On Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last and Milton

IMG_3829In Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last*, Stan and Charmaine live in the Northeast in the years after a terrible economic collapse that has affected that part of the country more than any other. They are eking out a meager living, sleeping in their car, avoiding roaming gangs, and looking desperately for work.

Increasingly despondent about their chances of raising their standard of living (they cannot afford enough gas to get them to a region with better economic prospects), Charmaine and Stan apply to and are accepted by the Positron project. Positron is a prison located in its sister town, Consilience. Every month, half the citizens of Consilience go about ordinary lives—ordering furnishing for their houses, going to work, enjoying the movies and music of the 1950s; the next month, they become inmates in Positron prison, where they attend to jobs like knitting and feeding the town’s chicken supply. There is zero unemployment in Consilience, almost no crime, and no hunger.

But of course things are not what they seem, and soon Stan and Charmaine are sucked into a vortex of secrets and plots and come much too close to learning the truth behind the Positron system (which seems like a thinly-veiled critique of the company town).

In many ways, The Heart Goes Last is your standard dystopian thriller:

  • Evil institution interested in exploiting the populace
  • Characters forced by circumstance to join evil institution
  • Social breakdown and collapse of economic systems
  • Power of human relationships fundamental to resolution of tale
  • High tension, cascading plot revelations, and an unsettling denouement

But The Heart Goes Last also offers a heaping portion of satire; this is the genre taken to its limit, complete with sexbots, brain-wiping, sinister knitting, and more Elvises than have ever appeared in a novel (to my knowledge). And it’s Margaret Atwood, so throw in plenty of sex and gender politics as well.

Until I realized it was satire, I found the novel hard to like; neither Stan nor Charmaine, nor any of the supporting characters, are particularly likable; there’s no Offred to cheer for (well, maybe one minor character). I don’t require likable characters to enjoy a book, but it’s harder to stick with a novel when you don’t much care whether such-and-such lives or dies.

And it’s not just satire; it’s a riff on Milton’s Paradise Lost. The poem is mentioned explicitly once, and the novel’s last lines are lifted from the end of Milton’s epic in an amusing fashion.

[If you want a quick refresher on Paradise Lost, I’ve got posts for you: Books 1&2, Books 3&4, Books 5&6, Books 7&8, Books 9&10, Books 11&12.]

Milton’s purpose in Paradise Lost is to “justify the ways of God to man.” A tall order, but Milton’s like that. Essentially, his epic poem is an attempt to explain why God would create humans only to watch us sin and suffer; put another way, the poem tries to solve the problem of evil. But it’s more than that; it’s about poetry itself, marriage, psychology, history, freedom, education, the environment (Milton might call it stewardship),and choice. (And more.)

The Heart Goes Last is rather like Paradise Lost set in the dystopian future, without an omnipotent God running the show.

On one level, paradise is already lost, thanks to the economic collapse that’s sent Stan and Charmaine into the arms of Positron.

Consilience, the supposed paradise of full employment, no hunger, and perfect happy homes (and, Stan notices eventually, no gay citizens) is of course a prison too, a prison of constant surveillance; Stan and Charmaine have traded their freedom for security, and that’s a bad choice. In Milton’s poem, Eve and Adam have security–all their needs are provided for, though, like Stan and Charmaine, they are expected to work. Crucially, Eve trades that security for freedom–choosing to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And for Milton, that’s the bad choice, the wrong one that leads to humanity’s fallen history.

But in each case, it’s the woman’s choice, and her husband, for good or ill, goes along with it; the ebb and flow of partners’ satisfaction and interests in the marriage is a key theme in The Heart Goes Last, just as marriage-making is a thread that runs through Paradise Lost.

Then there’s temptation. One of Charmaine’s most interesting characteristics is her susceptibility to suggestion, a trait she shares with Eve, though Charmaine might be just a touch more self-aware. Milton’s God contends that he created humanity “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall,” and that’s one way of describing Stan and Charmaine, both in their choice to sign the Consilience contract, and in their personal sexual choices.

There are several other parallels (I think I see Ms. Atwood grappling with Milton’s views on women, for instance), but what struck me as I thought about the two texts is how Ms. Atwood’s book brought something about Paradise Lost into focus for me: Milton’s version of Eden is a surveillance state. Eve and Adam are watched constantly–by the reader and the speaker, in some sense, but also by Satan, the angels, and God (Father and Son). How free are you if every choice you make is monitored, and occasionally someone is sent by to educate you about your choices?

