literature

Book Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

My children and I have been reading this book together over the course of Advent. We finished the fifth and final chapter just after Mass on Christmas Day. It has been a delightful source of meditation and conversation for the whole family throughout this sacred season. I see an annual Advent reading of Dickens’ masterpiece becoming a family tradition.

I believe the great power of this book lies in its subtlety, as the presence of Christ, the “reason for the season,” as the cliche goes, remains the dominant force in the book while working in and through the background. There are several instances, for example, in which his name is nearly said, yet remains unstated. Bob Cratchit, for example, reports to his wife, upon returning home after a Christmas church service, Tiny Tim had told him he was happy to be at church so that he could be a reminder to others of He who healed the crippled, like himself. Similarly, Peter, Bob’s eldest son, is seen reading a book from which he recites the words “let the little children come unto me,” a reference that Scrooge recognizes but can’t quite place.

All of these subtle reference to the real personality at the heart of the story culminate in one of the greatest understatements in English literature (and English literature is rife with such understatements) when Dickens tells us that, having risen in the morning after his various visions of Christmas spirits, Scrooge “went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying too and fro, and patted the children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure.” He went to church stands at the head of the sentence and is clearly the referent to everything that follows it in the same breathless list of Scrooge’s (quite Christ-like) activities. In only four simple single-syllable words, Dickens has gotten to the heart of things. Scrooge has turned himself to the Savior whose birth we are called to celebrate and, no doubt, communed with him in his Body and Blood, uniting himself with Christ and thereby becoming Christ-like.

The new Scrooge is not merely a kinder, gentler version of the old Scrooge. He has not become “nice.” He has been converted. He has become altogether a new man, born again on Christmas Day by being born into that child born so many hundreds of years ago in Bethlehem.

Translating The Owl and the Nightingale

I have been considering for some time trying my hand at writing poetry, something I did a bit in my late teens but fell away from. I have also been working lately on improving my Old and Middle English. To advance both ends, I have decided to work on a translation of the 12th/13th century Middle English poem The Owl and the Nightingale. If you’re unfamiliar with it, there is a good introduction to it at Wikipedia. To put it shortly, the poem is a debate between an owl and a nightingale over who is better and, by implication, which of the lifestyles each represents is better.

As I add to and change the translation, I will be posting my work on this page, which is also accessible in the link bar at the top of the page. My goal with this translation is to remain faithful to the meaning of the text as well as its rhythm and rhyme. To this end, I will attempt to remain consistent with the iambic tetrameter and aabb rhyme scheme (that is, four-beat lines arranged in couplets) of the original. The text I am working from is that published by E. G. Stanley, which you can find online here. I welcome any comments and corrections you might have to offer along the way.

Book Review: How to Read the Bible as Literature by Leland Ryken

Ryken here offers a very succinct, though not especially engaging, introduction to reading the Bible as literature. His approach to this introduction is thematic, with chapters about, for example, the parables of Jesus, the use of satire in the Bible, and biblical poetry, among other subjects. The final chapter, explaining the literary unity of the Bible, is also very good.

A particularly positive aspect of this book is that through introducing the Bible as literature Ryken provides a book that is a sound introduction to both the Bible and to literature more generally. Because the Bible is such a tremendous compendium of types of literature and, in some sense, the source of nearly every Western story of the past thousand years and more, any exploration of the Bible as literature necessarily is an introduction to Western literature more generally. As a result, even if you are not interested in the Bible in particular, this book is a very worthwhile resource on the centerpiece and source of so much of the Western literary tradition.

The downside of this book is its style. Ryken opts for a very straightforward approach that sometimes seems more like one is reading the outline of a book than a book itself. While this style choice makes this book quite succinct, it also makes it quite dry. My recommendation, for the sake of avoiding tedium as well as because it completes the picture, is to read relevant biblical texts alongside each of the chapters of this book.

Book Review: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Given the importance and widely acknowledged greatness of this book, I would like here, in lieu of a “review” in the traditional sense of the term, to offer instead a few thoughts and comments toward a possible interpretation.

