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The Trouble With Goats And Sheep: Who Started The Fire?

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This is a question I had right up until the end of the book, in fact in a way I was still asking it after the closing pages. Cannon is both cunningly opaque – if you’ll forgive my 7am workday phrasing – and obvious, a not unclever mix that manages to be both literarily inspiring and literally frustrating.

Firstly, it’s best to put the fire in context: why was it started? The inevitable answer is that it was to cause damage to Walter. How much damage can’t be guessed, exactly, but we can assume that whilst some people wanted harm to befall him, whether it be verbal harm enough to cause him to leave of some sort of physical injury, the person who actually caused the fire was wanting devastation.

Why Walter? Because he was different. The residents didn’t understand him – nowadays we might say he is a bit odd, and the description ‘autistic’ would probably get throw around somewhere. Due to their lack of understanding, the neighbours thought he was nefarious and a threat to their children.

Who, then started the fire? It isn’t until the very end that Cannon relents and gives you a bit to go on – Mrs Forbes tells Sheila Dakin that she knew someone was in Walter’s house when everyone thought it empty, and then comes the blackmail: the photographs might be gone, but she’ll remember what was there. Mrs Forbes has something on Sheila and if Sheila doesn’t want it widely known she’d better stay mum about Mrs Forbes’ lighting the fire. Page 450 of the paperback version; the first line refers to Mrs Forbes’ cat being scared by Walter’s taxi:

‘Nasty taxi, scaring you off like that.’
Mrs Forbes kneaded Whiskey back again.
Sheila Dakin was frowning at her. ‘What taxi was that, Dot?’
‘The one that brought Walter and his mother home.’ Mrs Forbes carried on kneading, and gave more kisses to the top of Whiskey’s head. ‘I said to Margaret, it’s no wonder he ran off. Big, scary car like that, pulling up in the avenue in the middle of the night.’
‘You knew she was in the house?’ said Mrs Dakin.
Mrs Forbes smiled, ‘I thought they both were,’ she said.

…And then Mrs Forbes talks about photographs being gone but memories staying.

We know it was Mrs Forbes, beyond the above, because of the way Walter’s tea towels are found folded up on the range – Cannon talks about tea towels a couple of times in the book, providing a hint, but at those points it’s difficult to see any relevance, particularly as everyone in the book is… particular. Walter tells Grace and Tilly about the way he keeps his tea towels, and that doesn’t involve folding them. Later on we see Mrs Forbes’ tea towels in her home, folded neatly.

Mrs Forbes knew both Walter and his mother – not all that much older, it seems, than Mrs Forbes herself, and most certainly innocent – were in the house, and was angry enough about the situation the residents had constructed to kill.

The one saving grace is that it turns out the other residents weren’t thinking that far – well, if it can be called a saving grace.

Further Thoughts On To Kill A Mockingbird

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Whilst reading To Kill A Mockingbird, I couldn’t help but wonder if the character of Dil was inspired by Truman Capote; Capote and Lee knew each of as children, and there is this quotation from Capote, included on the back of my addition of Lee’s book:

“Someone rare has written this very fine novel, a writer with the liveliest sense of life and the warmest, most authentic humour. A touching book; and so funny, so likeable.”

I didn’t know until halfway through reading the book, wherein I read up about the background of it – that Truman Capote was a friend of Harper Lee’s. Beforehand I’d wondered at the point of a present-day edition including that quote because Capote’s opinion here misses the point of the book and I wondered if there was something to be said of that, a conscious missing of the main point of the book, given the time it was written in and the time it was written about, but the friendship makes more sense, with Capote focusing on the style of the book and Lee’s personality, what he would have liked about her. The tone of it, whilst inevitably biased, is interesting in a literary study sense.