Putting these books in conversation is a fascinating exercise, and now I’m eager to read more of Ms. Atwood’s work with Milton in mind. Meanwhile, for those of you who aren’t terribly excited at the idea of reading a poem that’s thousands of lines long: give The Heart Goes Last a try if you like Margaret Atwood, satire, or creepy books about marriage.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

Paradise Lost, Books XI and XII: The Bittersweet End

It’s the end of our Paradise Lost readalong, folks.

ParadiseLostReadalongWhen I first started thinking about doing a readalong for Milton’s epic, I planned on a once-a-month posting schedule, but then thought that maybe not too many people would sign up for a year-long immersion in Paradise Lost. Reading-wise, I think two books every ten days is manageable, though strenuous work, especially for first-time readers, and so, after thought and some discussion, I ended up with our every ten-days schedule that you’ve seen.

Posting every ten days, though? I think I may have been optimistic about that. Paradise Lost is so dense, so challenging, so vitally interesting, that I found it pretty much impossible to write the kind of posts I wanted to write in just ten days, especially since I didn’t cut back on my non-Milton reading and posting. The lesson I took from this readalong: go with your gut instincts, even if you think you’ll be the only one reading.

That said, I hope you’ve still found these posts interesting and not too didactic, and that if you haven’t read Milton, you’ve been persuaded to give him a try some day.

So here’s the man himself with summaries of Books XI and XII:

Book XI:

The Son of God presents to his Father the Prayers of our first Parents now repenting, and intercedes for them: God accepts them, but declares that they must no longer abide in Paradise; sends Michael with a Band of Cherubim to dispossess them; but first to reveal to Adam future things: Michael’s coming down. Adam shows to Eve certain ominous signs; he discerns Michael’s approach, goes out to meet him: the Angel denounces their departure. Eve’s Lamentation. Adam pleads, but submits: The Angel leads him up to a high Hill, sets before him in vision what shall happ’n till the Flood.

Book XII:

The Angel Michael continues from the Flood to relate what shall succeed; then, in the mention of Abraham, comes by degrees to explain, who that Seed of the Woman shall be, which was promised Adam and Eve in the Fall; his Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension; the state of the Church till his second Coming. Adam greatly satisfied and recomforted by these Relations and Promises descends the Hill with Michael; wakens Eve, who all this while had slept, but with gentle dreams compos’d to quietness of mind and submission. Michael in either hand leads them out of Paradise, the fiery Sword waving behind them, and the Cherubim taking their Stations to guard the Place.

Not everyone likes these final two books, since they compress a great deal of Biblical history into, essentially, forty pages. C.S. Lewis called Books XI and XII “an untransmuted lump of futurity,” and called its verse “curiously bad.” Not one for mincing words, C.S. Lewis. A modern creative writing teacher might tell you that these books “tell” instead of “show,” especially as the lines go on and Adam’s heightened sight fades.

With the exception of a few passages*, I find myself aligning with C.S. Lewis’s sense of Books XI and XII; the illustration of repeated covenants between God and humanity, punctuated with violence and vengeance, is utterly unappealing after the beauties of the garden and Eve’s hymns to God and nature (Eve is, by the way, sleeping through most of these books). On the other hand, this feeling of disappointment is Milton’s point; after the Fall, there can be no return to Paradise, in either location or language.

[* On the Flood: “Sea covered sea, / sea without shore, and in their palaces / Where luxury late reigned, sea-monsters whelped / and stabled” (11.749-52).]

One of the appealing parts of this section of the epic, at least for me, is its political resonance. Milton makes his case here for the always-tyrannical, and yet inevitable nature of monarchy, or as Michael puts it, “Tyranny must be, / Though to the tyrant thereby no excuse” (12.95-96). Risky stuff, but Milton has already aligned himself with the righteous angel Abdiel in Book VI, and in Book XI with Enoch, whom he turns into a figure unjustly persecuted for his righteous political and religious beliefs.

Then there’s Adam. I don’t much care for him in the rest of the poem, but in Books XI and XII I want to throttle him pretty much all the time. Michael usually takes the trouble to correct Adam’s errors in perception, but it’s galling every time Adam waxes rhapsodic about his “seed” someday overcoming Death (with an assist from Mary, of course) — all the while eliding Eve’s necessary role in populating the Earth. Here’s the worst offence, and one that seems to go uncorrected (after Michael explains the coming of the Son of God):

Now clear I understand
What oft my steadiest thoughts have searched in vain,
Why our great expectation should be called
The Seed of woman: Virgin Mother, hail!
High in the love of Heav’m, yet from my loins
Thou shalt proceed and from thy womb the Son
Of God Most High: so God with Man unites! (12.376-82; emphasis mine)

See what I mean? Adam inserts himself into the redemption narrative, while totally ignoring Eve’s role. And it seems that this elision will stand — but Milton is nothing if not surprising, because guess who gets the last spoken lines of the poem?


