Sunday, 2 August 2015

Top 10 "Are we reading the same book?" moments

i.e. those moments when I don't understand how some readers interpret a book in a certain way or why they see or don't see certain things in it.

1/ What do you mean Fanny Price should marry Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram should marry Mary? And you call yourself a Janeite?* 
2/ Heathcliff is a romantic hero and Wuthering Heights is a beautiful love story? What's wrong with you?
3/ You think Mr Darcy is charming? Have you read the book? It's Colin Firth that you're thinking of.
4/ Do you seriously think Madame Bovary is a feminist book and Emma Bovary is a strong, independent, admirable woman who breaks out of conventions and defies public opinion to live for love? 
5/ How is it possible that you regard Rosamond Vincy as a study of female rebellion and criticise Lydgate for not taking her advice?**
6/ Marian Halcombe is a strong, independent and intelligent woman and a great, interesting character? Are you joking?***
7/ Have you read Lolita before calling it a child abuse manual?
8/ Why does the portrayal of Homais in Madame Bovary mean that Flaubert's against science?
9/ How can you not see that Frankenstein's experiment isn't a failed experiment?

The 10th spot is left empty. Your thoughts, please. 

*: All of my posts about Mansfield Park are collected here
**: Discussed here
***: Discussed here, here, here and here


  1. The missing the point about Wuthering Heights award goes to:

  2. #10. Are you really going to persist in your argument that _The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ is a great rather than a seriously flawed novel?

    1. Are greatness and flaws mutually exclusive?

  3. Creative misreading is a good, good thing. Lots of great art, and great criticism, is the result of misreading. If only the misreadings you describe were more creative!

    That Beaton cartoon has always gotten on my nerves. Jenny at Shelf Love insists that it does not misread the Brontës but is actually mocking Brontë misreaders. I guess that is possible.

    My #10 might be something about Dickens novels being "wordy" because he was "paid the word."

  4. R.T., I think a novel can be great and flawed. And that doesn't count because we then would be talking about judgement, whereas I'm only talking about understanding.

    Tom, could you give me some examples of creative misreading?
    Regarding that Beaton cartoon, I'd say that, unlike popular opinion, I think Emily's the only one who doesn't like "arseholes". Anne does- Gilbert isn't exactly a nice, kind, gentle, considerate man and apparently we're meant to like him (unless I misread the book). Charlotte likes dominating men.
    I don't really think the cartoon's mocking Bronte misreaders.

  5. An example of creative misreading is Sigmund Freud and the Oedipus Complex, which misreads Sophocles pretty badly, but productively.

    My favorite example is Maurice Morgann's 1777 An Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff which uses nothing but what we would now call close reading to prove that Falstaff is not a coward but is actually brave.

    Dante's Divine Comedy is a creative misreading of Christianity.

    I haven't seen it, but the film of Mansfield Park where Fanny Price is feminist and spunky and an author like Jane Austen is a a kind of creative misreading.

    1. AR(Tom), you say:
      "Dante's Divine Comedy is a creative misreading of Christianity."
      I've never heard that kind of "indictment" of Dante's poem. I hope you will elaborate on the assertion either here or sometime soon at your blog. I am eager to hear that thesis explained. I confess that I am puzzled by your argument, but my mind is open.

    2. There is not a hint of "indictment." You have definitely heard the idea before, because you have read Chapter 3 of Harold Bloom's Western Canon.

      Dante misreads Virgil and Ovid, too. The entire tradition of Latin literature, classical and Christian. And he makes it all imaginatively his own.

    3. Irony: I have misread your statement.
      Problem: My memory is Swiss-cheese -- blame it on my encroaching Alzheimer's condition -- and I've forgotten most of what I've read in the past; yes, I did read Bloom's book, but I have no recollection of his argument about Dante.
      Solution: I ought to stop commenting here or anywhere. Yes, I suppose I've said that before, and I know that I contradict myself. So . . .

    4. Borges's "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" is the finest tribute to the idea of creative misreading.

  6. I have spent a long time – longer than is good for my sanity – on books boards, and the following are some of the things I’ve really wanted to say, but, out of civility, didn’t.

    10. “War and Peace”, “Anna Karenina”, “Madame Bovary” etc. are not soap operas. Before you use “soap opera” as a critical term to be dismissive about works you obviously don’t understand, do please define what you mean by it.

    11. Yes, Dickens frequently used caricature (as did Austen – Mrs Bennet, say, or Aunt Norris) – but a caricature is not a failed attempt at portraiture, and nor does use of caricature indicate artistic failure.

    12. Yes, Dickens could create women: Betsey Trotwood, Miss Havisham, Sarah Gamp, etc. etc. are all among the most memorable characters in English literature. What – you mean women who aren’t caricatures? Why didn’t you say so? Very well then - Lady Dedlock, Louisa Harthouse, Bella Wilfer, Miss Wade, Lizzie Hexam, Esther Summerson …

    13. Whether or not you personally liked Esther Summerson as a person is irrelevant.

    14. Yes, I know Dickens’ female romantic leads – Agnes Wickfield, Madeleine Bray, etc. – are dull and insipid. His male romantic leads - David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby etc. – are similarly dull and insipid. Until his later novels, he had problems with romantic leads, male *and* female. This does not constitute evidence that Dickens “could not create women”.