On a different note entirely, as I read more about Lee’s life and the way her book was influenced by her father’s involvement in a similar case to that looked at in the text, I wondered about the reasons for Lee writing it. The possibilities in the way she chose to set it with Scout at the age she had been when her father was working. Is it a novel of ‘what if’ in the sense that Lee would have liked to do more in her position, in the way she involves Scout? Is it simply that she wanted to bring her father’s work to light, to a bigger number of people to show them what happened? Lee said that her book was not autobiographical but clearly, there is something there, the comparisons to be made are too many. Does her reticence on the similarly point to her general shying from the spotlight? Did she simply want more time spent on the text than on her life, albeit that more time on her might have brought more attention to her father’s case? Maybe she wanted people to think generally, and look for commonality between her book and America in general rather than focus on one case.

I read Lee’s book around the same time as I read Kate Chopin’s Bayou Folk story collection and it’s interesting to compare the ways the writers wrote about race, Chopin’s general thoughts of equality (given her time) not being dissimilar. What struck me particularly was In Sabine for its inclusion of a free black man choosing to help a ‘Cajun woman’, married to a ‘white man’ (phrasing the white man uses) with the chores. There is nothing here of Lee’s story beyond this factor, but reading the stories together, it strikes you that, particularly given the ‘white man’s’ stereotyping something could have happened. His wife does not seem happy to be married to him and the narrator, a visitor, notes how much she has changed.

It may have been due to expectation or simply that I didn’t know the book followed a child, but I found it less involved than I thought it would be, less about the courtroom, though the added narrative of difference was a good find. I did think there would be more ‘action’ but it was enjoyable for what it was. Certainly the autobiographical nature of it impressed me. Lee involves all types of people (well, to an extent, in keeping with the time).

This post feels very me-centric, more than usual in terms of Further Thoughts, but it fits the general background context in which I approached the book; not the most concrete of expectations, but enough that it got me thinking. For all the ‘lack’ of action, though, I loved the quietness of it, the slowly unfurling nature of what is transpiring – even if it’s easier for the reader and you have to wait for Scout to understand. And I think there’s something special in the way Scout is recounting the story at an older age, with the benefit of hindsight but also the innocence of childhood mixed in.

What do you think of Lee’s book, or if you haven’t read it, do you plan to?

Further Thoughts On Kate Chopin’s Désirée’s Baby

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I found Désirée’s Baby rather profound, which somewhat surprises me due to the similarity between its ending and the ending of The Awakening – one would have thought it wouldn’t seem so shocking given both the similarity of the actions and the similarity between the reasons. Away from that, I think it’s far to say that many, many people like the story.

One of the biggest questions regards Armand’s background and behaviour. The Kate Chopin International Society’s website describes the likelihood of Armand having black mistresses, quoting:

“And the way he cries,” went on Désirée, “is deafening. Armand heard him the other day as far away as La Blanche’s cabin.”

The site says that this could be evidence of Armand’s affairs with black women – La Blanche is one of the women on the estate. Significantly, however, they remind us that all we have to go by are Chopin’s words. They also quote this:

One of La Blanche’s little quadroons…

Who knows what Chopin meant exactly, but this is the point when Désirée starts to worry and it seems she is literally putting two and two together – the site suggests Désirée’s baby is also a ‘quadroon’, a person who is a quarter black, and that perhaps Désirée also spots a likeness between La Blanche’s child and her own, facially.

Beyond the site’s ideas of family connection, Désirée has seen something in her baby’s skin tone that wasn’t noticeable before and with Valmondé having already pointed out a change – we can assume this is the baby’s skin colour – it’s possible that what Désirée notices is that resemblance to La Blanche’s son. We can assume that for whatever reason at birth, it was not noticed.

Then Armand’s opinion and behaviour:

“It means,” he answered lightly, “that the child is not white; it means you are not white.”

We don’t know much about Armand, but this assumption, if we can be so kind to call it thus, fits in with the age-old idea that a woman is at fault for the sex of a baby being female – it’s Désirée’s fault the baby isn’t white; her lack of known heritage means it’s her problem.