And here they are:

This further consolation yet secure
I carry hence: though all by me is lost,
Such favor I unworthy am vouchsafed,
By me the promised Seed shall all restore. (12.620-23)

It’s a definite revision of Adam’s claim that Milton not only allows to stand, but also emphasizes with Adam’s silent confirmation: “So spake our mother Eve and Adam heard / Well pleased but answered not” (12.624-25).

Milton’s poetic prowess returns in full force these last thirty lines. Here’s a metaphor I love for its multilayered quality:

from the other hill
To their fixed station all in bright array
The cherubim descended, on the ground
Gliding meteorous as evening mist
Ris’n from a river o’er the marish glides
And gathers ground fast at the laborer’s heel
Homeward returning. (12.626-32)

Isn’t that lovely? The cherubim, fierce and dangerous in their “bright array” move from a “fixed point” into midair, “gliding” like insubstantial “evening mist,” which itself might “glide” from a “marish” (marsh) and comes to earth around the feet of the working man walking home.  The descent of the cherubim emphasizes the change in Adam and Eve’s state; they will become laborers who must return home each night, though to to their first home they can never return. The cherubim’s gliding ease contrasts with the heavy, weary step we imagine for the laborer; their speed reminds us how swiftly the fortunes of the first human pair have changed. The heavenly and the homely in one metaphor — just lovely.

I’ll leave you with the poem’s final lines, as Adam and Eve turn away from Paradise:

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Recommended Reading: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

To the LighthouseAttempting to write a review of To The Lighthouse makes me feel rather like Lily Briscoe about to take up her brushes:

Where to begin?–that was the question, at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests. Still, the risk must be run; the mark made. (157)

It’s been about ten years since I read To The Lighthouse, and I’m glad it’s found me again just now. I’m a devotee of Mrs. Dalloway to such an extent that I know the page numbers of certain passages in my copy (I’ve taught it three times at least), and there’s a family joke that the correct answer to any question is probably Mrs. Dalloway.  I want that kind of familiarity with To the Lighthouse.

I read Persuasion while I was reading To the Lighthouse, and what struck me as I read was the startling interiority of Persuasion, and the way it almost leads up to Woolf’s style “Stream of consciousness” doesn’t do Woolf’s writing justice because she creates and chooses such fascinating characters whose consciousnesses to follow. Woolf in this novel is primarily concerned with women’s perceptions, making visible the unseen and silent struggles of women’s everyday interactions.

The first section of the novel often floats in the currents of Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts. If Mrs. Dalloway is the perfect hostess, Mrs. Ramsay is, outwardly, the model of the Victorian “angel in the house” (an ideal Woolf satirized in an essay) — she’s a wife, mother, mistress of servants, and anticipator of others’ needs. But Woolf shows us the turmoil under her deferential demeanor. Here’s Mrs. Ramsay after her husband dismisses the notion of a trip to the lighthouse the following day, ruining their six-year-old son’s hopes:

To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilisation so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked. There was nothing to be said. (32)

So she doesn’t say anything, and seethes.

Though she is a doting mother, kind and sensitive to the needs of her eight (!) children of varying ages, Mrs. Ramsay recognizes the need for her own time. My friend Katie wrote a funny (and spot-on) post recently about how difficult it is to find portrayals of life with small children in fiction. I think this passage, though, captures what it’s like for parents, especially at-home parents, to sit down at the end of a long day:

No, she thought, putting together some of the pictures he had cut out–a refrigerator, a mowing machine, a gentleman in evening dress–children never forget. For this reason, it was so important what one said, and what one did, and it was a relief when they went to bed. For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of–to think; well, not ever to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless. (62)

“The range of experience seemed limitless” — that’s a good way to describe this book. The novel is broken in three sections: “The Window,” “Time Passes,” and “The Lighthouse” — but it’s difficult to convey the plot. A family and visitors gather at the family summer home before the First World War. After that last summer, some people drift away, some die (including a major character, in one sentence at the end of a paragraph), and the war happens. Ten years later, a few of the guests and a few of the family gather again at the house. I haven’t made it sound like much, but somehow, the novel is about art and life, men and women, children and parents, love and death, and above all, change. It’s brilliant and beautiful and never, ever sentimental.

