Lewis Carroll

February 20, 2010

Although no longer a child, I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (1897 editions prepared by Dodgson himself) for the first time this past week. In fact, although I do understand why the humor, frivolity, and illustrations would appeal to children, I found the book to be quite complex in other ways and thus believe them to be as much  books for adults as for children.

Carroll, a nom de plume for Charles Dodgson, led an interesting life. He was a conservative man who devoted his life to teaching mathematics at Oxford University and being a pious deacon for the Anglican Church. His obsession with Alice Liddell, the girl for and about whom his Alice books were written, reached levels of discomfort for Alice’s mom, who eventually refused him to spend more time with her. It is not impossible to see in Dodgson a pedophile, as his obsession with children frequently seems to press beyond  merely entertaining them. Although I did not do substantial reading to back my hypothesis, I hope one day to pursue this interesting thought further.

Both of Carroll’s Alice novellas are written in a simple, enjoyable, and nonsensical style. Both of them occur within framing tales; Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland occurs as a dream (though we don’t know it till she wakes up at the end), whereas Through the Looking-Glass occurs in a dream-like state when Alice looks deeply into a mirror and considers its reflection another world. Both novellas are also marked by a complete paucity of logic between events, and for this reason is it so difficult to give a “plot” synopsis of either work. The non sequitur events flow arbitrarily, making the narrative absurd and the recollection of the narrative nearly impossible. Suffice it to say that in both, the plots are driven forward by Alice’s encounters with animate creatures in Wonderland that teach, challenge, mock, or frustrate her. Through the Looking-Glass is also loosely held together by the chess motif, as the entire book is Alice’s pursuit as a pawn of becoming a queen.

 Both books are also obsessed with meaning and language and the frequent disparity between the two. The books are replete with instances where homophones or homonyms disrupt communication in a comical way. Carroll also plays with idiomatic phrases and challenges our employment of words. When other characters take Alice seriously in every word that she utters, meaning is lost or a false meaning is understood. Carroll’s scrutiny of the imprecision and sullying of language is fascinating and linguistically semi-prophetic. For this reason alone do I understand why literary scholars continue to enjoy and study this book.

Carroll also plays incessantly with commonly known nursery rhymes or ballad-like poems well-known among the general populace. Instead of merely repeating them, though, he has Alice, in her inability to successfully relay meanings in Wonderland, twist the original words to create comical tales that typically subvert the meaning of the original poem. Didactic poems imploring children to be industrious and wise become poems telling how a crocodile snaps its prey, for example. It is when reading passages like this, where poems by Samuel Johnson and William Wordsworth are so openly derided and  parodied, that I wonder how Dodgson could have been conservative. He seems far to rambunctious to conform to a spartan code of existence.

Carroll explores the continuity of self and the maturation of the organism in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Because Alice is interminably changing size, she loses her sense of identity, as her changes have been too drastic and too precipitous to feel like contiguous parts of her being.

A few other things remain to be mentioned about these witty works. Of paramount importance to both of these books are the small illustrations done by Tenniel. These have always been an integral part of the book, and Carroll’s contemporary readers and those of the present era alike find both joy, visual representation, and greater explication of the peculiar tale in the equally bizarre drawings.

The poem “Jabberwocky,” which appears early in Through the Looking-Glass, is a particular favorite among critics to highlight the arbitrariness of words and their meanings. The poem is rife with portmanteau words, words that combine two words into one, such as “slithy” meaning “lithe” and “slimy.” Each word is given an ephemeral definition by Humpty Dumpty, and the entire poem makes little sense.

I highly enjoyed these very quick reads. I think Carroll was brilliant in his ways of reaching discrete audiences of highly different ages. I would love to do research, one day, to see if Carroll’s personified animals are somehow representative of the post-Darwinian comprehension of nature, evolution, and the disinterestedness and cruelty that they suggest. For now, however, that can wait, and I can simply enjoy the humor and wit of this player with words and children, Lewis Carroll.


John Henry Cardinal Newman

February 20, 2010

As a reprieve from my assigned readings, I decided to read the excerpts from Newman’s The Idea of a University, a collection of lectures he delivered to the Catholic University of Ireland. The selections were brief, and if for no other reason than the fact that they were enormously self-validating, I enjoyed the content, as well.

Newman is essentially arguing for a liberal education over a mechanical one that leads only to a specific skill set in a trade or profession. Interestingly enough, this debate was not extinguished in the Victorian times but continues today, and I personally witness it every time I have to justify to someone why I am studying English and Spanish instead of pursuing a “practical” major. Newman’s answer is that Knowledge, which he distinguishes with a capital letter, ceases to be true Knowledge as it becomes more particular. For him, Knowledge is an end unto itself, a treasure to be valued enormously by societies and individuals. Universities, to Newman, should not be principally about instruction but rather about education, a word of a higher class that implies forging values, forming character, and having utility beyond something mechanical or technical.

Newman openly derides the word “utility,” calling it the watchword of those who oppose a liberal education. In this sense, one can read an anti-utilitarian theme into his work and see how it permeates quite pervasively.

Newman makes an analogy between the importance of bodily health, which is something that is intrinsically valuable and worthy of pursuit, and the cultivation of the mind in a university via a liberal education. He explains how a liberal education will enhance individuals in all fields, as the greater questions about humanity and the natural world are addressed by liberal education and intricately interconnected with all professions. For Newman, a liberal education cultivates a prowess of mind that enables its possessor to pursue effectively all choices of profession.

