Tag: classic

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

October 24th, 2013 — 10:05am

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley was published in 1818, when Shelley was 21 years old (if you want to feel awful about your life accomplishments). Shelley began writing the book, about scientist Victor Frankenstein and his horrific science experiment, after a dream she had and as the result of a competition between her, her husband Percy Shelley, John Polidori, and Lord Byron to determine who could write the best horror story. Best. Contest. Ever.


Frankenstein is written in the epistolary form through letters from Captain Walton to his sister. Captain Walton is sailing around the North Pole in hopes of acheiving fame. One day, he and his crew see a giant figure commanding a dog sled, and a few hours later, discover a frozen and malnourished man named Victor Frankenstein. The crew bring him onboard the ship and he stays with Captain Walton as he recovers. Victor tells Walton the story of his life as a warning against being overly ambitious and doing dangerous things in pursuit of academic fame.

As a child growing up in Geneva, young Victor is fascinated by science — at a young age, he witnesses lightning split a massive oak tree in half and becomes fixated on the power of electricity. He has two younger brothers, Ernest and William, and his parents take in an orphan, Elizabeth Lavenza, with whom Victor falls in love. Victor begins to study the science of natural wonders, and as he prepares to go to Germany to attend the University of Ingolstadt, Victor’s mother dies of scarlet fever.

When he gets to the university, Victor begins his studies and embarks on the experiment to create life. He visits graveyards to collect body parts and creates a human body; though it is an oversized body, as he decides to make the body eight feet tall in order to compensate for the minute body parts that are difficult to work with. He is disappointed that his creature, which he envisioned to be beautiful, is actually hideous — after bringing the body to life, Victor is repulsed and horrified by it and runs from the room. When he returns to the room later, the monster has disappeared.

His fear of the monster and the realization of what he has done overwhelms him and Victor falls ill. His childhood friend, Henry Clerval, nurses him back to health. After a four month recovery period, Victor is summoned home when his younger brother, William, is found murdered. William’s nanny, Justine, is found with William’s locket and is found guilty of his murder, though she and Victor maintain her innocence — Victor is convinced that his creature killed William. Justine is hanged for William’s murder.

Victor blames himself for both William and Justine’s deaths, and he goes camping in the mountains to reflect and keep harm from others. The creature finds him in the mountains and tells him what has happened to him since Victor left him abandoned in the science room. Victor is surprised to find that the creature is articulate and well-spoken, which is from his observations of humans.

When he left the laboratory, the creature was afraid of humans and found an abandoned cottage secluded from the surrounding village. A family, the DeLaceys, lived in a neighboring cottage, and the creature was drawn to them and became obsessed with watching them. He listened to them speak and found books and taught himself to read and speak. He eventually works up the courage to speak to the DeLaceys and begins with the old man who is blind. He speaks with him and gains his trust, but when the younger DeLaceys see him, they are repulsed and chase him away. The creature sees a reflection of himself and realizes that he doesn’t look like other humans that he has seen and is, in fact, monstrous in appearance. So he burns down the DeLaceys’ house. As you do.


The creature tells Victor that, as he is responsible for the existence of the creature, he is responsible for his happiness. He demands that Victor make a companion for him, so that they may live together away from other people and be happy. He tells Victor that if he makes a female companion for him, that they will go to South America and never bother him again.

Victor agrees out of fear for himself and his family. One night, Victor has a dream that when he creates the female creature, they breed creatures that take over mankind. He creates the female creature, but destroys her after he catches a glimpse of the creature watching him through a window.


The creature channels his inner mob boss and tells Victor that he had better spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder and vowing that he will be there on his wedding night, and not to enjoy a piece of wedding cake. The creature leaves and Victor, understandably shaken, goes to visit Henry Clerval; when Victor arrives on the Irish beach, he discovers Henry’s corpse and is accused of Henry’s murder. Victor is imprisoned for the murder and when he is acquitted, his father takes him back to Geneva to recover from his mental breakdown.

Elizabeth, the Frankensteins’ ward, marries Victor when he returns home. That night, Victor tells Elizabeth to stay in their room while he goes out to confront the creature, but he can’t find it. He returns to the house when he hears Elizabeth scream and he realizes that the creature did not intend to murder Victor at all. He sees the creature through the window and, as he approaches the window, the creature points at Elizabeth’s lifeless body.

At the shock of Elizabeth’s death, as well as the deaths of William, Justine, and Henry, Victor’s father dies. Victor has now lost everyone close to him and vows to devote the rest of his life to finding and destroying the monster. He follows him to the North Pole, which is where he was rescued by Captain Walton.

Walton next writes that he believes Victor’s tale and wishes that he had known him in his better days, as he is now a wreck of a man. A few days later, the ship is trapped in ice. Victor dies right before the ship is to head back to England and Walton hears a strange noise coming from Victor’s room. Investigating the noise, Walton is startled to find the monster, as hideous as Victor had described, weeping over his dead creator’s body. The monster begins to tell him of all his sufferings. He says that he deeply regrets having become an instrument of evil and that, with his creator dead, he is ready to die. He leaves the ship and departs into the darkness.

There have been many interpretations as to the meaning of Shelley’s work — is Frankenstein a commentary on the dangers of science or the importance of parenting? Mary Shelley had experienced a difficult miscarriage before writing this book, and would experience life-threatening marriages after its publication. Her husband/baby daddy, Percy Shelley, was not very sympathetic to her maternal woes, especially as he had several affairs (including an affair on his first wife with Mary, oops), leading scholars to believe that the purpose of Frankenstein was to highlight the importance of raising the children/monsters that you sire. There is a responsibility of parents to make sure that their children and fed, clothed, and not terrorizing villagers and setting their houses on fire.


The most famous of the movie adaptations is arguably the 1931 Boris Karloff movie, as well as it’s subsequent sequels, spin-offs, and parodies. While it is loosely adapted (Victor’s name is changed to Henry, the monster is given a criminal brain due to the incompetence of his assistant, the monster goes on a killing spree, including killing a little girl who’s throwing flowers into a lake or something, I don’t know, just a lot of killing and villagers storming the laboratory with pitchforks), it is what the general public thinks of when they think of Frankenstein — greenish skin, bolts on the neck, flattop haircut, lots of grunting. Also part of the pop culture — referring to the monster as Frankenstein. It’s wrong and you shouldn’t do it. I mean, you can do it, but you might be mocked and/or thrown into a lake.

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31. Animal Farm by George Orwell

October 10th, 2013 — 10:12am

Animal Farm was published in 1945 by George Orwell. As previously discussed, Orwell loves himself a dystopia — in this case, the dystopia is exploring the world of Communism and the rise of Stalinist Russia under the guise of animals.


On Manor Farm, everything is going along as farms generally do, though Farmer Jones is known to be a tad bit cruel — he sometimes gets drunk and forgets to feed the animals, so that’s not the best animal ownership. Old Major, an old boar, gathers all of the animals together and tells them that he had a dream that animals controlled their own fates, as humans are parasites on the animals — they don’t do any work yet get all of the gain from the animals’ work. He calls his ideas “Animalism,” and the farm animals all agree that would be a wonderful way to live. They end their meeting by signing a song taught to them by Old Major called “Beasts of England,” all about the animals’ greatness.

When Old Major dies, two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, take up Old Major’s cause, organizing the animals against Farmer Jones, who leaves the farm when the animals attack him and his workers. The animals renamed the farm Animal Farm. They adopt the Seven Commandments of Animalism:

1. Whatever goes on two legs is an enemy.

2. Whatever goes on four legs, or has wings, is a friend.

3. No animal shall wear clothes.

4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.

5. No animal shall drink alcohol.

6. No animal shall kill any other animal.

7. All animals are equal.

Everything goes well on Animal Farm — all of the animals work, though they begin to notice that the cows milk is disappearing. Snowball is educating all of the animals, while Napoleon takes the puppies born to the two dogs on the farm and teaches them in secret, to the point where the animals don’t remember their existence. Mollie, the pony who enjoyed the finer things in life and had ribbons in her hair, leaves the farm when she is made to work, while Boxer, the carthorse, takes up the slack, making “I will work harder” his personal motto.

A schism between Napoleon and Snowball emerges, especially over the building of a windmill to bring power and productivity to the farm — Snowball is for it, Napoleon is against it. During a debate in front of the animals, Napoleon gets up and whistles, and a pack of dogs come charging at Snowball, chasing him off the farm. The animals realize that Napoleon has been training the puppies into his personal security team. Another pig, Squealer, convinces the animals that Snowball has been against them the entire time and that Napoleon has been singlehandedly working for the success of Animal Farm.

Things get bleaker on the farm. The animals begin to notice that the commandments are changing, small adjustments made to them until they’re finally changed to one single commandment: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Boxer becomes hurt and Squeaker tells the animals that Napoleon has arranged for Boxer to be taken to an animal hospital, but Benjamin, the cynical donkey on the farm, reads the side of the truck that comes for Boxer and sees that Boxer has been sold to a knacker for slaughter, and the money is going to buy whiskey for the pigs.

Years pass, and the pigs begin to walk on two legs, wear clothes, and carry whips. Napoleon also begins doing business with local farmers and invites them all over to a dinner, where he tells them that he’s changing the name of the farm back to Manor Farm. The other animals, who look in the window at them, realize that they can no longer distinguish between the pigs and the men.

Animal Farm is a condemnation of Stalin and his regime, as Stalin was allied with Churchill and Roosevelt during World War II and was looked upon favorably by the British people, much to Orwell’s distaste. He wrote Animal Farm to show the brutality of the Communist Party, and parallels can be made to every character:

Old Major – both Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, the fathers of Communism.

Napoleon – Joseph Stalin, who led the Soviet Union from 1930 until his death in 1953.

Snowball – Leon Trotsky, a rival of Stalin exiled from Russian and assassinated on Stalin’s orders in Mexico in 1940.

Squealer – the Soviet press, which Stalin controlled throughout his rule.

Minimus – the takeover of art by propaganda in a totalitarian state that aims to control what its citizens think.

Boxer – the male working class and peasants of the Soviet Union.

Clover – the female working class and peasants of the Soviet Union.

Mollie – the selfish and materialistic middle-class.

Benjamin – those who were aware of Stalin’s unjust and oppressive policies but did nothing to try to stop them.

The Dogs – the Soviet secret police.

Moses – organized religion.

The Sheep – the duped citizens of a totalitarian state.

Mr. Jones – the Russian Tsar in the early 20th century.

Mr. Frederick – the Fascist Germans/Adolf Hitler.

Mr. Pilkington – the Allies before World War II, particularly the British.

Mr. Whymper – capitalists who got rich doing business with the USSR.

It’s the symbolism stuff that English teachers’ dreams are made of. Just think of the essay topics!

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Module 2: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

September 8th, 2012 — 10:55pm

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was published in 1910 in serial form, in a magazine intended for adults. Upon its publication in book form in 1911, it has become a popular and classic book for children.

Mary Lennox is an unpleasant child who has been raised in India, mostly by Indian servants — her parents have very little to do with her. Her parents are wealthy British citizens and are very beautiful, so they have hired servants to keep their disagreeable, sickly looking child out of their way; the servants subsequently give Mary everything she wants in order to keep their lives easily and to keep her from throwing fits, so she has grown up to be a very spoiled, albeit lonely, child. Her only associations are her ayah, who raises her but doesn’t particularly like her. She’s unaffectionate, rude, and has a quick temper when she doesn’t get her way.

When cholera breaks out at the Lennox house, most of the servants die from the disease. Amid the panic and the horrible sounds of people dying and others mourning, Mary hides herself in her nursery. She falls asleep and when she wakes up, the house is silent. She hears footsteps in the hall and a few military officers enter her room and are very surprised to see her standing there. It turns out that while Mary was asleep, her parents died of cholera and the remaining servants left the house, abandoning her.