Lily, as the artist, solitary and devoted to her work, seems to stand in for the author at times. In this passage, which I’ll leave you with, her description of life itself could describe To the Lighthouse:

And, what was even more exciting, she felt, too, as she saw Mr. Ramsay bearing down and retreating, and Mrs. Ramsay sitting with James in the window and the cloud moving and the tree bending, how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach. (47)

Paradise Lost, Books III and IV: Oh, Milton.

Feel free to read the Paradise Lost Readalong introductory post here, and catch up on Books I and II here.


Books III and IV of Paradise Lost are, for me, the most difficult to grapple with. Book III is, for the most part, an exercise in Milton’s brand of theology (which I find unconvincing) and Book IV contains some of the very worst of Milton’s views on gender hierarchy. So in today’s post, I’m going to wrestle (in a limited way) with these issues. But first: the summary.

Book III begins with the invocation to light, one of the poem’s most famous passages. Within the invocation, the poem transitions from the darkness of Hell to the light of Heaven, where God the Father tells the Son and the heavenly hosts what is to come: Satan’s successful temptation of Eve and Adam and the Fall. However, the Father also plans to offer humanity grace, but only if a suitable sacrifice can be offered to satisfy the demands of justice. The Son offers to become that sacrifice; the Father accepts, and orders the angels to praise the Son. Meanwhile, Satan reaches the Limbo of Vanity, and from there goes  to the gate of Heaven. Disguising himself as a lesser angel, he finds Uriel, regent of the sun, and asks directions to the home of humankind. He “alights first on Mount Niphates.”

In Book IV, we finally reach Eden, and meet Adam and Eve. Satan, after much internal debate, reaffirms his evil purpose, and descends into the Garden (enacting yet another fall). The garden, as well as Adam and Eve, are at last described. Satan stalks the human pair, and learns that God has forbidden them to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. Meanwhile, Uriel, having recognized Satan as a bad angel by  his wild gesticulations on Mount Niphates, warns Gabriel (who’s in charge of security in Paradise) that an evil spirit is skulking about. Gabriel sends two angels to check on Adam and Eve as they sleep, and they find Satan crouched at Eve’s ear, tempting her in a dream. Brought to Gabriel, he plans to resist, but a sign from Heaven sends him flying out of Paradise.

Here’s what I’m mulling over this week:

The Problem of Evil

Book III finds Milton confronting the problem of evil (why does an all-loving, all-powerful God allow Evil to exist? Why does he allow the Fall to occur?). He presents his solution in the most Miltonic way imaginable: by putting his theories in the mouth of God (the Father) himself. He prefaces this excursion with the invocation to “holy light” (3.1), recalling his invocation to the Muse (Holy Spirit) in Book I, in which he asked,

What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support
That to the heighth of this great argument
I may assert Eternal Providence
And justify the ways of God to men. (1.22-26)

God’s omniscience means that he mixes his tenses rather indiscriminately, so that even though, in linear time, the Fall hasn’t yet happened, God can accuse Adam and Eve of ingratitude, explaining that he created them “sufficient to have stood though free to fall” (3.99). He goes on to ask his audience (rhetorically) if he hadn’t given men and angels free will, “what proof could they have giv’n sincere / Of true allegiance, constant faith, or love” (3.103-04). He dismisses his own foreknowledge as an influence on those who choose to sin, and makes a distinction between those who sinned without deception (the bad angels) and those tempted and deceived (men). The latter will receive mercy, tempered with justice; the former will languish in Hell.


When the Son offers to be the sacrifice demanded by justice (though Milton never explains why an omnipotent God feels bound by justice), the Father praises him and anoints him “universal king” (3.317).  In Milton’s view, true kingship is born of sacrifice and sanctity, not a will to power. Earthly kinship, in Milton’s theology, is an echo of Satan’s desire to usurp the heavenly throne, to reign as a tyrant.


(This passage speaks for itself.)

So spake the false dissembler unperceived,
For neither man nor angel can discern
Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks
Invisible except to God alone
By His permissive will through Heav’n and Earth.
And oft, though Wisdom wake, Suspicion sleeps
At Wisdom’s gate and to Simplicity
Resigns her charge while Goodness thinks no ill
Where no ill seems (3.681-89)

The Garden and the Nature of Work

Milton’s triumphant, lovely description of Paradise is too long to quote here. The garden is wild, dripping with fecundity and lush growth; Milton compares it with modern planned gardens, praising Paradise’s luxurious profusion. Here all manner of beasts and birds and plants live harmoniously (Adam and Eve are vegetarians; fruit practically offers itself to them, and they use the husks to scoop water from accommodating streams.). This natural world (and the pair’s bower of bliss) contrasts with the demons’ artificial edifice in Hell, just as humans’ prelapsarian work (tending the garden) contrasts with Fallen labor (Mulciber will teach men to, “with impious hands / [Rifle] the bowels of their mother Earth / for treasures better hid” [1.686-88].).

