The first time that I read Emily Bronte’s masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, I was not impressed.  To be honest, it was a dark period of my own life . During this time, I used literature as an escape from my own less than desirable realities. With distraction as the goal, it was hardly uplifting to read a book rife with themes of struggle and revenge. While some revel in reading depressing novels in the dead of winter while holed up under a comforting blanket, I don’t care to give myself over to that type of overwhelming melancholy.

Nevertheless, Emily Bronte’s genius is undeniable; and it was with this in mind that I decided to look deeper at her work. I had undergone an extensive study of Charlotte in order to complete my master’s thesis, and it became apparent to me that the seemingly universal Bronte genius was born from stark reality juxtaposed against fierce sibling and filial fidelity. It is well known that the Bronte siblings were afforded very little luxury, but their passion for literary imagination, and the doors it unlocked for them, became a fascinating escape from the daily drudgery of the cold English moors. Together, their imaginations simultaneously exploded into works both strangely chaotic and wonderful. Perhaps it was their lack of stimulation that produced an insatiable desire to create; it seems too clear to me that when youth are given constant external stimulation their boredom only increases. This leads me to the topic of technology, but I’ll save that discussion for another day. But trust me when I say that the void produced a need, and the Brontes met that need.

There are multiple layers of complexity to Emily’s masterpiece, and to settle upon only one theme does her work an injustice. I’ve already alluded to the Gothic elements which would include but are not limited to: revenge, spiritual darkness, struggle, conspiracy, loneliness, and tragic love. And to be honest, it’s hard to get past these ever-present elements. I wondered about Emily’s crippling introversion as I scoured the pages. Was she trapped within her own body: struggling against her time and the space in which she lived, but mostly, against herself? It could certainly be so. However, it seems to me there is an even greater theme. She was trapped, but like the agoraphobic who fears forced and undesired emancipation from a self-controlled prison, I don’t think that Emily longed for change. She was comfortable and secure within the tiny loving world that she knew. Perhaps she was trapped, but she didn’t desire freedom.

And so too, Heathcliff, tyrannically denied Catherine’s love, does not desire to find happiness. He does not seek to be free from his misery. To find happiness and contentment beyond Catherine, who he calls his very soul, would be an insult to their unquenchable love. In a macabre turn, he lives his life as the worst type of human being, because if he cannot feel her love, he seems to rather feel pain and to inflict torment upon others. He damns himself, because in his mind, without her, he is already in hell. It is an unrealistic, passionate, violent love. It’s the kind of psychotic love that ruins him and all whom he encounters. But I have to ask myself: WHY? What could sweet, introverted, quiet Emily Bronte be saying with this troubling narrative?

The answer to this question becomes an intellectual smorgasbord with an unending supply of answers, postulations, and theories. As I stated earlier, I can’t begin to cover all of the possibilities. It’s useless to try. Nevertheless, in the interest of piquing interest in the book, I will make one brief observation.

English: The Climb to Top Withens. Thought to ...

English: The Climb to Top Withens. Thought to be the inspiration for the Earnshaws home in Emily Brontes’ novel ‘Wuthering Heights’. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The line between love and hatred is very thin. The deeper the love has reached, the more gaping the hole when that love is taken away. That emptiness can be the absence of oxygen to a deprived heart. The inevitable “acting out” ensues, as is often seen in the aftermath of broken or cut-too-short relationships. Heathcliff’s love was a jealous, passionate love, one to which he gave himself over entirely. But his love was unearthly. It was a love that no human could satiate or sustain. Because Catherine became a godlike savior to him, her absence became a spiritual damnation. She was his idol.

Too many of us do this. The most sought after thing in the world is “true love,” but is it ever enough? Can we be filled by another? I submit we cannot. How easily we make our romantic relationships imperfect gods. And being rejected by a purveyor of spiritual fulfillment is the worst kind of hell.

It shouldn’t be. I am quite sure Emily would agree, as her text confirms this reality. I’m glad Wuthering Heights found its way to my musty study.

Hand written dedication by Louisa May Alcott f...

Hand written dedication by Louisa May Alcott from a first edition copy of the novel Eight Cousins, 1875 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently embarked upon a cruise. And like every book-worm cruiser truly insistent upon a relaxing time, I packed a handful of novels to keep me company during the lazy afternoons. Sadly, I was too busy beach combing and taking my daily afternoon siesta to finish them all, but I did manage to tackle half of my list.  So under my embarrassingly large shade-producing hat, and through my wide dark sunglasses, I finally completed a long-awaited goal: I read Little Women.

