review: the unicorn

The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch (1963)

“Everyone here is involved in guilt.”

The Unicorn is the first novel by Iris Murdoch that I have read.  The narrative weaves in elements of the Gothic, the allegorical, and the mythical, and it does so within the framework of suspense.  There’s a lot going on in this novel, and by the end, Murdoch leaves it up to the reader to determine what it all means.  Some readers will be frustrated by Murdoch’s ambiguity and that the meaning of the story is open to a wide variety of interpretations.

The story begins when Marian Taylor, a thirty-year-old former schoolteacher, arrives at Gaze Castle to perform the duties of governess.  When she arrives, she learns that she is not to be a governess, but instead a lady’s companion to Hannah Crean-Smith, owner of the big house in what is presumably the Irish countryside.  Gaze and the surrounding lands are repeatedly characterized as being ancient, alien, and isolating, and its inhabitants and their ways are more akin to people living in medieval times, not a mid-20th century Western society.  Perhaps the epitome of this is that upon Marian’s arrival at the train station, she searches for a way to get to Gaze and someone recommends that she travel there by horse.  Arriving at Gaze is like going back in time, and it frightens Marian.  What worries her most though is the revelation that for the last seven years, Hannah has been effectively imprisoned at Gaze by her husband, Peter Crean-Smith.  The other inhabitants of the house—Gerald Scottow, Violet Evercreech, Jamesie Evercreech, and Denis Nolan—are her jailers.  Marian wants to help Hannah escape from Gaze, and the question of how to release Hannah from her prison drives much of the plot.

The narrative structure of the novel offers the events of the story through two points of view—Marian’s and Effingham Cooper’s.  Effingham (or Effie) is a frequent visitor at Riders, the only other house within miles of Gaze.  Riders is the home of Effie’s mentor, Max Lejour, and his adult children, Alice and Pip.  Alice has been in love with Effie for years, but he’s paid no attention to her though his egoism is such that he hasn’t spurned her entirely.  Effie, like Marian, is an outsider, and he fancies himself to be in love with Hannah.  Although he is an outsider, he also shares in the guilt of keeping Hannah prisoner in the form of inaction and because he likes the idea of Hannah being sequestered and shut-up, deluding himself into thinking that she is being shut-up just for him.  At last, Marian convinces Effie to help her break Hannah out of the prison-house.  The consequences of this attempt, the reasons for Hannah’s imprisonment, the meaning of Hannah’s suffering, and the ways in which the characters respond to that suffering and see it as being significant, drive the plot to its somewhat ambiguous climax and conclusion.

The title of the novel is an image that finds its figurative representation in the character of Hannah.  Through a conversation between Max and Effie, we are told that the unicorn is a Christ-like image in that it is an innocent creature that is captured and turned into a scapegoat, sacrificed to purge away the sins and crimes of others.  This is the allegorical aspect of the novel, but this is a modern allegory in that the meaning of Hannah’s suffering is not interpreted for us.  As readers we have to decide what her suffering means, if it means anything at all.  Iris Murdoch doesn’t tell readers what to think in this novel, and I like that.  On the other hand, I did find the novel a bit frustrating.  In order to leave the interpretation of the story up to the reader, there has to be a certain level of ambiguity.  It’s that very ambiguity, however, that I find frustrating.  There were several moments when I wasn’t all sure what had just happened or what was going on.  Admittedly, while this irked me, it kept me turning the page, and after finishing the novel, I still find myself thinking about it and puzzling it through and modifying my interpretation of the story.  I’ve always thought that that was one mark of a great book, so on that level the story succeeds in capturing my interest and making me think.

