“Great Expectations”: Book Review

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is not it’s narrative, form or symbolism, but the way in which it was published. Unlike most Victorian novels, Dickens published Great Expectations in a serialised form, releasing one chapter or section, once a week, every week, for eight months. It was published in All the Year Round magazine, a text that Dickens ran as his main source of income. 

For the book, this form of serialisation meant two things; firstly, it would be read alongside news articles and documentaries, authenticating the realism in the work, as the tale would appear more realistic; and, secondly, Dickens’ work could be reached by a wider, more varied audience. After all, most Victorian novels, such as that of the Brontë sisters, would have primarily been read by the middle class, their increased wealth and leisure time, brought on by the increase in industry, causing this class to be the primary readers of novels. However, an installment of Great Expectations could be read for one shilling, making the novel accessible to the lower classes. This became popular, too, as with an increase in education and the fact that novels were generally read aloud during this time, the working class was able to access literature in a way that had never been possible before.

Great Expectations is a fascinating read though, and whilst many find it’s sheer length intimidating, this will not necessarily be a problem. Dickens’ style of writing is far simplier to that of other Victorian writers, perhaps because he was focussing on aiming his texts at the lower classes as he was writing. This aligns Great Expectations with modern texts that we may read today; whilst the subject matter is somewhat unfamiliar and some language may still present itself as alien, I, personally, found Dickens a lot more accessible than some other Victorian authors. I found myself focussing less on the symbolism of the text, and what wider context Dickens may be alluding to, and more on the actual story, and imagination of Dickens as he paints the opposing worlds of the misty marshes and the dark, unforgiving streets of London. 

If you are unfamiliar with the story of Great Expectations, here is a brief overview: Pip, an orphaned boy who lives with his only surviving sister and her husband, is one day attacked on the marshes as he visits his parents’ graves. An escaped prisoner happened to be passing by, and searches Pip for food and money. Terrified, Pip promises to return with foodand supplies to help the prisoner escape. He delivers the goods to the prisoner, and hopes, regardless of how wrong he is, that that business is finished for good. A while later, there is a meal at Pip’s sister’s house, but it is inturrupted by the police, who are asking about a couple of escaped prisoners. Pip and Joe, his sister’s husband, follow the police to search for the prisoners, and witness their capture. The prisoner who Pip helped recognises him as he is taken away, but he doesn’t give Pip away, and Pip never tells anyone about his involvement with the man. Later, Pip is invited to “play” at Satis house, the home of a rich, unmarried woman, who sits alone, mourning her near-marriage, and the fiancé that left her waiting at the alter. Pip spends his days learning from her and her adopted daughter, Estella, beginning to realise his class position, and despising his family for it. To his joy, Pip’s wishes are heard, as a “mysterious benefactor” pays for his move to be educated in London. The story then considers the changes and difficulties Pip experiences in his new life, as well as revealing what he has left behind. Murder, deception, manipulation and heartache make up the underpinning plot, Pip’s life turned upside down once more, as a familiar prisoner interrupts his solitude, and the true identity of his “mysterious benefactor” leaves him horrified. 

It is a good story, a combination of thoughts about family, identity and honour questioning the roles of class and what truly makes a gentleman in this world. What is more, the text falls under the title of a bildungsroman; this is a type of book that has existed since Classical times, but only became truly popular during Victorian times. It considers the narrative of a child, usually an orphan, as they mature along the course of the narrative, and begin to find their place in the world, finding their own identities, because there is no one left to do it for them. Emily Brontë’s Jane Eyre, as well as one of Dickens’ other novels, David Copperfield, also fall under the category of a bildungsroman, all three texts considering the growth of a child into an adult. This is an interesting narrative technique, and is one which seems to build a familiarity between the characters and the reader; it is easier to understand Pip, because readers do not only hear about his story: they witness it, travelling a similar journey as the tale is periodically released throughout their lives. 

Overall, Great Expectations is an exceptional novel, exemplifying values of the Victorian era, as well as telling a great story. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone. 

Play Review: The Taming of the Shrew

We all know Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth, but we are generally less educated in Shakespeare’s comedies. The fact of it is, though, that Shakespeare wrote more comedies than he did tragedies or histories. Tfullsizerender-1his review will focus on one of Shakespeare’s lesser known comedies, The Taming of the Shrew, which, in my opinion, has some of the most controversial issues of any of the Shakespearean plays.

The play essentially tells the tale of a rich man who is desperate to see his two daughters marry into noble families. The youngest of the two, Bianca, has many suitors, and is admired for her beauty and modesty. Yet her father, Baptista, refuses to let her marry any of these suitors until his older daughter, Katherina, has married. Unlike her sister, Katherina does not have a single suitor; she is outspoken, loud, and, in contemporary terms, unlady-like, or, as one suitor calls her, a “fiend of hell” (Shr. 1.1.98). The play continues, disguise and intrigue entering its narrative, forming what is generally seen as an amusing story, fitting for what was labelled a “comedy”.