I do understand that I’m in the minority among American book-reading females. After all, I’m nearly due for a midlife crisis; it’s hardly the time for me to read schoolgirl fantasies. But that’s just the problem. I was never interested in books like Little Women when I was, well. . . a little woman. I knew just enough about the story to cause me to lose interest: four sisters under one roof, managing while dad is away, puzzling over their coming-of-age under the protection of their “slightly too perfect” mother, all the while being innocently protected by the unassuming boy-next-door. Not exactly my kind of story.

But it’s my daughter’s kind of story. She’s the quintessence of a little woman. I think, perhaps, she was born in the wrong era, often bemoaning the fact that her mother lacks proper domestic graces. It would suit her nicely to wake at dawn, practice her recitations, attend to the farm animals, complete school by noon, begin her fine art lessons after lunch, have tea in the afternoon, frolic by the creek bank till a formal dinner, and commune with her family all evening long.  No such luck. She has an incredibly flawed and human mother instead. My daughter is the littlest of women, and will, indeed make a very happy homemaker one day. So I read it alongside her.

And I’m glad I did. Because I had Little Women all wrong.

It’s not that Little Women is free of didactic rhetoric. In fact, it’s quite overflowing with tidbits of  wisdom. What strikes me as odd, is that Louisa May Alcott makes very little attempt to hide her lectures to young ladies. Many novels carry messages of proper behavior, but rarely are they so overt. At the end of many chapters, Marmee, the girls’ beloved mother, turns the girls’ experiences into mini-sermonettes. The girls are often contrite and determined to once again move onto the narrow path. But the moralizing that is done is appropriate, clear, and upfront.  Alcott’s candor is right on the money considering her target audience.

No character needed Marmee’s continual redirection more than the novel’s heroine Jo. Alcott was careful in her character development, keeping the March girls strict, flat, and predictable. Not so with Jo. She was a loose cannon. Okay, it’s possible that her imperfections were too predictable, but without her, the entire story would fail to resonate with the vast majority of women I actually know. It’s unnecessary to unpack the story line. Suffice it to say, however, that it’s a relief to know scatter-brained, stubborn, unorganized dreamers like Jo have a place in the world of heroes.

So here we go again. It’s a theme: being a hero isn’t about being perfect. It’s about celebrating and working through imperfections. Thank Goodness. Because after all, I think most of us are just a little like Jo.

Little Women does, after all, deserve a place in My Musty Study.

English: Signature of CS Lewis.

Image via Wikipedia

I have a date with CS Lewis. It will be happening in about fifty years or so (I hope no sooner). In heaven, I assume that my watch will measure decades as seconds and centuries as hours. So an hour or two for tea will do just fine with Clive Staples (yes, we will be on a first name basis, thank you).

I cannot pretend to be a Lewis expert. I am not. I cannot claim to have read all of his books. I have not. But his words touch me in the deepest of ways. I normally devour books; perfectly incapable of incremental reading, I often neglect the all-important laundry, dusting, and (yes) cooking in favor of the alternate universe found in my favorite stories. But CS Lewis’ words in books like Pilgrim’s Regress, or The Great Divorce give me great pause. Even The Screwtape Letters makes me contemplative. So instead of rushing through these books, I’ve taken them in doses so as to allow myself time for proper mental digestion.

But not the case with the Narnia series. Somehow, in these book written for children, Lewis manages to insert his trademark insight. Simple to understand and devoid of his addiction to obscure literary allusion (albeit full of classical characters), the Narnia series nevertheless carries great weight and succeeds in delivering Lewis’ poignant message seamlessly.

Let me confess that I recently read this series with no particular professional or scholarly goal in mind. I read these books alongside my daughter as a project for her literary education. No agenda. Just fun, easy reading. We talked together of Aslan, the lion who Lewis dubs “good but not tame,” the other talking animals whose intelligence exceeds that of many humans we currently know, wayward children set straight by Narnia, and of course, the best part: magic.

My eleven-year-old daughter and I began to wonder: why do the children in this series “outgrow” Narnia? Surely Lewis had his reasons for excluding adults from this world. I am reminded that childlike faith is the best faith. There seem to be only two times in life when the veil is truly lifted between the spiritual realm and the physical: at the beginning and end of life.  But I don’t want to live in the middle.

No, I don’t want my appointment with C.S. Lewis to come tomorrow, but I do want to be able to gaze into Narnia. I want to look with my daughter’s eyes at the world around me, and realize that just perhaps, as Lewis notes, we are only living in the Shadowlands. It is with these eyes that I hope to one day reflect upon my time on earth, where this moment will seem only but a dream.

-Signing off from The Musty Study-

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by the Spanish ar...