While I did enjoy this treatise, I find a couple of flaws in its argument. 1) Although I do think all people should strive to cultivate their minds and receive a humanistic education, I am not convinced, as Newman says, that she who has such an education can pick up any number of professions “with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success.” Although I think Newman strikes at a truth of a general education, he steps beyond his bounds in this argument. 2) The dearth of particulars made this read like an inspiring, if not saccharine, “feel-good” pamphlet. I wish Newman would have addressed the specifics more–specific individuals, specific components of a liberal education, and a specific demonstration of how this education should operate and why it should remain the cornerstone of the university. Perhaps these details are delineated in the complete version and I simply missed them in Norton’s cut.

As one who intends to profess in a university, I take up the gauntlet to express to the world the beauty of a liberal education and follow in the tradition of Newman’s wise words!

Wuthering Heights

February 2, 2010

I cannot say that I am in love with this classic English novel, although I do feel as though I understand some of its merit.

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (ah, the italics! I could not figure out how to employ them in the title–my apologies) is, according to public opinion, the love story between Catherine and Heathcliff, although I think such a view limits the scope of the novel. The stories of multiple generations are recounted in this novel, and Catherine herself dies by the middle of the book. Thus, I ask myself how we can consider this a tale of these two “protagonists” when such a large portion of the narrative involves other characters (even though the exertion of Catherine and Heathcliff’s lives over their own is emphasized). Additionally, I find myself stumbling as I utter the word “love” to describe the violent, manipulative, and repugnant relationship that existed between the impious man and the lunatic woman (forgive the harshness).

Perhaps I should summarize the novel for my readers’ sakes and for my own recollective purposes. The story opens when Mr. Lockwood, the original narrator (before the narration begins assuming layers) begins renting Thrushcross Grange, a house close to Wuthering Heights (“wuthering” being a local adjective used to describe the inclement weather). Upon his visit to Heathcliff, his landlord and the chief inhabitant of Wuthering Heights, Lockwood quickly sees the tragic and sullen lives that the Heights’ inhabitants live. Stormy weather and darkness force Lockwood  to spend the night at the Heights, and after reading some accounts written by the hand of one Catherine in the room where he rests, he has a disturbingly bloody dream about the same woman who is revealed to be Heathcliff’s lost object of love. Lockwood returns to Thrushcross Grange and falls ill, ultimately forced to stay in bed. To keep him occupied in his quiescence, he asks his maid, Ellen (Nelly) Dean to tell him the tale of Heathcliff. Nelly having been a child reared in the same home as Heathcliff, she is the perfect woman to recount all of the juicy particulars of the tale.

In essential brevity, Heathcliff was a vagrant gypsy child brought home by the father of Hindley and Catherine Earnshaw. Hindley and Catherine initially detested Heathcliff, but Catherine ultimately grew to love him and to uniquely understand him. Hindley despises Heathcliff (who is never given a first name) presumably because Heathcliff is loved affectionately by Mr. Earnshaw (Hindley’s biological father), and the disparity of attention given to the two drives Hindley to jealousy. When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley is already married and has inherited the estate. He uses his position of power to torture Heathcliff under manual labor as vengeance for his years of being treated as the second-best son.

Meanwhile, Catherine begins to entertain feelings for Edgar Linton, Heathcliff’s opposite in his refinement and slightness of personality. A misheard conversation eventually precipitates Heathcliff’s storming departure (as he believes Catherine no longer loves him), and Catherine falls very ill after it. She is nursed to health by the Lintons, and she eventually agrees to marry Edgar. Hindley has a child named Hareton, but his wife dies shortly after giving birth to Hareton. Edgar and Catherine conceive a child, also named Catherine. After her birth, Catherine the elder dies and leaves Edgar a widower. In the meantime, Heathcliff has married Isabella, Edgar Linton’s sister, and with her conceived a child named Linton.

Can you tell how frustrating and desultory this story felt to me? Pardon the rapidity of the plot summary.

To sum it up, Heathcliff reigned over Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange for a long time, subjecting Hareton and Linton to a terrible life. Catherine the younger, who lives with her father at Thrushcross Grange, meets up with her relatives at Wuthering Heights over an extended period of time. Heathcliff eventually dies (while the initial narrator, Mr. Lockwood, has taken a hiatus in London), Catherine helps humanize Hareton (who has been raised in abusive, austere circumstances by Heathcliff), and the graves of all the tortured individuals actually look peaceful at the end of the story.

My issues with the book are thus:

1) Although the prose is absolutely beautiful (this point can hardly be contested), I don’t feel as if this piece says anything about either the human condition as it spans the centuries or the human condition as it would have been encountered in 1847, when this novel was first published. The characters do not seem overly real or even idiosyncratic in a lovable way, yet I cannot find in them archetypes or stock characters (although many consider Heathcliff a Victorian incarnation of the Byronic hero). The content of this novel strikes me as vapid–does it hold any significant, enduring opinion of humanity?

2) The style of narration is more frustrating than anything. Most of the novel is told through the eyes of Nelly Dean, an apparently very-present narrator who is eerily recollective of many obscure happenings that did not directly involve her. However, her story is entirely embedded in Mr. Lockwood’s experience and narrative. To add more layers, there are times when Nelly recounts either a letter she read between other characters or a conversation she overheard, shifting yet again the narrative voice. The entire novel seems to always seeks its narration, and in my lowly opinion, it never finds it.

Despite my frustrations with it, I am glad to have read this Victorian classic. I am eager to try Jane Eyre, as I have heard that Charlotte Brontë is the most talented of the sisters. I suppose we shall see.