review: the phantom of the opera

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (1909)

This book has been sitting in my to-be-read pile for quite a long time.  I have not seen any adaptations of the novel, but I have wanted to see the Broadway musical for a long, long time.  When I picked up the book a week ago and started reading, I didn’t even read the summary on the back of the book.  Although I haven’t seen the musical or film, I thought I had an inkling of what the story was about.  Come to find out, I didn’t really know the story at all, and further still, when I finally see the musical, I’m going to be so glad that I read the book first.

I had about eighty pages left to read when a friend, who I had told I was reading the book, asked me what the book was about.  I had a hard time answering the question.  The story takes place in the Paris Opera house, and it is told to us by a “historian” who has pieced together the events that he is relating to us.  At the beginning of the story, the management of the opera-house has changed hands, and at the time of the change, the old managers provide the new managers with a copy of the lease.  The lease is standard with the exception of a few demands added by “O.G.” the Opera Ghost.  “O.G.” demands a monthly payment of 20,000 francs and sole use of Box 5 in the opera house.  Part of the story is the struggle between the new managers, who refuse to give in to the Opera Ghost’s demands, and the ghost’s retaliations.  This part of the story moves the opera-house from orderly to chaotic, and as the story progresses, returning the opera-house to order is one of the things that propels the plot forward.  The second part of the story is the love story between Christine, a singer in the opera, and Raoul de Chagny, a French noble.  Throughout Christine’s life, her father taught her about music, and as childhood friends, Christine and Raoul sat and listened as her father told them about the Angel of Music.  Christine’s father said that after he died, he would send the Angel of Music to her, and that the Angel would transform her into a musical genius.  Not only is the romance between Christine and Raoul made impossible because of his status as a nobleman and hers as a singer/actress, but it is also challenged by the presence of the Angel of Music, who falls in love with Christine, abducts her, frees her, and then abducts her again. Resolving the romantic triangle and the fates of the three main characters propels the rest of the plot to its conclusion.

The only thing I really knew about the story were the two characters of Christine and the Phantom, and that the story took place in an opera-house.  I thought that the Phantom was the protagonist of the story, with Christine being the second protagonist and heroine.  He is, after all, the title character.  Reading the story, it seems to me that instead of being the protagonist, the Phantom is actually the antagonist, and this was a real surprise.  His character also brings in the supernatural and horror elements of the story (and before I read the back cover of the book, I didn’t know that this story was categorized as horror, a so-called “chilling tale”).  On the other hand, Christine is clearly the damsel in distress and in line with the ideal of the 19th century heroine (another misconception of mine was that the story was written in the mid-1800s, so Christine’s characterization was expected).  Raoul is also the typical French male aristocrat who seeks to marry for love, regardless of his social position.  This isn’t to say that the characters aren’t likable–that is, that Christine and Raoul aren’t likable.  They are.  What is challenging about the characters is that it was difficult for me as a reader to become attached to any of them.  Further still, at the end of the story, I know that I am supposed to feel pity and sympathy toward the Phantom, and yet, he’s kept at such a distance from the reader, it was hard for me to feel those emotions.

I did like the novel. The villainy, genius, and madness of the Phantom were compelling, and thinking about it, I realize that I would have liked him to have more time on the page; and yet, it’s his elusiveness, his ability to seemingly be everywhere but not there at all is part of what makes him such a terrifying and formidable foe.  I come back to the fact that he is the title character, and that the tragedy of the novel is his tragedy.  What I mean to say is that I wanted to feel more invested in his tragedy, and this is the only real complaint that I have with the book.

From what I’ve read after finishing the novel, many of the elements in the book in terms of the architecture of the opera-house are factual, and Leroux had actual knowledge of the Paris Opera that informed his writing.  This book was a welcome change of pace, especially within the realm of “classic” literature.  I enjoyed the inclusion of music in the story, and can imagine similarities between the progression of the plot of the novel and the progression of an opera–both sprinkling in light, comic notes even as the tension continually builds, steadily moving toward the final climax. I also loved the way the historian/narrator intertwined the power of music to convey every human emotion, just as the novel possesses the same power.  I loved that The Phantom of the Opera wasn’t like everything else. If the opportunity ever comes my way, I am certain I would find a way to teach this book in a future class.  I definitely recommend this book to other readers.

