Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

It is hard to think of another novel that is famous for both its opening and closing lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”; “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done…”

Those two quotes also represent two poles in Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel: the pole of history and the pole of the individual, the public and private. The personal narrative of Charles Darnay and his family becomes entangled with the public history of the French Revolution, and both narratives play themselves out on a larger allegorical or mythic stage, if you will, of good vs. evil and redemption vs. tragedy.

The message of the historical narrative seems to be that the vengeance of the oppressed is no better than abuse of power by the oppressor, that violence and excess are worse enemies than any particular social class. At the individual level, the message seems to be that while love has the power to redeem, there are those in every social class who are unredeemable. At the allegorical or mythic level, while good may ultimately triumph over evil, there is a terrible price to be paid for that victory.

These broad themes are dramatized in Dickens’ inimitable style of caricature, melodrama, sentimentalism, colorful scene-painting, irresistible humor, and unforgettable pathos. It is easy to see why Dickens had, and has, both popular appeal and literary value. That combination is a rare talent.

One would expect Dickens to sympathize with the downtrodden, but in A Tale of Two Cities he shows the dark side of the French revolutionaries and Republicans as well as of the French aristocracy. He dramatizes the injustice of which both are capable when in positions of power. The Marquis who thinks almost nothing of running down a peasant child under the wheels of his carriage epitomizes the cruelty and arrogance of the ruling class before the Revolution, while the DeFarges and the woman called “the Vengeance” represent the viciousness of the street mobs bent on revenge during the Revolution.

These “unredeemable” characters are balanced by the redeemed: Charles Darnay, son of the aforementioned Marquis, who renounces his aristocratic heritage and goes to London, where he works for a living teaching French; Dr. Manette, who, after years of imprisonment by the ruling class is able, not only to accept Darnay as his daughter’s husband, but also to put himself at risk by defending Darnay in the Republican court when he is arrested simply because of his bloodline while on a trip to Paris to help a friend; and the drunken wastrel Sydney Carton, whose love for Darnay’s wife and Manette’s daughter becomes the redemptive power that enables him to replace Darnay in the prison cell and take his place on the scaffold.

Good and evil are equally to be found in each social class, and while “good,” in the form of democracy and the survival of a loving family, may ultimately triumph, the stage of history is littered with the bodies of good and evil alike who have died in the struggle for freedom and equality.

A Tale of Two Cities is a redemptive novel of political emancipation, personal atonement, and love triumphant, but it does not deny the dark side of human nature or of human history. The opening lines are no mere rhetorical flourish, for the novel vividly dramatizes the days of the French Revolution as, indeed, “the best of times” and “the worst of times…”

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Rainbow

Reading was interrupted when my Nook failed as I was trying to finish this 1915 D.H. Lawrence novel. I ended up reading the last few chapters on the Kindle application on my smartphone. Ah, the joys of e-reading!

I was familiar with Lawrence, having read, and in some cases studied, Sons and Lovers, Women in Love (the sequel to The Rainbow), selected poems, a few short stories, and Studies in Classic American Literature, possibly the most idiosyncratic commentary on American literature ever written. I had also seen the 1969 Ken Russell film of Women in Love, but not the 1989 film of The Rainbow, also directed by Russell.

My undergraduate Modern Fiction professor had engrained in me the habit of reading Lawrence through a Freudian lens, while my graduate professor emphasized the “sense of the numinous” in Lawrence. That counterpoint sums up the experience of grappling with the almost whiplash-like contradictions in Lawrence’s work. As you will see in this blog post, I have added a socio-political lens as well.

On the one hand, the human experience in Lawrence boils down to the biological urge for pleasure and dominance played out in endless power struggles with family, lovers, society at large, and even oneself. On the other, it is nature and natural expression that offers the only hope of redemption in an overly-“civilized," mechanized modern society.

The Rainbow tells the story of three generations of Brangwens: Tom, who marries a Polish widow with a young daughter; Will, Tom’s nephew, who marries Anna, Tom’s step-daughter; and Ursula, eldest daughter of Will and Anna, who pursues a teaching career and has both a female and a male lover. Each character struggles with sexual desire and the urge to dominate in all relationships, whether sexual or not. All the relationships are fraught with conflict, both expressed and repressed. In addition, the characters seek some kind of fulfillment in a society that is bound by tradition, artificiality, alienation, and industrial dehumanization.

In each generation Lawrence dramatizes the relentless Freudian conflicts that, according to Freud, characterize the human condition. Yet, whereas in Freud, these conflicts are never resolved, except in momentary flashes of pleasure or triumph, Lawrence seems to hold out hope of “salvation” in nature, as symbolized, for example, by the rainbow that appears to Ursula in the final scene.

Or, is Ursula simply deluding herself that any kind of redemption is possible? Such are the whiplash contradictions between nature as power struggle and nature as spiritual reservoir.

The first chapter of the novel is a paean to the natural world in rural England, scarred by coal mining to feed the industrial factories and populated by those like the Brangwens who are trapped in the conflict between nature and society, closest to the redemptive power that nature seems to offer, yet yearning for the ego advancement that society can provide.

What is most remarkable to me in The Rainbow is the language that Lawrence creates to represent the teeming energy of the Freudian Id and the awakening of consciousness in his characters. No one before Lawrence had written in such concrete terms of sexual desire, aggression, the will to power, the urge to submit, the longing for unity and transcendence, and the ever incomplete process of growing awareness.

And as that language captures the conflicted tumult of human psychology, it is sometimes difficult to tell when it is the characters’ and when it is Lawrence’s psychology.

Case in point: Ursula’s affair with Winifred is introduced in affirmative terms in a chapter entitled “Shame.” The waning of Ursula’s passion for Winifred is comparable to the ebb and flow of her feelings for Anton, but she looks back on her relationship with Winifred as a death-dealing “side show,” as if it were a freakish affair, unlike the one with Anton. Her feelings of revulsion for Winifred are associated with her growing maturity. Is this Ursula’s homophobia or Lawrence’s or both?

Later, when Anton returns from Africa, telling Ursula about “the strange darkness, the strange, blood fear” and “the blacks,” who “worship…the darkness,” is that Anton’s racism or Lawrence’s or both?

The Rainbow is an iconoclastic novel, challenging Victorian conventions, easy sentimentalism, and British cultural traditions, especially with respect to sex, courtship, marriage, domestic life, women’s roles, and religion. While it boldly depicts a lesbian relationship, it fails to challenge the prevailing homophobic attitudes of its day. And while it seems itself at times to “worship” nature, darkness and all, it also seems to reinforce popular Western imperialistic and ethnocentric views of nature-worshipping “blacks” on the Dark Continent.

These contradictions are perhaps the most difficult for a contemporary, progressive, pro-gay rights, anti-racist reader to grapple with, while a conservative reader, like those in Lawrence’s time who prosecuted it for obscenity and banned it, will be most offended by its open treatment of human sexuality and its Freudian view of human relationships.