On the other hand, while The Unicorn made me think, I’m not sure how much I liked it.  Because we get the story through two different points of view, there’s an element of psychological realism in the novel. We get to see how everything that is happening is impacting the psyches of both characters.  We spend a lot of time in each person’s head, and so there are a lot of interior monologues throughout the novel, and less dialogue.  I found this to be a bit tedious, though why exactly I can’t say because normally this doesn’t bother me in a novel.  Perhaps I just didn’t find Marian and Effie’s thoughts to be sufficiently interesting, or maybe it’s that I wasn’t as invested in them as characters.  I understand the purpose of multiple points of view, but I wonder if I would have felt more engaged if there had only been one.  When rating this novel elsewhere I gave it two of five stars, and now that it’s time for me to decide whether or not I would recommend it to other readers, I’m still conflicted and undecided.  While I enjoyed teaching this novel in a college literature course and I got good response to it from a handful of students, I don’t think I would recommend it to friends.  In fact, I would recommend a lot of other books before even thinking about The Unicorn.  In the end, I’m glad I can finally say that I’ve read a novel by Iris Murdoch, but I’m not exactly rushing to the bookstore to purchase another.

review: emma

Emma by Jane Austen (1816)

Emma is the second novel by Jane Austen that I have read.  I read Northanger Abbey earlier this year, and after reading it I have to say that I wasn’t sure what all the excitement over Austen was about.  Now that I have read Emma, I finally get it.  If you haven’t ever sampled anything by Jane Austen, I would definitely recommend starting with Emma.

Not surprising, the narrative follows Emma Woodhouse, a twenty-one year old young woman.  The Woodhouses are at the top of the class structure of their little community of Highbury, and the only family on the same level is the Knightleys.  Emma has a nice little fortune—thirty thousand pounds—making her a wonderful match for some eligible bachelor, and yet Emma is resolved upon not marrying, though she enjoys playing matchmaker.  Everyone in Emma’s life—with the exception of family friend, Mr. Knightley—overlook Emma’s faults (specifically, her vanity and her arrogance) but its these faults that will lead her into making a series of miscalculations and errors that drive the plot and create tension and conflict in the novel.  At the start of the story, Miss Taylor—Emma’s former governess and all around lady’s companion—has married and is now Mrs. Weston, and Emma is looking for someone to fill the gap.  She settles upon Harriet Smith, a young woman whose parentage is unknown (making her less marriageable and much lower in social class than Emma), and begins to shape and mould Harriet and play matchmaker for her.  Along with playing matchmaker for Harriet, Emma also becomes infatuated with Mr. Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston’s son.  The cast of characters in this novel is delightful, but especially Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, who is a hypochondriac and does not like to have to leave home.  There are lots of twists and turns in the plot, but it is certainly in the tradition of a comedy of errors that ends in marriage for all of the “good” characters. Readers who want a happy ending won’t be disappointed.

Austen’s usual themes are present in the novel.  She’s interested in social class and the lives of the English gentry and middle class, and she locates the story in the English countryside.  She offers us a coming of age story for her heroine, and that heroine is intelligent but naïve and must learn her place within the structure of society.  I can see why readers would be tempted to call Austen a feminist—Emma is a strong female character who rejects the idea of marriage for herself, and because her father is somewhat of an invalid and a shut-in, she appears to have more power and agency than other 19th century female characters.  But in the end, Austen reinforces the status quo of the patriarchal society she depicts in the novel.  Indeed, the disorder and imbalance within the social structure occur because individuals do not accept or understand their place within that structure.  Only when everyone accepts their position can the social order be restored and everyone get their happy ending.  The characters who continue to resist their position and presume to a higher position are marginalized and ostracized within the community.  So it’s hard for me to say that Austen was actively challenging the oppression of women in early 19th century England.

That being said, I think the novel is delightful, entertaining, and amusing.  Emma may be a snob and selfish and self-possessed, but lots of twenty-one year olds are this way, and she does eventually “grow up” and see the error of her ways.  I loved her character, and as I mentioned above the supporting cast of characters is also strong.  I was interested in everyone’s story, and I was pulled into the various plot threads and invested in how everything was going to turn out.  I have to admit that I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would, and I would definitely read it and teach it again if the opportunity ever arises.

Emma is certainly one of my recommended reads.  It’s light and fun and entertaining, and sometimes that’s exactly what you want from a book.





review: nineteen eighty-four

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

When I started reading Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, I thought to myself “How is it that I haven’t read this book before?”.  It is, after all, responsible for several words within our common, everyday lexicon—Big Brother, the Thought Police, and double-think, to name only a handful. Now that I have finished the novel, my opinion of it has definitely undergone some change.

