Pride and Prejudice (Norton Critical, 4th Ed.)–Goodreads Review

Summary and review of critical back materials; originally posted on Goodreads.

Literally one of the greatest novels ever written, and second only to The Brothers Karamazov, Pride and Prejudice needs no encomium from me.

The Norton Critical edition has some excellent end-of-book criticism, which includes:

D.A. Miller, “No One is Alone,” from Jane Austen; Or the Secret of Style (2003)

Discusses the break between Austen’s style and her characters, with the former being omniscient and the latter being little-knowing. Recounts how Austen’s style developed from reading 18th century writers like Sam Johnson and how she novelized several aspects of their articles. Discusses the paradox of Elizabeth’s marrying Darcy (Miller sees it cynically as an unfortunate contradiction) by supposedly eschewing the very wit (or “impertinence”) that made her unique.

Jeff Nunokawa, “Speechless in Austen,” from Differences 16 (2005)

Discusses the timelessness in Austen (both narration and characters), whose writing seems to have no idea of the enormous cultural changes that arte to come in the 1800s. Nunokawa identifies this confident changelessness as being part of why we read P&P, which, despite readers’ approaching it with nostalgia, has very little actual nostalgia within its pages. Discusses, like Elfenbein below, Austen’s use of space-as-social dynamic. He also contextualizes and discusses silence within P&P, and how Darcy must learn to open up because it is through sociability and inclusion that one succeeds in P&P. In Austen one can only know themselves through social interaction, and so Darcy’s attempting to only speak when he has something perfect or great to say ironically reduces him. Finally, examines the certainty of tone often used by both Austen’s narrator and her characters.

At times syntax/language felt a bit overwrought, but it may be because it’s an excerpt and, its being the first article I read after finishing the novel, I was still reading with Austen’s rhythm.

Andrew Elfenbein, “Austen’s Minimalism,” from The Cambridge Companion to Pride and Prejudice (2013)

Examines how and why Austen leaves out descriptive details; identifies her as not being a realist (as has been said) because of this selectivity. Contextualizes Austen with Johnson’s 18th century advice to make writing timeless by avoiding too many details; shows how Austen nuances this by using detail to enhance beauty of characters/scenes like the then popular picturesque school (which suffuses the book – see Knox-Shaw below). Identifies rooms and the outdoors not as physical places but as identifiers of distance and a context for the social interactions that make up the book. One of the best articles in the edition, both for historical context and argument flow.

Peter Knox-Shaw, “Pride and Prejudice, A Politics of the Picturesque,” from Jane Austen and the Enlightenment (2004)

Identifies the Picturesque as finding a medium between the Burkean-Romantic poles of pacifying Beauty and provoking Sublime. Follows the picturesque as a running metaphor through the book for Elizabeth and Darcy’s love, and thus, for Elizabeth’s breaking of gender stereotypes/politics. Argues that, like the picturesque, Elizabeth’s development depicts a nuancing of (if not campaign against) conventional beauty, while showing that beauty and attractiveness are not synonymous in the book. In conjunction with the other articles on the picturesque, Knox-Shaw’s was one of the more enlightening articles in the material.

Felicia Bonaparte, “Conjecturing Possibilities: Reading and Misreading Texts in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,” from Studies in the Novel 37.2 (2005)

Places Pride and Prejudice within the contemporary philosophical debate between the rationalists and the empiricists. Establishes how Pride and Prejudice identifies Jane Austen as an empiricist in the line of David Hume due to the book’s consistent focus on skepticism regarding secondhand accounts, texts, and assumptions. Stresses how often characters’ epistemology is discovered to be faulty, and how the book encourages a general skepticism regarding first impressions. Argues that the Bennet sisters each, in their own way, undermines one’s ability to interpret reality with certainty, and that Elizabeth’s developing a “practical empiricism” is “the bildung of the novel.” Goes further to argue that Austen was even an early Nietzschean post-modernist in how she incorporates her characters’ mutual and self-reflective interpretations into their construction of, rather than deduction of, reality. Probably my favorite of the edition’s essays, for its historical context and depth of substance, as well as readability.

Vivien Jones, “Feminisms,” from A Companion to Jane Austen (2012)

Argues that, despite her focus on primarily women characters and their circumstances, Austen should not be classed as an early feminist because of her reaffirmation of marriage, which Jones interprets as an endorsement of the patriarchal structure she sees throughout the book. Identifies Austen, rather, as a postfeminist author, who (she thinks mistakenly) argues in her characters and scenarios that the inequalities facing early-19th-century women had largely been dealt with and that many problems experienced by women can be surmounted not by societal revolution and polemic but by individual reflection and reformation. Identifies Elizabeth as being in the vein of Mary Wollstonecraft, but Austen as aligning more with the conservative female writer Hannah More. Accuses Austen of contextualizing the benefits achieved by Wollstonecraft within a conservative/Tory context of twenty years later that reaffirms the social structure. P&P as conservative reinterpretation of previous feminist ideals through the onus for individual, rather than broader social, reform. In my opinion, Jones’s view that Elizabeth’s marriage is a renegging on her previous independence (rather than a full expression of it) misses the point of the book, which his her growth out of her own pride and prejudice.

Janet Todd, “Jane Austen’s Hero,” from The Cambridge Companion to Pride and Prejudice (2013)

Argues that Darcy’s place in society allows him to begin the book as a boor, whereas Elizabeth’s requires her to adapt through the book. Sees Elizabeth as having no individuality in either Darcy or Collins’s eyes. Follows Duckworth’s Marxist reading of the book’s property entail (refuted below by Macpherson), applying it to gender and property. Like Jones above, interprets her growth out of her pride and prejudice as a negative, a product of her social standing and gender, and thus misses the point of the book.

Elsie B. Michie, “Social Distinction in Jane Austen,” from The Vulgar Question of Money: Heiresses, Materialism, and the Novel of Manners from Jane Austen to Henry James (2011)

Interprets P&P as Austen’s attempt to find the proper relation to wealth. Reads book as a response to Hume and Smith’s writings on the problematic effects of wealth on English society. Elizabeth as the opposite of Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine, both of whom present the negative effects of status via inherited wealth (shallow, arrogant, etc). Examines the growth of manners to replace the traditional virtues of the landed aristocracy (both shown in said characters). Points out how Elizabeth’s manners, as well as her disregard for inherited virtue or status, make her attractive despite her lack of apparent beauty. Looks at what Darcy’s growing attraction says about him. A good essay for understanding and contextualizing the different dynamics in the Elizabeth-Lady Catherine interactions, as well as the changing social mores of the time.

Sandra Macpherson, “Rent to Own: or, What’s Entailed in Pride and Prejudice,” from Representations 82 (2003)

Lays out the laws of property entail that undergird the plot—and, Macpherson points out, ironic humor—of P&P. Debunks Duckworth’s Marxist view that the book’s society is structured along class and gender lines (see Todd, above). Showing how entail cannot be blamed on any one person or group, explains the implicit joke in both Mrs. Bennet’s expecting something to be done about the entail and Collins’s continual apology for it (both of which Austen’s readers would have seen as ridiculous jokes). Reads Austen as not being against entail, per se, because it is an image of social obligation, not one of exclusion. Examines Austen’s contrasting renting vs owning as makers of different personalities and virtues (vis Bingley and Darcy). One of the more enlightening, historically based, and easy/fun to read of the back material; possibly my favorite, contending with Bonaparte.

(Skipped Andrew Maunder’s essay because it pertains only to the illustrations in the 1894 edition and the effects they had on P&P interpretation)

Tiffany Potter, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” from Women, Popular Culture, and the Eighteenth Century (2012)

Reads Seth Grahame-Smith’s book/reinterpretation, P&P&Zs, as more than a pulp piggyback off of Austen. Presents book as a concretization of the implicit, unspeakable aspects of P&P, with the zombies being “a literalization of the threat of a social death in spinsterhood…in opposition to the socially constructed life-and-death quality of the marriage plot.” Interprets several moments from Grahame-Smith’s book as a way to help understand Austen, such as Lydia’s becoming an “unmentionable” zombie as an image of the unspeakability of her adultery in Austen, or the steady death to zombiehood of Charlotte as a picture of her intellectual death in marrying Collins in Austen. An interesting piece that treats P&P&Z seriously, though Potter ultimately interprets certain aspects of Austen (e.g. Jane and Elizabeth’s marriages) negatively.

A Romantic Case for Anime

Originally published in The Mallard.