 

 

review: persuasion

Persuasion by Jane Austen (1818)

Persuasion was Jane Austen’s last completed novel, and it was published alongside Emma after her death.  Last novels have always had a special interest for me, and Persuasion is no exception.  This is the third novel that I’ve read by Austen (and it’s worth noting that I read Austen for the first time last spring at about this time), and although my introduction to the author has come much later than most people I know, I definitely understand why so many readers adore her works.  I loved Emma, but Persuasion has become my new favorite.

Like Northanger Abbey and Emma, at its most basic level, Persuasion offers its readers the typical early 19th century marriage plot.  The protagonist and heroine of the novel is Anne Elliot.  Anne is the second daughter of Sir Walter Elliot, her older sister is Elizabeth (identical in opinions and temperament to her father and his favorite) and her younger sister is Mary, who has already married into the Musgrove family who dwell at Uppercross.  No one in Anne’s family cares much about what she thinks or feels or wants, nor do they really consider her existence or her worth until she can be of some use to them.  Her mother died when she was fourteen, and so Lady Russell, a close friend of the family, has become a mother-figure for Anne. Unlike Catherine and Emma, Anne is not in the first blush of youth; instead, she is twenty-seven years old at the beginning of the novel, and she has already experienced disappointment and pain in love.  When Anne was nineteen she met and fell in love with Captain Wentworth and they became engaged; but Anne was persuaded by Lady Russell to call off the engagement because Wentworth had neither fortune nor class status equal to Anne’s.  Lady Russell persuades Anne that such a match would be a mésalliance, and that Anne would be needlessly throwing herself away.  The result is that Anne loses her bloom, Captain Wentworth goes off to naval service, and the two do not meet each other again for eight years.  The work of the novel is to overcome the intervening years so that Anne and Captain Wentworth can be finally united in love and marriage.

But there’s more to catch a reader’s interest in the novel than the marriage plot.  Another thing that is typical of an Austen novel is the preoccupation with and social commentary on the rigid class structure and class consciousness of 19th century England.  One of the wonderful scenes in the novel occurs when Austen, through Anne, challenges the ways in which male writers have been privileged to label women (here women are labeled as inconstant and fickle), without women having any ability or privilege to challenge those labels or form their own identities.  Also, those characters who are the most class conscious and concerned with issues of precedence based upon one’s position in society are revealed to be the most worthless members of society.  Men who are preoccupied with knowing only “gentlemen” and the landed gentry and nobility show that though appearances and titles identify them as gentlemen, they fall very very short of what an English gentleman should be (at least, in Austen’s opinion).  Austen is most scathing in her critique of Sir Walter’s selfishness, his idleness, and his financial insolvency arising from his sense of entitlement and necessity to enjoy all that he feels baronets are entitled to enjoy, regardless of his mounting debts.  All outward appearances indicate that Sir Walter is a gentleman, but everything beneath the surfaces provides undeniable evidence to the contrary.  Austen also aims her pen at the insistence upon precedence that determined a woman’s place within her family and within her society, and she embodies all that she sees as reprehensible in the character of Mary, Anne’s sister.  Indeed, with the exception of Anne, the entire Elliot family is held up as being the very picture of all that is wrong with the class of landed gentry in 19th century England, and Austen makes the case that although power and authority have resided in this class for decades, this class’s power and authority is no longer legitimate or even desirable, and it is significant that at the end of the novel, Anne Elliot withdraws from this old order in favor of the new order.

That new order is characterized by the rising professional class, specifically in this novel, the naval officers settling back into the domestic sphere as the war between England and France is nearing its conclusion.  In Austen’s view, these men—men like Captain Wentworth and his friends, Captain Benwick and Captain Harville, as well as Admiral Croft, who is currently renting the ancestral home of the Elliots, Kellynch Hall—comprise the legitimate center of power and authority.  These men actually have a positive and protective influence upon England, and rather than draining the country of its resources and concerning themselves with espousing and upholding a rigid class structure as a means of exclusion and flattering their vanity, they actually give something back to society.

