Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Book 7- "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde

First of all, my apologies for the late post. Both of my children were sick last week (Owen with ear infections/diarrhea/general misery, Addison with some sort of flu bug) and as a result I didn't have time to start reading until Friday. Add to that the fact that this book took a lot of willpower and focus to keep reading, and you have a Wednesday post.

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" starts out with an artist who is obsessed with a young man that he is painting-- the young man (Gray) becomes the focus of all of his artwork, even that which does not feature people. Basil (the artist) states that Gray has woven himself so deeply into his emotional being that every stroke of the paintbrush has become about Gray. Dorian Gray is described as being immeasurably beautiful, with blonde hair, flawless skin, etc. etc. (although there is no blatant homosexuality in the book, it is worth mentioning that Wilde himself was homosexual and actually served time in prison for this reason; It's obvious that Wilde's attraction to men colors his descriptions in the book, and it actually gets a little distracting and hard to remember that the men in the book are straight.)

Through Basil, Dorian becomes friends with a man named Lord Henry, who develops into sort of a mentor for Gray. Lord Henry is a pretty well liked, apparently upstanding guy with some pretty radical ideas, and it is his ideas that start Gray on his downfall. Upon seeing the portrait Basil painted of Gray, Lord Henry states that the biggest tragedy is that the portrait will remain beautiful while Gray will slowly age and lose his youthful beauty; it is this observation/idea that causes Gray to pray that the portrait should age and show the wear of his choices and mistakes, rather than himself.

As time passes, Gray falls in love with a young actress well below his societal class; eventually he breaks her heart in a fit of fury and after he leaves her, declaring he doesn't want to see her again, she kills herself. This is the first time that Gray notices a change to the portrait-- the portrait gains a look of cruelty that was not there when originally painted. Gray realizes that his prayer/wish has been realized, and that the portrait is sort of a visual representation of his conscience.

Years pass, and Gray remains the same; he does whatever he wants, whenever he wants to, and the portrait grows uglier and uglier. For a long time this does not really bother him; he becomes an outcast in society and rumors are spread about his "wickedness." Wilde never really elaborates on what deeds Gray has supposedly committed to receive such a reputation, but the reader is given the impression that aside from his close friends (including Lord Henry), England's upper crust doesn't seem to like Gray at all.

The turning point seems to come when Basil, ready to go to France for 6 months, confronts his old friend about his reputation; Basil initially refuses to believe that all of the rumors can be true, and Gray kind of taunts Basil's loyalty/obsession with him by showing him the portrait. Basil is initially disbelieving and then horrified, and Gray becomes so overcome with rage that the painting was ever done at all that he kills Basil. The body is disposed of and Gray goes about his life, but his conscience wears on him and he becomes paranoid and anxious. The ending will be left a mystery, as I don't want to spoil it for anyone who might wish to read it.

This book was....OK. Not great, not bad. REALLY dry chapters, but a good plot and relatively good storytelling. Pretty easy to follow and stay interested in, but nothing I'll be raving about. I think that the biggest eye opener for me (having not previously read the book or seen any of the movies) was that the painting becomes ugly as a reflection of Gray's inner self, not necessarily due to age. All of the depictions/descriptions I've heard left me with the impression that Gray becomes some kind of immortal, living hundreds of years without aging. While it is true that in the book, Gray doesn't age, the book ends with him somewhere around the age of 40; the hideousness of the portrait is almost solely due to the moral ugliness of Dorian Gray. Quite the comment about the importance of living a moral life, and what immorality can do to a person's soul.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Book 6- "Alice in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll

For the first time, I'm at a bit of a loss as to what to say about a story. I chose "Alice in Wonderland" specifically this week, as I have a lot of projects I'm trying to catch up on and I knew "Alice" was probably the shortest book on my list. I read the entire thing in about an hour and a half, and now I have to figure out what to say about it.