We’ve all felt it—the mixed excitement and dread at hearing a beloved book is set to be made into a movie. They might do it right, capturing not only key plot events but also (and more importantly) how it feels to be swept up in the work as a whole; 2020’s Emma with Anya Taylor-Joy comes to my mind, most of all for the way it captures how someone who understands and loves Austen’s ubiquitous irony might feel when reading her work. However, they also might do it poorly; despite both 1974 and 2013 attempts’ being worth watching, I’ve yet to see a rendition of The Great Gatsby that captures the book’s plot and narrative tone in the right proportion (in my opinion, the 1974 version emphasizes the former but misses some of the latter, while parts of the 2013 version exaggerate the latter just to the border of parody). My readers have, no doubt, already imagined examples of works they’ve always wished could be faithfully put onto the screen and others they’d rather not be risked to the vicissitudes of translating from one medium to another. 

The last decade has thankfully seen a growth in long-form, box-office quality productions that makes it more possible than ever to imagine longer works being produced without curtailing their lengthy plotlines—example, the BBC’s 2016 rendition of War and Peace. However, this leaves another, perhaps more important, hurdle to hazard: while live-action media can now faithfully follow the plots of the originals, there still remains the difficulty of conveying the tone and feel of the works, especially when different media necessarily have different capacities and limitations of representation. Though I’ve enjoyed productions that have been made, I don’t know that I would expect live-action renditions to reproduce the aesthetic impression of, say, Paradise Lost, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or Crime and Punishment, and I worry that attempts to do so might mar more than measure up. The problem lies in the difficulty of translating characters’ inner experience—which is usually conveyed by a stylizing narrator—via the essentially externalistic medium of the camera eye.

While a live action movie or series might remain faithful to the selective events in a plot, the lack of an interpretive narrator removes a key element of what defines epic poems and novels. Paradoxically, the narrowing of perspective through a stylizing narrator allows the story to move from the limits of natural events into the limitlessness of human perception and interpretation. Voiceover narrators can provide thematic stylization in film, as well as essential plot coherence, but it is still primarily the camera that replaces the literary narrator as the means of conveyance. Furthermore, if too ubiquitous, voiceovers can separate the audience from the action, which is the focus of film. Film’s power inheres in its ability to place the audience in the midst of a plot, removing as many frames between the watcher and the story’s events as possible. However, this is also why books are so difficult to translate: motion pictures focus on events when the aesthetic experience of literature inheres in how characters and narrator experience said events.

The literary movement that focused most on the character’s experience (and, vicariously, ours) as the purpose of art was Romanticism. Romantic literature and poetry were less concerned about the subject matter than about their effect on the character’s emotions—in the sense that, from the generally Platonic metaphysics of the Romantics, the incidental reaches its fullest meaning by provoking an aesthetic experience far beyond it. From Hawthorne’s rose bush growing outside Salem’s prison, to Shelley’s second hand rumination on the ruined feet of Ozymandias, to Keats’s apostrophe to the Grecian urn, the Romantics showed how part of the reality of an object involves its significance to the observer, and it was the role of the Romantic narrator and speaker to draw out that effect for the reader. 

It is this essential influence of the narrator and characters’ inner lives on the great works’ aesthetic experience that makes me skeptical of even the best acting, camera work, and post-production effects to sufficiently replace them. It may be possible, and, again, I have very much enjoyed some renditions. Furthermore, not wanting to be the audience member who misses the Shakespeare performance for the open copy of the play on their lap, I tend to watch movie adaptations as distinct works rather than in strict relation to the originals. However, this, itself, may be a concession to my hesitance to trust film to live up to the aesthetic experience of certain books. I would, however, trust anime to do so.

While a history of Japanese manga and anime is beyond the scope of this piece (or my expertise), since choosing to explore the artform as a post-grad-school reward (or recovery—one can only stare at the sun that is Paradise Lost for so long) I’ve watched plenty of anime over the past ten years, and I have become convinced that it might serve as, at least, a middle ground when seeking to capture plot, narrative tone, and inner character experience in a motion medium. Anime is capable of handling virtually every story genre, and while it contains many of the same ridiculous hi-jinks and satire of Western cartoons and CG animation, it can also capture tragic pathos and sublime catharsis in ways that would be out of place in the vast majority of Western animation. This makes sense: originating in early 20th-century Japan, manga and anime were not subject to the same skepticism about artistic representations of transcendent value that characterized Western art after the move from 19th-century Romanticism and Realism to 20th-century modernism and postmodernism. 

Of course, there have been exceptions; 20th-century Disney animation, or Marvel and DC Comics, were iconic because they attempted to be iconic—they unironically tried to depict in images those values and stories that are transcendent. However, even these were created predominantly with the child (or the childlike adult) in mind. Furthermore, while anime certainly has deserved elements of ambivalence, if not cynicism, and while there are many incredibly satirical and humorous series, anime as an artform is not implicitly dismissive of narrative trustworthiness and characters’ experience of the transcendent in the same way that much of Western motion art is. Rather, anime conventionally allows for the sublime heights and deepest horrors that previously characterized Romanticism, all of which it presents through the stylization of animation. This stylization is able to act as an interpretive medium just like a novel’s narrator, contextualizing events through the experience of those involved in a way often eschewed by, if not unavailable to, film.

For an example, I submit Kaguya-sama: Love is War (Japanese Kaguya-sama wa Kokurasetai – Tensai-tachi no Ren’ai Zunōsen, “Kaguya Wants to Make Them Confess: The Geniuses’ War of Hearts and Minds”). Though a romantic comedy in the Slice-of-Life genre, it exemplifies anime’s ability to convey the heights and depths of inner experience of the characters—here Kaguya and Miyuki, a pair of high school teenagers who, as student council president and vice president, compete to be top of their class while being secretly in love with each other and too proud to admit it. As the English title conveys, a running metaphor through the show is the bellicose subtext of their attempts to maneuver each other into confessing their love first and, thus, losing the war; think Beatrice and Benedick with the extremizing effect of teenage hormones and motifs of heavy artillery. 

Plot-wise, Love is War follows a standard rom-com formula, with tropes recognizable to Western audiences: the pride and prejudices of the characters, the much ado about things that end up being really nothing, the presence of a mutual friend who acts as an oblivious catalyst and go-between in the relationship, etc. However, the show reinvigorates these tropes by portraying via hyperbolic narrator the deuteragonists’ experience of the episodes’ conflicts, bringing audience members into the all-consuming tension of how a teenager might see something as minor as whether to share an item from their lunch. The combination of chess and military metaphors conveys the inner conflicts of the initially cold but gradually warming characters (the “tsundere” character type common in such animes), and the consistency of such motifs creates a unified aesthetic that, due in large part to the disconnect between the over-the-top tone and, in reality, low-stakes subject matter, is hysterical. Another unique aspect about Love is War is that, due to its focus on the characters’ experience of the plot (all the better for being trivially mundane), it’s a technically Romantic romantic comedy.

Love is War is, of course, a low-stakes example of what modern anime can do, though it did score three awards, including Best Comedy, at the 2020 Crunchyroll Anime Awards. A more serious example, Death Note, similarly conveys much of its gravitas through voiceover—this time the first-person narration of protagonist Light Yagami, a high schooler who with the help of a book from the realm of the dead is able to kill anyone whose name and face he knows, and L, a mysterious and reclusive detective charged by Interpol to find him. Throughout the series—which employs similar, if non-parodic, attempts by characters to outwit each other as Love is War—Light and L articulate their planned maneuvers and the implications thereof through inner voiceover. Not only does the narration lay out elements of their battle of wits that the audience might have missed, but it conveys the growing tension the two experience—especially Light, who, as he amasses fame as both a menace and cult hero experiences a growing egotism and subsequent paranoia around the possibility of being found out. 

Just as Love is War is, in many ways, a parallel of Pride and Prejudice (Elizabeth and Darcy, themselves, both being tsundere characters), Death Note’s focus on a young man who wishes to achieve greatness by killing those deserving of death and who subsequently develops a maddening neurosis is virtually the same as Crime and Punishment—however enormously their plots and endings differ (Crime and Punishment lacks an explicit demonic presence like Death Note’s Shinigami Ryuk, the Death Note’s otherworldly owner; Dostoevsky would not employ the spectre of a conversant devil until The Brothers Karamazov—yet another point of consanguinity between anime like Death Note and his writing). Regardless of their differing plots, the anime’s inclusion of the characters’ inner thoughts and imaginations convey an increasingly tense tone similar to how Dostoevsky steadily shows Raskalnikov’s moral unmooring, and the explanations and attempted self-justifications by both Light and L convey more than I think even the best cinema would be capable of showing.