Gender Hierarchy

It’s always difficult for me to suppress a groan when I read the first description of Adam and Eve in Book IV. Both are beautiful, more beautiful than any other humans will ever be, but Milton is careful to describe their relationship in terms of hierarchy:

Though both
Not equal as their sex not equal seemed:
For contemplation he and valor formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive grace:
He for God only, she for God in him. (3.296-99)

Coming from a man whose views on marriage and sexuality were, for his day, very progressive (In the 1640s, Milton was widely excoriated for the tract Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, in which he advocated companionate marriage — a meeting of the minds — and the right to divorce if the spouses were not compatible emotionally. And he’s no prude — Adam and Eve clearly have sex before the Fall.), this declaration always disappoints me, even if it doesn’t surprise me.

However, scholars have pointed to several ways in which Milton ameliorates Eve’s subservient position. Foremost among these is the simple fact that Eve is the poem’s best poet. Adam’s declarative sentences are leaden read next to Eve’s lovely, flowing lines. Even Satan doesn’t compose as well as she does; his syntax is too sinuous, too studded with outbursts. Eve speaks in melodious paragraphs. Here’s an example of the way Eve undercuts her own stated submission with glorious poetry:

To whom thus Eve, with perfect beauty adorned:
My author and disposer, what thou bidd’st
Unargu’d I obey; so God ordains.
God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more
Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.
With thee conversing I forget all time,
All seasons and their change: all please alike.
Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet,
With charm of earliest birds; pleasant the sun,
When first on this delightful land he spreads
His orient beams, on herb, tree, fruit, and flow’r,
Glist’ring with dew; fragrant the fertile earth
After soft showers; and sweet the coming-on
Of grateful evening mild; then silent night,
With this her solemn bird, and this her moon,
And these the gems of heav’n, her starry train:
But neither breath of morn when she ascends
With charm of earliest birds, nor rising sun
On this delightful land, nor herb, fruit, flower,
Glist’ring with dew, nor fragrance after showers,
Nor grateful evening mild, nor silent night,
With this her solemn bird, nor walk by moon
Or glittering starlight, without thee is sweet.
But wherefore all night long shine these? for whom
This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes? (4.634-58)

Or consider Eve’s account of her creation, the first to appear in the poem, at lines 440-91 . I’ll talk about it next time, when we venture into books V and VI on January 30th.

A Non-Review Recommendation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion

persuasionLet us assume, please, that we all agree Jane Austen is a genius and reading her books is an experience equivalent to eating chocolate bon-bons and sipping champagne (or Scotch, if you’re of my inclination) while the sun sets on a perfect late-spring day as a string quartet plays Bach on your mansion’s terrace.

Thus I will spare you discussion of why I love Jane Austen, which is pretty much why everyone else loves Jane Austen, and move on to the particular pleasures of Persuasion, her last completed novel.

Persuasion concerns Anne Elliot, a woman in her late twenties who once had an understanding with a young naval officer, an understanding that was given up under the well-meaning influence of a family friend, Lady Russell. In the intervening years Anne has not married and Captain Wentworth has made a name and fortune for himself; thanks to Anne’s father’s profligacy, the two meet again when Frederick’s sister and brother-in-law rent the Elliott estate. However, Frederick has not forgiven her for what he feels was a grievous error on her part, and as other romantic interests present themselves, it seems as if the two will never reconcile.

Persuasion is my favorite of Austen’s novels, and I limit myself to a reading every three years or so. What struck me on this reading — perhaps because I was reading To the Lighthouse at the same time — was the immense interiority of the novel — so much of the writing focuses on Anne’s emotions and reasoning. Akin more to Elinor Dashwood than Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse, Anne feels deeply but does not permit herself to give vent to those feelings. What distinguishes her from Fanny Price (I’ve never much cared for Fanny) is her sense of duty, her inward nature turned outward to comfort and help those around her, however undeserving they may be. In other words, Fanny comes across as a victim, acted upon by others, while Anne is fully-realized rational agent. Perhaps her age has something to do with her maturity and kindness (she is selfless, but not a martyr); she’s roughly ten years older than Austen’s other heroines.