The thing that stumps me is that I didn't LOVE it, but I didn't dislike it either. I think part of my ambivalence toward this particular book is due to the fact that I've seen and adored both the Disney animated movie version and the recent live-action adaptation featuring Johnny Depp, so I already knew the basics of the story. It sort of confirms to me what I've already decided, which is that I should try as much as possible not to see a movie version of these classics before I read the book, because it definitely affects my opinion of the story itself.

I'm not going to summarize the story as I usually do-- partially because it would be a completely wacky story to try to summarize, but mostly just because it's such a well known story. Part of the complication with the story vs. the movies is that the movies combine "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" (the sequel), so when I read the story, I didn't know what to expect.

I liked the depiction in the book of the tea party-- the animated movie version of the Mad Hatter is a little sillier than the book version. I think that the Johnny Depp version of the Hatter is more in character with the book version, although the Hatter does not play as significant a role in the book as Depp does in the movie (although, having not read "Through the Looking Glass", perhaps the Hatter's role is more significant in the sequel.) There were a few other characters and scenes I don't remember from either movie, but having just bought the Disney animated version for Addison, perhaps I will recognize these characters in watching the movie again.

Overall, I think that the most significant thing reading "Alice in Wonderland" did for me is make me desire to read "Through the Looking Glass", mostly just because I'm interested in drawing the lines to see which characters / events come from which book and what was completely made up in the screenplays. I think the story was obviously written for children, but would be too complicated for most children under 12 or so to understand upon reading. It is a story one can appreciate as an adult, although it definitely feels like a kid's story... if I hadn't already seen the movies, I'm not sure the plot of this book would have held my interest.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Book 5- "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte

The first time I read "Wuthering Heights" was in 6th grade, which puts me at approximately 12 years old. I struggled through the story and declared it good, but I don't really think I ever 100% figured out what it was all about; for this reason, it was one of the first books I chose to include on my list of classics for this year.

The most confusing thing, in my opinion, is just keeping track of all the characters. Not that there are many-- there are only about 8 or so "main" characters in the entire story, but the strange names (and the fact that 2 of them have the same name) makes things a little difficult. Once you wrap your head around the who's-who, it's really an enjoyable read, and a terrific story.

At the very beginning, a man by the name of Lockwood comes to rent a home called Thrushcross Grange from a man named Heathcliff. The behavior of Heathcliff's "family" at his home, Wuthering Heights, piques the curiosity of Mr. Lockwood, and when he is settled at Thrushcross Grange, he asks the housekeeper what she knows. The entire book, for the most part, is narrated by the housekeeper/nanny, Ellen Dent aka Nelly. She is telling the story of the Heathcliff/Earnshaw/Linton families, whom she has known and worked for since childhood.

The book starts out with two families: The Earnshaw's and the Linton's. Mr. Earnshaw, on a trip to the city, discovers an apparently orphaned "gypsy" boy wandering around and decides to take him home and sort of fosters him as a son. He names him Heathcliff, and expects his two children, Hindley and Catherine, to take to him immediately. Which, of course, they don't. Hindley pretty much always hates him, but after awhile, Catherine and Heathcliff become inseparable. As they grow up, Mr. Earnshaw favors Heathcliff over either of his two biological children, and after he dies, jealous Hindley immediately tells Heathcliff he has to live with the servants or get out. Catherine continues her friendship with Heathcliff, as well as developing a friendship with their only nearby neighbors, Isabella and Edgar Linton. When they are all grown, Catherine decides that despite her deep love for Heathcliff, it would be a more honorable thing to do to marry rich Edgar Linton rather than poor Heathcliff, and so she does. Heathcliff, brokenhearted, disappears for 3 years.