I am not advocating that every narrative motif or figuration be included in page-to-screen renditions, nor that we cease trying to actively reinvigorate great works of art through judicious adaptations into new media. Yet, if the inner lives of teenagers—which are often exaggerated, if at times unnecessarily, to Romantic proportions—can be portrayed by anime to such comic and tragic effect, with the figuration and tone of the characters’ perceptions seamlessly paralleling the literal events without obscuring them, then I’d be interested to see what an anime Jane Eyre, The Alchemist, or Sula might look like. Based on the above examples, as well as anime heavyweights like Fullmetal Alchemist, Cowboy Bebop, and, if one is not faint of heart, Berserk, all of which present events in some measure through the background and perspective of the main characters, I could imagine the works of Milton, Hugo, Austen, Dostoevsky, and others in anime form, with the aesthetic experience of the original narration intact.

Eve: The Prototype of the Private Citizen

Originally published in The Mallard.

Written in the 1660s, John Milton’s Paradise Lost is the type of book I imagine one could spend a lifetime mining for meaning and still be left with something to learn. Its being conceived as an English Epic that uses the poetic forms and conventions of Homeric and Ovidic antiquity to present a Christian subject, it yields as much to the student of literature as it does to students of history and politics, articulating in its retelling of the Fall many of the fundamental questions at work in the post-Civil-War body politic of the preceding decade (among many other things). Comparable with Dante’s Inferno in form, subject, and depth, Paradise Lost offers—and requires—much to and from readers, and it is one of the deepest and most complex works in the English canon. I thank God Milton did not live a half century earlier or write plays, else I might have to choose between him and Shakespeare—because I’d hesitate to simply pick Shakespeare.

One similarity between Milton and Shakespeare that has import to today’s broader discussion involves the question of whether they present their female characters fairly, believably, and admirably, or merely misogynistically. Being a Puritan Protestant from the 1600s writing an Epic verse version of Genesis 1-3, Milton must have relegated Eve to a place of silent submission, no? This was one of the questions I had when I first approached him in graduate school, and, as I had previously found when approaching Shakespeare and his heroines with the same query, I found that Milton understood deeply the gender politics of Adam and Eve, and he had a greater respect for his heroine than many current students might imagine.

I use “gender politics” intentionally, for it is through the different characterizations of Adam and Eve that Milton works out the developing conception of the citizen in an England that had recently executed its own king. As I’ve written in my discussion of Shakespeare’s history plays, justified or not, regicide has comprehensive effects. Thus, the beheading of Charles I on 30 January 1649 had implications for all 17th-century English citizens, many of which were subsequently written about by many like Margaret Cavendish and John Locke. At issue was the question of the individual’s relation to the monarch; does the citizen’s political identity inhere in the king or queen (Cavendish’s perspective), or does he or she exist as a separate entity (Locke’s)? Are they merely “subjects” in the sense of “the king’s subjects,” or are they “subjects” in the sense of being an active agent with an individual perspective that matters? Is it Divine Right, conferred on and descended from Adam, that makes a monarch, or is it the consent of the governed, of which Eve was arguably the first among mankind?

Satan Talks to Sin and Death, by Gustave Dore.
Photo Credit.

Before approaching such topics in Paradise Lost, Milton establishes the narrative framework of creation. After an initial prologue that does an homage to the classical invoking of the Muses even as it undercuts the pagan tradition and places it in an encompassing Christian theology (there are many such nuances and tensions throughout the work), Milton’s speaker introduces Satan, nee Lucifer, having just fallen with his third of heaven after rebelling against the lately announced Son. Thinking, as he does, that the Son is a contingent being like himself (rather than a non-contingent being coequal with the Father, as the Son is shown to be in Book III), Satan has failed to submit to a rulership he does not believe legitimate. He, thus, establishes one of the major themes of Paradise Lost: the tension between the individual’s will and God’s. Each character’s conflict inheres in whether or not they will choose to remain where God has placed them—which inerringly involves submitting to an authority that, from their limited perspective, they do not believe deserves their submission—or whether they will reject it and prefer their own apparently more rational interests. Before every major character—Satan, Adam, and Eve—is a choice between believing the superior good of God’s ordered plan and pursuing the seemingly superior option of their individual desires.

Before discussing Eve, it is worth looking at her unheavenly counterpart, Sin. In a prefiguration of the way Eve was formed out of Adam before the book’s events, Sin describes to Satan how she was formed Athena-style out of his head when he chose to rebel against God and the Son, simultaneously being impregnated by him and producing their son, Death. As such she and Satan stand as a parody not only of the parent-progeny-partner relationship of Adam-Eve but also of God and the Son. Describing her illicit role in Lucifer’s rebellion, Sin says that almost immediately after birth,

I pleased and with attractive graces won
The most averse (thee chiefly) who full oft
Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing
Becam’st enamoured and such joy thou took’st
With me in secret that my womb conceived
A growing burden.

Paradise Lost II.761-767

In here and other places, Sin shows that her whole identity is wrapped up in Satan, her father-mate. In fact, there is rarely any instance where she refers to herself without also referring to him for context or as a counterpoint. Lacking her own, private selfhood from which she is able to volitionally choose the source of her identity and meaning, Sin lives in a state of perpetual torment, constantly being impregnated and devoured by the serpents and hellhounds that grow out of her womb.

Sin’s existence provides a Dantean concretization of Satan’s rebellion, which is elsewhere presented as necessarily one of narcissistic solipsism—a greatness derived from ignoring knowledge that might contradict his supposed greatness. A victim of her father-mate’s “narcissincest” (a term I coined for her state in grad school), Sin is not only an example of the worst state possible for the later Eve, but also, according to many critics, of women in 17th-century England, both in relation to their fathers and husbands, privately, as well as to the monarch (considered by many the “father of the realm”), publically. Through this reading, we can see Milton investigating, through Sin, not only the theology of Lucifer’s fall, but also of an extreme brand of royalism assumed by many at the time. And yet, it is not merely a simple criticism of royalism, per se: though Milton, himself, wrote other works defending the execution of Charles I and eventually became a part of Cromwell’s government, it is with the vehicle of Lucifer’s rebellion and Sin—whose presumptions are necessarily suspect—that he investigates such things (not the last instance of his work being as complex as the issues it investigates).

The Heavenly Hosts, by Gustave Dore.
Photo Credit.

After encountering the narcissincest of the Satan-Sin relationship in Book II we are treated to its opposite in the next: the reciprocative respect between the Father and the Son. In what is, unsurprisingly, one of the most theologically-packed passages in Western literature, Book III seeks to articulate the throneroom of God, and it stands as the fruit of Milton’s study of scripture, soteriology, and the mysteries of the Incarnation, offering, perhaps wisely, as many questions as answers for such a scene. Front and center is, of course, the relationship between the Son and Father, Whose thrones are surrounded by the remaining two thirds of the angels awaiting what They will say. The Son and Father proceed to narrate to Each Other the presence of Adam and Eve in Eden and Satan’s approach thereunto; They then discuss what will be Their course—how They will respond to what They, omniscient, already know will happen.

One major issue Milton faced in representing such a discussion is the fact that it is not really a discussion—at least, not dialectically. Because of the triune nature of Their relationship, the Son already knows what the Father is thinking; indeed, how can He do anything but share His Father’s thoughts? And yet, the distance between the justice and foresight of the Father (in no ways lacking in the Son) and the mercy and love of the Son (no less shown in the words of the Father) is managed by the frequent use of the rhetorical question. Seeing Satan leave Hell and the chaos that separates it from the earth, the Father asks:

Only begotten Son, seest thou what rage
Transports our Adversary whom no bounds
Prescribed, no bars…can hold, so bent he seems
On desperate revenge that shall redound
Upon his own rebellious head?

Paradise Lost III.80-86

The Father does not ask the question to mediate the Son’s apparent lack of knowledge, since, divine like the Father, the Son can presumably see what He sees. Spoken in part for the sake of those angels (and readers) who do not share Their omniscience, the rhetorical questions between the Father and Son assume knowledge even while they posit different ideas. Contrary to the solipsism and lack of sympathy between Sin and Satan (who at first does not even recognize his daughter-mate), Book III shows the mutual respect and knowledge of the rhetorical questions between the Father and Son—who spend much of the scene describing Each Other and Their motives (which, again, are shared).

The two scenes between father figures and their offspring in Books II and III provide a backdrop for the main father-offspring-partner relationship of Paradise Lost: that of Adam and Eve—with the focus, in my opinion, on Eve. Eve’s origin story is unique in Paradise Lost: while she was made out of Adam and derives much of her joy from him, she was not initially aware of him at her nativity, and she is, thus, the only character who has experienced and can remember (even imagine) existence independent of a source.

The Archangel Raphael with Adam and Eve, by William Blake.
Photo Credit.