She is sent to live in Yorkshire to live with Mr. Archibald Craven, her uncle through marriage (Mr. Craven’s wife was the sister of Mary’s father). When she gets to Misselthwaite Manor, it seems that her life is not going to change much from her life in India — Mr. Craven is often away on business and when he is home, he likes to be alone. Mary is told that she will have to entertain herself and has a list of rooms she’s not allowed to explore in the house. Mrs. Medlock, who runs the house, is an older woman who doesn’t wish to be burdened with Mary, so Martha, a young servant in the house, is given the task of keeping Mary’s room. Martha is a cheerful young girl who entertains Mary with stories of her family, including her younger brother, Dickon. It’s Martha who tells Mary the most about Mr. Craven, in her friendly Yorkshire gossip way: Mr. Craven had a wife whom he loved dearly. One day, she was sitting in her rose garden when the tree branch she was on broke; she fell and died. Mr. Craven locked the door to his wife’s garden and buried the key and has been mourning her loss ever since. Mary is intrigued by the garden and wants to find it and enter it somehow. Mrs. Medlock, however, tries to keep Mary from discovering too much of the house; she discourages her when she asks about the garden, and when Mary hears crying in the house, Mrs. Medlock insists that it’s the wind.

She occupies her time in the house by exploring the grounds and the moor. She meets the gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, and becomes friends with a redbreasted robin that Weatherstaff has raised. Mary becomes friendlier and more acclimated to British life as she spends more time with Martha and Weatherstaff; when she first arrived to Misselthwaite Manor, she had never dressed herself and is embarrassed when Martha teases her about it. She spends more time outdoors and her skin gradually loses the sickly yellow pallor.

One day, as she’s whistling and following the robin, the bird lands on a section of unturned ground. Mary notices a key there, which she imagines has to be the key to the secret garden. A few days later, she follows the bird again and the wind moves some of the ivy covering the walls to the garden and reveals the door that had been hidden by overgrowth for ten years. She enters the garden and is amazed by its beauty and that some of the flowers are still growing after ten years of neglect (hello, symbolism). She begins weeding and working in the garden, determined to make it thrive again. When Mary asks Martha at her lunch that day about different plants and tells her she wishes she could garden a little to further improve her health, Martha tells her that Dickon knows all about plants and writes a letter for Dickon to use Mary’s allowance to buy seeds and garden tools and have him deliver them to the manor. When Dickon arrives, Mary is instantly taken with him, as he has a gentle way with animals and is very knowledgeable of the landscape. She shows him the garden and he agrees to help her, though she makes him promise to keep the garden a secret. She also develops a crush on him, much to Martha’s amusement.

When she finally meets Mr. Craven, she’s surprised to find that he isn’t an ogre, though his face is lined with pain, from a back ailment, and misery, from mourning his wife. Mary convinces him to not hire a governess for her, but to instead grant her “a bit of earth” for her to plant a garden. He agrees, and tells her that he’ll be gone for the summer. All the better for her to grow a secret garden.

During her stay at Misselthwaite Manor, she has heard the sound of crying in the manor, but whenever she asks Mrs. Medlock or Martha about it, they either blame the wind or deny its existence. One night, determined to find the source, she discovers a hidden room, with a boy lying in the bed and crying. They’re both equally as surprised to see each other; it turns out that the boy is Colin Craven, Mary’s cousin. Colin stays in bed because he has something wrong with his spine, and his father rarely visits him because Colin reminds him of his wife. Mary tells Colin about the garden, and in order to keep the garden a secret and from Colin demanding the servants to take him into the garden that is supposed to not exist, Mary promises that she will take him to the garden once she has fixed it up.

Mary begins to visit Colin regularly, telling him stories of living in India and what happens in the moor with Dickon, his animals, and the garden. Mrs. Medlock and Mr. Craven discover them and mildly panic, but after Colin tells them that he wants to see Mary (he is treated as if he’s made of glass by everyone and is granted everything he wants; if he doesn’t get something or is unhappy, he throws a fit and everyone worries about his health. Mary compares him to a Rajah) and after a few warnings from Mr. Craven about being careful and minding Colin’s health, they allow it. Everyone in the house is nervous about Colin’s health because, as a baby, Mr. Craven was afraid that Colin would inherit his spinal deformity. He has stayed in bed because of it, which has made Colin sickly and weak, which makes everyone think that he’s dying. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Mary and Dickon continue with their adventures in the garden. After Colin has a particularly horrid tantrum (he thinks that he felt a lump on his back and that he’s going to die), Mary helps him to calm down and tells him that they will take him into the garden in a chair so he can get fresh air. Just the idea of going outside helps Colin feel better, until the day comes when Dickon pushes Colin out to the garden in a wheelchair. The garden, which changed his life as a baby when his mother died in it, changes his life once more:

But Colin had actually dropped back against his cushions, even though he gasped with delight, and he had covered his eyes with his hands and held them there shutting out everything until they were inside and the chair stopped as if by magic and the door was closed. Not till then did he take them away and look round and round and round as Dickon and Mary had done. And over walls and earth and trees and swinging sprays and tendrils the fair green veil of tender little leaves had crept, and in the grass under the trees and the gray urns in the alcoves and here and there everywhere were touches or splashes of gold and purple and white and the trees were showing pink and snow above his head and there were fluttering of wings and faint sweet pipes and humming and scents and scents. And the sun fell warm upon his face like a hand with a lovely touch. And in wonder Mary and Dickon stood and stared at him. He looked so strange and different because a pink glow of color had actually crept all over him—ivory face and neck and hands and all.

“I shall get well! I shall get well!” he cried out. “Mary! Dickon! I shall get well! And I shall live forever and ever and ever!”

However, while they’re in the garden, Weatherstaff sees them when he’s on a ladder. Considering that the garden is supposed to be locked and impenetrable, this is a little difficult for Mary to explain. When Weatherstaff confronts the kids, Colin pulls the old “do you know who I am?!?!” routine. Weatherstaff identifies Colin as “the cripple” which angers Colin so much that he throws his covers off his lap and stands up to prove that neither his back nor his legs are crooked. He demands that Weatherstaff keep the secret of the garden, to which Weatherstaff reveals a secret of his own — he’s been kept on the staff because Colin’s mom liked him, and he has been tending to the garden since her death.

Colin and Mary visit the garden daily, and Colin gets stronger and healthier. They conspire to keep Colin’s improving health a secret to surprise his father, who has been away. They, as well as Dickon, begin referring to Colin’s improving health as “Magic,” from Mary’s stories of magic in India.

Around the same time that Colin realizes that he is well, Mr. Craven finds that his mood is also improving. He has been in mourning and miserable for ten years, but now finds himself thinking of Misselthwaite Manor fondly and appreciating the world around him. He has a dream that his wife is calling to him from her garden. As he travels home, he finds himself thinking of Colin and regretting his time spent away; he also reflects on how he could have been a better father. He makes a promise to himself to try to do better. Maybe he should have thought of that before his son turned into a spoiled, entitled brat. Just a thought.

When Mr. Craven arrives at Misselthwaite, he asks Mrs. Medlock where Colin is; when she replied that he’s “in the garden,” he somehow knows that Colin is in his wife’s garden, even though the key is supposed to be buried. He runs to the garden and literally runs into Colin, who has been running out of it with Mary. Mr. Craven can scarcely believe that the tall, healthy boy standing in front of him is Colin, but Colin takes him into the now blooming garden and tells him about the Magic.

The Burnett Fountain in Central Park, NYC. “It is believed that the two figures, a reclining boy playing the flute and a young girl holding the bowl, represent Mary and Dickon, the main characters in The Secret Garden. The bowl is a functioning birdbath where small birds drink during three seasons of the year. The sculpture stands on the edge of a small concrete pool that features a variety of water lilies.”


There were several things that irked me about this book. The native Yorkshire characters (namely Weatherstaff, Martha, and Dickon) spoke in a Yorkshire dialect that I’m not convinced wasn’t just Burnett throwing letters together. Also, when the English characters talk about the people of India, whether they were Mary’s servants or just Indians in general, they refer to them as “blacks,” which struck me as unnecessarily racist. I know that there’s something to be said for historical context and understanding the atmosphere of the time, but it made me squirm nonetheless. The character of Colin was completely insufferable. Mary’s character had growth — she began as “Mistress Mary, quite contrary” but changed into a girl who could dress herself and had people who liked her. Colin was introduced late into the novel, but even to the end, he holds himself as a prince and makes demands of people three times his age. He just….ugh. And he wasn’t even sick! Luckily Dickon’s character was there to be goodness and light and talk to animals and just generally be great at life.

The symbolism of the garden was very strong in the novel. It was the place where the Craven family was destroyed, with the death of Mr. Craven’s wife and Colin’s mother, but was also the place where the family was reformed, with it ending with Mr. Craven and Colin in the garden. There’s also a restorative power granted to living things: both Mary and Colin are told by different characters that they need to get fresh air in order to heal and become better people. Indeed, it isn’t until Mary starts exploring the moor and Colin gets into the garden that they become “real” children, laughing and playing. However, as a child who preferred being inside and reading to being outside and sweating, I don’t appreciate this message as much.


Burnett’s classic story of a disagreeable and self-centered little girl and her equally disagreeable invalid cousin is as real and wise and enthralling now as it was when it was first written over 75 years ago. The strength of her characterizations pulls readers into the story, and the depth inherent in the seemingly simple plot continues to make this sometimes forgotten story as vital to the maturation of young readers as Tom Sawyer and Little Women. Hague’s illustrations enhance the story beautifully, capturing as they do, both the old-fashioned and timeless quality of the tale. The charm, clarity, and muted tones of Hague’s paintings add dimension to each part of the tale. A reissue of an old classic to be treasured by a new generation of children (and their parents)!
School Library Journal (1987)

Bratty and spoiled Mary Lennox is orphaned when her parents fall victim to a cholera outbreak in India. As a result, Mary becomes the ward of an uncle in England she has never met. As she hesitantly tries to carve a new life for herself at imposing and secluded Misselthwaite Manor, Mary befriends a high-spirited boy named Dickon and investigates a secret garden on the Manor grounds. She also discovers a sickly young cousin, Colin, who has been shut away in a hidden Manor room. Together Mary and Dickon help Colin blossom, and in the process Mary finds her identity and melts the heart of her emotionally distant uncle. Bailey makes fluid transitions between the voices and accents of various characters, from terse Mrs. Medlock and surly groundskeeper Ben to chipper housemaid Martha. And most enjoyably, she gives Mary a believably childlike voice.
Publisher’s Weekly (2003)


The easiest use would be to manipulate the garden theme. Using this in a teen craft project would give several options — making origami flowers, doing a floral arrangement, working in the library flowerbeds. It could also be used as a teen book club or book of the month for April, with a gardening project for Earth Day.


Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The secret garden. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/17396/17396-h/17396-h.htm

Central Park Conservancy. (2010). “The official website of new york city’s central park.” Burnett Fountain. Retrieved from https://www.centralparknyc.org/visit/things-to-see/north-end/burnett-fountain.html

Mellon, Constance A. (1987). “The secret garden (book review).” School Library Journal. 33(11), 80. Retrieved from https://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/5733324/secret-garden-book-review

Publisher’s Weekly.com. (2003). “Religion review: the secret garden.” Publisher’s Weekly. Retrieved from https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-4001-0072-9

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Module 1: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

September 2nd, 2012 — 8:11pm

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, is a children’s book that was published in 1964. It tells the story of a tree and her boy, and the relationship between the two of them.


The tree is, as the title says, giving — it begins with shade, apples to eat, and branches on which he swings. As the boy ages, he demands more and more of the tree; he takes the apples to sell when he wants money, cuts down the branches to build a house, and cuts down the trunk to build a boat. Every time the tree gives something to the boy, there is a refrain of “and the tree was happy.” Finally, the boy comes back as an old man, and uses the stump as a place to it and rest, as that is all he needs. And, once again, “the tree is happy” (Silverstein 1964).

Although The Giving Tree is considered a classic, it’s also often considered controversial. There are arguments about whether the tree and boy are in a loving relationship or an abusive one. After all, the boy demands everything of the tree and gives the tree nothing in return. In the New York Times book review, William Cole (1973) says that his impression is that “that was one dum-dum of a tree, giving everything and getting nothing in return. Once beyond boyhood, the boy is unpleasant and ungrateful, and I wouldn’t give him the time of day, much less my bole” (pg 1). I agree with this interpretation. I wouldn’t even say that the book details a typical parent/child relationship. Relationships are only functional if there is an even give and take, even with the parent/child relationship. Though I can understand why adults would choose to read this to their children and see it as a message of unconditional love, the boy taking everything from the tree, down to its very physical being, is indicative of an abusive relationship. The tree has some sort of Stockholm syndrome/masochist mentality in that it is only happy when it is sacrificing all that it has to the boy. Does the boy know anything about the tree? Does he ever ask? If it didn’t give apples, he probably wouldn’t know the type of tree it is. The tree should have clocked him in the head with an apple.


