put himself in her line of sight, and eventually she does take notice of him.  She likes him because he is interesting and worldly, everything Charles is not.  She falls so easily into his trap.  Charles is so stupid that he doesn’t even see what is going on.  Rodolphe basically courts her right under his nose.  Charles even condones some of Rodolphe’s activities.  Rodolphe randomly shows up one day asking if Emma would like to go horeseback riding.  Oh, Emma doesn’t have a horse.  Oh, I just happen to have one right here.  Oh, you go on, honey.  You have a great time.  I feel sorry for Charles.  He doesn’t even know he’s stupid. 

They day they are out riding, Rodolphe and Emma sleep together.  Now Emma is in love.  She is sneaking out everyday to be with him.  She doesn’t care who sees her.  She doesn’t care about the consquences.  She becomes so bold and reckless that Rodolphe has to tell her to slow down.  She’s getting out of control and she could damage both their reputations.  This is at a time when affairs were carried on in the most discreet fashion and the slightest smudge against a lady’s name could ruin her forever.  It’s like she doesn’t even care though. 

It’s sad because Emma is so head over heels in love with Rodolphe but he’s like whatever about her.  To him, she’s just another chick.  She’s got it into her head that they were meant to be together, and she wants to run off with him, leave Charles.  Rodolphe doesn’t like the sound of that.  In order to reason with her, he asks her, “What about your kid?”  Oh, we’ll take her with us.  The thought of taking care of a woman and her baby is sickening to Rodolphe but he doesn’t say anything to Emma quite yet.  Emma concocts this wild plan that Rodolphe only half-heartedly agrees to.  After she leaves their love next, Rodolphe decides that he’s had quite enough of this whole affair and it’s time for him to move on.  He writes Emma a very long letter basically explaining to her that running away together is not really that great an idea.  He ends it with a “let’s just be friends.”  He thinks the letter will make her see sense and reason, but it’s the type of letter that would drive a woman crazy, especially since she is butt-crazy in love with him. 

Instead of bringing the letter himself, he sends his servant along with a basket of apricots.  Naturally, when Emma reads the letter she goes practically insane.  She starts crying and carrying on.  Charles has no idea what’s going on with her.  He is so stupid that he thinks the apricots have made her ill.  She carries on so much that she falls into a feverish delerium for months.  It takes her months to recover and Charles becomes more doting than ever.  They have begun to fall into financial troubles but he says nothing of this to her. 

She does get better, and Charles takes her into town to see a show.  While there, she runs into Leon.  Their loves is immediatley renewed upon seeing one another and eventually they do begin a real love affair.  Emma lies to Charles and tells him that she is taking piano lessons.  But like all things, this also plays itself out.  Emma wants to spend more and more time with Leon.  He thinks she’s being reckless.  People are starting to notice things.  She is staying out all night, and one night she doesn’t even come home.  This is a thing unheard of.  Charles just doesn’t have a clue what is happening.  Even Leon’s boss says something.  Someone writes to his mother and she warns him about taking up with a married woman in this fashion.

Leon has to break it off, but before he can do this the financial troubles of the Bovarys catch up with them.  All this time, Emma has been spending wildly.  Borrowing money from one person to pay another.  She has to have the most fashionable hats and gowns.  She has to have silver and Chinese fans.  She has to have everything because she thinks these things will make her happy.  Charles had always told her that she had to be a little less free with the money but she never paid any attention to this.  One day, one of her debtors finally comes to her and says he wants his money:  8000 francs.  Back then, that’s a lot of money.  Emma tries desperately to get the money from anybody she can but she has borrowed so much that no one will lend her anything.  She asks Leon and he just doesn’t have that kind of money. 

She accuses him of not loving her.  They quarrel badly and this is pretty much the last time they see each other.  In a final act of desperation, Emma runs into Rodolphe and asks him for the money.  If he would have had it, he would have given it to her but he doesn’t.  She also tells him that he never loved her.  Meanwhile, Charles is still clueless about what is happening.  He has his own debts but knows nothing of Emma’s serious debt.  He doesn’t even know about the affairs with Leon and Charles. 

One night, Emma comes home, looking wild and crazy.  She has swallowed arsenic.  Charles does whatever he can, calling all the doctors but nothing can be done.  Emma has killed herself.  It was really quite sad because Charles just didn’t know what had tormented her so.  He didn’t know why he could never make her happy.  Even after her death he tries to please her.  He has an extravagant funeral arranged for her that everyone tries to talk him out of.  Emma’s debtors wait a suitable period but they come around for the money once more.  Charles ends up completely destitute, still madly in love with Emma and blind to all of her faults.