Book IV opens on Satan reaching Eden, where he observes Adam and Eve and plans how to best ruin them. Listening to their conversation, he hears them describe their relationship and their respective origins. Similar to the way the Father and Son foreground their thoughts in adulatory terms, Eve addresses Adam as, “thou for whom | And from whom I was formed flesh of thy flesh | and without whom am to no end, my guide | And head” (IV.440-443). While those intent on finding sexism in the poem will, no doubt, jump at such lines, Eve’s words are significantly different from Sin’s. Unlike Sin’s assertion of her being a secondary “perfect image” of Satan (wherein she lacks positive subjectivity), Eve establishes her identity as being reciprocative of Adam’s in her being “formed flesh,” though still originating in “thy flesh.” She is not a mere picture of Adam, but a co-equal part of his substance. Also, Eve diverges from Sin’s origin-focused account by relating her need of Adam for her future, being “to no end” without Adam; Eve’s is a chosen reliance of practicality, not an unchosen one of identity.

Almost immediately after describing their relationship, Eve recounts her choice of being with Adam—which necessarily involves remembering his absence at her nativity. Hinting that were they to be separated Adam would be just as lost, if not more, than she (an idea inconceivable between Sin and Satan, and foreshadowing Eve’s justification in Book IX for sharing the fruit with Adam, who finds himself in an Eve-less state), she continues her earlier allusion to being separated from Adam, stating that, though she has been made “for” Adam, he a “Like consort to [himself] canst nowhere find” (IV.447-48). Eve then remembers her awakening to consciousness:

That day I oft remember when from sleep
I first awaked and found myself reposed
Under a shade on flow’rs, much wond’ring where
And what I was, whence thither brought and how.

Paradise Lost IV.449-452

Notably seeing her origin as one not of flesh but of consciousness, she highlights that she was alone. That is, her subjective awareness preexisted her understanding of objective context. She was born, to use a phrase by another writer of Milton’s time, tabula rasa, without either previous knowledge or a mediator to grant her an identity. Indeed, perhaps undercutting her initial praise of Adam, she remembers it “oft”; were this not an image of the pre-Fall marriage, one might imagine the first wife wishing she could take a break from her beau—the subject of many critical interpretations! Furthermore, Milton’s enjambment allows a dual reading of “from sleep,” as if Eve remembers that day as often as she is kept from slumber—very different from Sin’s inability to forget her origin due to the perpetual generation and gnashing of the hellhounds and serpents below her waist. The privacy of Eve’s nativity so differs from Sin’s public birth before all the angels in heaven that Adam—her own father-mate—is not even present; thus, Eve is able to consider herself without reference to any other. Of the interrogative words with which she describes her post-natal thoughts— “where…what…whence”—she does not question “who,” further showing her initial isolation, which is so defined that she initially cannot conceive of another separate entity.

Eve describes how, hearing a stream, she discovered a pool “Pure as th’ expanse of heav’n” (IV.456), which she subsequently approached and, Narcissus-like, looked down into.

As I bent down to look, just opposite
A shape within the wat’ry gleam appeared
Bending to look on me. I started back,
It started back, but pleased I soon returned,
Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love.

Paradise Lost IV.460-465

When she discovers the possibility that another person might exist, it is, ironically, her own image in the pool. In Eve, rather than in Sin or Adam, we are given an image of self-awareness, without reference to any preceding structural identity. Notably, she is still the only person described in the experience—as she consistently refers to the “shape” as “it.” Eve’s description of the scene contains the actions of two personalities with only one actor; that is, despite there being correspondence in the bending, starting, and returning, and in the conveyance of pleasure, sympathy, and love, there is only one identity present. Thus, rather than referring to herself as an image of another, as does Sin, it is Eve who is here the original, with the reflection being the image, inseparable from herself though it be. Indeed, Eve’s nativity thematically resembles the interaction between the Father and the Son, who, though sharing the same omniscient divinity, converse from seemingly different perspectives. Like the Father Who instigates interaction with His Son, His “radiant image” (III.63), in her first experience Eve has all the agency.

The Paradise Lost of Milton, with illustrations designed and engraved by John Martin.
Photo Credit.

As the only instance in the poem when Eve has the preeminence of being another’s source (if only a reflection), this scene invests her interactions with Adam with special meaning. Having experienced this private moment of positive identity before following the Voice that leads her to her husband, Eve is unique in having the capacity to agree or disagree with her seemingly new status in relation to Adam, having remembered a time when it was not—a volition unavailable to Sin and impossible (and unnecessary) to the Son.

And yet, this is the crux of Eve’s conflict: will she continue to heed the direction of the Voice that interrupted her Narcissus-like fixation at the pool and submit herself to Adam? The ambivalence of her description of how she would have “fixed | Mine eyes till now and pined with vain desire,” over her image had the Voice not come is nearly as telling as is her confession that, though she first recognized Adam as “fair indeed, and tall!” she thought him “less fair, | Less winning soft, less amiably mild | Than that smooth wat’ry image” (IV.465-480). After turning away from Adam to return to the pool and being subsequently chased and caught by Adam, who explained the nature of their relation—how “To give thee being I lent | Out of my side to thee, nearest my heart, | Substantial life to have thee by my side”—she “yielded, and from that time see | How beauty is excelled by manly grace | And wisdom which alone is truly fair” (IV. 483-491). One can read these lines at face value, hearing no undertones in her words, which are, after all, generally accurate, Biblically speaking. However, despite the nuptial language that follows her recounting of her nativity, it is hard for me not to read a subtle irony in the words, whether verbal or dramatic. That may be the point—that she is not an automaton without a will, but a woman choosing to submit, whatever be her personal opinion of her husband.

Of course, the whole work must be read in reference to the Fall—not merely as the climax which is foreshadowed throughout, but also as a condition necessarily affecting the writing and reading of the work, it being, from Milton’s Puritan Protestant perspective, impossible to correctly interpret pre-Fall events from a post-Fall state due to the noetic effects of sin. Nonetheless, in keeping with the generally Arminian tenor of the book—that every character must have a choice between submission and rebellion for their submission to be valid, and that the grace promised in Book III is “Freely vouchsafed” and not based on election (III.175)—I find it necessary to keep in mind, as Eve seems to, the Adam-less space that accompanied her nativity. Though one need not read all of her interaction with Adam as sarcastic, in most of her speech one can read a subtextual pull back to the pool, where she might look at herself, alone. In Eve we see the fullest picture of what is, essentially, every key character’s (indeed, from Milton’s view, every human’s) conflict: to choose to submit to an assigned subordinacy or abstinence against the draw of a seemingly more attractive alternative, often concretized in what Northrop Frye calls a “provoking object”—the Son being Satan’s, the Tree Adam’s, and the reflection (and private self it symbolizes, along with an implicit alternative hierarchy with her in prime place) Eve’s. In this way, the very private consciousness that gives Eve agency is that which threatens to destroy it; though Sin lacks the private selfhood possessed by Eve, the perpetual self-consumption of her and Satan’s incestuous family allegorizes the impotent and illusory self-returning that would characterize Eve’s existence if she were to return to the pool. Though she might not think so, anyone who knows the myth that hers parallels knows that, far from limiting her freedom, the Voice that called Eve from her first sight of herself rescued her from certain death (though not for long).

The way Eve’s subjectivity affords her a special volition connects with the biggest questions of Milton’s time. Eve’s possessing a private consciousness from which she can consensually submit to Adam parallels John Locke’s “Second Treatise on Civil Government” of the same century, wherein he articulates how the consent of the governed precedes all claims of authority. Not in Adam but in Eve does Milton show that monarchy—even one as divine, legitimate, and absolute as God’s—relies on the volition of the governed, at least as far as the governed’s subjective perception is concerned. Though she cannot reject God’s authority without consequence, Eve is nonetheless able to agree or disagree with it, and through her Milton presents the reality that outward submission does not eliminate inward subjectivity and personhood (applicable as much to marriages as to monarchs, the two being considered parallel both in the poem and at the time of its writing); indeed, the inalienable presence of the latter is what gives value to the former and separates it from the agency-less state pitifully experienced by Sin.

And yet, Eve’s story (to say nothing of Satan’s) also stands as a caution against simply taking on the power of self-government without circumspection. Unrepentant revolutionary though he was, Milton was no stranger to the dangers of a quickly and simply thrown-off government, nor of an authority misused, and his nuancing of the archetype of all subsequent rebellions shows that he did not advocate rebellion as such. While Paradise Lost has influenced many revolutions (political in the 18th-century revolutions, artistic in the 19th-century Romantics, cultural in the 20th-century New Left), it nonetheless has an anti-revolutionary current. Satan’s presumptions and their later effects on Eve shows the self-blinding that is possible to those who, simply trusting their own limited perception, push for an autonomy they believe will liberate them to an unfettered reason but which will, in reality, condemn them to a solipsistic ignorance.