In addition to Anne’s charms as a heroine, Persuasion also offers delightful bits and pieces of advice and food for thought. Here are a few of my favorites.

Still true of any two readers:

” [. . . ] and they walked together for some time, talking as before of Mr. Scott and Lord Byron, and still as unable, as before, and as unable as any other two readers, to think exactly alike of the merits of either [. . .]” (90)

Good for parents to keep in mind:

“When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other’s ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality conclude with, but I believe it to be the truth.” (199)

To keep in mind during election years: 

“Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished, — but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection. Her early impressions were incurable. She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still. She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.” (131)

How we book bloggers might describe ourselves:

” ‘Give him a book and he will read all day long.’ [. . . ] ‘He will sit poring over his book, and not know when a person speaks to him, or when one drops one’s scissors, or any thing that happens.'” (108)

And perhaps the greatest fictional love letter ever:

I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in
F. W.” (191)

By the way, my favorite film adaptation of Persuasion is the 1995 film version with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds. It is, I think, the truest film adaptation of Austen I’ve ever seen.

What’s your favorite Austen novel? Have you read Persuasion? What did you think?

Reading While Pregnant: Or, “enough to love / to break your heart / forever”

I was nearly halfway through pregnancy at this time three years ago, and I remember feeling the baby kick for the first time around New Year’s Eve, which was also the same time I was reading one of the three books I strongly associate with being pregnant.

Reading while pregnant isn’t really different from reading while not-pregnant, I found, except I felt I should be more discriminating since I wouldn’t read as much right after the baby was born (true, in my experience), and also because I had to get up a lot more often. And while I generally remember my reading lists pretty well, most of the books I read during those many weeks went by in a haze, though I know there were quite a few. I was teaching intro-level Shakespeare and Readings in Drama at the time, so that’s a dozen right there, and of course I read novels and poetry on the side. Looking back, though, these are the three books that epitomized the whole experience of pregnancy for me.

One is the ubiquitous What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which was so awful and made me cry so often that my husband hid it from me around the end of the first trimester (for which I am profoundly thankful). Seriously, it’s the worst: fat-shaming and fear-inducing for starters. If you’re a pregnant person, there are far better options out there (try the Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy for the nitty-gritty health stuff, and the Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy for the “we’re-all-in-it-together” vibe, although if you read my edition from the late ’90s you’ll have to squeeze someone’s hand through the parts that hurt [ahem, assumption of shared privilege, ahem]). 

The second is Wuthering Heights, which is the first book I read on an e-reader. My husband got me a Nook for my birthday about a month after I found out I was pregnant. Though I’ll always be a lady of the printed word (mostly because I like books as objects, and my eyes hurt when I look at screens for too long, but we can have that tussle another day, if we must), it did make reading one-handed while standing quite easy (also: great for reading while nursing).  On the train and the bus to and from the university, I read about the unkindnesses that Cathy and Heathcliff inflict upon each other, and the harsh beauty of the moors. It wasn’t particularly uplifting, but it was distracting enough that for those forty-five minutes each way, I didn’t notice the sciatica or general discomfort associated with growing another human in one’s abdomen. And that’s all you  want from your pregnancy reading sometimes: distraction.

[It should be noted, here, that I am of the variety of plumpness that made it difficult for people to tell whether I was fat or fat and pregnant for the first twenty-seven or so weeks out of my forty-two (yes, it was awful) weeks of pregnancy. People in Boston aren’t jerks who don’t offer seats to pregnant women. For the most part.]

The third book I associate with pregnancy, the one I was reading when the baby started kicking, is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Now, I came very late to the Harry Potter fan club; the books started to appear when I, as a young teenager, thought that Ayn Rand was the height of reading sophistication. (As you can tell, my salad days have come and gone.) When the Harry Potter movies came out, my dad and I would go see them on a Monday at the Shaker Square Cinema for five bucks a ticket, with free popcorn (we’re yankees to the core); we liked them quite a bit. As it turned out, I saw all the movies with my dad, eventually. But for many years we eschewed the books as “kid stuff.”

It wasn’t til I was pregnant that I decided I should read the series to preview it for the baby, figuring, perhaps wrongly, that kids in the 2020s will be reading the same stuff as kids in the late ’90s and early ’00s. It tells you something about my reasoning ability that I thought I should preview books meant for kids 8 and up while I was still pregnant. It’s not just me, though: Pregnancy does weird stuff to your brain.