One thing I discovered by reading the novel is that I didn’t actually know what it was about.  The narrative follows Winston Smith, a thirty-nine year old man who lives in Oceania, one of the three “superpowers” of the world (the other two are Eastasia and Eurasia, and Oceania is constantly at war with one or the other).  Winston works for the Ministry of Truth, and his job is to alter historical records so that the “official history” of Oceania says what Big Brother wants it to say, and so that no evidence exists that could challenge Big Brother’s power.  This includes erasing all traces of the existence of individuals who are guilty of thoughtcrime—that is, having thoughts that are contrary to the collective thinking Big Brother mandates.  That the past is mutable and alterable and that people can be so completely wiped out of existence bothers Winston to the extreme, and this is exacerbated by his memories of the past, which contradict the official history.  What Winston wants is privacy from the constant surveillance he and everyone else in the Party is under, history to be fixed and unchangeable, and to possess absolute control over his mind and thoughts. He wants to know that in his own mind he is free to think what he wants with impunity, and this is exemplified in his desire to always be able to say that two plus two equals four, even when Big Brother would force him to believe that two plus two equals five.  Winston wants freedom of thought, and this puts him into direct opposition with what Big Brother wants—to control the minds and thoughts of all Party members.  In Big Brother’s mind, controlling thought is the royal road to perpetual power.  As the story unfolds, Winston falls into a relationship with Julia and forms a strong attachment to an Inner Party member named O’Brien, whom he believes to be working with a resistance movement to take down Big Brother.  As you might expect, everything that Winston fears the most and yet at the same time longs for occur, and inexorably he is brought to what can only be understood as an inevitable, hopeless conclusion.

Orwell was writing this novel in the years just after World War II had ended, and so that has to be taken into consideration when reading the novel, because otherwise the fatalistic, hopeless tone might be much harder to understand.  The novel is also a dystopia and so the world of Oceania and Winston’s life are intended to be cautionary tales to the reader.  It warns against complacency and suggests that the reward for such complacency is the kind of life that Winston lives. I was also reminded of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and its depiction of death-in-life.  That is precisely the kind of life Winston is living—he is already dead even though his body is still alive.  Perhaps one thing Orwell intends to suggest is that without privacy, without intellectual freedom, the individual is dead. Of course, this is not all Orwell is warning against.  The dangers of propaganda, favoring collective thought over individual thought, and the consequences of a society in a constant state of war are also things he is warning against.  Indeed, the world that Orwell creates in Nineteen Eighty-Four is more than bleak and inhospitable, it is hell on Earth.  Winston’s fate at the end of the novel only makes this hell more intolerable in that there is no chance or hope that anything else could have happened.

I was reading an article about this novel in which the author suggests that the novel perhaps doesn’t deserve its place as a great book that it currently enjoys in the literary canon.  I thought such a statement preposterous. In my experience so much is made of Nineteen Eighty-Four that I couldn’t imagine such a statement being true.  And yet, now that I’ve read the novel, I understand what the writer was saying.  The novel is divided into three parts, and the third part is hard to pin down. It takes place almost entirely within the Ministry of Love (in which political prisoners are tortured) and the story shows us what happens to Winston after he becomes a political prisoner; however, it seems to me that this is where the novel loses its tension.  I stopped caring about what would happen to Winston, and I can’t completely explain why, but I know this lack of tension is one explanation.  What this final section did show was the power of Big Brother and the futility in trying to defy him.  The thing is, I don’t expect a dystopia to only be a cautionary tale.  I expect it to offer some kind of hope or idea for how the kind of world that is being portrayed could be avoided.  Nineteen Eighty-Four does not offer that.  Instead, Winston capitulates, and nothing has changed.  He believes that two plus two equals five, and Big Brother has complete control of his mind and his thoughts. Big Brother has won, and we have no other choice but to believe that his reign will indeed last forever.

My final analysis is that I came into my reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four with a set of assumptions and expectations based upon what I thought I knew about the book.  Maybe my expectations were too high, and that’s why the book feels like a bit of a disappointment.  Still, I would recommend reading the book because I do think it continues to be relevant in the 21st century.