What’s particularly interesting is how Désirée chooses death in a similar fashion to Edna Pontellier. Although for different reasons, both have been rejected. Désirée does not take the offer of moving back to her adopted parents’ home. Was her mother’s feeling that something was off, and the offer of returning home, due to knowledge of Armand that Désirée didn’t have?

And is there anything in the eeriness of Armand’s house? We can possibly see lies there, a foreboding, and a metaphor for his personality, which the International Society says could have been dark, pointing to the details about his father and the difference cited between father and son.

In burning his wife and child’s possessions, Armand effectively and symbolically throws away his own heritage. We do not know if he knew about his heritage prior to this, and indeed the reading is more profound if we consider it was a revelation to him upon discovery of the letter, but it’s possible he did and that he’s doing his best to ‘pass’; a subject recently studied by Helen Oyeyemi. In wondering if Armand knew, we can look to this:

…the unconscious injury she had brought upon his home and name…

Is injury a strong enough word for Désirée has supposedly done?

Beyond this tragedy is another: when Valmondé says to return she doesn’t refute Désirée’s fear. In terms of what Chopin was saying, it’s fair to say Valmondé didn’t think Désirée was black and that her lack of acknowledgement of that is a device that allows Chopin to create the ending. Had Valmondé addressed the question she may have saved Désirée’s life.

Désirée meets her death whilst looking angelic:

…her hair was uncovered and the sun’s rays brought a golden gleam from its brown meshes

She has feet ‘delicately shod’ and a ‘thin white garment’ that’s been torn by her journey. And she ‘disappeared among the reeds and willows’ – symbolic, perhaps, as the baby’s cradle, we learn shortly afterwards, was made of willow and that cradle also ‘dies’.

Of Armand’s possible discovery – rather than reminder – of his heritage, all Chopin says is this:

There was a remnant of one back in the drawer from which he took them. But it was not Désirée’s; it was part of an old letter from his mother to his father. He read it.

He read it – Chopin says that, and ‘dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery’.

The jury’s out but we can assume if it was in the back of the drawer and a remnant, it could have been there since the days of his father, because otherwise the question is what happened to the rest of the letter and why did Armand keep only that bit?

Tender Is The Night And ‘Do You Mind If I Pull Back The Curtain?’

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As I’ve stated a few times recently (so I will spare you repeated details) I’ve had trouble with Tender Is The Night but I’m currently giving it another go and it’s started to ‘work’, a bit; after a few dozen pages of good, linear, writing, that started around page 100 (a lot of people say that’s when it gets better and they’re right), it has unfortunately gone backwards towards relative incoherence.

I’ve noticed a repetition of a couple of lines that I want to explore, however I’m going to keep it brief; I think it has the potential to be fascinating but in acknowledging my lack of full attention to the text I feel it’s only right for me to stay away from my usual brainstorming of ideas and reasons. Anything too detailed and I know I will be running the risk of getting it horribly wrong.

The repetition is this: about a third of the way through there are a couple of times when the following is said:

-Do you mind if I pull down the curtain?
-Please do it’s too light in here.

Leaving the question of whether this is where the spurning of quotation marks first began (it seems Fitzgerald uses them to denote flashbacks), where these two lines become important is in their next repetition just after the halfway mark.

The first time the lines are used is during ‘book one’ (the ‘books’ are Fitzgerald’s designations within the ~300 page novel), a time when Dick is spending time with the young actress Rosemary Hoyt. Collis Clay, a friend of Rosemary’s tells Dick a story about Rosemary’s relationship with a young man. This makes Dick jealous. I have paraphrased this summary from a blog about reading Fitzgerald’s work; the writer says:

Throughout the novel this quote has practically haunted Dick. When he first heard the story Dick became extremely jealous because he was just beginning to fall in love with Rosemary. In the book whenever Dick is with Rosemary or thinking about her this quote is often repeated. It reveals Dick’s concealed love that he has for Rosemary.