There is a great deal of Christian religious symbolism that runs throughout the book. There is, for example, the wonderfully succinct statement of the shortest chapter of the book, and perhaps the shortest meaningful chapter in all of English-language literature: “My mother is a fish.” The words of a child; simple, yet poignant and bursting with possibilities. What Faulkner has done in this single simple sentence is to turn the symbol of a fish, the ichthys of Christianity, a traditional symbol of the resurrected Christ, into a symbol of the finality of death, of the eternal absence of return. His mother is a fish because, like a fish, her eyes are lifeless, she has been gutted (metaphorically, in the case of the mother), and, of course, she flops around in the water when her casket falls into the river as they attempt to ford it.

It is in this Christian symbolism, I believe, that we can begin to arrive at a possible interpretation of the ostensible insanity of Darl. Darl is not insane in actuality, but is perceived as insane by the others because of his failure to conform to their expectations. He is different. He sees through things, he knows things, and he understands things. He is the only one of the members of the family that sees into the inner worlds of those around him, that is not entirely preoccupied with his own concerns. Dewey Dell even imagines that she has a conversation with him that takes place entirely in the realm of the mind. He penetrates her thoughts, he surpasses her objectivity.

And because he surpasses subjectivity he is frightening to the others. The rest of the family prefers their private obsessions. They do not want to be known. For this reason they have him taken away. They want to be away from his presence and the insight he has into each of them.

If all of this holds, Darl may be seen as a Christ-figure. He behaves in ways that do not meet other’s expectations and so makes them uncomfortable. He understands them perhaps better than they understand themselves, again making them uncomfortable. And he attempts to save them through a means which they do not understand and will not accept. In the end, they send him away because they want so badly to be out of his presence. There are, however, something (quite modern) fundamental differences between Darl and the usual Christ-figure. He is not killed and there is no resurrection; there is, therefore, no redemption.

Chaucer and the inner world of man

The literature of the ancient world, including Mesopotamian works like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Greek works such as the epics of Homer, and the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid, while written about certain great individuals, demonstrate a general lack of interest in the inner life of the individual and of any concern for anything but the greatest of persons. In all three of these outstanding and demonstrative examples, the thoughts and motivations of the heroes are left largely unexplored and the very existence of anyone outside of their ruling warrior class almost entirely ignored. Perhaps most importantly, there is little recognition of the power of the individual to affect his own fate or the circumstances of the world into which he has been placed; rather, even the greatest of individuals is subject entirely to powers beyond their comprehension or control.

In contrast, in the literature of the Middle Ages, there is a trajectory which begins perhaps with Augustine’s monumental autobiography The Confessions and culminates in the works of William Shakespeare. The literature of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance exhibit a more intense and probing interest in the individual than the literature of any previous age, as well one of the fullest recognitions of the power of the individual to shape his own fate and of the value of the perspective of formerly marginalized classes and categories of individuals. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are one of the finest examples of this new awareness of the presence and power of the person.

The Wife of Bath, for example, arguably the most fully developed character in the work, is granted an extended self-examination in her prologue that is nearly twice the length of her tale, which itself is also autobiographical in its moral. In the prologue to her tale, she confesses to her many marriages and engages in an extended self-justification through rather tortuous interpretations of biblical stories and injunctions in an attempt to avoid the cognitive dissonance which might otherwise result from the juxtaposition of her thoroughly medieval piety and her thoroughly human libido. Whereas she, if for no other reason than her sex, might have been a peripheral and easily dismissed character in any ancient work, the treatment of the Wife of Bath by Chaucer is thorough, empathic, and characterized by a refusal to rely on trite cliches and stereotypes. What emerges is a living character far different from anything in previous literature.

The Pardoner, another character in the Canterbury Tales, is a similarly exhibitive example of Chaucer’s ability to enter into and speak on behalf of a variety of subjectivities. While Chaucer’s treatment of the Pardoner is less empathic than is his treatment of the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner is nonetheless granted the opportunity to divulge his innermost thoughts and underlying motivations. His tale, the moral of which is to avoid avarice, the vice which the Pardoner himself is most guilty of, is autobiographical in its demonstration of his hypocrisy. Like the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner becomes a living character with all of the hidden desires, self-justifications, and flaws of an actual person.