My nesting instinct pretty much came down to books: The shower was book-themed (thanks, bookish friends!), and I bought (or borrowed/stole from my siblings) every children’s book I remember loving, from Miss Rumphius and The Story of Ferdinand all the way up to the Chronicles of Narnia and Charlotte’s Web and Anne of Green Gables — without reflecting that it would be years before the baby would be big enough to understand them.

I read that first Harry Potter book and immediately ordered the set. I read them so fast that winter (three years ago now) that the plots spun together, thrilled that these were books my baby would someday, barring catastrophe, grow up to read. They might be built of the fantastic, but they made all the promise of childhood after the misery of pregnancy seem real and attainable, and I loved them unabashedly and in earnest.  While I’m not exactly sure I’m ready for our son to grow up, I can’t wait to read the books to him for myself (Mr. O read the first three to him to get him to sleep as an infant). Privet Drive is going to make his chores look easy, and even I would take gym class over Potions with Snape. Wait. No I wouldn’t. Scratch that. Sorry, kiddo. Gym class is the worst.

Harry Potter & a picture of our Baby O  (now Mr. Baby, or H) on the day he was born.

Harry Potter & a picture of our Baby O (now Mr. Baby, or H) on the day he was born.

Turns out that I’m impatient, so I read the whole series again over the Thanksgiving holidays, and whoa, nelly. They’re still wonderful, inventive while nodding to and borrowing from the best in other fantasy novels, and heartbreaking.

I didn’t know, the first time I read them, that our Baby O would be a son, but this time I couldn’t help but picture our little dude as a kid away from home, navigating the tricky staircases at Hogwarts, maybe making friends like Ron and Harry, and especially Hermione.

This is a your weekly poetry post, I promise, even though it’s taken me awhile to get here. This week we’re saying hello to a new year, and so please head on over to The Poetry Foundation to read Diane Di Prima’s “Song for Baby-O, Unborn.

It’s the kind of poem that I imagine would have crossed Lily Potter’s mind sometime. It reaches for the future with eyes wide open to the deficiencies of the present, and the tangled power that is love.

Unusual Words, A.S. Byatt Edition

This week I was cleaning off my desk, and I came across the notes I took while reading A.S. Byatt’s Possession back in April (yes, it took me more than six months to clean my desk). About halfway through the novel, I started writing down all the rare and delightful words that pop up in the text—and ended up with four pages’ worth. I wonder if A.S. Byatt’s everyday speech is peppered with this kind of unusual vocabulary.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • carapace
  • silex
  • besprent
  • celandine
  • exiguous
  • vulpine
  • recension
  • odylic
  • moquette
  • aperçu
  • hypostatisation

What are your favorite bookish sources for unusual words?

Musings on Moby-Dick, Part 3: Meeting Ahab

(Chapter 28, if you’re counting.)


I’d wager that a person who hasn’t read Moby-Dick, but who’s heard of it, can tell you one thing about Ahab: he has a peg leg, made of whalebone. However, for Ishmael, Ahab’s “grim aspect” is so engrossing that “for the first few moments I hardly noted that not a little of this overbearing grimness was owing to the barbaric white leg upon which he partly stood.” In other words, Ahab’s missing leg is not his defining physical feature, at least to the men he works with.

The ship’s mates are uncomfortable too, for “moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe” (135). Indeed, Ishmael’s first impression is similar to the impression of torment given in this passage; at first glance, Ahab “looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness” (134).

I find this juxtaposition of images — the Christ-figure crucified and the heretic at the stake — intriguing, especially since my first reading of the stake comparison relied on my image of Joan of Arc — until I realized that she wasn’t canonized until 1920.  With these two images, Melville and Ishmael provide us with a foreshadowing of Ahab’s later character development; we’ll find him to be brave, stoic, even, but also possessed with the pursuit of unrighteous revenge.

I’ll leave off my musing with another contrasting set of images: Ahab as a tree.

In the first, his scarring (which happened before his encounter with the white whale) is compared to the mark of a lightning strike on a great tree, in such a way that I thought of Ahab as nature’s inertia embodied, markable but not really changeable in essence (was his monomania brought on by Moby Dick’s attack, or was the capacity for madness always lurking within him?).

In the second, the possibility for softness in Ahab’s character emerges without diminishing his otherness from his fellow men.