The idea of haunting is a strong one. ‘Book two’ details Nicole’s time in a sanatorium – this plotline is based on Fitzgerald’s relationship with Zelda – before reverting back to the present day. It’s when Fitzgerald reverts back that we see that despite Rosemary’s moving on (in location) and Dick’s outward show of relative contentment with it, he’s been set adrift.

But whether rightly or wrongly, in context with what I’ve said above, I saw a possible other reason for the lines being used. As I made my way along the page and the quote cropped up as a repetition, I considered it a dialogue between Nicole and Dick, with Nicole asking the question, and that it was a show of Dick’s relationships in general.

I wonder if the reality is somewhere between the two, with more weight given to the idea of haunting. I wonder if Nicole did ask and that Fitzgerald’s usage of the extract same words is to ask you to consider Dick’s time with Rosemary, both for Dick as a flashback, and for the reader as a way of making them question and consider it in a literary way, perhaps as a device, in the way I am now, I suppose!

Dick is definitely in a situation. He became involved with Nicole whilst he was her doctor (or one of her doctors – I couldn’t quite make that out) and whilst Fitzgerald takes a peek at the questions of morality, more so simple appropriateness and Dick’s general interest, Dick feels some pressure due to the fact that Nicole’s family is openly looking for a rich suitor for her, to match her own wealth. He’s not exactly out of love with Nicole by the time he meets Rosemary, in fact in many ways he’s very loyal, but Rosemary’s fun and really likes him and so by book two we’re seeing that this new affair echoes the beginnings of his marriage and that he’s fallen in love with Rosemary, far beyond the feelings it appeared he had for her in book one.

I wonder if there isn’t a comparison we’re supposed to make; the age gap between Dick and Rosemary and the care/carer giver ‘gap’ between Dick and Nicole is obvious, but the journey of Dick’s feelings aren’t so obvious, rendering it necessary for Fitzgerald to reuse a quotation.

Speaking of obviousness, it’s obvious why I like this thought by Happy Antipodean:

It’s not clear what he wants us to think when he repeats “— Do you mind if I pull down the curtain?” but it is clearly a refrain that relates to Dick’s predicament while, in Paris, he negotiates his feelings. But this unsuccessful ploy underlines, as much as the historical references that are opaque now, the period of the book’s inception. A conscious effort on the part of the author to elicit modernity.

But I think the ‘it’s not clear’ is very much… it. To move on to my thoughts whilst reading the book in general, part of the problem with analysing the book is that you have to take into account the fact that the chapters have been re-ordered over time. The Wikipedia page says this (accessed 12th June 2017), unfortunately without a source, though it seems well-known:

Two versions of the novel are in print. The first version, published in 1934, uses flashbacks; the second, revised version, prepared by Fitzgerald’s friend and noted critic Malcolm Cowley on the basis of notes for a revision left by Fitzgerald, is ordered chronologically and was first published posthumously in 1948. Critics have suggested that Cowley’s revision was undertaken due to negative reviews of the temporal structure of the first version of the book.

The version I’m reading is the first edition – it says so at the end, and it also says that that is the one now in use with the caveat that some revisions have been incorporated. I expect this is one of the noted-in-a-few-places 17 versions.

Whichever it is, the chapter order is a large part of why it’s hard to concentrate on this novel. You never know where you are and sometimes you don’t know who you’re reading about. Even when you know who, you can’t form an opinion because there’s not nearly enough to work with. Perhaps this adds a literary element to the fact the novel is steeped in Fitzgerald’s own life and experiences, but it makes it difficult. The next line following the above extract is incredibly interesting though again sadly uncredited:

Fitzgerald considered Tender Is the Night to be his greatest work.

Why – personally I can only suppose the melding of true life and fiction seems very good in some contexts. Perhaps those with in depth knowledge of Scott and Zelda can appreciate the nuances, but I do wonder if the chronological version of the book works better.

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think of the structure, or, if not, are you planning to read it?