Petruchio: And you good sir. Pray, have you not a daughter 
                     Called Katherina, fair and virtuous?

Baptista:    I have a daughter, sir, called Katherina.
(Shr. 2.1.42-44).

I, personally, found the above lines very amusing, but there are frequent periods of blunt comedy within the text, especially concerning Grumio, a servant to one of the suitors. Whilst not being directly named a “fool”, this is the role he seems to play, and strengthens the element of comedy in the play.

Despite this, the genre of “comedy”, in concerns to The Taming of the Shrew, has often been challenged. After all, whilst this is essentially a tale of romance, and thus presents the opportunity for comedy, it is a dark romance, the “shrew” in the title actually referring to Katherina, and the story depicting the “taming” of her outspoken personality, meaning that the end product of the play is a quiet, obedient Katherina who follows every word her husband says, her personality seemingly obliterated.

Petruchio, Katherina’s husband, forces her to endure several days without food and sleep, torturing her as a part of this “taming” process. Then, upon returning her to his father, he tests her obedience. He calls the sun the moon, and an old man a young maiden. Katherina, perhaps out of terror of her husband, agrees with him. This misogyny goes a step further, too; the very conclusion of the play depicts the husbands of Katherina and Bianca to have a bet, each claiming to have the most obedient wife. Petruchio wins the bet, having Katherina fondle his feet in front of the crowd, which includes her entire family.

Obviously, The Taming of the Shrew was designed for a patriarchal world where the woman was seen as lesser to man. The majority of its audience in the globe would have been men, and so it is easy to see why a play with what now is such controversial content, could have been, at the time, funny. However, this may look too bleakly on Shakespearean society. Whilst it is true that the play’s audience would not have the same views of equality that exist in modern society, for this was a time before the waves of feminism, many critics argue that not everyone would be able to laugh at Katherina’s torture at the hands of Petruchio. This is, of course, complete speculation, but some argue that the sexism is so blatant in the play, that Shakespeare actually uses satire to indicate the injustice in society, and, in this move, makes himself one of the first feminists (although he cannot be labelled as such, seeing as how the word “feminism” did not exist during his time, let alone a concept of this movement).

Regardless, The Taming of the Shrew is an exceptionally interesting play, if confusing on occasion, when more than half of the characters on stage are in disguise. It is funny, and it is thought-provoking; I would recommend giving it a read, or else checking to see if there are any recent performances of the play, seeing as Shakespeare was meant to be heard, not read on a page.

Note: the quotes in this post use line references from the Norton edition of the play:
Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. Edited by Dympna Callaghan, Norton, 2009.

“What is a Novel?” / Book Review: “Roxana”

One of the most important questions in literature, and yet one which is rarely asked, is, “where did the novel come from?”. Many assume that it has always been there, supposing, perhaps that it is a term as easily associated with J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, as it is with Homeric epic. Whilst the majority of us never discuss the issue, the fact of it is that the novel hasn’t always existed. After epic poetry, lyrical poetry emerged, preceding Romances and Shakespearean plays: texts that we would never attribute with the word novel. In fact, the ‘first’ novel is claimed to be Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Whilst this may be an odd assumption to make about what is now such a wide branch of literature, Daniel Defoe did something in literature that had never been done before; he brought a sense of realism to his work that transported his readers, causing them to clearly picture Crusoe’s marooning on that desert island, and to take it as fact. This is because Robinson Crusoe wasn’t published under the name of Defoe at all, but the name of Crusoe; the novel is the character retelling his story, Defoe insisting that the story is fact throughout the narrative. In modern novels, this trait no longer exists; we do not read Wuthering Heights and take it as a true story written by Cathy Linton, or believe that Frodo Baggins wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, what we now consider a genre with the biggest flexibility for fantasy, is one rooted in nonfiction.

Defoe did something else unusual in Robinson Crusoe too, but I want to talk about this in connection to his lesser known novel. Still one of the first ‘novels’ of the genre, and a text published under Defoe’s anonymity, Roxana reveals the true meaning of what such a text once was. It tells the story of a French lady who moves to England, in order to find a new identity for herself. She addresses her audience, telling her own story, as her first husband disappears, leaving her an assumed widow in a state of extreme poverty. Having to give up her children and marry for wealth, Roxana soon realises the satisfaction in being an unmarried woman. She becomes promiscuous, a mistress to many a rich man as she raises her own fortune and lives, for the most of the novel, independently of men.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Roxana, however, is this second trait of the traditional novel that I mentioned earlier. Defoe included a precision that hadn’t really been seen in literature before this. Roxana records everything in the text, from the exact profit of her dealings, to the exact times and locations which she refers to as she travels about Defoe’s world. This novel was published in 1724, following on from texts like Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost, and, of course, Shakespeare, himself. Whilst such texts may include the locations of scenes, or give vague descriptions of the time of day, they left no room for the thorough explanation of the facts that Defoe allowed for. In fact, what with the anonymity of Roxana, combined with an inclusion of such precise facts that the first assumption would be that the tale is true, it is clear that the traditional novel barely resembles what we now assume it to be. As Defoe remarked in the preface of Roxana, “the foundation of This is laid in Truth of Fact: and so the Work is not a Story, but a History”.