The Giving Tree shares the story of a young boy and his lifetime relationship with a certain apple tree. But it is much more than that. It is also a story of giving (and taking or receiving), friendship, happiness, loyalty, sacrifice, gratitude, happiness, and most importantly - love. The tree ultimately gives everything for the boy without receiving much in return. The theme or message of the book has been interpreted in many different ways. It can be very simply understood by a second grader, or an adult can search for a deeper meaning.
School Library Monthly, 2009

Integrating the use of The Giving Tree in a library setting would probably be best as a story time for children, preferably older. It would be necessary to highlight the giving nature of the tree and tie it in with a discussion about charity and philanthropy. If it was presented around the holidays, an actual tree could be displayed, like a Salvation Army Angel Tree, or to decorate a tree with handmade ornaments (made by the children) to donate to a needy family for the holidays.


Brodie, C. (2009). The giving tree by Shel Silverstein - a forty-five year celebration. [Review of the book The Giving Tree, by S. Silverstein]. School Library Monthly 26(1), page 22. Retrieved from https://www.schoollibrarymonthly.com/

Cole, W. (1973). “Excerpt from ABOUT ALICE, A RABBIT, A TREE… ” New York Times. Retrieved from https://shelsilverstein.tripod.com/Books/NYTBR-GT.html

Silverstein, Shel. (1964). The Giving Tree. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Shel Silverstein reading The Giving Tree

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18. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

May 4th, 2012 — 9:30am

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death by Kurt Vonnegut was published in 1969. The book details the WWII experiences, as well as the time traveling experiences, of Billy Pilgrim. Yes, I said time traveling. The book is also known by the longer version of the title, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod [and Smoking Too Much], Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, ‘The Florence of the Elbe,’ a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This Is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From. Peace.

The time traveling doesn’t seem so out of place now, does it?

The novel is slightly autobiographical (and the narrator’s voice transforms from passive observer telling Billy’s story to Vonnegut himself): the novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is a chaplain’s assistant in World War II and is captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and was kept in a slaughterhouse in Dresden, Germany, like Vonnegut. They both survive the fire-bombing of Dresden because Slaughterhouse-Five, as it’s called, is located deep underground. Unlike Vonnegut, however, Billy becomes “unstuck” in time and experiences the events of the novel in a non-linear fashion.

Billy travels both backwards and forwards in time. This means he goes in the past, the future, and an alien planet named Tralfamadore, where he’s displayed in a zoo exhibit with Montana Wildhack, who they’ve paired together for them to mate. The Tralfamadorians have already seen every instant of their lives. They say they cannot choose to change anything about their fates, but can choose to concentrate upon any moment in their lives, and Billy becomes convinced of the veracity of their theories — hence the unsticking.

He relives several moments of his life, such as his time in the war, specifically Dresden. He is also able to “relive” his murder, which will happen in the future as of the publication of the book.

One of the major themes of the book is free will or the lack thereof. Billy isn’t able to choose what experiences he has, like reliving his death before it happens. The Tralfamadorians believe that everything simultaneously exists, therefore, everyone is always alive. They, too, have wars and suffer tragedies (they destroy the universe whilst testing spaceship fuels), but, when Billy asks what they do about wars, they reply that they simply ignore them. The Tralfamadorians counter Vonnegut’s true theme: life, as a human being, is only enjoyable with unknowns. Tralfamadorians do not make choices about what they do, but have power only over what they think.

Vonnegut expounds his position in chapter one, “that writing an anti-war book is like writing an anti-glacier book,” both being futile endeavours, since both phenomena are unstoppable. This is reiterated with the refrain “So it goes.” What happens happens and not much can be done about it.

One of the main things that was unsettling, for me at least, was that the book was written as if it was unstuck as well, almost like it was a Tralfamordian novel. The fact that it is written in “the author’s voice” and that Vonnegut experienced the bombing of Dresden adds to the seriousness of the themes of the novel, like human senselessness — the bombing, the death and destruction, and the murder of a petty thief illustrate the time that is taken for punishment.

Good book. It’s a weird book, for sure, and the unsticking takes some time to get acclimated to, but it’s a good book.

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20. Native Son by Richard Wright

January 22nd, 2012 — 7:25pm

Native Son by Richard Wright was published in 1940. The novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, an African-American who is living in poverty in Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s, and is reportedly based on the case of Robert Nixon. The novel is split into three separate books: Fear, Flight, and Fate.

Bigger Thomas is twenty years old at the beginning of the novel. He lives with his mother, brother, and sister in a ghetto of Chicago. In the opening scene, Bigger wakes up in the dark in the small apartment that he and his family shares. A rat appears in the room and Bigger chases it and kills it with an iron skillet; he then terrorizes his sister, Vera, with the dead rat until Vera faints. Bigger’s mother scolds him, while Bigger’s internal monologue reveals that he hates his family because they’re suffering and he can’t do anything about it — he feels that he’ll only ever be able to have low wage, menial work and feels an overwhelming sense of powerlessness that he masks with ferocity and violence. Because that’s healthy and normal.

Bigger’s mom wants him to get a job with a white man named Mr. Dalton (who happens to be the Thomas family’s landlord), but instead Bigger meets with some of his friends at a local poolhall. They start talking and Bigger reveals that every time he encounters a white person he feels that something bad is going to happen to him. He and his friends, Gus, G.H., and Jack, plan a robbery of a white man’s store; they are all afraid of what will happen if they’re caught robbing and hurting a white man, but none of them admit it. They’ve burgled many black-owned businesses before, but robbing from whites is new territory. Bigger is so intimidated by white people that he no longer sees them as individuals, instead picturing them as an all-encompassing pressure of “whiteness” that is smothering him like a blanket. When they meet back at the poolhall to head out for the robbery, Bigger brutally attacks Gus in order to sabotage the night. This makes him realize that he needs to listen to his mother and seek out a job with Mr. Dalton.

He gets a job as Mr. Dalton’s chauffeur. Mr. Dalton, in owning the majority shares of several building in the South Side ghetto, has been exploiting black families for years; however, he sees himself as a philanthropist because he donates money to black schools and gives jobs to black boys like Bigger.

On Bigger’s first day of work, he shows up to the Daltons’ house and is immediately ill at ease; the house is large, Dalton and his wife, who is blind, use large words that Bigger doesn’t understand, and the Dalton’s daughter, Mary, comes home and asks Bigger why he isn’t in a union, which makes Bigger dislike her and fear that she will cost him his job. That night, Mary has Bigger drive her and her boyfriend Jan, who is a Communist. Mary and Jan are eager to show off their progressive ideals and racial tolerance. They force Bigger to take them to a restaurant on the South Side and sit with them at the table. They order a bottle of rum and take it with them for the rest of the night. Bigger drives Jan and Mary around while they get completely trashed and grope each other in the back seat of the car while Bigger drives them around the park.

When they return to the Dalton’s house, Mary is too drunk to get out of the car, much less maneuver the stairs, so Bigger carries her to her room. He is a little drunk as well, and intoxicated by being so close to a white girl, and when they get to Mary’s room, Bigger kisses her.

Just as Bigger is putting Mary in her bed, Mrs. Dalton appears in the doorway. He knows that, because she’s blind, she can’t see him but he is still terrified that she will realize that he’s in her precious innocent daughter’s room and have him fired, if not worse. He’s also afraid that drunk Mary will say or do something that will make Mrs. Dalton further enter the room, so he puts a pillow over her face to muffle her; when Mrs. Dalton leaves, Bigger realizes that he has smothered her to death. Very Shakespearean.

Bigger realizes that the punishment for murder will be a lot less than an accusation of sexual assault. He decides to frame Jan, hoping that the Daltons will think poorly of Jan and his Communist leanings and assume that he’s dangerous and has kidnapped Mary. He takes Mary’s body down to the furnace to burn it; when he has trouble pushing her body into the small opening, he takes a hatchet and cuts off her head to make it fit. After he gets her body in the fire, he adds extra coal to the furnace and goes home. What.


Though he had killed by accident, not once did he feel the need to tell himself that it had been an accident. He was black and he had been alone in the room where a white girl had been killed: therefore he had killed her. That was what everyone would say, anyhow, no matter what he said.

Having commited murder and seemingly gotten away with it has given Bigger a sense of power that he has previously never known. When he goes back to the Daltons’ for work the next day, Mrs. Dalton has noticed Mary’s disappearance and asks Bigger about the happenings of the previous night. He makes an effort to point the finger at Jan. Mrs. Dalton sends him home for the day and Bigger goes to visit his girlfriend, Bessie. Bessie is a stereotypical woman, nagging that he doesn’t love her and Bigger gives her money to shut her up. Bigger tells Bessie that Mary Dalton has disappeared and she begins to talk about different disappearances, including one where people murdered a child and asked for ransom money later. Bigger gets a cartoon lightbulb over his head and decides to do just that. He tells Bessie that he knows a little about what happened to Mary and is going to blackmail the Daltons; unfortunately, Bessie’s responses to him make him realize that she’s started to suspect that he’s had something to do with Mary’s disappearance.

When he returns to the Daltons’ house for work, they have hired a private investigator, Mr. Britten, to try to track down Mary. Mr. Britten talks to Bigger; Bigger senses that Britten is a little bit racist and accuses Jan based on his religion (Jewish), politics (Communist), and his attitude toward black people (friendly). In talking to Britten, Bigger takes on the role of the simple-minded black boy, which is almost as chilling as his role of violence; he is intuitive enough to know when to play into the stereotypes that are expected of him. He manages to fool Mr. Dalton, who thinks that he’s not a bad boy, but not Britten, who states that “a nigger’s a nigger” and that they’re all bad in some sense. Britten and Mr. Dalton bring in Jan and grill him about the night before, but of course his story is different than Bigger’s. When Mr. Dalton offers to pay Jan for information about Mary, Jan leaves.

Bigger checks on the furnace and then heads to Bessie. Jan confronts him in the street, but Bigger pulls a gun on him. Needless to say, they don’t have a very long chat. When Bigger gets to Bessie’s, he composes a ransom note and signs it “Red,” to further add suspicion to the pinko Communist Jan. In the letter, he demands $10,000 and adds a drawing of a hammer and sickle. Bessie has begun to have second thoughts about the whole thing and accuses Bigger of killing Mary. Bigger admits it, but says that it’s okay:

“If you killed her you’ll kill me,” she said. “I ain’t in this…. You told me you never was going to kill.”
“All right. They white folks. They done killed plenty of us.”

Bessie begs to be left out, but Bigger doesn’t want her to turn him in, so she has to stay involved. He delivers the ransom note by slipping it under the Daltons’ door when he reports for work.

Reporters have now caught wind of the story and descend upon the Dalton house. Bigger is told to clean out the furnace; he sifts some of the ashes into the lower bin and adds more coal, hoping that he will not have to take the ashes out until the reporters leave. However, the ashes still block the airflow, causing thick smoke to fill the basement. At this point, some of the reporters have come down to the furnace and one of them grabs a shovel and offers to help clear the ashes.

When the smoke dissipates, several pieces of bone and an earring are visible on the floor. As Bigger looks at these remnants of his gruesome killing, all of his old feelings return: he is black and he has done wrong. He once again longs for a weapon so he can strike out at someone. While the reporters marvel over the glowing hatchet head in the furnace, Bigger sneaks up to his room and jumps out the window. He runs to Bessie’s house to stop her from going to collect the ransom money. When Bigger explains that he accidentally killed Mary, Bessie tells him the authorities will think he has raped Mary and has murdered her to cover up the evidence. Bigger thinks back to the shame, anger, and hatred he felt that night. He thinks that he has committed rape, but to him, “rape” means feeling as if his back is against a wall and being forced to strike out to protect himself, whether he wants to or not. Bigger thinks that he commits a form of “rape” every time he looks at a white face.

Bigger and Bessie go to an abandoned building to hide out, and Bessie takes this time to tell Bigger just how much she hates him for ruining her life. Maybe not such a good idea to insult and anger the man with a streak of murderous violence. Bigger rapes Bessie on a pile of blankets that they brought with them and, after realizing that he can’t take her with him but he can’t leave her behind to turn him in, he hits her several times on the head with a brick that is lying nearby and throws her body down an airshaft.