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: Rings, Umbrellas, And Possession

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They say re-reading shows you things you didn’t notice before. Whilst I was searching through The Awakening for mentions of the theme I wanted to write about, I read the following from the start of the book:

“You are burnt beyond recognition,” he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage. She held up her hands, strong, shapely hands, and surveyed them critically, drawing up her fawn sleeves above the wrists. Looking at them reminded her of her rings, which she had given to her husband before leaving for the beach. She silently reached out to him, and he, understanding, took the rings from his vest pocket and dropped them into her open palm.

When I read the book a couple of years ago I was constantly looking at the whole; I’d heard a lot about how good it was but had avoided spoilers, so I suppose I was reasonably overwhelmed by details (as we all are when reading a new book) and focusing on what most appealed to me at that time – the ending. Now, this time, it’s the above passage that strikes me.

It was Chopin’s obvious ‘this is what’s happening reader’ that caught me, that description of Léonce looking at Edna. It introduces the theme of the rest of the paragraph. It’s blunt. In the context of its time it’s very bold. And while it’s fiction, we know from history that it fits the social convention of the time. You get the feeling Léonce may not be able to take Edna out with him in public without cringing a little whilst she remains burned, even if it’s a normal everyday occurrence in summer and happens to everyone. But mostly it’s that idea, ‘this happens’, that’s important and the way the author is setting the tone for the rest of the book. (I find this particularly intriguing because Léonce may not be the best person but throughout the novel he’s much better than some.)

Then the passing of rings. Symbolically, in an objective sense, Edna putting her hand out for her rings, and Léonce giving them to her, suggests marriage, which it does. But it does more – Edna looks at herself in recognition of Léonce’s description of her burnt skin which turns into a transaction of rings which adds an active movement to back up Chopin’s previous sentence on property. We also have Edna ‘silently reached out to him’ and Léonce ‘understanding’ – good communion, perhaps, and also showing the back and forth of power, almost, between them. It’s not a bad relationship and they understand each other, and Edna has power as much as Léonce, but still, through all this, Chopin shows an aspect of social submission – at the beach, with Robert, possibly doing something she shouldn’t (and characters do suggest throughout that Léonce is too lenient), Edna did not wear her rings. Once back with Léonce, she takes them back, conforming to expectations, reverting to her role as a wife. And she did not ask or take them. And all this fits neatly into an objective and general reasoning that could be given if we were to say that it’s just a story – rings in water get rusty. (Perhaps there’s something to that, too, a saving of something, but I reckon that is veering into over-thinking.) And those hands of hers are ‘strong, shapely’ – a capable person.

Edna gets back her rings ‘which she had given to her husband before leaving for the beach’. The beach is out of bounds in their marriage. As we know from the way the sea is portrayed, Edna is herself, an individual with choices, when by the water. And Léonce kept them in his pocket.

Léonce asks if Robert wants to join him at billiards and Robert says he’ll stay put, which is fine with Léonce, who suggests Edna send Robert along when she’s bored of him. Then this:

“Here, take the umbrella,” she exclaimed, holding it out to him. He accepted the sunshade, and lifting it over his head descended the steps and walked away.

This is particularly poignant because it stresses the fact that whilst the Pontelliers conform to society, there is kindness there and communication – at least where regular everyday things are concerned (of course Edna’s later independence isn’t so good in this respect). A basic show of caring that doubles as a response to the rings – this time Edna gives something to Léonce and whilst it’s not a possessive item as the rings are, and possibly shows caring that he not become burned in the way he obviously disagrees with, it effectively moves the show of possession back to Edna’s court. And it also perhaps furthers the idea of Edna’s independent, individual, self.

When I started thinking about this scene and what it meant, I saw a lot about social norms and little yet of Edna’s independence beyond her time with Robert but the more you read the more you see Chopin laying the groundwork straight away. I wonder how the thoughts I had, the progression of them, would match a person of the time – I’m guessing the independence, the shocking independence, would’ve been clearer earlier.


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