There is something appealing about Anne Elliot as the protagonist and heroine of the novel whose constancy, intelligence, and goodness finally brings her the man she loved and lost at such a young age.  There is also something about Anne that resonates with me and that I can relate to and identify with, and maybe that’s why she is my favorite Austen heroine thus far. Though we don’t see Wentworth as much as perhaps I wanted, his words to Anne at the end and their reunion is just a feel good moment in the story.  Yes, you get the happy ending you’ve been expecting all along, but more importantly, that happy ending is deeply satisfying and actually evoked an emotional response from me.  Overall, I enjoyed this book immensely and definitely recommend it to readers who haven’t tried Austen or haven’t read Persuasion.

 

review: vanity fair

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)

I have now read Vanity Fair by William M. Thackeray twice.  Four years have passed since my first reading, and I was curious to see if my opinion of the novel would change after reading it a second time and discussing it with my students.  I wanted to know if they would convince me to view the novel in a different, more favorable way.  Alas, the second experience has only reinforced my response to the first reading.  Getting through the novel is certainly an accomplishment, and there is value in reading the story, but Thackeray’s masterpiece doesn’t make my personal list of must-read masterworks.

Like reading the novel, summarizing the narrative is a daunting task, and that task is complicated by the large cast of characters that populate the novel.  Probably the first thing to know is that the novel is a satire, and in terms of literary forms, it is an exemplar of that narrative form.  Although Thackeray’s subtitle claims the work to be “A Novel Without a Hero” there are a few key protagonists, the foremost being Becky Sharp.  The novel begins in the first decade of the 1800s, not long before the Battle of Waterloo, and Becky is the daughter of an artist and a French dancer, which makes her position in the class structure of English society a low one.  This is what Becky seeks to rectify throughout the novel—she aspires to move in the highest, most exclusive echelons of society, and she is willing to do anything at all to get what she wants.  She is frequently paralleled to “that Corsican upstart” (Napoleon) and she is a master of the fine art of deception.  Indeed, she is the stereotypical social climber who will kick you off the ladder if it means climbing up to the next rung.  As much as we are intended to dislike Becky Sharp, her opposite, Amelia Sedley, is equally unlikeable.  Thackeray’s narrator continuously portrays Amelia as weak but gentle, loyal to a fault, unaware of what is going on around her to the point of narcissism, and in constant need of protection and someone to take care of her.  Amelia is intended to be a satire of the sentimental heroine pervasive in 19th century sentimental romances, and her vanity is her indulgence of her son who rules over her like a tyrant and her reverence for a husband who is anything but a gentleman and decidedly unworthy of her love or her idolatry.

One of the targets of Thackeray’s satire is the institution of marriage, and after reading the novel a second time I have to wonder if there can be a happy marriage in the world of Vanity Fair.  The three male protagonists in the novel experience marriage differently, but I wouldn’t say any of them are happy.  Becky marries Rawdon Crawley, and his marriage leads to disinheritance, massive debt, and financial ruin.  The only happiness he ultimately finds in his marriage is his love for his son.  Amelia marries George Osborne, and he, too, is disinherited because of his choice of wives, but the ruin deriving from their mésalliance is ultimately Amelia’s, not George’s.  Finally, William Dobbin, after spending nearly twenty years in love with a woman who doesn’t ever requite his love and is completely undeserving of his affection or loyalty, marries the woman he has desired for years, but even he comes to realize that the woman he marries isn’t worth the years he has spent pining for her.

Much of what drives the satire in Vanity Fair is the importance and value that is placed upon individuals who are morally bankrupt, utterly false, and irredeemable, and the lack of worth that is placed upon individuals who are genuinely good and patient, and possess even the tiniest measure of humility.  Thackeray’s satire takes aim at a bevy of issues he viewed to be the vices and follies within Victorian society—class, greed, gambling, the marriage market, etc., but the thing he derides most is every form of hypocrisy and vanity that causes individuals to place their own interests and desires above those of others, regardless of the cost.  Thackeray’s world of Vanity Fair is also an endless cycle, in which people rise and fall, or fall and rise, and the second generation makes similar kinds of mistakes, and engages in the same kinds of vanity and hypocrisy.  Vanity Fair is a world without end, and it is a world in which heroes can’t exist.