When he returns, he has mysteriously acquired a large amount of money, and manages to get back in to Wuthering Heights by loaning money to Hindley, who by this time is a widower, a gambler, and a drunk. He befriends Hindley's young son Hareton and turns him against his father, but with his home basically mortgaged over to Heathcliff, Hindley has no choice but to tolerate Heathcliff's presence and subsequent power over his home and family. Shortly after returning, Heathcliff drops in on Catherine and Edgar, who by this time are married and living at Thrushcross Grange. Catherine is elated to see her old friend, and Edgar, being a complete pushover, allows her to visit with him frequently. Old feelings are reignited, and eventually Edgar tries to ban Heathcliff from seeing Catherine; at this point, Catherine pretty much goes insane (she has been somewhat borderline throughout the story) and ends up nearly catatonic for awhile. Also, Isabella (Edgar's sister) decides she is in love with Heathcliff and runs away to marry him; Edgar cuts her out of his life and out of the family fortune, and after enduring a short but brutal marriage at Wuthering Heights, she eventually flees to South London. Here, she gives birth to a child, whom she names Linton and vows to keep secret from his father (which, naturally, doesn't work.) Eventually, Catherine recovers from her mental vacation, but never regains her true strength and personality, and a few hours after the birth of her first (and only) child, she dies. Thus begins part two of the story.

Catherine's daughter is named Catherine (not confusing at all, right?) and is raised by Nelly and Edgar in Thrushcross Grange. She is a beautiful, high-spirited, loyal daughter who is largely sheltered and rarely allowed out of her home; she doesn't even realize that she has an uncle and cousin in a home nearby (in fact, doesn't even know Wuthering Heights exists.) Eventually, she sneaks out one day to explore and stumbles upon Wuthering Heights; Nelly rescues her, but not before Heathcliff gets information from her-- most importantly that her Aunt Isabella has passed away and her cousin Linton is coming to live with them. Because he's just a big meany, Heathcliff immediately sends for his son (Linton) upon his arrival to Thrushcross Grange, and without any legal standing to stop the move, Edgar gives in and sends Linton to live at Wuthering Heights.

A few years pass, during which Catherine and Linton take up correspondence, then frequent visits, and a sort of love affair blossoms (since being in love with your cousin wasn't weird back then.) Eventually Heathcliff traps Catherine and Nelly in his home, upon a visit to Linton, and refuses to let them leave until Catherine marries Linton (thus securing Linton as the heir to both the Earnshaw/Heathcliff fortune AND the Linton fortune). Catherine agrees, because her father is dying and she is willing to do anything to get away. Plus, she loves Linton, despite the fact that he is a whiny, sickly, sniveling, backbone-free individual. After marrying Linton, she escapes and is able to spend her father's final moments with him. Shortly after her father dies, Linton also dies; wouldn't you know he willed all of his estate to Heathcliff, rather than to Catherine? So Catherine is now basically a prisoner in Wuthering Heights-- Heathcliff won't let her leave, due to the fact that the only thing he cannot get hold of is some of the Linton money, which is still in Catherine's legal possession. This point in the story is when Mr. Lockwood shows up to rent Thrushcross Grange.

Believe it or not, there is a happily-ever-after ending, which I won't spoil for you.

Emily Bronte, one of the trio of famous Bronte sisters, is an amazing writer with an incredible imagination. Once you got the characters straight in your mind, it was very easy to get lost in the storytelling-- she's descriptive enough of the setting to make you feel like you're there, without being so descriptive you feel like you're being bored to tears (*cough* F. Scott Fitzgerald *cough*) and gives enough background to flesh out the characters without taking away the character's ability to "tell" the reader about themselves. I like that Heathcliff is sort of a tragic character; you basically have to hate him, because he's evil, but when you see what made him that way, it's hard not to feel a teensy bit bad for him. Catherine (the first one) is a pretty unlikeable character as well; you get the feeling that she's utterly spoiled, thinks everyone should love and cater to her, and refuses to accept that she has any flaws. I mean, really; she SHOULD have married Heathcliff-- they'd have made a great couple. The second Catherine is much more likeable, and although she has a sense of entitlement due to being raised as a sheltered only child, you never really feel the need to hate her for it. She deserves the ending that she gets at the end of the book.

I would highly recommend this book-- it's a great tragic historical romance, and it kept me interested from start to finish. And it's definitely a better read than it was when I was 12.