Bigger goes through the city finding vacated apartments and alleys to sleep and eat, as all of the money he had was in Bessie’s pocket and is now at the bottom of an airshaft. He finds a newspaper and realizes that his time is probably running out — the press reports that Bigger probably sexually assaulted Mary before killing her, and the authorities have a warrant to search any and every building on the South Side, including private homes. Not believing that a black man could have formulated such a complex plan, they are also searching for a communist (read: white) accomplice. White anger is turning on blacks and there are reports of smashed windows and beatings throughout the city.

It begins to snow in the city and Bigger is forced inside. In one of the vacated apartments, Bigger thinks about life in the city and what it has become for blacks. From a window, Bigger marvels at the dilapidated buildings where black tenants live. He thinks back on his own life as he sees three naked black children watching their parents have sex in a bed nearby. He remembers how his family was once driven out of an apartment just two days before the building collapsed. Next door, Bigger hears two people debating his situation. One man declares that he would turn Bigger in to the police and he blames people like Bigger for bringing white wrath down on the whole black community, while the other argues that Bigger may not be guilty, since whites automatically view all black men with suspicion when a white girl is killed. Bigger decides that when he is captured, he will not say that the crime was an accident.

The police arrive to search the building where Bigger is hiding. Bigger escapes to the roof just as they burst into the building. A dramatic shoot-out ensues and the authorities finally capture Bigger, who is half-frozen from the cold and snow. The men carry Bigger down as a crowd of furious whites demands that they kill “that black ape.”


In jail, Bigger lives in a world with no day, no night, and no fear or hatred, as such emotions are useless to him now. He feels gripped by a deep resolution to react to nothing, and he says and eats nothing. He longs for death, but as a black man he does not want to die “unequal, and despised.” Bigger wonders if perhaps the whites are right that being black is the same as being an animal of some sort. Nonetheless, the hope that another way of life exists, one in which he would be able to forget his racial differences, keeps coming back to him.

The authorities drag Bigger to an inquest at the morgue. He senses from the white people around him that they plan not only to put him to death, but also to make him a symbol to terrorize and control the black community. A feeling of rebellion rises in him and he begins to come out of his stupor. In the morgue, Bigger sees Jan and the Daltons. As he gradually begins to snap out of his psychological stupor, he faints, overcome by hunger and exhaustion. When Bigger awakens in his cell, he believes he has “come out into the world again” in order to save his pride and keep the authorities from “making sport of him.”

Bigger asks to see a newspaper. The headline reads, “Negro Rapist Faints at Inquest.” The story compares Bigger to a “jungle beast” who lacks the harmless charm of the “grinning southern darky.” Edward Robertson, editor of the Jackson Daily Star, advises total segregation and a curtailment of the education of the black population, which he claims will prevent men like Bigger from developing. Bigger contemplates returning to his protective stupor, but is not sure if he is still able to do so.

Jan comes to visit Bigger in jail. He says that he is not angry for Bigger trying to blame him and that he wants to help Bigger. Jan says he was foolish to assume that Bigger could have related to him in a different way than he relates to other white men. Jan says that he loved Mary, but he also realizes that black families loved all the black men who have been sold into slavery or lynched by whites. Jan introduces Bigger to Boris A. Max, a lawyer for the Labor Defenders. Max wants to defend Bigger free of charge.

Buckley, the State’s Attorney, suddenly enters Bigger’s cell. Though Max argues that white power is responsible for Bigger’s actions, Bigger feels his burgeoning friendship with Max and Jan quickly evaporate when he sees the self-assured Buckley. Mr. and Mrs. Dalton enter the cell and ask that Bigger cooperate with Buckley and reveal the name of his accomplice. In response, Max asks that they not sentence Bigger to death. Dalton says that despite the crime he is not angry with all black Americans. He announces that he has even sent some Ping-Pong tables to the South Side Boys’ Club earlier in the day. Doubtful, Max questions whether Ping-Pong will prevent murder.

All the visitors leave the cell except Buckley, who warns Bigger not to gamble with his life by trusting Max and Jan. Buckley shows Bigger the mob gathered outside, which is screaming for his blood and urging him to sign a confession that also implicates Jan. Adding that the authorities know Bigger raped and killed Bessie too, Buckley pressures him to confess to other unsolved rapes and murders. Bigger realizes he could never explain why he killed Mary and Bessie because it would mean explaining his whole life. Bigger confesses to the murders but writes nothing to explain them. He signs his confession, feeling that there is no alternative. As soon as Bigger signs, Buckley starts to brag about how easy it was to extract a confession from a “scared colored boy from Mississippi.” After Buckley leaves, Bigger, feeling empty and beaten, falls to the floor and sobs.

At the inquest in the courtroom, Mr. Dalton takes the stand and Max is permitted to question him. As Max knows that Mr. Dalton owns a controlling share in the company that manages the building where Bigger’s family lives, he asks Dalton why black tenants pay higher rents than whites for the same kinds of apartments. Dalton replies that there is a housing shortage on the South Side. Max retorts that there are areas of the city without housing shortages, and Dalton replies that he thought black tenants preferred living together on the South Side. Max then succeeds in making Dalton admit that he refuses to rent to black tenants in other neighborhoods. He accuses Dalton of giving some of the real estate profits to black schools merely to alleviate his guilty conscience. Before dismissing Mr. Dalton, Max asks him if the living conditions of Bigger’s family might have contributed to the death of his daughter. Dalton cannot comprehend the question.

The coroner exhibits Bessie’s body to the jurors. Bigger knows that the authorities are using Bessie only to ensure that he will get the death penalty for killing Mary. Bigger becomes angry that they are using Bessie in death just as Bessie’s white employer used her while she was alive. He feels that the whites are using both him and Bessie as if they were mere property.

Bigger is indicted for rape and murder. Bigger asks to see a newspaper, which reports that he is certain to receive the death penalty. Max visits Bigger in his cell. Hopeless, Bigger tells Max that none of his efforts will be of use. Bigger feels destined to die to appease the public, and, therefore, has no possibly of winning the trial. Max tries to get Bigger to trust him. Despite his best efforts to avoid opening up and trusting anyone, Bigger does end up trusting Max, but still believes Max’s efforts will prove futile. Max then asks Bigger why he killed Mary. Excited at the prospect of finally feeling understood, Bigger tells Max that he did not rape Mary and hints that he killed her by accident. When Max presses him further about his feelings, Bigger states that Mary’s unorthodox behavior frightened and shamed him. When Max points out that Bigger could have avoided the murder by trying to explain himself to Mrs. Dalton, Bigger explains that he could not help himself and that it was as if someone else had stepped inside him and acted for him.

Bigger explains to Max that there has always been a line drawn in the world separating him from the people on the other side of the line, who do not care about his poverty and shame. He says that whites do not let black people do what they want, and admits that he himself does not even know what he wants. Bigger simply feels that he is forbidden from anything he might actually want. All his life, he has felt that whites were after him. Thus, even his feelings were not wholly his own, as he could only feel what whites were doing to him. Bigger once wanted to be an aviator, but he knew that black men were not allowed to go to aviation schools. He wanted to join the army, but it proved to be segregated and based upon racist laws. He saw the white boys from his school go on to college or the military when he could not. Having lost hope, he began living from day to day. Bigger says that after he killed Mary and Bessie, he ceased to be afraid for a brief while.

“Mr. Max, a guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can’t do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything. . . . You don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing. You just keep moving all the time, doing what other folks say. You ain’t a man no more. You just work say in and day out so the world can roll on and other people can live. You know, Mr. Max, I always think of white folks. . .”

He paused. Max leaned forward and touched him. “Go on, Bigger.”

“Well, they own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They like God. . . .” he swallowed, closed his eyes and sighed. “They don’t even let you feel what you want to feel. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die.”

Bigger knows that he faces the death penalty, and therefore believes that it is too late to learn the meaning of his existence. He wishes he could retreat back into his mental stupor. He has a newfound feeling of hope for a new world and a new way of viewing himself in relation to other people, but this hope is tantalizing and torments him with uncertainty. Bigger wonders if perhaps his blind hatred is the better option anyway, since hope anguishes him more than it comforts him. The voice of hatred he has read in the newspapers seems so much louder and stronger than the voice of understanding he has heard in Max and Jan. Bigger despairs that this hatred will endure long after he is dead.

In the courtroom, Max presents his case. He argues that Bigger is a “test symbol” who embodies and exposes the ills of American society. Max explains that his intent is not to argue whether an injustice has been committed, but to make the court understand Bigger and the conditions that have created him. Max points out that the authorities have deliberately inflamed public opinion against Bigger, using his case as an excuse to terrorize the black community, labor groups, and the Communist Party into submission.

Max goes on to say that the rage directed at Bigger stems from a mix of guilt and fear. Those who clamor for Bigger’s swift execution secretly know that their own privileges have been gained through historical wrongs committed against people like Bigger, and that their wealth has been accumulated through the oppression of others. Bigger’s options have been so limited, and his life so controlled, that he has been unable to do anything but hate those who have profited from his misery. Stunted and deformed by this oppression, Bigger was unable to view Mary and Jan as human beings. Max argues that the Daltons, despite their philanthropy, are blind to the world that has created Bigger and have themselves created the conditions that led to their daughter’s murder.

Max warns that killing Bigger quickly will not restrain others like him. Rather, these other blacks will only become angrier that the powerful, rich, white majority limits their opportunities. Popular culture dangles happiness and wealth before the oppressed, but such goals are always kept out of reach in reality. Max argues that this smoldering anger born out of restricted opportunities—though now tempered by the effects of religion, alcohol, and sex—will eventually burst forth and destroy all law and order in American society. By limiting the education of blacks, segregating them, and oppressing them, white society itself is implicated in Mary’s murder. Max claims that white society “planned the murder of Mary Dalton” but now denies it. He says that his job is to show how foolish it is to try to seek revenge on Bigger.

Max argues that Bigger murdered Mary accidentally, without a plan, but that he accepted his crime, which gave him the opportunities of choice and action, and the sense that his actions finally meant something. Bigger’s killing was thus not an act against an individual, but a defense against the world in which Bigger has lived. Mary died because she did not understand that she alone could not undo hundreds of years of oppression. Max points to the gallery, where blacks and whites are seated in separate sections. Blacks, he says, live in a separate “captive” nation within America, unable to determine the course of their own lives. He argues that such a lack of self-realization is just as smothering and stunting as physical starvation. Bigger sought a new life, Max says, and found it accidentally when he murdered Mary. Max argues that Bigger had no motive for the crimes and that the murders were “as instinctive and inevitable as breathing or blinking one’s eyes.” The hate and fear society has bred into Bigger are an inextricable part of his personality, and essentially his only way of living.

Max says that there are millions more like Bigger and that, if change does not come, these conditions could lead to another civil war. He says he knows the court does not have the power to rectify hundreds of years of wrongs in one day, but that it can at least show that it recognizes that there is a problem. Prison, he says, would be a step up for Bigger. Though Bigger would be known only as a number in prison, he would at least have an identity there. Finally, Max argues that the court cannot kill Bigger because it has never actually recognized that he exists. He urges the court to give Bigger life. Bigger does not entirely understand Max’s speech, but is proud that Max has worked so hard to save him.

After Max’s arguments, Buckley declares that Bigger does in fact have a motive for Mary’s murder. Buckley claims that since Bigger and Jack masturbated while watching a newsreel about Mary the same day she was killed, Bigger must have been sexually interested in her. Buckley tells the courtroom that Bigger was a “maddened ape” who raped Mary, killed her, and burned her body to hide the evidence. Buckley concludes his argument by saying that Bigger was sullen and resentful from the start, not even grateful when he was referred to Mr. Dalton for a job. Buckley calls Bigger a “demented savage” who deserves to die, and whose execution will prove that “jungle law” does not prevail in Chicago. The court adjourns. After a brief deliberation, the judge returns and sentences Bigger to death.