[Ahab’s scar] resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. (134)


For, as when the red-cheeked, dancing girls, April and May, trip home to the wintry, misanthropic woods, even the barest, ruggedest, most thunder-cloven old oak will at least send forth some few green sprouts, to welcome such glad-hearted visitants; so Ahab did, in the end, a little respond to the playful allurings of that girlish air. More than once did he put forth the faint blossom of a look, which, in any other man, would have soon flowered out in a smile. (136)

What do you remember most about Ahab?

Musings on Moby-Dick, Part 2

William Giraldi’s essay on Herman Melville-as-reader has been making the rounds on the web this week, appearing first in the LA Times and then elsewhere (Maria Popova tweeted about it; A Piece of Monologue ran it), including Salon, which is where I ran across it.


It’s a good piece, though I could do without the put-downs of genre fiction and some of the vitriol (Mr. Giraldi is known in literary circles for his excoriating review of two Alix Ohlin books. His point in this essay boils down to: The drivel that’s published these days flows from the keys of those who do not read (Mr. Giraldi’s closing line is “So put down your pen awhile. Pick up Moby Dick [sic].) Melville, like other great writers, stood on the shoulders of giants. In order to write well, one must read well, and often, and deeply. (I’d make the same argument about living well, but that’s for another time). He points to Milton, one of those authors Melville grapples with most intensely, and rightly so. Earlier this week, though, I was thinking about another kind of literacy, or literary awareness, as I read Chapter 9 of Moby-Dick (“The Sermon”).

Though I’m not a believer, I’m grateful for an elementary education that gave me familiarity with Bible stories and concepts. It’s incredibly helpful, in all kinds of contexts, to understand references to Judith and Holofernes, for example, or the wedding feast at Cana.

Or Jonah and the Whale. Without the background music of Biblical phrasing in mind, it would have been difficult for me to appreciate just how brilliant this chapter is. Father Mapple tailors his sermon for the sea-going folk and sea-watchers in his congregation, conjuring up the details of Jonah’s cabin (“a swinging lamp slightly oscillates in Jonah’s room” [50]) to make the text come alive. In embroidering an old tale to reach a new audience, he becomes a figure of the novelist. And when he ends his sermon, he’s shaken by his awesome responsibility.

Here’s a little gem from the sermon: “But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep” (54).

Just In Case I See the Movie Version: Another Look at The Great Gatsby

Alert: Don’t read this if you haven’t read the book and want to be surprised by its plot.

Now then, to begin.

A disclaimer: I am not a Fitzgerald acolyte; the saga of F. Scott and Zelda bores me utterly. Nor am I one who thinks that The Great Gatsby is the greatest American novel of the twentieth-century. I didn’t read the novel in high school, so I have no fond or ridiculous teenage associations with the tale of summer misery, nor did I ever have the misapprehension that the book is somehow about “the American dream.” I find the famous last line overwrought.

Melodrama and pretentiousness (and not just on the part of the characters) pop up at inopportune times (for example: “So we drove on toward death in the cooling twilight”). Fitzgerald’s occasional attempts to be funny fall flat. And the casual racism, classism, and sexism the novel presents are difficult to stomach eighty-eight years after its original publication.

But then, there’s this:

“Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!” shouted Mrs. Wilson. “I’ll say it whenever I want to! Daisy! Dai—”

Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand.

The episode of domestic violence is nothing to celebrate, but look at that sentence. It is the punch. It’s short and violent, and deft. Preceded as it is by less than ten pages in Mrs. Wilson’s presence, we still know that Tom will suffer no repercussions for his abuse; Myrtle, undereducated (“I got to call up my sister too”) and out of her milieu, has signed on to play by his rules.

I found, as I re-read the novel, that what I appreciate more than the plot or the atmosphere of the novel is the crafting of it. The narrative spins out in unusual ways, and sometimes the lyricism for which Fitzgerald is so often celebrated serves a perfect purpose, like a sorbet cleansing the palate between courses (or so I’ve been told; I’ve never been to that type of dinner). The characterization is often gracefully accomplished — Jordan Baker balancing something on the tip of her nose, or Daisy’s voice that sounds like money, for example. And certainly, Fitzgerald gives the reader a feel for the dissolute post-war, pre-crash golden days of New York and Long Island; to me, it rather feels like a documentary parading a host of sad and lonely people whose access to great wealth only makes them hideous.

[An exception is Gatsby’s father, who appears with his son’s itemized self-improvement list to humanize a dead man whose very dreams were a facade. Gatsby’s father is merely sad and lonely, an afterthought in his son’s calculations.]

Despite its technical successes, the novel is about unpleasant people who do unpleasant things and occasionally veer off into unconscionable acts, and thus I do not find it to be a particularly pleasant reading experience.