This second reading of Vanity Fair has caused me to look at the novel more objectively.  The first time I read the novel I was in my third semester of a doctoral program, and my reading and work load were so heavy that the tediousness of the novel’s narrator and his penchant for moralizing, along with my strong dislike for most of the protagonists (but especially Amelia) made reading the novel a painful exercise.  It wasn’t as painful this time, but I think I was just as happy to get to the end this time (perhaps even happier) as I was the first time.  The benefit of reading Vanity Fair is that you can see how it affected other novelists and how it was engaged in the same debates as other novels written during the mid-19th century.  As I said above, the satire is sharp and penetrating, and is an excellent example of the use of satire in the novel.  Still, my life will not be incomplete if it does not include a third reading of Vanity Fair.  The novel doesn’t make my list of recommended reads, and I would feel guilty about encouraging anyone to read it.  If you do read it, I don’t think you’ll regret it, or put in your list of five worst classics, or even want to throw your book across the room. My suggestion? Reader beware.

review: emma

Emma by Jane Austen (1816)

Emma is the second novel by Jane Austen that I have read.  I read Northanger Abbey earlier this year, and after reading it I have to say that I wasn’t sure what all the excitement over Austen was about.  Now that I have read Emma, I finally get it.  If you haven’t ever sampled anything by Jane Austen, I would definitely recommend starting with Emma.

Not surprising, the narrative follows Emma Woodhouse, a twenty-one year old young woman.  The Woodhouses are at the top of the class structure of their little community of Highbury, and the only family on the same level is the Knightleys.  Emma has a nice little fortune—thirty thousand pounds—making her a wonderful match for some eligible bachelor, and yet Emma is resolved upon not marrying, though she enjoys playing matchmaker.  Everyone in Emma’s life—with the exception of family friend, Mr. Knightley—overlook Emma’s faults (specifically, her vanity and her arrogance) but its these faults that will lead her into making a series of miscalculations and errors that drive the plot and create tension and conflict in the novel.  At the start of the story, Miss Taylor—Emma’s former governess and all around lady’s companion—has married and is now Mrs. Weston, and Emma is looking for someone to fill the gap.  She settles upon Harriet Smith, a young woman whose parentage is unknown (making her less marriageable and much lower in social class than Emma), and begins to shape and mould Harriet and play matchmaker for her.  Along with playing matchmaker for Harriet, Emma also becomes infatuated with Mr. Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston’s son.  The cast of characters in this novel is delightful, but especially Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, who is a hypochondriac and does not like to have to leave home.  There are lots of twists and turns in the plot, but it is certainly in the tradition of a comedy of errors that ends in marriage for all of the “good” characters. Readers who want a happy ending won’t be disappointed.

Austen’s usual themes are present in the novel.  She’s interested in social class and the lives of the English gentry and middle class, and she locates the story in the English countryside.  She offers us a coming of age story for her heroine, and that heroine is intelligent but naïve and must learn her place within the structure of society.  I can see why readers would be tempted to call Austen a feminist—Emma is a strong female character who rejects the idea of marriage for herself, and because her father is somewhat of an invalid and a shut-in, she appears to have more power and agency than other 19th century female characters.  But in the end, Austen reinforces the status quo of the patriarchal society she depicts in the novel.  Indeed, the disorder and imbalance within the social structure occur because individuals do not accept or understand their place within that structure.  Only when everyone accepts their position can the social order be restored and everyone get their happy ending.  The characters who continue to resist their position and presume to a higher position are marginalized and ostracized within the community.  So it’s hard for me to say that Austen was actively challenging the oppression of women in early 19th century England.

That being said, I think the novel is delightful, entertaining, and amusing.  Emma may be a snob and selfish and self-possessed, but lots of twenty-one year olds are this way, and she does eventually “grow up” and see the error of her ways.  I loved her character, and as I mentioned above the supporting cast of characters is also strong.  I was interested in everyone’s story, and I was pulled into the various plot threads and invested in how everything was going to turn out.  I have to admit that I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would, and I would definitely read it and teach it again if the opportunity ever arises.

Emma is certainly one of my recommended reads.  It’s light and fun and entertaining, and sometimes that’s exactly what you want from a book.

 

 

 

 

review: nineteen eighty-four

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

When I started reading Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, I thought to myself “How is it that I haven’t read this book before?”.  It is, after all, responsible for several words within our common, everyday lexicon—Big Brother, the Thought Police, and double-think, to name only a handful. Now that I have finished the novel, my opinion of it has definitely undergone some change.