Max visits Bigger again and tries to comfort Bigger, but Bigger wants understanding, not pity. He continues, saying that sometimes he wishes Max had not asked the questions, because they have made him think and this thinking has scared him. The questions have made Bigger consider himself and other people in a new way, and have caused him to realize that his motivation for hurting people was simply that they were always crowding him. He did not mean to hurt others, but it just happened. When Bigger committed the murders, he was not trying to kill anyone, but rather to make his life mean something that he could claim for himself. Bigger asks Max if this sense of meaning is the same reason that the authorities want to kill him. Max urges his client to die free, believing in himself. He tells Bigger that only his own mind stands in the way of believing in himself. The rich majority dehumanizes people like Bigger for the same reason Bigger could not see the majority as human—they each just want to justify their own lives.

Bigger tells Max he does believe in himself. He did not want to kill, but there was something in him that has made him kill and that something must be good. He tells Max that he feels all right when he looks at it this way. Max is horrified at Bigger’s words, but Bigger assures him that he is all right.

Richard Wright has been criticized for using the character of Max to promote his Communist ideology — while Wright has said that Max is promoting a world in which there is no black or white, there is no evidence in the book that the future will lead us to that world. If anything, the world is almost even more fractured after the trial. Wright was a member of the Communist party when he writing the book, which is why the heroes of his book were Communists, as well.

I first read this book in college and it scared the crap out of me. The thing that is the most unsettling is the anger. Bigger Thomas is one of the most angry characters in literature. Reading it in the 21st century was disturbing, and I don’t live with that sort of racial tension. I can only imagine what reading it in the 1940s was like. I know that there still is racism in America, but I have never experienced that intense hate and violence. Native Son is a very important book, if only for the sole purpose of scaring the crap out of white people and making people realize how the other side lives.

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56. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

October 9th, 2011 — 6:22pm

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett was published in 1930. It is a detective story that helped to popularize the “hard-boiled” private detective — the detectives are unsympathetic, detached, and determined to achieve justice by any possible means. The book is commonly associated with the 1941 movie, where Detective Sam Spade is played by Humphrey Bogart.

The novel opens with Sam Spade at his and his partner’s, Miles Archer, private eye office. A woman named Miss Wonderly comes in to hire Spade and Archer to find Floyd Thursby, who has run away with her underage sister. Miss Wonderly is of course, a knock-out beauty, and of course Spade is suspicious of her. They take the job, though, because she has cash.

Within the next few pages, Spade is awoken that night to be told that Archer, who was tailing Thursby, has been found shot at the bottom of a ditch and Spade is not exactly sad about it. You also find out that he has been having an affair with Archer’s wife. Ugh. Thursby is found shot and killed also, and the police suspect that it was Spade who shot him in retaliation for killing Archer.

The Maltese Falcon in question is a figurine of a bird that is covered with jewels. It had been a gift to the King of Spain, but has been covered with black enamel to conceal its value. Several people are looking for it and approach Spade for help finding it, including Miss Wonderly, who’s name is actually Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a man named Joel Cairo, who is a thinly veiled homosexual, and Cairo’s boss, a large man named Casper Gutman. It turns out Gutman was the one who discovered the falcon and had sent O’Shaughnessy, Thursby, and Cairo to get it, but O’Shaughnessy and Thursby decided to keep it for themselves. Gutman is now both trying to find the figurine and kill O’Shaughnessy and Thursby.

Many people die in the events of the story, and Spade finds the figurine. When he goes to give it to Gutman (because he can pay the most), Gutman discovers that it’s a fake. After all that. What. Gutman and Cairo leave town. Spade turns in O’Shaughnessy for Archer’s murder, because, even though he wasn’t particularly fond of Archer, “when a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.” He also mentions that it’s bad for business to let the killer get away with it. What a prince.

This novel, though a good story, is frustrating on several levels. The narration tells what all of the characters are doing but doesn’t have much about what they’re thinking or feeling. In some cases, Spade is almost like a sociopath in his self-absorption. There is very little morality in any of the characters and very little discussion of emotions or feelings. Spade is having an affair with Archer’s wife, but he isn’t particularly fond of her — in fact, when Archer is killed and his wife shows up to the office crying, Spade asks his secretary if she can deal with her.

The Maltese Falcon is one of the books that helped to popularize the hard-boiled detective story, and the movie is a very popular film noir. Perhaps I’m just not the demographic that is meant to read and enjoy this novel, because the whole time I read it, I was disgusted with pretty much every character that was introduced, Spade in particular. Sam Spade is, if I may be so bold, an asshole. In fact, it took me a long time to read this because I got so annoyed with the characters that I kept putting the book down and reading other things that did not make me feel like punching the narrators in the face.

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79. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

April 27th, 2011 — 8:37am

A Room with a View was published in 1908 by E.M. Forster. It tells the story of Lucy Honeychurch, a young English woman who is navigating through the delicate social circles of the early 20th century, both on vacation in Italy and back home in England. It is a critique of the social hierarchy, prejudice between the classes, and the sexual repression and hypocrisy of English society. The novel is split into Part I, which takes place in Italy, and Part II, which takes place in England.

Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin/chaperone Charlotte Bartlett are vacationing in Florence, Italy. They have arrived at their hotel, the Bertolini, and the opening scene has them complaining about the hotel. They were promised a “room with a view” of the river Arno, but instead have been assigned rooms that have a view of the hotel courtyard. This is the first introduction of the repressive Edwardian English society: Lucy has Charlotte, who is older and unmarried, accompanying her on the vacation and chaperoning her propriety. Everything that Charlotte complains about has a thinly veiled contemptuous undertone and implies that as the unmarried woman she doesn’t deserve such grandeur. For example, in complaining about the room without a view: “Any nook does for me,” Miss Bartlett continued, “but it does seem hard that you shouldn’t have a view.” You know, because unmarried women are dead inside and don’t deserve a view. Or something.

The women are talking in the common eating room and one of the other guests at the hotel, a man, interrupts their conversation to tell the ladies that his room has a view and he and his son, George, will gladly exchange their rooms with Lucy and Miss Bartlett. Miss Bartlett is startled and recognizes the man, a Mr. Emerson, as “ill-bred.” She declines the offer and he insists, loudly and attracting the attention of the other well-bred tourists, to Miss Bartlett’s extreme embarrassment. Mr. Emerson refuses to take no for an answer and here is the first class clash of the novel:

“But why?” he persisted. “Women like looking at a view; men don’t.” And he thumped with his fists like a naughty child, and turned to his son, saying, “George, persuade them!”

“It’s so obvious they should have the rooms,” said the son. “There’s nothing else to say.”

He did not look at the ladies as he spoke, but his voice was perplexed and sorrowful. Lucy, too, was perplexed; but she saw that they were in for what is known as “quite a scene,” and she had an odd feeling that whenever these ill-bred tourists spoke the contest widened and deepened till it dealt, not with rooms and views, but with—well, with something quite different, whose existence she had not realized before. Now the old man attacked Miss Bartlett almost violently: Why should she not change? What possible objection had she? They would clear out in half an hour.

Miss Bartlett, though skilled in the delicacies of conversation, was powerless in the presence of brutality. It was impossible to snub any one so gross. Her face reddened with displeasure. She looked around as much as to say, “Are you all like this?” And two little old ladies, who were sitting further up the table, with shawls hanging over the backs of the chairs, looked back, clearly indicating “We are not; we are genteel.”

George Emerson, it must be said, is putting off a Mr. Darcy vibe and I love it. I see you pretending you’re not interested and don’t care, George. I see you.

Lucy recognizes one of the other tourists, a clergyman named Mr. Beebe who was the preacher at an Anglican church that Lucy and her family had attended. Mr. Beebe convinces Miss Bartlett that Mr. Emerson’s intentions are innocent and explains why he may seem strange:

“He is rather a peculiar man.” Again he hesitated, and then said gently: “I think he would not take advantage of your acceptance, nor expect you to show gratitude. He has the merit—if it is one—of saying exactly what he means. He has rooms he does not value, and he thinks you would value them. He no more thought of putting you under an obligation than he thought of being polite. It is so difficult—at least, I find it difficult—to understand people who speak the truth.”

Lucy was pleased, and said: “I was hoping that he was nice; I do so always hope that people will be nice.”

“I think he is; nice and tiresome. I differ from him on almost every point of any importance, and so, I expect—I may say I hope—you will differ. But his is a type one disagrees with rather than deplores. When he first came here he not unnaturally put people’s backs up. He has no tact and no manners—I don’t mean by that that he has bad manners—and he will not keep his opinions to himself. We nearly complained about him to our depressing Signora, but I am glad to say we thought better of it.”

The next day, when it comes time to go exploring Florence, Miss Bartlett is tired but hates to inconvenience poor Lucy. Miss Lavish, a novelist who is also vacationing at the Bertolini, offers to take Lucy and her trusty Baedeker guidebook on a tour of Florence. Miss Lavish takes her through the back streets to Santa Croce and Miss Lavish forbids Lucy to look at her Baedeker and takes it from her; rather than keep her nose in the guidebook, they will simply “drift” through town. Because wandering through an unfamiliar town in a foreign country always ends well.

Sure enough, Miss Lavish runs off to talk to someone (her “local colour-box”, whatever that means) and she and Lucy are separated in the crowd. Luckily she runs into the Emersons when she decides to continue exploring by herself. She decides that, although they are deemed socially awkward by the other guests, she likes the Emersons and their eccentric manners. Mr. Emerson speaks his mind and he and George are very intelligent, and they take her with them on a tour of Santa Croce. While in the church, George complains that his father means well, but always offends everyone. Mr. Emerson tells Lucy that his son needs her in order to overcome his youthful melancholy. But no pressure.

The next day consists of a rainy afternoon and Lucy passes the time buy playing the piano. Lucy is a passionate piano player and seems to transform through her playing:

It so happened that Lucy, who found daily life rather chaotic, entered a more solid world when she opened the piano. She was then no longer either deferential or patronizing; no longer either a rebel or a slave. The kingdom of music is not the kingdom of this world; it will accept those whom breeding and intellect and culture have alike rejected. The commonplace person begins to play, and shoots into the empyrean without effort, whilst we look up, marvelling how he has escaped us, and thinking how we could worship him and love him, would he but translate his visions into human words, and his experiences into human actions. Perhaps he cannot; certainly he does not, or does so very seldom. Lucy had done so never.

She was no dazzling executante; her runs were not at all like strings of pearls, and she struck no more right notes than was suitable for one of her age and situation. Nor was she the passionate young lady, who performs so tragically on a summer’s evening with the window open. Passion was there, but it could not be easily labelled; it slipped between love and hatred and jealousy, and all the furniture of the pictorial style. And she was tragical only in the sense that she was great, for she loved to play on the side of Victory. Victory of what and over what—that is more than the words of daily life can tell us. But that some sonatas of Beethoven are written tragic no one can gainsay; yet they can triumph or despair as the player decides, and Lucy had decided that they should triumph.

A very wet afternoon at the Bertolini permitted her to do the thing she really liked, and after lunch she opened the little draped piano. A few people lingered round and praised her playing, but finding that she made no reply, dispersed to their rooms to write up their diaries or to sleep. She took no notice of Mr. Emerson looking for his son, nor of Miss Bartlett looking for Miss Lavish, nor of Miss Lavish looking for her cigarette-case. Like every true performer, she was intoxicated by the mere feel of the notes: they were fingers caressing her own; and by touch, not by sound alone, did she come to her desire.

Mr. Beebe sits and listens and remembers a time when he heard her playing at a performance at church. He remarked at the time, and tells her now, “If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting both for us and for her.”

After playing, Lucy is in the mood for something big and exciting to do, a sensation that conversation just doesn’t satisfy. She decides that she wants to go to the electric tram, but she has some trepidation:

Conversation was tedious; she wanted something big, and she believed that it would have come to her on the wind-swept platform of an electric tram. This she might not attempt. It was unladylike. Why? Why were most big things unladylike? Charlotte had once explained to her why. It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves. Indirectly, by means of tact and a spotless name, a lady could accomplish much. But if she rushed into the fray herself she would be first censured, then despised, and finally ignored. Poems had been written to illustrate this point.

So many things to say. So many.

Lucy decides that though she wants to do something rebellious, she doesn’t want to get in trouble for rebelling, so rather than go to the electric tram she goes to Alinari’s shop in town to look at and buy postcards of paintings. She still feels restless and that nothing exciting happens to her. But then someone gets stabbed by a fountain in the square and suddenly life gets a lot more interesting. She sees George Emerson through the crowd of people as she faints.