One day, he finds a letter that Rodolphe had written to Emma.  Even then Charles refused to believe it.  He tells himself that it must have been a platonic love.  After all, he loved her so, everybody else should love her just like he did.  He also learns of Leon’s marriage shortly after Emma’s death.  Charles says to himself, “How happy Emma would be to know this.”  It’s like he purposely refused to see what was in front of his own nose this whole time.  It’s just so depressing.  You just want to shake some sense into him.  You want to slap Emma. 

Charles does what he can to pay off all his debts but he has become reclusive from society.  He just cannot get over Emma’s death.  By the time everything is paid he has very little money left.  He still has his daughter to take care of but in his selfishness and grief, he doesn’t do what he should have done until it was too late.  Charles dies and Berthe goes to live with his mother, but she died the same year.  Berthe goes to live with an aunt but the aunt is too poor to take care of Berthe, so she sends the little girl to work in a cotton factory. 

This is the last you hear of the Bovarys.

The story was utterly depressing, but not in a way that I felt sad for myself.  I felt sorry for these people.  Emma was so childish, so immature, so petty.  Charles treated her like a princess but she treated him like dirt.  She even treated her lovers like garbage.  She was clingy and needy, reviling them with her stalkerish behaviour.  Rodolphe was a player but Leon loved her until he couldn’t give her what she needed:  money.  In the end, I didn’t feel sorry for her.  I felt sorry for Charles because he just wanted to be an average middle-of-the-road guy.  He didn’t desire for things beyond his reach.  He thought he had everything:  a career, a beautiful wife, a lovely daughter.  But he was so blind to everything around him.  Maybe he didn’t want open his eyes and see that he really had nothing.  In the end, I couldn’t feel sorry for him either.  Once Emma was gone, he had one responsibility and that was Berthe.  That’s who we should all feel sorry for.  Even though she is a minor character in the story, she’s the one who suffered from stupidity of her parents.

I give Mr. Flaubert an A for this story.  It was a little wordy in parts, but it was a fast read.  I could have gone through it much faster had I not been so busy at work. 

Next I will read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The Idiot Learns to Read #12: Crime and Punishment

Ghosts are, as it were, shreds and fragments of other worlds, the beginning of them. A man in health has, of course, no reason to see them, because he is above all a man of this earth and is bound for the sake of completeness and order to live only in this life. But as soon as one is ill, as soon as the normal earthly order of the organism is broken, one begins to realise the possibility of another world; and the more seriously ill one is, the closer becomes one’s contact with that other world, so that as soon as the man dies he steps straight into that world.

Crime and Punishment is the bizarre tale of a young man who has dropped out of university and decides to commit a murder he thinks will benefit society.  For whatever reason, Raskolnikov has left school and is now living in poverty.  Although he can get money from his mother, he decides to walk around completely dejected and impoverished, pawning his things with a crooked pawnbroker up the street.  It is she that he decides to kill.

He convinces himself that her death will benefit everyone, because she is a bloodsucker and malevolent.  He thinks that his peers will probably give him a medal for doing so.  He concots this plan to get rid of her.  It’s very cold and calculating, down to the last minute detail.  After having a very graphic dream about men beating a horse, then killing it with an axe, he decides to kill the woman with an axe.  He has all these dreams up to the murder, all of them basically convincing him that he is doing the right thing. 

”A familiar phenomenon, actions are sometimes performed in a masterly and most cunning way, while the direction of the actions is deranged and dependent on various morbid impressions– it’s like a dream.”

Raskolnikov does kill her, but he seems almost surprised that he did it.  Also, he kills her stepdaughter, not on purpose, but because the girl had the misfortune of showing up at the scene of the crime.  He steals the pawnbroker’s money as intended, but then ends up never using the money.  I don’t know if it’s guilt, or maybe he was afraid to get caught, but he hides everything he took under a rock somewhere.  He never even bothers to go back for it. 

After the murder, Raskolnikov seems to really go crazy.  He’s having strange dreams.  He thinks that everyone is out to get him, even his friends and family.  His mother and sister travel up to Petersburg, where he lives, because the sister Dounia is getting married, and Raskolnikov thinks that they have somehow discovered he is a murderer.  Everywhere he turns, he has this idea that everyone is watching him, that everyone knows, that everyone is just toying with him.  They want him to confess.  They’re trying to trick him into saying something. 

He begins to treat all of his close friends and family with detachment.  He’s rude to them, pushing them away.  Nobody can understand why he is acting this way.  In the middle of his psychosis, a number of other things are happening to the people around him.