By treating Eve, not Adam, as the everyman character who, like the character of a morality play, represents the psychological state of the tempted individual—that is, as the character with whom the audience is most intended to sympathize—Milton elevates her to the highest status in the poem. Moreover—and of special import to Americans like myself—as an articulation of an individual citizen who does not derive the relation to an authority without consent, Eve stands as a prototype of the post-17th-century conception of the citizen that would lead not only to further changes between the British Crown and Parliament but also a war for independence in the colonies. Far from relegating Eve to a secondary place of slavish submission, Milton arguably makes her the most human character in humanity’s first story; wouldn’t that make her its protagonist? As always, let this stimulate you to read it for yourself and decide. Because it integrates so many elements—many of which might defy new readers’ expectations in their complexity and nuance—Paradise Lost belongs as much on the bookshelf and the syllabus as Shakespeare’s Complete Works, and it presents a trove for those seeking to study the intersection not only of art, history, and theology, but also of politics and gender roles in a culture experiencing a fundamental change.

For further critical reading, readers are encouraged to look into the authors from whom I’ve benefitted and who have influenced the interpretations above:

  • J. E. Browning—“Sin, Eve, and Circe: Paradise Lost and the Ovidian Circe Tradition.” Milton Studies 26 (1991).
  • N. Frye—“The Breaking of the Music.” The Return of Eden (1965).
  • J. G. Halkett—“Ideal Marriage.” Milton and the Idea of Matrimony (1970).
  • R. S. Ide—“On the Begetting of the Son in Paradise Lost.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 24.1 (1984).
  • M. Jooma—“The Alimentary Structures of Incest in Paradise Lost.” ELH 63.1 (1996).
  • E. Murphy—“Paradise Lost and the Politics of ‘Begetting.’” Milton Quarterly 45.1 (2011).
  • M. Nyquist, Mary—“The Genesis of Gendered Subjectivity in the Divorce Tracts and in Paradise Lost.” Re-Membering Milton (1988); “Gynesis, Genesis, Exegesis, and the Formation of Milton’s Eve.” Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce (1987).
  • S. S. Zimmerman—“Milton’s Paradise Lost: Eve’s Struggle for Identity.” American Imago 38.3 (1981).

Shakespeare—That Villainous Abominable Misleader of Youth

Originally written for and published by The Mallard.


[They] Shall now…
March all one way, and be no more opposed
Against acquaintance, kindred, and allies.

King Henry IV, Henry IV Part 1, I.1

In her notes laying out the philosophy and character of Ellsworth Toohey, the primary antagonist of The Fountainhead who, from his perch as a cultural commentator, subtly seeks to effect a socialist takeover of the early 20th-century America of the book, Ayn Rand wrote:

“Communism…is not merely an economic theory…Communism is, above all, a spiritual theory which denies the individual, not merely as an economic power, but in all and every respect…In opposing the existing order of society, it is not the big capitalists and their money that Toohey opposes…He says that he is fighting Rockefeller and Morgan; he is fighting Beethoven and Shakespeare…”

(quoted in Leonard Peikoff’s afterword to The Fountainhead).

Now, I have already written about why one should read Ayn Rand with a grain of salt, and her evaluation of Shakespeare as the godfather of nihilism is, in my opinion, a short-sighted “her problem”. Nonetheless, written in 1935, Rand’s description of Toohey have stuck with me since first reading it over a decade ago. Of course, further reading of writers before and after Rand, as well as contemporary attempts to equalize elements of the culture along with elements of the economy, have confirmed such an idea: that the impulse to collective equity is and has always been aimed at art as much as at economics, and that, because of its more fundamental power and meaning, for Marxists art may be the more important of the two to equalize.

The conceit that the movement initially presenting itself as an economic and political one might eventually come for Shakespeare and other greats motivated me to prepare as I studied the canon, should such a thing start to happen—and it left me unsurprised when it did.

It was inevitable that the restructuring of society proposed by Marxism—coming through a restructured higher academia, which, ironic to its erstwhile identity as the safeguard of knowledge, has become the vanguard of anti-canon advocacy—would eventually come for Shakespeare. Many of the liberal assumptions of what we call “Western Culture” arguably find their best, if not earliest, concretization in his works. That the targeting of Shakespeare has required such a long and deep process shows that he and the canon he represents are more fundamental to Western Culture than the politics or economics of any one generation. To speak generally, we may as well call it “Shakespearean Culture,” since the men and women who formed the classical liberal tradition were entertained, vitalized, and tempered by his plays.

Of course, this touches on the main argument against Shakespeare. Far from attesting the idea that there are universal elements in human nature that can find expression in great art, regardless of its place and time of origin, the very ubiquity of Shakespeare’s acceptance in non-English communities around the world is taken as evidence of the rapacious past of Western Culture, which is all the more vicious for having been made attractive to other peoples through the inuring subtleties of art. It is not a full representation of humanity one sees onstage—it is cultural propaganda; it is not human catharsis one experiences at the climactic moment—it is the internalized acceptance of an imperialistic oppression. And as for those Englishmen and women who esteem Shakespeare, it’s not because he’s “good”—you’ve only been told he is by the dominant power structure (he said humbly as a damned Yank).

I am, I’ll admit, overstating things; after all, diversifying what and how we read, as many institutions are doing, is very different from cutting any one writer (even if that writer is foundational to nearly all other writers). Furthermore, I don’t doubt that many advocating a reevaluation of what and how works are taught in primary schools and universities are in earnest; having been a teacher for over a decade and a reader for longer than that, I, myself, believe in taking the occasional Nietzsche’s hammer to our literary assumptions, if only to rediscover why authors like Shakespeare are worth reading. Yet, those who want to humbly and seriously decolonize their bookshelf, as the saying goes, might find no greater ally than Shakespeare, should they dare to read him seriously.

“Shakespeare’s First Folio,” British Library
Photo Credit.

My purpose here is not to elaborate all the ways that our culture—not just Western Culture but also its various counterculture movements—finds much of its origin in Shakespeare’s works, though there are many examples thereof. From giving the perspective of and examining the psychology of seeming villains (Richard IIIHamletMacbeth), to examining the tension between the elites and the plebs (Henry VI Part 2Julius CaesarCoriolanus), to giving women their due as multifaceted beings who at times dwarf the men in their lives (Much Ado About NothingTwelfth NightThe Winter’s Tale), to undermining the assumptions surrounding gender and behavior (As You Like ItThe Merry Wives of WindsorCymbeline), to humanizing and taking seriously the perspectives of  the “other” and of minorities (The Merchant of VeniceOthelloThe Tempest), to exposing the pretensions of language and cultural myths (A Midsummer Night’s DreamHenry IV Part 1Romeo and JulietHamlet again, King LearPericles), Shakespeare’s works are as deep as we’re willing to look, and his corpus stands as an edgeless Rorschach test where people of diverse and opposite views can both find what they’re looking for (and fight over which side Shakespeare belongs to in the process!).

But no, I come not to praise Shakespeare, for academia hath told you Shakespeare was problematic, and academia is an honorable clan! My purpose here is, rather, to say that we do not need to fear the removal of Shakespeare from our higher institutions, for whom, it’s worth noting, he was not writing in the first place. He can defend himself better and more cannily than we can, and, if the experience of Prince Hal can tell us anything, it’s that Shakespeare knows how to survive a culture’s reevaluation of its fundamental premises.

“Well, God be thanked for these rebels. They offend none but the virtuous.”

Falstaff, Henry IV Part 1, III.3

Prince Hal did not choose the prince life—the prince life chose him. The son of Henry Bolingbroke, whose campaign to take back family land recently removed by Richard II puts him on the throne, Hal is described in Richard II as being notably absent, instead recreating “‘mongst the taverns…With unrestrained loose companions” (V.3). From his first mentioning, Prince Hal is caught between the chivalric tradition of King Richard’s court and the populism of his father’s move to usurp the king.

However, Richard II’s plot is no mere case of revolt against tradition. The play opens with Bolingbroke accusing the Duke of Norfolk (and, implicitly, the king) of killing the late Duke of Gloster to secure Richard’s claim to the throne. For all of his assuming the title and benefits of Divine Right and chivalric tradition established by Edward III and his son, Edward, Black Prince of Wales (called thus because of his dark armor—an aspect of the tradition Richard unpopularly neglects), Richard II is not a substantial representative of the forms he has received. Taking his authority for granted, he is blindsided when Bolingbroke, supported by the people and key members of the nobility, topples his pretentions and assumes the throne.