    15. Before you use the term “sentimental” in so pejorative a manner, why don’t you tell us what you mean by it?

    16. Yes, the farming scenes in “Anna Karenina” are important, and are integral parts of the novel.

    17. People don’t behave like this, you say? How do you know? Each of the billions and billions of people who now live or have lived are different. Are you really sure that you understand them all well enough to be able to assert with such confidence that people don’t behave like this?

    18. Yes, Hardy is gloomy and depressing. And your point is … ?

    19. “Henry James was up his own arse” does not really constitute literary criticism…
    … and so on.

  7. Tom, I can't say anything about other examples, but regarding the Mansfield Park film, if you're thinking of the 1999 version, it's bad. I almost didn't read the book because of it. It's a silly film with lots of stupid changes, made by someone who didn't like and wanted to improve the book.

    Himadri, I see your point, but, how to put it, there you're also talking about understanding, but it involves judgement, taste, experience in reading critically, etc. I accept the fact that there are different kinds of readers, different levels of understanding. My post is only about something as basic as grasping the content and a bit of the author's intention; I don't understand why on earth anyone would see Rosamond as a study of female rebellion or Madame Bovary as a feminist book. To see all the things you mentioned requires intelligence and good judgement and experience and so on, to see what I mentioned above doesn't require as much as that.

  8. Nevertheless, thanks for your comment, Himadri.
    That is why I stay away from book clubs and books boards. But then academics sometimes get on my nerves for other reasons. Have I said I detest feminist criticism? Absolutely loathe The Madwoman in the Attic.

    1. I'd have thought that statements such as "Dickens only created caricatures" or "the farming bits in Anna Karenina were so boring, and had nothing to do with the plot" indicate a lack of understanding asbasic as that indicated by "Fanny should have married Henry". But not to worry ... I admit I was indulging my dyspeptic side somewhat. I'll return now to being my usual charming and delightful self.

  9. Most criticism that is am "-ist" of any kind is by nature limited, as it focuses only on one aspect of the work, and insists on seeing teh whole work just from that single aspect. As with anything else, there is good and bad feminist criticism, as there is good and bad Marxist, post-colonialist, etc etc. But yes, seeing it only from one single perspective, which may or may not be the most important perspective from which to see it, can distort.

  10. Hahahaha your "usual charming and delightful self".
    I was exaggerating a bit. There is good feminist criticism, yes. I love A Room of One's Own and many other essays by Virginia Woolf. Also a while ago I read an essay arguing that Gwendolen Harleth might have been abused or had some kind of childhood trauma, which sounds quite convincing albeit a bit distorting in some examples.
    But I do detest that book The Madwoman in the Attic.

  11. Di, I have been reading your loads of your Austen posts and enjoying them...

    Also, candidates for 10: Critics natter on about how the ending of "The Scarlet Letter" is wrong because it's sentimental that Pearl ends up marrying into European nobility. I always think that's silly because what Hawthorne does is let Hester set maximum barriers (ocean, distance, class, culture, fortune) to her own pleasures in life--she renounces the company of her child and will never see her daughter again, never enjoy the company of grandchildren, etc. It's not a happy ending but penance, sacrifice, and transformation. (I've thought that there is a subterranean link between TSL and my book "Catherwood." And once I had a journalist--male--ask me why I had given the book a happy ending, as if a glimpse of a woman being reunited with her spouse--the two holding the bundled bones of their child in their arms--could possibly qualify as happy. Parallel issue.) Another thing critics are always on about is the ending of "Huckleberry Finn." I see why, of course. But why can't they ever think about how it might be part of the author's purpose to transform something of deep meaning (the bond between Huck and Jim, the problem of Jim's enslavement) by bringing it back into what Huck ran away from, "civilization?" How curious that civilization should be the thing that destroys what matters and reduces meaning.... And in the realm of mass market popular fiction, I'm always bemused that J. K. Rowling (read all the books aloud to the progeny) doesn't understand what she knew when she wrote her Potter books and now thinks Harry and Hermione should have married. Yet it's perfectly obvious that Harry gains maximum loving family and strong parental substitutes if he marries Ginny, and even gets to include Hermione as a sister if she marries Ron.

    1. Thank you.
      Glad to find you here. I've followed your blog for a while now, though (I think) I've never commented, and haven't had time to visit it lately.
      There's not much I can say about The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn, not having read them. But "And once I had a journalist--male--ask me why I had given the book a happy ending, as if a glimpse of a woman being reunited with her spouse--the two holding the bundled bones of their child in their arms--could possibly qualify as happy." That reminds me of the 3 endings of The French Lieutenant's Woman, have you read it?

    2. Read it so many decades ago that I'm not sure when I read it. Anyway, not recently enough to remember much about it. I never reread it, which is one of my measures of how much I like a book. But since I can't remember much about it, perhaps I should reread it and see how much I like it!

      I wish that I had not read those two books so that I could read them again for the first and second times.

      We live in an age in which many sorts of critics (critic-professors who pass on their ideas) think that writers don't know what they are doing when they write a book. This is a comfy, self-important idea for a critic, and so it is not likely to disappear soon.

    3. Oh all right.
      I was only thinking of the 3 endings of the novel, especially the 2 last ones: 1 is the conventional "happy ending", with marriage, the other is one in which the female character chooses independence and freedom.
      I can guess your view on New Criticism.
      Btw, check out my latest blog post about an awful (new) book I've just read.