His sister Dounia and his mother came to Petersburg because Dounia was to be married to Pyotr.  Dounia was turned out of her position as a maid because the mistress of the house accused her of having an affair with her husband Svidgrailov.  This turned out to be false, but Dounia left anyway.  Raskolnikov’s friend, Razumihin meets Dounia and falls immediately in love with her but is despaired because she’s going to marry Pyotr.

In the meantime, someone else confesses to the crime.  Raskolnikov thinks it’s all a ploy.  He goes to the police to say something to the lead detective Porfiry, but ends up changing his mind because he thinks that Porfiry is setting a trap for him.  It’s all very strange, his mindset. 

Raskolnikov’s friend Maledov gets drunk in the street and is run over by a carriage.  The family is very poor because Maledov has been drinking up all the money, so Rasklonikov decides to help with the funeral costs.  Because of this he meets Sonia, Maledov’s eldest daughter who has been prostituting herself so that her three younger siblings can eat.  Despite the fact that Sonia is a prositute, she is good and honest and extremely Christian.  She realises people look down on her because she’s a prostitute but she understands that this is a sacrifice that she has to make for the family.  Raskolnikov immediately becomes enamoured with her but at first you really can’t tell.  He’s so odd and in the middle of a guilty delerium. 

He is still treating everyone like garbage, but now he’s going aruond asking people, “Do you think I could have committed this murder?”  Everyone is looking at him like he’s crazy.  I think he is. 

Raskolnikov hates Dounia’s fiance, thinking he’s up to no good.  He runs him off, much to Razumihin’s delight.  Now he and Dounia can be togeher once he makes his fortunate.  Svidgrailov, Dounia’s old employer, shows up, much to everyone’s annoyance.  He has murdered his wife, but there is no evidence, so he gets away with it.  He is obsessed with Dounia and tries to give her all this money.  He even gives money to Sonia’s siblings after their mother dies.  He is a very odd character and I can’t see how he fits into the story sometimes.  He has visions of his dead wife haunting him, and after he tries to blackmail Dounia he commits suicide. 

Because he is very affectionate with Sonia and Sonia is so God-fearing, she eventually gets him to confess to his crimes and urges him to go to the police and tell them the truth.  Even though it means that he will be sent to a Siberian prison, she says that she will stand by him until his sentence is complete.  Eventually the whole thing comes out.  Dounia, Razumihin and everybody are all properly shocked but it’s like a weight comes off his shoulders once he finally confesses.  He does slip back into a period where he is basically a jerk to everyone around him, but little by little with Sonia’s care he returns to normalcy.

I really enjoyed this book despite its great length.  That is what took me so long, just getting through it.  Dostoevsky also is extremely wordy and descriptive.  I did find myself skimming through some hefty chapters because it was basically rambling thoughts on behalf of the characters.  Raskolnikov was perplexing.  I don’t know if he was crazy or maybe just a homicidal maniac.  Did he really believe all that crap about doing the public a service?  He had thoughts of murdering other people:  Porfiry, Svidgrailov, almost everyone he came into contact because he thought they were out to get him.  He’s the one that committed a heinous crime!  Why should they not be after him.

I give Dostoevsky an A-.  I would give him an A+ but he lost points for being so damn verbose.  I am guilty of that myself, but enough’s enough sometimes.  Next, I’d like to read William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury for my book club but I can’t find it online, so I might go with Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

The Idiot Learns to Read #11: My Antonia

When the sun was dropping low, Antonia came up the big south draw with her team. How much older she had grown in eight months! She had come to us a child, and now she was a tall, strong young girl, although her fifteenth birthday had just slipped by. I ran out and met her as she brought her horses up to the windmill to water them. She wore the boots her father had so thoughtfully taken off before he shot himself, and his old fur cap. Her outgrown cotton dress switched about her calves, over the boot-tops. She kept her sleeves rolled up all day, and her arms and throat were burned as brown as a sailor’s. Her neck came up strongly out of her shoulders, like the bole of a tree out of the turf. One sees that draught-horse neck among the peasant women in all old countries.

I didn’t think I would like this book.  I’m not really much into westerns and prairie stories.  Who wants to read about a country boy growing up on a farm and then in some small pokey little town in the midwest?

It turned out to be riveting and I flew through the pages quickly because suddenly I had a vested interest in this boy’s life.  Despite the title My Antonia is really about a young boy who moves to Nebraska from Virginia after his parents die.  He goes to live with his grandparents on their farm, just around the way from some Bohemian people, the Shimerdas.  They have a daughter, Antonia.  From the day he first meets her, Jim has a certain love affair with this girl who is a few years older than him.  He is 10 years old when they first meet.