One thing I discovered by reading the novel is that I didn’t actually know what it was about.  The narrative follows Winston Smith, a thirty-nine year old man who lives in Oceania, one of the three “superpowers” of the world (the other two are Eastasia and Eurasia, and Oceania is constantly at war with one or the other).  Winston works for the Ministry of Truth, and his job is to alter historical records so that the “official history” of Oceania says what Big Brother wants it to say, and so that no evidence exists that could challenge Big Brother’s power.  This includes erasing all traces of the existence of individuals who are guilty of thoughtcrime—that is, having thoughts that are contrary to the collective thinking Big Brother mandates.  That the past is mutable and alterable and that people can be so completely wiped out of existence bothers Winston to the extreme, and this is exacerbated by his memories of the past, which contradict the official history.  What Winston wants is privacy from the constant surveillance he and everyone else in the Party is under, history to be fixed and unchangeable, and to possess absolute control over his mind and thoughts. He wants to know that in his own mind he is free to think what he wants with impunity, and this is exemplified in his desire to always be able to say that two plus two equals four, even when Big Brother would force him to believe that two plus two equals five.  Winston wants freedom of thought, and this puts him into direct opposition with what Big Brother wants—to control the minds and thoughts of all Party members.  In Big Brother’s mind, controlling thought is the royal road to perpetual power.  As the story unfolds, Winston falls into a relationship with Julia and forms a strong attachment to an Inner Party member named O’Brien, whom he believes to be working with a resistance movement to take down Big Brother.  As you might expect, everything that Winston fears the most and yet at the same time longs for occur, and inexorably he is brought to what can only be understood as an inevitable, hopeless conclusion.

Orwell was writing this novel in the years just after World War II had ended, and so that has to be taken into consideration when reading the novel, because otherwise the fatalistic, hopeless tone might be much harder to understand.  The novel is also a dystopia and so the world of Oceania and Winston’s life are intended to be cautionary tales to the reader.  It warns against complacency and suggests that the reward for such complacency is the kind of life that Winston lives. I was also reminded of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and its depiction of death-in-life.  That is precisely the kind of life Winston is living—he is already dead even though his body is still alive.  Perhaps one thing Orwell intends to suggest is that without privacy, without intellectual freedom, the individual is dead. Of course, this is not all Orwell is warning against.  The dangers of propaganda, favoring collective thought over individual thought, and the consequences of a society in a constant state of war are also things he is warning against.  Indeed, the world that Orwell creates in Nineteen Eighty-Four is more than bleak and inhospitable, it is hell on Earth.  Winston’s fate at the end of the novel only makes this hell more intolerable in that there is no chance or hope that anything else could have happened.

I was reading an article about this novel in which the author suggests that the novel perhaps doesn’t deserve its place as a great book that it currently enjoys in the literary canon.  I thought such a statement preposterous. In my experience so much is made of Nineteen Eighty-Four that I couldn’t imagine such a statement being true.  And yet, now that I’ve read the novel, I understand what the writer was saying.  The novel is divided into three parts, and the third part is hard to pin down. It takes place almost entirely within the Ministry of Love (in which political prisoners are tortured) and the story shows us what happens to Winston after he becomes a political prisoner; however, it seems to me that this is where the novel loses its tension.  I stopped caring about what would happen to Winston, and I can’t completely explain why, but I know this lack of tension is one explanation.  What this final section did show was the power of Big Brother and the futility in trying to defy him.  The thing is, I don’t expect a dystopia to only be a cautionary tale.  I expect it to offer some kind of hope or idea for how the kind of world that is being portrayed could be avoided.  Nineteen Eighty-Four does not offer that.  Instead, Winston capitulates, and nothing has changed.  He believes that two plus two equals five, and Big Brother has complete control of his mind and his thoughts. Big Brother has won, and we have no other choice but to believe that his reign will indeed last forever.

My final analysis is that I came into my reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four with a set of assumptions and expectations based upon what I thought I knew about the book.  Maybe my expectations were too high, and that’s why the book feels like a bit of a disappointment.  Still, I would recommend reading the book because I do think it continues to be relevant in the 21st century.