Yet, in doing so, Bolingbroke does not just kill a king and gain a crown. Because the royal hierarchy of Shakespeare’s plays is as metaphysical as it is literal and temporal, when Bolingbroke kills Richard (through insinuation, which he later denies, no less!), he is not just killing a man but the central source of authority and English identity—as well as the basis for his own legitimate rule. It should not be surprising, then, that for all his popular support, Bolingbroke is harried by counter-claims, rebellions, and his own neuroses throughout his reign. Once one shows that the previous source of authority can be questioned, how can one’s own authority with the same terms be assured? Does one simply try to uphold the previous forms of authority, or does one seek to further tear them down?

These are the two choices before Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 1, a main theme of which is the tension between Hal’s obligations as prince and future king and his lifestyle. The first choice is embodied in the “all-praised knight,” Henry “Hotspur” Percy, the other in Percy’s thematic opposite, the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff. While Hotspur presents himself as Harry’s rival (the characters compare the two from the first menion in RII V.3 to their climactic fight in 1HIV V.4), I believe it is Falstaff that is the greater threat to Prince Hal, and I believe the prince knows it. But more on that below.

The character who behaves the way everyone else expects Prince Hal to, Hotspur is all a father and king would want in a son and subject. He exemplifies the chivalry of England’s past, and even when he rises in rebellion against Henry IV, it is on behalf of maintaining honor against the slight of being dismissed by the king after helping him to the throne (Bolingbroke having recognized the awful truth that if Hotspur and his father, the Earl of Northumberland, can make a king, they can break a king). Reaching the point of caricature, Hotspur even flirts with his wife in a martial tenor (1HIV II.3).

However, because he so completely follows the form of the chivalric knight, Hotspur is easily manipulated. Previously used by Bolingbroke to achieve his throne in Richard II, Hotspur is similarly used and nearly abandoned by his uncle Worcester once his chivalric chauvinism becomes a liability. Not only does Hotspur’s tunnel-visioned maintenance of the old forms make him vulnerable to comprehension, but it blinds him to the threat that is Prince Hal. Dismissing him as the “nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales” (IV.1), implying that he believes Hal will run from battle, Hotspur is unprepared for the frat-boy-turned-warrior he meets and is killed by at Shrewsbury. Like Laertes in Hamlet, Hotspur’s refusal to pause and question his assumptions does not make him stronger but weaker, and he thus displays the danger for Hal to simply be the son his father wants him to be. To mimic Hotspur (who, himself, is a mimic and possible parody of previous knights) and simply play out the forms appropriate to his station would make Hal vulnerable to all the threats, martial and psychological, that surround his usurping father. Much safer (and more fun!) to let everyone believe, as does Hotspur, that he is merely a drunk in dereliction of his princely duties—or, as he calls them, “the debt I never promised” (1HIV I.2).

“Hal listens to Falstaff’s lies in Henry IV, Part 1,” Folger Shakespeare Library
Photo Credit.

And yet, the tavern is not without its dangers. If Hotspur represents an established but, thanks to Richard and Bolingbroke, empty tradition, then the knight of the public house, Sir Jack Falstaff represents the implicit razing of tradition and its hierarchy—again, both literal and metaphysical.

Falstaff advocates as much! In his first scene’s banter with Prince Hal, Falstaff pleads against punishing thieves with capital punishment. “[S]hall there be gallows standing in England when thou art king? And resolution thus fobb’d as it is with rusty curb of old father antick the law? Do not thou, when thought are king, hang a thief,” Falstaff asks, to which, in a phrasing readable as both humorous irony and ambiguous prophecy, Hal replies, “No; thou shalt” (1HIV I.2). In their ridiculous back-and-forths, which often contain as much sarcastic bite and, on Harry’s part, ominous prediction as open affection, Falstaff’s saturnalia and Harry’s royalty contest. Upon later hearing in Henry IV Part 2 that King Henry IV has died and Hal is king, Falstaff cries to his other taverngoers, “choose what office thou wilt in the land, ‘tis thine!…Let us take any man’s horses; the laws of England are at my commandment” (V.3). Throughout his time with Prince Hal, Falstaff represents and often advocates the overturning of the national order, placing thieves on top and men like the Lord Chief Justice (with whom he’s had a rivalry in 2HIV) on the bottom.

Like Falstaff’s gut, the irony of the situation is bottomless. One major joke is that in a state of usurpation, a thief is already on the throne, and the undoing of the metaphysical order of things has already been achieved. From this perspective, by advocating (not without constant irony and foolishness) his revolutionary goals for the court, Falstaff is merely making literal what is already implicit. The connection between Falstaff’s nihilism about royal hierarchy and the courts of Richard II and Henry IV is not merely theoretical; in a brief reference in 2HIV III.2, country justice Shallow reveals that Falstaff was once page to Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk—the same Norfolk used by Richard II to secure his throne, and who was exiled and died for the privilege. Knowing this, is it any surprise that, in V.1 of 1HIV, Falstaff should declare the emptiness of English chivalry, saying, “What is honour? a word…air”? Further, would not such a man try to prevent his young friend, Prince Hal, from assuming the highest position of that honor, at least not without a healthy dose of disillusionment?

I’ll so offend to make offense a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Prince Henry, Henry IV Part 1, I.2

Just as the prince cannot afford to blithely act out the form of chivalry like Hotspur, Hal cannot safely doff the idea of that form, as Falstaff might implicitly have him do. Worse than killing a king is to kill the idea of kingship—to advocate the discarding of the virtues at the nation’s center. That such virtues have been emptied by such men as Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke is the central problem of Prince Hal’s accession to the throne: how to revive those virtues in an authentic and popularly-supported way.

Now, as with any virtue, such things must be lived out before they can be known as real, and nothing will lead to a disbelief in virtues as literally real things more than a literally real apathy concerning them. To paraphrase Aristotle, one must do courageous things before one experiences courage; so much for the confluence of Falstaff’s—or anyone else’s—unrestrained lifestyle, his seeming disbelief in things like honor, and his inveterate cowardice. Though the wild Prince Hal may be Hotspur’s worst enemy, Hotspur is not Prince Hal’s, since Hal is, after all, trying to restore the good aspects of Hotspur’s example. Harry’s real nemesis, so far as his kingship is concerned, is Falstaff, for he represents the nihilistic end and leveling of everything Hal is trying to resurrect. Hal identifies as much, as well as the caution with which he must treat Falstaff, et al., from the first. “I know you all, and will a while uphold | The unyoked humour of your idleness,” he says, switching from tavern prose to courtly verse as he predicts his future rejection of Falstaff just before his coronation in the final act of Henry IV Part 2 (1HIV I.2).

Of course, there are many worthwhile interpretations of this speech and its implications for the rest of the plays. Which is the real Hal, the one cavorting with Falstaff in the tavern, or the King Henry who hangs one of his previous tavern mates for stealing in Henry V? As Prince Hal transitions into King Henry V, is he progressively removing or putting on a mask? When are we hearing the real Harry? Between Bolingbroke and Falstaff, who is his more influential father figure, and who is Hal using to prepare him for his future? Or, in all of it, is the answer a nuanced mix, Hal being not a cipher for an ideology but a character—one of the roundest and most humanized in Shakespeare’s corpus?

These questions have enriched my life since my first semester of college, and I fully encourage my readers to consume Shakespeare’s history plays and decide for themselves. As with anything in life, we do not want to ask such questions without nuance; to assume we have Hal figured out is to risk being misled like so many Hotspurs. Harry can love and learn from Falstaff even while he rejects his politics—an enormous lesson there. Harry’s developing such nuance is kind of the point. In my opinion, Harry’s achievement is his realizing (indeed, surpassing) the popular support of his father while embodying chivalric honor in his campaign for land rightfully belonging to England. Against the constant criticism of Richard II and Henry IV for their lack of such a campaign, Harry’s revival of the mantle of English royalty last embodied by Edward III and his son is established in the words of the King of France in Henry V: “Think we King Harry strong…he is bred out of that bloody strain | That haunted us in our familiar paths…This is a stem | Of that victorious stock” (II.4).

Of course, cynics may say that this is just so much propaganda, placed into the enemy king’s mouth by an English author to justify imperialism—a criticism in which Shakespeare, himself, engages, having written King Harry to question the merits and methods of chivalric campaigning. Nonetheless, for the present argument, is King Charles VI here describing the same Hal who has previously described his own ability to drink with the lowest Londoner “in his own language,” and of humbly wishing for “small beer” (1HIV II.4; 2HIV II.2)? Yes—and that’s Prince Hal’s great power: that he is noble enough to embody the highest virtues of his country while still being humble enough to share life with the least of his constituents (politicians of all persuasions take heed!). Moreover, he is not precious about the forms wherein nobility appears, having learned the capacity of inherited traditions to inveigle reality, as well as the necessary balance between being and seeming.