When she comes to, George is holding her — he had carried her away from the crowd. He goes back to the fountain to retrieve her photographs and when he returns they begin walking back to the hotel. As they’re walking, George throws something in the river; when Lucy inquires, he admits that he threw her photographs in the river because they were covered in blood and he didn’t want her to see them. His admission of his protective instinct towards her warms her heart. Nothing like murder to bring people together.

The next day is business as usual. Mr. Beebe invites Miss Bartlett and Lucy to go out with him and the Emersons, but Lucy insteads opts to go shopping with Miss Bartlett. She is afraid of her blossoming feelings for George, so what better thing to do than to avoid him, am I right, ladies? Their shopping excursion takes them by the fountain where the previous day’s excitement took place, where they run into Miss Lavish, who has come to investigate the murder site for her new book. Everyone is very interested in Lucy’s abridged version of the event (she left out the fainting and coming to in George’s arms, that dirty slut). They also run into Mr. Eager, a chaplain who is also staying at the hotel and who is sort of a jerk. He invites the ladies on an outing later in the week. Lucy quickly becomes jaded with her company:

This successful morning left no pleasant impressions on Lucy. She had been a little frightened, both by Miss Lavish and by Mr. Eager, she knew not why. And as they frightened her, she had, strangely enough, ceased to respect them. She doubted that Miss Lavish was a great artist. She doubted that Mr. Eager was as full of spirituality and culture as she had been led to suppose. They were tried by some new test, and they were found wanting. As for Charlotte—as for Charlotte she was exactly the same. It might be possible to be nice to her; it was impossible to love her.

This is one of the first occasions where the social hierarchy is challenged; just because you are a civilized and intelligent person doesn’t make you enjoyable to be around. Of course, this observation of her companions is juxtaposed with a conversation about the Emersons. Miss Bartlett talks about their working class background and how Mr. Emerson must have had an “advantageous marriage” but Mr. Eager confides that the marriage wasn’t all that advantageous because Mr. Emerson murdered his wife. What.

Lucy doesn’t believe Mr. Eager and the gossip doesn’t keep them from all going for a drive out in the country. The title of the chapter about the drive is Chapter VI: The Reverend Arthur Beebe, the Reverend Cuthbert Eager, Mr. Emerson, Mr. George Emerson, Miss Eleanor Lavish, Miss Charlotte Bartlett, and Miss Lucy Honeychurch Drive Out in Carriages to See a View; Italians Drive Them. Forster doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

There is a lot of talking on the carriages, mostly pretentious babble from Mr. Eager and Miss Lavish; Lucy has made sure that she is in a separate carriage from George, as she is still confused about her feelings for him. The driver of their carriage has a girl with him, whom he tries to kiss while he’s driving, which I’m sure Oprah would have thing or two to say about. This outrages Mr. Eager, who demands that the girl switch to the other carriage, and his outrage outrages Mr. Emerson, who sees harm in denying people of their happiness.

When they arrive and are exploring the wood, Lucy wanders off by herself, chaperone-less. And you know what happens when girls don’t have their chaperones:

From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.

Standing at its brink, like a swimmer who prepares, was the good man. But he was not the good man that she had expected, and he was alone.

George had turned at the sound of her arrival. For a moment he contemplated her, as one who had fallen out of heaven. He saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves. The bushes above them closed. He stepped quickly forward and kissed her.

Before she could speak, almost before she could feel, a voice called, “Lucy! Lucy! Lucy!” The silence of life had been broken by Miss Bartlett who stood brown against the view.

Oh. Snap.

George and Lucy in the meadow in the 1985 movie.

On the carriage ride back, Lucy and Miss Bartlett discuss the meadow; Lucy says that she was overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment and had mistaken George in the field of violets for a hero in a book. Ooookay.

When they get back to their room (the one with the view, if you remember), Miss Bartlett asks Lucy “what is to be done” about the George situation. Miss Bartlett is convinced that George is unrefined and will talk about what happened; based on a conversation George had with another of the hotel patrons, one can assume that he is one of those young men who has kissed more than one girl. That cad! Miss Bartlett speaks of the kiss as an “insult” that Lucy needs to be defended against. Because she fears that George will talk and ruin Lucy’s reputation, Miss Bartlett decides that they will leave the next morning for Rome, to meet up with the Vyses, acquaintances of the Honeychurch family. Lucy promises Miss Bartlett that she won’t tell her mother about what happened, because Miss Bartlett is afraid that she will be blamed. They left for Rome the following morning; Lucy was unable to say goodbye to George.

Part II opens with Mrs. Honeychurch, Lucy’s mother, and Freddy, Lucy’s brother, in their home in England, awaiting the arrival of the Vyse family. While in Rome, Cecil Vyse, the son, proposed to Lucy twice and she rejected him both times. However, Cecil travels to Windy Corner and proposes a third time, which Lucy accepts.

Cecil is described as “medieval.” It is meant to describe his physical appearance, which is also like a “gothic statue,” but it describes his personality, as well. If George is portrayed as being passionate then Cecil is pretentious. He is from London and looks down upon people in the country. He doesn’t even seem to be overly fond of Lucy, but more like an idea of her:

He had known Lucy for several years, but only as a commonplace girl who happened to be musical. He could still remember his depression that afternoon at Rome, when she and her terrible cousin fell on him out of the blue, and demanded to be taken to St. Peter’s. That day she had seemed a typical tourist—shrill, crude, and gaunt with travel. But Italy worked some marvel in her. It gave her light, and—which he held more precious—it gave her shadow. Soon he detected in her a wonderful reticence. She was like a woman of Leonardo da Vinci’s, whom we love not so much for herself as for the things that she will not tell us, The things are assuredly not of this life; no woman of Leonardo’s could have anything so vulgar as a “story.” She did develop most wonderfully day by day.

So it happened that from patronizing civility he had slowly passed if not to passion, at least to a profound uneasiness. Already at Rome he had hinted to her that they might be suitable for each other. It had touched him greatly that she had not broken away at the suggestion.

Be still my beating heart.

Mr. Beebe stops by the house in time to hear the good news of the engagement of Lucy and Cecil, which he takes as a joke at first. Freddy refers to Cecil as her “fiasco” instead of “fiancé,” and I don’t know how anyone missed that portentous bit of foreshadowing. Mr. Beebe mentions that he has heard that a nearby cottage has been bought and will be rented by a Sir Harry Ottway — it’s supposed to be torn down, but he will rent it instead.

If you didn’t guess that the Emersons would be renting the cottage, you need to forget about books and watch a Real Housewives marathon. The plotlines there may be more your style.

It turns out Cecil ran into Mr. Emerson and George at a museum and he figured that they would annoy Sir Ottway, as Cecil considers him to be a snob, so he recommended they rent to cottage. Ah, how droll! When Lucy protests and yells at him for inviting “his friends,” he assumes that she objects because they are of a lower class socially. As he tells her:

No, Lucy, the classes ought to mix, and before long you’ll agree with me. There ought to be intermarriage—all sorts of things.

Be careful what you wish for, Cecil.

Lucy and Cecil go to London to visit Mrs. Vyse, Cecil’s mother, while the Emersons move in. Freddy, Lucy’s brother, meets George through Mr. Beebe and becomes friends, playing tennis and going for swims in ponds and other generally frowned upon activities. When Lucy returns to Windy Corners (their house), she discovers that her mother has invited Miss Bartlett to stay with them while the plumbing in her house is repaired.

Freddy invites the Emersons over for lunch and tennis on a Sunday when Cecil is in a particularly vile mood. While Freddy and George play tennis and the others are watching, Cecil goes on and on about the novel he’s reading. The novel is set in Florence and there’s a murder, and Lucy quickly realizes that it’s written by Miss Lavish, who was at the Bertolini with them. Cecil decides to read a passage aloud:

“‘Leonora,'” he read, “‘sat pensive and alone. Before her lay the rich champaign of Tuscany, dotted over with many a smiling village. The season was spring.'”

Miss Lavish knew, somehow, and had printed the past in draggled prose, for Cecil to read and for George to hear.

“‘A golden haze,'” he read. He read: “‘Afar off the towers of Florence, while the bank on which she sat was carpeted with violets. All unobserved Antonio stole up behind her—'”

Lest Cecil should see her face she turned to George and saw his face.

He read: “‘There came from his lips no wordy protestation such as formal lovers use. No eloquence was his, nor did he suffer from the lack of it. He simply enfolded her in his manly arms.'”

“This isn’t the passage I wanted,” he informed them, “there is another much funnier, further on.” He turned over the leaves.

“Should we go in to tea?” said Lucy, whose voice remained steady.

She led the way up the garden, Cecil following her, George last. She thought a disaster was averted. But when they entered the shrubbery it came. The book, as if it had not worked mischief enough, had been forgotten, and Cecil must go back for it; and George, who loved passionately, must blunder against her in the narrow path.

“No—” she gasped, and, for the second time, was kissed by him.

As if no more was possible, he slipped back; Cecil rejoined her; they reached the upper lawn alone.


Later that afternoon, when they’re all preparing for supper, Lucy confronts George in the dining-room. She tells him to leave or she will have to call Cecil and George is incredulous to realize that she is engaged to marry Cecil. (Now it’s getting good. Get your popcorn. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.)

Then his words rose gravely over hers: “You cannot live with Vyse. He’s only for an acquaintance. He is for society and cultivated talk. He should know no one intimately, least of all a woman.”

It was a new light on Cecil’s character.

“Have you ever talked to Vyse without feeling tired?”

“I can scarcely discuss—”

“No, but have you ever? He is the sort who are all right so long as they keep to things—books, pictures—but kill when they come to people. That’s why I’ll speak out through all this muddle even now. It’s shocking enough to lose you in any case, but generally a man must deny himself joy, and I would have held back if your Cecil had been a different person. I would never have let myself go. But I saw him first in the National Gallery, when he winced because my father mispronounced the names of great painters. Then he brings us here, and we find it is to play some silly trick on a kind neighbour. That is the man all over—playing tricks on people, on the most sacred form of life that he can find. Next, I meet you together, and find him protecting and teaching you and your mother to be shocked, when it was for YOU to settle whether you were shocked or no. Cecil all over again. He daren’t let a woman decide. He’s the type who’s kept Europe back for a thousand years. Every moment of his life he’s forming you, telling you what’s charming or amusing or ladylike, telling you what a man thinks womanly; and you, you of all women, listen to his voice instead of to your own. So it was at the Rectory, when I met you both again; so it has been the whole of this afternoon. Therefore—not ‘therefore I kissed you,’ because the book made me do that, and I wish to goodness I had more self-control. I’m not ashamed. I don’t apologize. But it has frightened you, and you may not have noticed that I love you. Or would you have told me to go, and dealt with a tremendous thing so lightly? But therefore—therefore I settled to fight him.”

Oh, swoon.

George storms off, passing Miss Bartlett, who of course has been lurking in the doorway, snooping her heart out. The two women join the rest of the group. When Freddy hears that George has left, he asks Cecil to join him for a game of tennis. When Cecil declines, Lucy realizes that he is intolerable and breaks her engagement that night. It is only when she is breaking up with him does Cecil finally see her as a “living woman” rather than a trophy wife and has a difficult time letting go.

“You don’t love me, evidently. I dare say you are right not to. But it would hurt a little less if I knew why.”

“Because”—a phrase came to her, and she accepted it—”you’re the sort who can’t know any one intimately.”

A horrified look came into his eyes.

“I don’t mean exactly that. But you will question me, though I beg you not to, and I must say something. It is that, more or less. When we were only acquaintances, you let me be myself, but now you’re always protecting me.” Her voice swelled. “I won’t be protected. I will choose for myself what is ladylike and right. To shield me is an insult. Can’t I be trusted to face the truth but I must get it second-hand through you? A woman’s place! You despise my mother—I know you do—because she’s conventional and bothers over puddings; but, oh goodness!”—she rose to her feet—”conventional, Cecil, you’re that, for you may understand beautiful things, but you don’t know how to use them; and you wrap yourself up in art and books and music, and would try to wrap up me. I won’t be stifled, not by the most glorious music, for people are more glorious, and you hide them from me. That’s why I break off my engagement. You were all right as long as you kept to things, but when you came to people—” She stopped.

