Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Although I have never read Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, I have read the first few pages on, and the uncanny ability for an author to attempt to write about the devastating realities of war when he has never experienced it himself is remarkable. The intricate details embedded in this novella portray the human mind and spirit in the heart of the Civil War. A brief synopsis is given below:

"The story revolves around Henry Fleming, a member of the 304th regiment of the Union Army. At the start of the novel Henry is eager to show his patriotism in battle but when faced with the savagery of death he flees the frontline. Throughout the novel Henry struggles with his courage in the face of the horror of war. The Red Badge of Courage is a classic modern depiction of the psychological turmoil of war from the perspective of an ordinary soldier."

I’m not sure how many people are already familiar with this book, but it appears to be a tremendously interesting and heart-wrenching story that will remain with anyone who reads it. Moreover, it seems especially relevant to our own historical context.

Note: I just wrote about the book below before I realized that it’s not an American novel. So I will just say this is more of a personal recommendation rather than one to be used for class.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, originally published in 1866, has been sitting on my book shelf for awhile now. I’m not sure how many people have already read it, but the general summary on the back of the book is very intriguing:

"A desperate young man plans the perfect crime—the murder of a despicable pawnbroker, an old woman no one loves and whom no one will mourn. Is it not just, he reasons, for a man of genius to commit such a crime, to transgress moral law—if it will ultimately benefit humanity? So begins one of the greatest novels ever written: a powerful psychological study, a terrifying murder mystery, a fascinating detective thriller infused with philosophical, religious, and social commentary.

Raskolnikov, an impoverished student living in a garret in the gloomy slums of St. Petersburg, carries out his grotesque scheme and plunges into a hell of persecution, madness, and terror. Crime and Punishment takes the reader on a journey into the darkest recesses of the criminal and depraved mind, and exposes the soul of a man possessed by both good and evil…a man who cannot escape his own conscience."

I have read Notes From Underground by this author a couple years ago, and I thought he had a very intriguing perspective on life (however dark), and it has stuck with me. This particular novel, based on the synopsis, seems to relate to Joaquin Murieta’s rise above governmental law, and his choice to abide by his own moral code. A subject of ethics is very interesting to me since it’s something that we face every day, sometimes unconsciously, and this novel allows for a critical analysis and interpretation of these more pressing issues. I believe it’s important to choose novels that can, in some way or another, be applied to our own lives.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

gambling with money, love, and death.

Spoiler alert-- just in case you haven't read the rest of the book.

Gambling, and the luck associated with it, consistently appears throughout Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Lily Bart, the beautiful young protagonist, loses her spending money when she gambles at the socialite parties. With the help of Gus Trenor, she also gambles on the stock market. More importantly, Lily gambles on love; instead of accepting a marriage proposal from one of the various suitors, she insists on staying in the "game" so that she can win a “better hand.” In doing this, she pushes her luck to the limits.

This also shines a light on her struggle between the happiness of true love and the happiness of wealth. She values social status and money above all else—even if it means denying her truest friend, and ideal match, Selden. In this novel, money seems to drive the plot, define the characters, and classify their level of power and social rank.

Lily ends up losing a large sum of money in the stock market, finds herself in poverty, unintentionally makes Bertha Dorset an enemy who then spreads hurtful rumors about her, and it even seems like she has an unlucky death. Of these, the latter is most intriguing to me, as Edith Wharton never really clarifies whether Lily meant to overdose on her sleeping medication, or if she only took a little extra because she wanted to sleep longer:

“But this was the verge of delirium... she had never hung so near the dizzy bring of the unreal. Sleep was what she wanted—” (Wharton 361).

“She put out her hand, and measured the soothing drops into a glass; but as she did so, she knew they would be powerless against the supernatural lucidity of her brain. She had long since raised the dose to its highest limit, but tonight she felt she must increase it. She knew she took a slight risk in doing so—she remembered the chemist’s warning. If sleep came at all, it might be a sleep without waking. But after all that was but one change in a hundred: the action of the drug was incalculable, and the addition of a few drops to the regular dose would probably do no more than procure for her the rest she so desperately needed....” (Wharton 362).

Thus it seems it was merely a poor mishap in an extreme desire for rest, but a little earlier than these passages Wharton writes, “It was no longer, however, from the vision of material poverty that she turned with the greatest shrinking. She had a sense of deeper empoverishment—of an inner destitution compared to which outward conditions dwindled into insignificance... it was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the years. That was the feeling which possessed her now—the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spin-drift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them. And as she looked back she saw that there had never been a time when she had had any real relation to life” (Wharton 359).

So, perhaps her death was accidental, but did Lily really care at that point? This last powerful and beautiful passage seems to describe Lily's life as a meaningless existence, in which it may be better for her to die rather than endure this despair, and tragically empty reflections on her life.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


Erich von Stroheim’s dramatic silent film, Greed, was a very interesting visual representation of Frank Norris’ McTeague. The exaggerated facial expressions and gestures added more emotion to the film, but detracted from any realistic qualities of people in general. More than anything, I believe the music was a great contribution to the various themes and movements of the plot. If feelings were sounds, I would say the soundtrack to Greed hit it spot on.

The importance of gold in the novel was not reduced by the film; placing handcrafted tints of color on every gold object was an intriguing method to capture its significance. Norris is using gold to portray the corrupting influence it has on human nature, and I was glad that this symbolism was not abandoned in the movie.

Still, from the clip of the shorter version of the film we watched in class today, I believe that the novel is a superior production of the story. The type of acting necessary to accomplish the same emotions that were conveyed in McTeague made the entire film a little unrealistic. However, I also have to understand my own bias, since I have experienced life from a much different cultural and historical vantage point. This may detract from my ability to fully appreciate the silent film for its true quality. After seeing Avatar in 3D, this kind of movie just doesn’t quite measure up.

Cutting down the film to only about a quarter of the original is disappointing. It is rare to find a director that is eager and willing to produce a movie so close to the storyline of the novel. Although I’m sure none of the major events were eliminated, important secondary characters were probably lost, as well as interesting details that may have provided more insight and depth into the study of human flaws.