(By the way, if anyone’s eyebrows rose at my painting Falstaff as Prince Hal’s ideological nemesis, I guarantee they did not rise so high as my faculty overseers’ when I claimed as much at my undergraduate thesis defense. Over a decade of further study, experience, and ruminating has shown me I dare not pretend to have Sir Jack Falstaff figured out; I doubt he is merely a short-sighted advocate of political saturnalia, just as I doubt he is a shrewdly disguised architect of the destruction of value. Indeed, from a certain perspective, Falstaff may very well want Hal to reestablish the authority of the crown, and is using his life as a wastrel as cover to cannily train Hal to understand and maneuver the absolute state of things. It’s noteworthy that for all his verbal poinards, he is always willing to be the butt of the joke, and that every exchange leaves Prince Hal looking better—or that may just be political expediency! Like the playwright whose name his parallels, Falstaff is smarter than we, and we underestimate him at our peril).

“A Trio of Fools”
Photo owned by Dustin Lovell

The thieves have bound the true men. Now could thou and I rob the thieves…

Prince Henry, Henry IV Part 1, II.2

But what does any of this have to do with the cancellation (real or threatened) of Shakespeare in our higher institutions? Well, what does the emptying of chivalry or the razing of the social hierarchy in Shakespeare’s histories have to do with Prince Hal? The answer is, everything, and our response should be Hal’s. If the institutions of recent generations have, like Richard II and Bolingbroke, shaken the past’s regard for Shakespeare, the answer may not be to do as Hotspur does and devote our energy to keeping that regard alive in those institutions; one does not beat a juggernaut by charging it head-on. Nor should we simply roll over and accept the premises of the anti-canon push by assuming, as do they, that because such things seem shakable they are meaningless or malignant. In the end, it may not be Shakespeare who has been shaken. If the academy has lost its conviction for Shakespeare, it is not Shakespeare who is dead, remains dead, and whom we have killed.

Though the subject of his education is fraught with debate and the vicissitudes of time, Shakespeare was notably the only member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men who was not university-educated, which I think significant when considering the purpose of his work. Yes, the highest chambers of thought have discovered great revelations in his plays, but we must remember that they were written for entertainment, as much for the groundlings on the Globe Theatre’s floor as for the aristocrats in the box seats. They can be understood as well outside of the university as in—perhaps better! Frankly, the assumption that one needs to be more educated than was Shakespeare to understand Shakespeare is an honor I think he would have, in Falstaff’s words, considered “a mere scutcheon”—a coat of arms declaring one’s heroism after death and which can just as easily obscure the quality of their life (1HIV V.1).

Like Hal, we should consider the perspectives that might jeopardize the tradition. We should never read less, and, as I said above, supplementation is very different from cancellation. Indeed, perhaps a few years of focusing on other works will serve to make society, if not the academy, miss Shakespeare, that, “Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at, | By breaking through the foul and ugly mists | Of vapours that did seem to strangle him” (1HIV 1.2). If the self-declared point of universities is no longer to motivate and equip people to read writers like Shakespeare, we should be relieved that they are losing interest in him, taking succor from the fact that the pearl’s greatest defense against being mangled is its being unrecognizable to swine. Instead, let those who value the pearl sell all we have to purchase the field wherein it lies.

Indeed, while (or because!) we love him, perhaps, as conservatives—for all who love Shakespeare are, in their desire to maintain him, at least a mote conservative—we should eschew Shakespeare’s place at the head of university literature department curricula, at least for a time. After all, to prepare himself to reinvigorate the chivalric royalty Prince Hal leaves court to avail himself of the tavern. It may do more for Shakespeare to read his plays on one’s own, or listen to an audio lecture series on him, or take part in a discussion group, or join a local production, than to fight to maintain his position in institutions for whom, again, he was not writing. Doing so might even make explicit the choice before higher academia, which is the same as that before Henry Bolingbroke: will they seek to kill the king, and, thus, remove the basis of their own authority? They would do so at their peril, for it is they and their height, not Shakespeare and his, who are threatened by their opposition to the Playwright.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

A reflection on the pre-WWII English upper class and of Oxford University, Brideshead Revisited follows captain Charles Ryder as he and his battalion are sent to Brideshead Castle in Wiltshire during the final years of the war. Returning to Brideshead provokes the memories in Ryder that make up the content of the book.

The main bulk of the story follows Ryder at Oxford, where he is befriended by a young aristocrat, Lord Sebastian Flyte; their relationship introduces Ryder to the Marchmain family at Brideshead and their way of life. In the intervening scenes, Ryder maneuvers the Catholicism of the Marchmains (Ryder is an agnostic), the homosexuality of Sebastian’s eccentric friends, and Sebastian’s alcoholism, as well as the romantic prospect of Sebastian’s sister Julia. Throughout, Ryder negotiates his own beliefs and desires with those around him, and he discovers, often after the fact, the roles that friendship, art, and religion can play in adding beauty to one’s life (though it’s not as cliche as I probably just made that sound).

To be honest, I don’t think I got all I could out of the book, so I’m hesitant to say more than this brief summary. The close male-male friendship of Charles and Sebastian — which has homoerotic overtones and arguably provokes Charles’s initial love for Julia — was one of the best articulated aspects of the book. For better or worse, Charles becomes a part of the Marchmain family, and their reliance on him in dealing with Sebastian’s addictions, as well as the discussions on Catholicism (a consistent motif) that result from his pursuit of Julia really drew me into the relationships of the characters. Being a remembrance, the book consistently has an elegaic tone, which Jeremy Irons brings out excellently in the audiobook version.

John Galt, Tom Joad, and other polemical myths

Just about the only titles by Ayn Rand I’d feel comfortable assigning my students without previous suggestion by either student or boss would be Anthem or We the Living, mostly because they both fit into broader genres of dystopian and biographical fiction, respectively, and can, thus, be understood in context. Don’t get me wrong: I’d LOVE to teach The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged, if I could find a student nuanced (and focused) enough to handle those two; however, if I WERE to find such a student, I’d probably skip Rand and go straight to Dostoevsky, Austen, and Hugo—again, in part to give students a context of the novelistic medium from which they can better understand authors like Rand.

My hesitation to teach Rand isn’t one of dismissal; indeed, it’s the opposite—I’ve, perhaps, studied her too much (certainly, during my mid-twenties, too exclusively). I could teach either of her major novels, with understanding of both plot and philosophy, having not only read/listened to them several times but also read most of her essays and non-fiction regarding Objectivism, art, and fiction, etc. However, I would hesitate to teach them because they are, essentially polemics. Despite Rand’s claiming it was not her purpose, the novels are didactic in nature: their events articulate Rand’s rationalistic, human-centric metaphysics (itself arguably a distillation of Aristotelian natural law, Lockean rights, and Nietzschean heroism filtered through Franklin, Jefferson, and Rockefeller and placed in a 20th-century American context—no small feat!). Insofar as they do so consistently, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged succeed, and they are both worth reading, if only to develop a firsthand knowledge of the much-dismissed Rand’s work, as well as to understand their place in 20th-century American culture.

All that to say that I understand why people, especially academics, roll their eyes at Rand (though at times I wonder if they’ve ever seriously read her). The “romantic realism” she sought to develop to glorify man as (she saw) man ought to be, which found its zenith in the American industrialist and entrepreneur, ran counter to much that characterized the broader 20th century culture (both stylistically and ideologically), as it does in the 21st. Granted, I may have an exaggerated sense of the opposition to Rand—her books are still read in and out of the classroom, and some of her ideas still influence areas of the culture—and one wonders if Rand wouldn’t take the opposition, itself, as proof of her being right (she certainly did this in the last century). However, because of the controversy, as well as the ideology that structures the novels, I would teach her with a grain of salt, not wanting to misuse my position of teaching who are, essentially, other people’s kids who probably don’t know/haven’t read enough to understand Rand in context. For this fact, if not for the reasoning, I can imagine other teachers applauding me.

And yet, how many academics would forego including Rand in a syllabus and, in the same moment, endorse teaching John Steinbeck without a second thought?

I generally enjoy reading/listening to books I happened to miss in my teenage years. Had I read The Great Gatsby any sooner than I did in my late twenties, I would not have been ready for it, and the book would have been wasted on me. The same can be said of The Scarlet Letter, 1984, and all of Dostoevsky. Even the books I read then have humbled me upon rereading; Pride and Prejudice wasn’t boring—I was.