The clash between Cecil and Lucy is the clash between the old and new ways of thinking. The Victorian/Edwardian age had rigid social classes, but even more so was the rigid gender structures. Lucy is seeing herself no longer as a woman but as a person who is capable of making her own decisions and choices. Welcome to the new millenium, Lucy.

Unfortunately, she feels that this new realization means that she will never marry and will join her cousin in a life of spinsterhood and cat lady-hood, especially as she tries to convince herself that she doesn’t love George.

Lucy receives a letter from the Miss Alans, the spinster sisters from the Bertolini, who write to tell her about their upcoming trip to Greece. Lucy decides that she simply must go along with them and her mother reluctantly agrees. She also convinces everyone not to announce her broken engagement to Cecil, but to let divulge it once she is safely out of England — the secret reason behind this being that she doesn’t want George to be able to do the “told you so” dance.

She goes to visit Mr. Beebe before she leaves and Mr. Emerson is in the sitting room. George has told him that he loves Lucy and tells her that George has “gone under” — George is so full of passion that he can become overwhelmed by them, and he has become overwhelmed by his love of Lucy and is resembling Romeo in love with Rosaline. He tells Lucy that George can no longer bear to be there and that they are going back to London. When Lucy reveals that she is headed to Greece — without Cecil — Mr. Emerson forces her to admit that she loves George.

Then he burst out excitedly; “That’s it; that’s what I mean. You love George!” And after his long preamble, the three words burst against Lucy like waves from the open sea.

“But you do,” he went on, not waiting for contradiction. “You love the boy body and soul, plainly, directly, as he loves you, and no other word expresses it. You won’t marry the other man for his sake.”

“How dare you!” gasped Lucy, with the roaring of waters in her ears. “Oh, how like a man!—I mean, to suppose that a woman is always thinking about a man.”

“But you are.”

She summoned physical disgust.

“You’re shocked, but I mean to shock you. It’s the only hope at times. I can reach you no other way. You must marry, or your life will be wasted. You have gone too far to retreat. I have no time for the tenderness, and the comradeship, and the poetry, and the things that really matter, and for which you marry. I know that, with George, you will find them, and that you love him. Then be his wife. He is already part of you. Though you fly to Greece, and never see him again, or forget his very name, George will work in your thoughts till you die. It isn’t possible to love and to part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.”

The next chapter opens with the Miss Alans in Greece by themselves. George and Lucy are back at the Bertolini; they have eloped to Italy, and, even though they may have alienated Mrs. Honeychurch in the process, they are living happily with each other and committed to their life of love.

Happily -- and sexily -- ever after.

In the end, Lucy is able to choose her own life and decide who she wants to marry, though her mother disapproves. The thought of marrying for position and social status is challenged in this novel — though there is a man of sufficient birth available, he is boring and stuck-up and utterly unappealing, yet the person who is exciting and interesting is of middle class (and works as a porter for a railway, how plebian!) .

There is an appendix that was added to some of the later publications of the book, where Forster elaborated on what happened to Lucy and George in the later years, but I choose not to read that part. I prefer my romances to end happily and without children and World War II, thank you very much. In my view of A Room with a View, George and Lucy remain at the Bertolini forever. Or at least they only emerge for food and sustenance, and possibly the occasional citrus fruit to prevent scurvy.

Comment » | classic books

10. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

March 30th, 2011 — 1:45pm

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck was published in 1939. Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and the Nobel Prize for Literature 1962. The title comes from a lyric from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which in turn refers to Revelation 14:19-20 that describes the justice doled out through the Apocalypse.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

The novel takes place in the 1930s during the height of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in the Midwest. It followed the Joad family on their attempt to survive both as individuals and as a family. The Grapes of Wrath was initially not very well-received due to the social and political views that Steinbeck espoused through the novel, mainly by detailing the plight of poor people and the hardships of the migrant workers in California — people labeled it was lies and Communist leaning. However, it has become one of the most widely read books in classrooms and colleges across America.

The novel begins with Tom Joad, the Joad’s second oldest son, getting out of prison after serving four years for manslaughter. He makes his way to his family’s Oklahoma farm and on the way he meets Jim Casy, who is a former preacher who has given up his day job in order to be with the people — he believes that sacredness consists simply in endeavoring to be an equal among the people (Jim Casy is based on/inspired by Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts). Tom and Jim get to the farm to find it completely deserted. A neighbor tells them that the people on the land have all been “tractored” off and that most people, including the Joads, are heading to California to find work. Tom and Jim head to Tom’s Uncle John’s house to find his family finishing packing up all of their belongings into a single car that is affectionately referred to as a “jalopy.” They travel down Route 66 from Oklahoma to California.

The Joads head down Route 66.

Grandpa Joad, who complains the loudest that he doesn’t want to leave his land, dies before they can cross the Oklahoma border. Grandma Joad dies before they reach the California state line and Noah, the oldest brother, and Connie, the husband of the Joad’s pregnant daughter, Rose of Sharon, abandon the family.

Once the family reaches California, they are met with resistance — the work pool is oversaturated by people trying to find work and newcomers, whom are isnultingly referred to as “Okies”, are not appreciated. The family sets up in a Hooverwille (affectionately named for Herbert Hoover, who was the unfortunate president during the onset of the Great Depression and has become a scapegoat for blame for the economic downtown). The Hoovervilles are overcrowded and no one gets enough food; work is difficult to come by and no one can afford a sufficient amount of food for their families.

How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t scare him - he has known a fear beyond every other.

The corporate farm landowners fear a worker uprising, so they try to guarantee that the workers remain poor and dependent on them for survival. Tom and several men get into a heated argument with a deputy sheriff over whether workers should organize into a union. When the argument turns violent, Jim Casy knocks the sheriff unconscious and is arrested. Police officers arrive and announce their intention to burn the Hooverville to the ground.

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in the 1940 movie.

The Joads eventually find work picking peaches at an orchard, until they find out that they’ve been hired as strikebreakers. Tom meets up again with Jim, who has been released from jail and is now hard at work organizing the workers and getting them to understand their power. Police deputies, hired by the landowners who don’t appreciate Jim’s new calling, raid the strike and in the action, Jim is killed; Tom retaliates by killing the police officer who killed Jim and fleeing.

Given Tom’s new fugitive status, the Joads move from the peach orchard to a cotton farm under the hopes that no one will identify Tom. When Ruthie, the youngest Joad daughter, is overheard telling another girl on the farm about her brother the murderer, Ma Joad sends Tom away to hide; Tom takes the opportunity to pick up where Jim left off in organizing the workers. Tom assures his mother that wherever he goes, he will work to help people:

Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry n’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.

The end of the summer comes, which means the end of the growing season and the end of work. The family realizes that there will be no jobs for three months when the rainy season arrives and there are torrential downpours that turn into floods. Rose of Sharon goes into labor with her baby, and Ma Joad finds a dry barn for them to stay; unfortunately Rose of Sharon’s baby is stillborn. In the barn are another family, a boy and his father. The father is weak and dying from malnourishment because he’s been giving all of the food they find to his son — the irony is that he’s now too sick to eat solid food. The novel ends with Rose of Sharon taking the the dying man in her arms and breast feeding him.

The Grapes of Wrath, while not overtly Christian, has a lot of Christian themes and symbols. Jim Casy is a Christ-like figure all the way down to his “J.C.” initials. He is a man who lives his life for others and sacrifices himself for the cause of the unrepresented workers. The floods at the end of the novel, while damaging, bring forth a sense of renewal and hope with the beginning of spring. Rose of Sharon transforms from a rather self-centered girl to a Pieta figure — she is overcome by maternal instincts and is able to provide comfort and protection for others.

The story of the family is offset by chapters told from the point of view of inanimate objects and creatrues that symbolize different parts of the journey of the people during the Dust Bowl. There is a chapter that is about a turtle crossing the road and the dangers it encounters (an ant gets in its shell, a driver swerves to hit it and then swerves to misses it), several excerpts about the machinery that is taking over agriculture and making farmers obsolete and details about what happens to the land when the farmers leave, and there’s a chapter in the point of view of a used car salesman talking about how he cheats the customers that are obviously poor and desperate. It makes the novel more universal; rather than just following the Joads, the narration is ubiquitous, showcasing the suffering of what seems to be everyone in America.

One of the major themes of the novel is man’s inhumanity towards man and the dangers of forgetting the importance of altruism. Most of the hardships that the migrant workers, and the Joads specifically, face aren’t caused by the weather and the Dust Bowl but by people. Whether it’s from a social, economic, or racial hierarchy, the people in the novel keep themselves up by shoving others down. That’s what makes people consider this one of Steinbeck’s more socially conscious stories, the fact that he focuses so much on the plight of the migrant worker and the injustices suffered to them.

I first read The Grapes of Wrath in my AP English class my junior year of high school. And to be honest, all I remembered was Rose of Sharon breast feeding the dying man and that at one point someone pees in the dirt and makes a poultice for a cut out of the urine soaked mud. I also remember my teacher yelling at us about the machines being personified as monsters and being alive. It’s nice that the integrity of literature lives on in teenagers.

Steinbeck is one of the great American authors, and with good reason. The Grapes of Wrath manages to be a social commentary without seeming too preachy, in my opinion — however, it was banned and people held public burnings of the book because of what were seen as communist and socialist views. It’s nice to know that some things never change.

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13. 1984 by George Orwell

February 10th, 2011 — 10:38am

1984 was published in 1949 by George Orwell (a pseudonym for Eric Blair). It is a dystopian novel, which means that it showcases a negative view of a future society; dystopian novels usually have characters who live with extreme poverty, oppression, or extreme government control. It is commonly thought to be a criticism of the Communism and Fascism seen in the Soviet Union at the time (Orwell is not a stranger to using literature to criticize Papa Joe Stalin), but Orwell said in a later essay that “[Nineteen Eighty-Four] is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter), but as a show-up of the perversions . . . which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism. . . . The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else, and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.”

So do with that what you will. I personally think that our boy George is full of it.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

The novel follows Winston Smith, a citizen of the country Oceania, in what he believes to be the year 1984. The countries of Europe have integrated into three intercontinental countries after a global war following WWII (the United Kingdom became Oceania, the USSR became Eurasia, and the East and Southeast Asian region became Eastasia). The three superstates fight a perpetual war for the remaining unconquered lands of the world; each of the countries is constantly at war with one and at peace and allied with the other, but the allegiances change constantly.

The government of Oceania is run by Big Brother, an omniscient, omnipresent figure who is broadcast over the television and radios to give his messages to the people. Big Brother is ostensibly always watching, as the ubiquitous posters around town proclaim — it is presumed that all good citizens will report any ungood actions of their comrades to the proper authorities, which means that Big Brother is in everyone and is indeed always watching.

Big Brother is Watching.

The social breakdown of Oceania is the Inner Party (upper class), the Outer Party (middle class), and the Proles (short for proletariat, the working class). The Proles make up about 85% of the population yet have the least amount of rights in the society. The Proles don’t seem to realize that their rights are being repressed.

So long as the Proles continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance. Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern…Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.

The Party (the government, which consists of Inner and Outer Party members) controls the citizens (or comrades) through four different govenment agencies: the Ministry of Peace, Ministry of Plenty, Ministry of Love, and the Ministry of Truth. They have the slogans “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.”

The Ministry of Peace is the militant part of the government. They are in charge of the armed forces, mostly the navy and army. Considering that Oceania is constantly at war with either Eurasia or Eastasia, this ministry is seen as very important. They produce the propaganda that instructs the comrades to hate the opposing country, which focuses the comrades’ rage and frustration with the enemy rather than with their own system.

The Ministry of Plenty oversees the economy. They control the food supplies, and goods, as well as the rationing of the goods to the people. They maintain shortages in the economy, as the government believes that a weak population is easier to govern than a wealthy, strong population. However, they produce reports that advertise the flourishing economy that Big Brother has provided, typically by just making up figures. In one scene in the novel, there is an announcement that the ration for chocolate is being increased to twenty grams. All of the people around Winston cheer and celebrate, but Winston realizes that twenty grams is actually a decrease from the ration the day before.