On a side note, I would thoroughly recommend Roxana to anyone who enjoys a good story; due to the realism of the work, it is easy to relate to the character, readers both condemning her for her crimes, and admiring her for her determination to have her own rights in a protofeminist world. It is also worth appreciating the age of a work that is centred around a female protagonist, and the scandal that is included. Whilst we may now see the novel as an authoritative symbol of knowledge and wealth, the novel was once seen as something sordid and dirty.

The only issue many readers seem to have with the text is its ending; some argue that the novel wasn’t ready to be a novel when Defoe composed it, as the narrative appears to trail into nothingness. However, if you like a sense of mystery after reading a book, unsure of whether a character lives or dies, this is a book that can only satisfy, as well as intrigue, your senses.

Invisible

This piece of creative writing is for the purposes of the competition at Ad Hoc Fiction. With only 150 words and this week’s prompt word, “blend”, this competition gives its winner free entry into the Bath Flash Fiction Award, which boasts of a prize of £1000! 

This is not my world. I am not part of it. Whilst the people rush by above me, loud with sound and colour in a mesh of endless chatter, I stay here. I crouch in the suburbs and hide in the dark, waiting… for what, I do not know, but I wait. I watch. I blend.

Occasionally I will meet my “equal”, skulking about beside me. We are not the same, though. We will never be the same. No one is like me. Whilst they tiptoe through the shadows, hiding from the busyness of the world, they are loud and clumsy. They can’t do it like I do. They do not become the shadows. They can’t blend.

They are the rejects, the outcasts, but they still belong. I don’t. I’m not part of this world. I do not hide in the night: I am the night. I am new. I blend.

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Book Review: “The Lais of Marie de France”

Consisting of twelve short stories, supposedly composed during the late twelfth century, The Lais of Marie de France tells of chivalric knights and Arthurian wonders, an insight into the nature of love, as well as magic. It demonstrates the values of courtly love, a principle that viewed love not only as a suffering, but a social requirement for the nobility. As Marie notes in Equitan, the second of the lais, “how could she [the Lady of the lai] be a true courtly lady, if she had no true love?” (Equitan, 57).

One of the most memorable quotes from all the lais, however, is this: “love is an invisible wound within the body, and, since it has its source in nature, it is a long-lasting ill” (Guigemar, 49). This quote summarises the main content in all the lais, for they describe the practices of love, both true and adulterous, and the pain that they can cause.

In Equitan, a king has an affair with his seneschal’s wife; when they fall in love, they plot to murder the Lady’s husband by boiling him in his too-hot bath water. Comical though this may seem, the brutal descriptions of Equitan and the Lady boiling in the tub, for their plan backfires on them, are far from the comedic.

Bisclavret, delving further into the genre of fantasy, describes how Bisclavret’s wife imprisons him in the form of a werewolf by stealing his clothes. The wolf befriends the king, who treats him as his beloved pet, up until Bisclavret, still transformed, rips his wife’s nose right from her face, and the king thus discovers his true identity.

Considering this, it is fair to argue that the lais of Marie de France are exceptionally varied; this has been one of the problems for translators and critics over the centuries, for the lais were not discovered in one intact document, but pieced together, said to be written by the same author through the analysis of writing style in its original French dialect. In fact, there is no way to be sure that these lais were all written by Marie de France, or whether Marie existed at all; she may be a mythic figure such as Homer, her works, just like his, perhaps being collaborations of writing by multiple authors and poets. Whilst this may deter from the magic of The Lais of Marie de France, it may also add mystery. After all, these are influential tales that have had impacts on our fairytales, folklore, and culture, yet their origin is completely unknown.

Another interesting aspect of the lais comes back to the concept of courtly love. Whilst the renowned knights are admired for their heroic prowess and fighting techniques, they are never fully accepted by, or able to integrate with, society, until they find love. Courtly love was believed to be a requirement of the true knight, or Lady, of course, which meant that marriage was always to be expected. In my view, this is the true message carried by The Lais of Marie de France, and is one that ties the stories together in a way that indicates one sole author: love is a requirement of life, and, without it, one may never gain the wealth or reputation that they seek.

Honestly, I had no knowledge of The Lais of Marie de France before being handed it as part of my university course, and when I discovered that it was a collection of short stories, I was not altogether enthused; I was unfamiliar with this style of reading, and was unsure how to react. In truth, though, this is an incredible read, and I would recommend it to anyone. It deserves more fame and recognition, considering original tales that excite the mind and engage the senses. A reader must, of course, accept the clear misogyny of the time, noting how the majority of the female characters in the lais are referred to only as “the Lady”, but, once you are past this barrier, the true magic of the lais is set free.