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Okay, how hilarious is this guy anyway? Oh my goodness if Don Quixote lived today, I think he would be my favorite person ever. What exactly would a modern day Don Quixote “look” like?

If you are familiar with the book, you know that Don Quixote is a delusional dreamer. His sidekick, Sancho is the pragmatic realist. This HILARIOUS episodic novel is filled with INSANELY comical scenarios involving these perfectly complementary fellows. To prepare for the novel, my students and I have a blast looking at ink blots, comparing notes on what we “saw” in them. Obviously, no two people saw the same thing. The question, is WHY?

Our lives are highly influenced by our perceptions. Ten people can be in the same room, and each one sees, experiences, and interacts with their circumstances differently. Don Quixote and Sancho can both look at a building on the Spanish countryside. Where Don Quixote sees a castle, Sancho sees an inn. One person must be wrong…RIGHT?  In order to answer this question, we must explore the characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Sancho Panza is a simple country peasant. A pragmatic realist, Sancho has not only endured as a Spanish peasant, he has thrived. He knows and understands reality, because he has lived with it every day. He is a very “black and white” character. This is a man who has no notion of our modern motto: “Dare to Dream!” Agreeing to an adventure with Don Quixote is a big step for this adorable little man.

Sancho’s firm grasp on the “here and now” stands in stark contrast to Don Quixote’s visionary mentality. Don Quixote’s sleep deprivation and obsession with chivalrous romance novels has transformed Don Quixote from a respectable nobleman into a laughable maniac. His adventures in knight-errantry in an age where the knights no longer roam the Spanish countryside protecting the helpless and forgotten prove to be entertainment and hardship for those whom he “rescues.” Sancho tries to make Don Quixote “really” see what is in his world, but Don Quixote is convinced that his delusions are reality, and those around him are viewing an enchanted world that hides the “truth” from their uneducated, insensitive eyes.

If we all interact in the same world, why is it that our perceptions influence our understanding of reality? It seems that Cervantes wanted us to ask ourselves this question. If Sancho is a realist and Don Quixote is a dreamer, what is it that makes their partnership work? Clearly, Sancho is inspired and captivated at times by Don Quixote’s view of the world. He is often doubtful of Don Quixote’s perceptions, but he chooses to trust him. He gains hope and takes risks. In the same way, Don Quixote learns to place a measure of faith in his loyal servant. Sancho’s commitment to Don Quixote allows him multiple opportunities to gently coax Don Quixote in the right direction.

There must be a balance between the “realistic” view of the world, and the view embraced by a “dreamer.” Ultimately, however, the message is clear. It is always more noble to operate out of ideals rather than “reality.”  This simple message makes Don Quixote an important book to keep on the shelves of My Musty Study.

My Musty Study is getting a bit dusty. For Valentines Day, I was given the gift of a “clean hip.” Thanks to the wonders of artroscopic surgery, I had an old running injury repaired. Hydrocodone – laced days have interfered with my graduate work and reading focus; but within the next couple of weeks, I plan to bring my books back off of their shelves. Until then, happy reading!

Author Nathaniel Hawthorne had close ties to A...

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Hester Prynne.

The Scarlet Letter: a symbol of shame. I’ve read Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s book multiple times. Oh how I adore the language. I love the symbolism, the poetic prose, and the heart-wrenching characterization. Hollywood has done a great job of making the letter “A” a cultural icon, but after multiple years of considering its significance, I wonder if we have, yet again, missed the point. It’s not about the “horrible” Puritans; it’s about the wonderful Hester Prynne. 

It is no secret that Nathaniel Hawthorne was not a fan of the Puritans. He sought to break free from the cultural ties that bound him to his ancestors. Seeing the extreme behavior of a few sects, Puritans have been villainized for centuries. And Hawthorne hasn’t helped the cause. Even still, I don’t see The Scarlet Letter as a book primarily about the hypocrisy of the Puritans; it should be seen as a story about the graciousness of Hester Prynne.

The Puritans of Boston were extremely unkind to Hester Prynne. Their judgement and condescension was horribly unacceptable. But she kept loving them. She was at every deathbed. Her humble position in society made her a friend to the lowly. Her position as an outcast meant that she had no “airs” to keep. She was in a favorable position. Even though it seems contradictory, her position of humility actually gave Hester a chance to truly be a heroine.

Every heroine needs a foil. And for Hester, that foil was embodied in the people of Boston. Hester was a “ruined” woman, and that status made her an unacceptable companion. Ironically, it made her capable of seeing the sins of others, and yet to look upon them with mercy.  In a sense, she was the perfect candidate for counselor and friend.