The Ministry of Love enforces the love and loyalty to Big Brother. They do this through fear, repression, and brainwashing. The building that houses the Ministry of Love has no windows, barbed wire, and steel doors and is surrounded by snipers with machine guns and guards with electrified truncheons. Inside it is illuminated by florescent lights that never go out. They produce the videos and propaganda supporting Big Brother and prosecute the criminals of “thoughtcrime.” They control the people entirely, though their importance is played down by the Party.

The Ministry of Truth is where Winston Smith (a member of the Outer Party) works as an editor. Editors revise historical records to change the past to make it agree with the contemporary party line, considering that it changes daily. It involves anything from changing records of Big Brother’s speeches to erasing citizens that have become “unpersons” — people who have been executed by the state and therefore have any proof of their existence removed from record. This is done by taking them out of any books, public documents, or pictures, under the belief that their existence will be forgotten if there is no proof that they existed.

The language of the world has also been changed. Oceania doesn’t speak the King’s English, but has created a new language called Newspeak. It has removed the extremities of language and left only the basic forms (good and bad, pleasure and pain, happy and sad, etc). Many words can be used as nouns and verbs; because “think” exists as a noun, it can be used as a verb, which means that the word “thought” is unnecessary. It also utilizes pronouns and suffixes and attempts to use short, monosyllabic words. For example, because “good” exists as a word, there is no reason to have an additional word (“bad”) to mean the opposite when one can simply say “ungood.” If something is horrible, it is “doubleplusungood”.

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.

That brings me to thoughtcrime. Not only was it illegal to do certain things, but it was also illegal to think certain things. The Thought Police use surveillance methods to observe the comrades — Big Brother is Watching. The telescreens are everywhere, in every home, office, building, wall, basically if it will stand still, the Party has a telescreen on it. Not only are the telescreens used to broadcast messages from Big Brother and other Party-esque programs, but they also serve as recording devices to watch every citizen in their homes for evidence of thoughtcrime; there is a team (a nameless, faceless “they”) that analyzes every movement, reflex, facial tic, what have you. They sometimes even talk through the telescreen — during the morning exercises, the woman on screen tells Winston that he needs to work harder and keep his knees up. Winston writes of thoughtcrime in his journal, “”Thoughtcrime does not entail death. Thoughtcrime IS death.”

Winston Smith is a man of about thirty-nine — he isn’t quite sure of his actual age because he isn’t quite sure of the actual year. He lives in a squalid apartment and works at the Ministry of Truth. However, revising the history of Oceania makes Winston curious about what has actually happened in history. Big Brother tells the citizens of Oceania to hate Emmanuel Goldstein, who is the leader of an opposing political party and is therefore the Devil Incarnate, and whichever country they’re at war with at the time — at this moment, it’s Eurasia. Winston goes through the motions, but his small apartment is blessed with a corner that is hidden from the telescreen’s cameras. He keeps a secret diary in which he writes down all of his misgivings about society and his hate for Big Brother and the Party. Maaaajor thoughtcrime going on.

Winston works with a man named O’Brien, who Winston thinks shares his views; at one of the Two Minute Hate sessions, where all of the people crowd around a telescreen and are shown propaganda videos to promote hating the enemy, Winston catches O’Brien’s eye and sees the same hatred for Big Brother that he feels.

One day at work, during the Two Minute Hate, he notices a dark-haired girl and hates her because he is attracted to her but she is wearing a sash denoting that she’s a member of the Party’s Anti-Sex League. The Party has a hatred of sex, it seems; Winston figures that the goal is to remove pleasure from the sexual act, so that it becomes merely a duty to the Party, a way of producing new Party members. Winston’s former wife Katherine hated sex, and as soon as they realized they would never have children, they separated. Winston desperately wants to have an enjoyable sexual affair, which he sees as the ultimate act of rebellion.

A few days later, he notices the dark-haired girl with her arm in a sling. She stumbles in the hallway at work and when Winston helps her up, she slips him a note that says “I love you.” Winston is understandably confused. Not only does he think that she’s a political spy who is watching him, but there’s also the thing where they’ve never talked and he doesn’t even know her name. A small hiccup in the relationship. However, Winston is desperate and sees the note as a reason to live. At least long enough to find out her name.

They avoid each other for a few days and then manage to sit at the same lunch table together; however, they don’t talk, so as not to alert the Thought Police that their thoughts need to be washed with a strong cleanser. They plan a meeting at the execution of Eurasian prisoners (very romantic), where the crowd and the Party will be distracted and they’ll be able to talk without being watched by Big Brother. While in the crowd, they plan to meet at a train station and go out to the country where they can truly be alone.

They go to the country, he finds out her name is Julia and she’s not a spy, and they have sex. It turns out that Julia is just as rebellious as Winston, as this is not her first tryst in the country. She wears the Anti-Sex League sash in order to comply with the Party and not attract any suspicion, but she’s really sort of slutty; Winston comments that she’s only a rebel from the waist down. Winston sees this as a good thing, as it means that other Party members are committing crimes. Julia has less ambitious ideas about the Party — she doesn’t really care about a widespread rebellion, she just likes enjoying herself and sticking it to the man.

They return to their Party lives. Once they get back to the city, Winston rents a room from a man named Mr. Charrington to conduct his affair with Julia. When they return to work, Winston discovers that a man he knows, Syme, who was working on a Newspeak dictionary, has vanished; Winston sort of knew this was coming, because Syme was too intelligent for his own good. The Party is gearing up for Hate Week, a fun-filled celebration of hate.

O’Brien talks to Winston in the hallway of the Ministry of Truth, and casually mentions that he can see a Newspeak dictionary if he comes to his house. I’m sure he also has candy in his van if Winston is interested in that, too. Winston takes this as a sign that O’Brien is indeed a like-minded rebel, and decides to go to his house, even though he’s pretty sure that his new life path will eventually end him in the Ministry of Love.

Winston has dreams about his family and his childhood; his father left them and he, his mother, and his baby sister struggled to survive without him. The Party attempts to repress emotions and memories by telling people revised versions of the past, and Winston is sick of it. He talks to Julia after a vivid dream that he killed his own mother and they talk about the Party. The Party attempts to control the people by eliminating human emotions, at least in Party members, to the point where they are no longer human.

Winston and Julia go to O’Brien’s house together, where he shocks them by turning off his telescreen. Winston, thinking that Big Brother is no longer watching, declares that he and Julia wish to join the Brotherhood and follow Goldstein. O’Brien gives them a copy of Goldstein’s book, teaches them a rebel song for initiation, and they drink wine and toast to the past. O’Brien and Winston make plans to meet “in the place with no darkness,” and when he and Julia leave, O’Brien turns the telescreen back on.

Winston begins to read Goldstein’s book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. In it, he learns about the geographical makeup of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia and how they were formed. The countries are in a perpetual state of war, Goldstein writes, in order to preserve power among the high class society, or the Inner Party; if the lower classes are preoccupied with war, it’s easier for them to be controlled. The war never advances because it’s impossible for one of the superpowers to gain the upper hand on the other as they’re all relatively equal in power. The point of the war isn’t to win, but to control their own citizens. Hence the Party slogan WAR IS PEACE; having a common enemy keeps the people united. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, Goldstein writes, because the Party figures that independence is doomed to fail; only the will of the collective will flourish. If the Party provides everything that the people need or want, then they are free from all those pesky choices that so often plague us and bring societies to their knees. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH because when the people are ignorant of the totalitarian regime, it strengthens the Party.

The day after reading the book, Winston and Julia stand at the window of their love nest and see a prole woman. They talk about how the proles, though discounted and made weak by the Party, are actually the key to the future — they truly have the power because there are so many of them and if they evolve to become conscious of that, the Party is in trouble. They begin to talk about the futility of their life, especially now that they’ve gone down the road to rebellion. Winston says, “We are dead.” To which a nameless, faceless voice replies, “You are dead.”

Oh. Snap.

It turns out that there was a hidden telescreen behind a picture on the wall. The house is suddenly surrounded by Thought Police. They smash the window and a stream of black-clad men enter. The troops beat Winston and Julia and restrain them. Mr. Charrington, the landlord, enters the room and begins instructing the troops. Winston realizes that it was his voice coming from the telescreen, and that Mr. Charrington is actually a member of the Thought Police.

Winston is taken to a brightly lit cell in the Ministry of Love (“the place where there is no darkness”, see what they did there?) and is with a few other prisoners, including a poet who left the word “God” in a Rudyard Kipling poem and a man who was turned in to the Thought Police by his own children. Winston fears that, if he is beaten severely, he will confess and betray Julia. One of the prisoners is taken to Room 101, which frightens everyone; no one knows exactly what is in Room 101, but it’s the mystery and horror that is so frightening.

O’Brien enters the cell, to which Winston thinks that O’Brien has been captured. O’Brien tells him, “They got me long ago.” It turns out that O’Brien is an operative for the Ministry of Love. You just can’t trust anyone these days. O’Brien oversees the torture of Winston, which is excrutiating. His official crime is refusing to accept the Party’s control of history and his memory of past events. As the torture goes on, Winston tells O’Brien anything he wants to hear — O’Brien holds up four fingers and tells him he’s holding up five and Winston agrees. His mind is affected by the pain; he begins to love O’Brien because he is one who stops the pain. I’m not sure how that makes sense, but there you go. O’Brien tells Winston that the pain is going to cure him of his insanity, which is what they convince him is the problem. He also tells Winston that Julia gave him right away, that bitch.

We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent there will be no need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.

After weeks of interrogation and torture, O’Brien tells Winston about the Party’s motives. Winston speculates that the Party rules the proles for their own good. O’Brien tortures him for this answer, saying that the Party’s only goal is absolute, endless, and limitless power. Winston argues that the Party cannot alter the stars or the universe; O’Brien answers that it could if it needed to because the only reality that matters is in the human mind, which the Party controls.

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.


O’Brien forces Winston to look in a mirror; he has completely deteriorated and looks gray and skeletal. Winston begins to weep and blames O’Brien for his condition. O’Brien acknowledges that Winston has held out by not betraying Julia, and Winston feels overwhelmed with love and gratitude toward O’Brien for recognizing his strength. However, O’Brien tells Winston not to worry, as he will soon be cured; not that it matters since everyone is shot anyway.

Winston is moved to a more comfortable room and his torture eases. He begins to think that maybe he was a bit hasty in opposing the Party on his own, and maybe they’re not such bad fellows after all. He tries to make himself believe in the Party slogans, but he just can’t shake his deep rooted resentment against the Party. So back to hating it is. He thinks, “To die hating them, that was freedom.” But he opens his big mouth and tells O’Brien that he still hates Big Brother. To which O’Brien responds by sending him to Room 101.

In Room 101, O’Brien straps Winston to a chair and completely secures him so that he can’t move. O’Brien reminds Winston of his worst nightmare—a dream Wisnton had of being in a dark place with something terrible on the other side of the wall—and informs him that rats are on the other side of the wall. Winston’s one major fear in life is rats. How convenient. O’Brien picks up a cage full of enormous, squirming rats and places it near Winston. He says that when he presses a lever, the door will slide up and the rats will leap onto Winston’s face and eat it. (I remember reading this book in 10th grade and being completely and utterly horrified at this part. NOT THE FACE, ANYTHING BUT THE FACE, WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN.)

With the writhing, starving rats just inches away, Winston cracks. He screams that he wants O’Brien to subject Julia to this torture instead of him. O’Brien, satisfied by this betrayal, removes the cage.

Cut to Winston enjoying his freedom at a small cafe, complete with his face intact. He is watching the telescreen and accepts wholeheartedly everything the Party stands for and everything they do. He hasn’t completely forgotten his stay at the Ministry of Love; sometimes he can still smell the rats. He thinks about meeting Julia randomly on a street a few months ago. They talk about Room 101 and admit that they both betrayed each other. Only after they wished the pain and torture on the other person did the Party know that they were broken and were no longer a threat. Winston also remembers a memory of his mother and sister, but thinks that this is just a false memory or a dream. He watches a telescreen with a news report from Big Brother and feels happy and at peace.

He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

The beautiful thing about 1984 is that it is still scary in 2011. People are still afraid of the government and technology (2001’s Patriot Act comes to mind) and 1984 and Big Brother have come to stand for rising up against oppression and government control.

Unless it’s standing for selling Apple computers or reality shows. In which case Orwell’s warning of totalitarianism is sort of forgotten.

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