They spend their growing up years playing together out on the prairie.  It was all very sweet and innocent, but he can’t help the way he feels about her.  She treats him like a child, but they have an intense friendship.  Later, Jim’s grandparents decide they are too old to maintain a farm and they move into town.  Jim doesn’t get to see Antonia much anymore until she too later moves to town to get a job.

This book highlights what happens when there are missed opportunities and unspoken desires.  By the time Antonia comes to town, she is grown and Jim is still in high school.  Of course, he’s too young to really profess his love for her.  He hates how she goes running around with boys her own age, but there’s nothing really he can do about it.  By the time Jim comes of age, he goes off to college and leaves Antonia behind.

While away at school he meets up with another girl he grew up with, Lena Lindgard and for a little while I thought it was her that he would marry, but I soon realised that she was just a chapter in his life.  The two even spent a bit of time talking about Antonia.  Eventually Jim leaves even Lena to go east to attend law school.

Many years later, Jim returns to his small hometown to find that Antonia has married and now has 10 children.  He wasn’t bitter or disappointed.  It’s just that their lives took them in two different directions.  It was never meant to be, maybe.  Perhaps it was the difference in their ages, the difference in their upbringing.  It could have been anything.  Whatever it was, they never get together.

I really enjoyed this book.  The language was easy without being dumbed-down.  I felt each and every character as if I knew these people.  Jim had a way of really putting his thoughts forward.  I give Willa Cather an A+

Next up is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  This is sure to be a heavy read.  I don’t know how I feel about this.  I’ll let you know.

The Idiot Learns to Read #10: Dracula


I can’t believe it took me so long to get through this book.  So many times I wanted to put it down but I forced myself to go on because I didn’t want to have two abandoned books under my belt.

Obviously, I didn’t enjoy the book.  The beginning quite hooked me but afterward it feel into an anticlimactic pit from which I could not escape.  I tried to trudge through it, then I put it down for a month only to punish myself by insisting that I pick it back up again.

There are many stories about vampires out there.  Most of us are aware of the legend of Dracula.  This is another one of those; maybe an original, I don’t know.  As much as I love vampires, I just couldn’t get into it.

It starts off with a young attorney visiting a client on behalf of his London-based firm.  He goes to Transylvania to see this client.  Little does he know that the client is a vampire.  The reader can guess, of course, because unusual things to start to happen.  The man exhibits superhuman strength.  He seems to have this ability to communicate with nocturnal beasts.  He doesn’t have a reflection in the mirror.  He doesn’t ever appear in the daylight.  He doesn’t eat.  So on and so forth.

I like this first part because the attorney (his name is Jonathan) catalogs his terror.  At first, he’s just mildly curious.  As stranger things begin to happen at this creepy castle in Transylvania, he becomes more and more afraid.  He even tries to write to his wife at home, but Count Dracula steals all of his letters, then all of his pen and paper.  Jonathan is effectively a prisoner in the castle until he manages a daring escape.  When he gets home, he tells his wife Mina of everything that happens, and that where my interest started to wane.

Count Dracula decides there is not enough fresh meat for him in Transylvania so he wants to go to London.  He gets on a ship and mysteriously kills most of the sailors, and then unleashes terror on the unsuspecting people of London and its suburbs, or whatever.  I just could not keep up with everything because of the way the story was written.

The story was written from the perspective of all the main characters.  It was a collection of diaries, journals, letters and memos written back and forth.  So every time you read someone else’s journal, you were reading from their perspective.  That’s what got so confusing because sometimes you would be reading the same thing over again but from somebody else’s point of view.  It just got old.  I started to regain my interest after Mina’s friend, Lucy was attacked by the vampire but after she died I fell off again and could never pick it back up.

I skimmed through most of the chapters because everything was extremely long winded.  Too much talking and not enough action.  A good book should have a healthy mix of description and dialogue.  Too much of either one and it’s a disaster.  The last seven chapters were devoted to the preparation of killing Count Dracula.  Okay, I understand he needs to die.  There’s certain precautions to take, but do we really need SEVEN WHOLE CHAPTERS?

And then the ending, everything just wrapped up neatly at the end.  It was disappointing.  I expected a lot more bloodshed since Dracula is so fiendish a creature.  It was a big let down.

I’m very glad to be finished with this novel.  Mr. Stoker, I give you a D- for your novel.  The only reason you didn’t fail altogether is because I actually like vampire stories.  You did get me interested in the beginning of the book but you failed to hold me through to the end.  I even started reading my next book while I was trying to finish this one up.  That’s how bad it was.

Next up is Willa Cather’s My Antonia.