The storyline of The Scarlet Letter is fairly simple. Hester is released from prison with her young child. Having become impregnated out-of-wedlock, she is called upon to name the father. She will not betray him. As she stands looking into the crowd, she sees her husband: a man she had not seen for several years. She now faces a private battle as well as a public one. Chillingworth, her husband, commands her to keep his presence a secret. He plots to discover the father of the child: the man responsible for making his wife an adulteress. And he does. Through psychological torture, he slowly kills Hester’s lover.

Hester remains stalwart: strong but not proud, determined but not stubborn. She teaches us how to face adversity, and she shows us how to face the consequences of our actions with grace. She shows us her character, not by how she gives herself respect, but by the continued respect that she gives to others: even her tormenters.

Again, I’m blown away. I meet a heroine in the pages of a book that keeps “turning the other cheek.”  By openly confessing her wrongs (What choice did she have?), Hester is free to look outwardly instead of protecting a secret within her soul. The father of her child? No such luck. By refusing to expose his public “shame,” he dies from guilt.

Secret shame. An impossible burden to bear. I look to Hester as an example. She is doomed to publicly bear her shame by force, but her willful determination to remain strong makes her a heroine. There is a heroine I can admire. She’s just like me: imperfect.

Hawthorne got it right. Hester is my heroine of choice and her story will forever remain in my musty study.

line art drawing of candlestick.

Image via Wikipedia

It’s a story about candlesticks.

No, really.

Jean Valjean, a hardened criminal, is released from prison. He has served nineteen years for a heinous crime: he stole a loaf of bread. Okay, Okay. He also tried to escape multiple times. But can you blame the guy? Valjean is blessed with freakish strength and agility, so escape was easy. Freedom? That was hard.

When he finally was released from prison, Valjean hoped to gain that elusive freedom. But with a reputation of criminality and a hardened aspect from years of harsh treatment, Valjean was hard pressed to find solace in society. Finally, Valjean found his break. When he stole silver from the Bishop of Digne, Valjean knew he would have the funds he needed to establish himself in society. But when he was caught, he was doomed.

It’s time for the candlesticks to make their grand appearance.

The bishop shocks us when, instead of prosecuting Valjean, he insists to the authorities that he himself gave Valjean the silver. And he freely offers Valjean the candlesticks too.  In the presence of witnesses, the bishop purchases Valjean’s freedom. He is made an honest man through another man’s sacrifice. It is unmerited, it is undeserved, and it embodies both mercy and grace. Mercy came when he was not given the punishment he deserved for theft, and grace came when he was given something he didn’t deserve: the candlesticks.

Valjean spends the remainder of his life working to offer others that same type of merciful grace. By contrast, Valjean’s antagonist Javert seeks justice. Rules must be followed. Laws must be enforced. What is mercy? What is grace? To Javert, they don’t exist.

The book is thick, daunting, and maybe a little frightening. But Hugo’s message has been so well-received, that countless plays, movies, and adaptations have been made. I’ve only shared the beginning of Valjean’s journey, because with the giving of the candlesticks, his life began.

I wonder what candlesticks I have to offer today? When I’ve been wronged, I can usually find it in my heart to offer forgiveness. With a lot of work and plenty of prayers, I can justify the actions of the offender. I can close that chapter of my life and move on. But to offer a gift? To GIVE to someone who has TAKEN from me? No. It’s not something that comes easily. I’ll be honest. It doesn’t even cross my mind.

Hugo asked more from his readers. He gave us an unexpected hero in the criminal Jean Valjean.  He was a selfless man motivated by his own humble weaknesses. Valjean kept giving when others were taking. He didn’t seek revenge, and he only sought to bring healing by continual giving.

It all started with candlesticks.

I look around me. I’ve got plenty of candlesticks in my life. They are things that I dare not live without. I might give them to a friend. But give them to an enemy? Wow. I just don’t know if I could.

So I’m challenged and motivated by Valjean.  Hugo knew that Valjean needed inspiration, and that inspiration came from the bishop. A former aristocrat, the Bishop of Digne returned to France after the French Revolution committed to the cloth. He traveled into the mountains among thieves and hardened men; he cared not. He served with abandon, for his life was not his own. His candlesticks weren’t his own. He said they belonged to God.

True heroes need the ability to let go. Their personal needs are secondary to the needs of the hurting, lonely, hardened, or oppressed. Valjean needed rescuing from himself. He needed to be set free. Who knew candlesticks could change a man’s life?

Les Miserables sits in my musty study. The tear-stained pages testify to its importance. It will forever remain. . . right next to my silver candlesticks.


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