Reading through The Grapes of Wrath for the first time this month, I am similarly glad I didn’t read it in high school (most of my peers were not so lucky, having to read it in celebration of Steinbeck’s 100th birthday). The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the book (though it certainly has faults) but in ourselves—that we, as teenagers who lack historical, political, and philosophical context, are underlings. One can criticize Atlas Shrugged for presenting a selective, romanticized view of the capitalist entrepreneur (which, within Rand’s view, was thorough, correct, consistent, and, for what it was, defensible) which might lead teenagers to be self-worshipping assholes who, reading Rand without nuance, take the book as justification for mistaking their limited experience of reality as their rational self-interest. One can do much the same, though for ideas fundamentally opposed to Rand’s, for The Grapes of Wrath.

A member of the Lost Generation, John Steinbeck was understandably jaded in his view of 19th-century American ideals. Attempting to take a journalistic-realism view of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl from the bottom up, he gave voice to the part of American society that, but for him, may have remained inarticulate and unrecorded. Whatever debate can be had about the origins of Black Tuesday (beginning more in Wilson’s Washington than on Wall Street), the Great Depression hit the Midwest hardest, and the justifiable sense that Steinbeck’s characters are unfair victims of others’ depredations pervades The Grapes of Wrath, just as it articulates one of the major senses of the time. When I read the book, I’m not only reading of the Joad family: I’m reading of my own grandfather, who grew up in Oklahoma and later Galveston, TX. He escaped the latter effects of the Dust Bowl by going not to California but to Normandy. I’m fortunate to have his journal from his teenage years; other Americans who don’t have such a journal have Steinbeck.

However, along with the day-in-the-life (in which one would never want to spend a day) elements of the plot, the book nonetheless offers a selectively, one might even say Romantically, presented ideology in answer to the plot’s conflict. Responding to the obstacles and unfairness depicted in The Grapes of Wrath one can find consistent advocacy of socialist revolution among the out-of-work migrants that comprise most of the book. Versus Rand’s extension of Dagny Taggart or Hank Rearden’s sense of pride, ownership, and property down to the smallest elements of their respective businesses, a sense which they want to extend to and grow by hiring good, reliable employees, one finds in Steinbeck the theme of a growing disconnect between legal ownership and right to the land. In the different reflections interpolated throughout the Joads’ plot Steinbeck describes how, from his/his characters’ view, there had been a steady divorce over the years between legal ownership of the land and appreciation for it. This theme was not new to American literature. The “rural farmer vs city speculator” mythos is one of the fundamental characteristics of American culture reaching back to Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans’ opposition to Adams’s Federalists, and the tension between the southwest frontiersman and the northeast banker would play a major role in the culture of self-reliance, the politics of Jackson onward, and the literature of Mark Twain and others. Both sides of the tension attempt to articulate in what the inalienable right to property inheres. Is it in investment of funds and the legal buying and owning of land, or is it in the physical production of the land, perhaps in spite of whoever’s name is on the land grant or deed? Steinbeck is firmly in the latter camp.

However, in The Grapes of Wrath, one finds not a continuation of the yeoman farmer mythos but an arguable undermining of the right to property and profit that undergirds the American milieu which makes the yeoman farmer possible, replacing it with an (albeit understandable) right based not on production and legal ownership, but on need. “Fallow land’s a sin,” is a consistent motif in The Grapes of Wrath, especially, argue the characters, when there are so many who are hungry and could otherwise eat if allowed to plant on the empty land. Steinbeck does an excellent job effecting sympathy for the Joads and other characters who, having worked the soil their whole lives, now must compete with hundreds of others like them for jobs paying wages that, due to the intended abundance of applicants, fall far short of what is needed to fill their families’ stomachs. Similarly, Steinbeck goes to great pains to describe the efforts of landowners to keep crop prices up by punishing attempts to illegally grow food on the fallow land or to pick the fruit left to rot on trees, as well as the plot, narrowly evaded by the Joads, to eradicate “reds” trying to foment revolution in one of the Hoovervilles of the book (Tom Joad had, in fact, begun to advocate rising up against landowners in more than one instance). In contrast to the Hoovervilles stands the government camp, fitted out with running water, beneficent federal overseers, and safely outside the reach of the local, unscrupulous, anti-migrant police.

However, just as Rand’s depictions of early twentieth-century America is selective in its representation of the self-made-man ethos of her characters (Rand omits, completely, World War I and the 1929 stock market crash from her novels), Steinbeck’s representation of the Dust Bowl is selective in its omissions. The profit-focused prohibitions against the Joads’ working the land to eat were, in reality, policies required by FDR’s New Deal programs—specifically the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which required the burning of crops and burying of livestock in mass graves to maintain crop prices and which was outlawed in 1936 by the Supreme Court. It is in Steinbeck’s description of this process, which albeit avoids explicitly describing the federal government’s role therein, where one encounters the phrase “grapes of wrath,” presaging a presumable event—an uprising?—by the people: “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” Furthermore, though Rand presents, if in the hypothetical terms of narrative, how something as innocuous and inevitable as a broken wire in the middle of a desert can have ramifications that reach all the way to its company’s highest chair, Steinbeck’s narrative remains focused on the Joads, rarely touching on the economic exigencies experienced by the local property and business owners except in relation to the Joads and to highlight the apparent inhumanity of the propertied class (which, in such events as the planned fake riot at the government camp dance party, Steinbeck presents for great polemical effect).

I use “class” intentionally here: though the Great Depression affected all, Steinbeck’s characters often adopt the class-division viewpoint not only of Marx but of Hegel. Tom Joad’s mother articulates to Tom why she is, ultimately, encouraged by, if still resentful of the causers of, their lot:

“Us people will go on living when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people—we go on.”

“We take a beatin’ all the time.”

“I know.” Ma chuckled. “Maybe that makes us tough. Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But, Tom, we keep a-comin’. Don’ you fret none, Tom. A different time’s comin’.”

Describing, if in fewer words than either Hegel or Marx, the “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” process of how their class is steadily strengthened by their adverse circumstances in ways the propertied class is not, Mrs. Joad articulates an idea that pervades much of The Grapes of Wrath: the sense that the last and best hope and strength of the put-upon lower classes is found in their being blameless amidst the injustice of their situation.

This, I submit, is as much a mythos—if a well-stylized one—as Rand’s depiction of the producer-trader who is punished for his or her own ability to create, and, save for the discernible Marxist elements in Steinbeck, both are authentically American. Though the self-prescribed onus of late 19th- and early 20th-century literature was more journalistic than artistic in nature, Steinbeck was nonetheless a novelist, articulating not merely events but the questions beneath those events and concretizing the perspectives and issues involved into characters and plots that create a story, in the fairy tale sense, a mythos that conveys a cultural identity. That The Grapes of Wrath is polemical—from the Greek πολεμικός for “warlike” or “argumentative”—does not detract from this (it may be an essential part of it). Indeed, for all the artistic selectivity involved in the art form, nothing can give fuel to a cause like a polemical novel—as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and many others show.

However, when it comes to assigning polemics to students without hesitation, I…hesitate. Again, the issue lies in recognizing (or, for most students, being told) that one is reading a polemic. When one reads a polemic, one is often engaging, in some measure, with politics dressed up as story, and it is through this lens and with this caveat that such works must be read—even (maybe especially!) when they are about topics with which one agrees. As in many things, I prefer to defer to Aristotle, who, in the third section of Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, cautions against young people engaging in politics before they first learn enough of life to provide context:

Now each man judges well the things he knows, and of these he is a good judge. And so the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject, and the man who has received an all-round education is a good judge in general. Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend on time, but on his living, and pursuing each successive object, as passion directs.

Of course, the implicit answer is to encourage young people (and ourselves) to read not less but more—and to read with the knowledge that their own interests, passions, neuroses, and inertias might be unseen participants in the process. Paradoxically, it may be by reading more that we can even start to read. Rand becomes much less profound, and perhaps more enjoyable, after one reads the Aristotle, Hugo, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky who made her, and I certainly drew on American history (economic and political) and certain elements of continental philosophy, as well as other works of Steinbeck and the Lost Generation when reading The Grapes of Wrath. Yet, as Aristotle implies, young people haven’t had the time—and, more importantly, the metaphysical and rhetorical training and self-discipline—to develop such reflection as readers (he said humbly and as a lifelong student, himself). Indeed, as an instructor this stands not as an obstacle but an opportunity—to teach students that there is much more to effective reading and understanding than they might expect.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating my case. I have, after all, taught polemical novels to students (most recently 1984 to a middle schooler), and a novel I’ve written and am trying to get published is, itself, at least partially polemical on behalf of keeping Shakespeare in the curriculum. Indeed, Dostoevsky’s polemical burlesque of the psychology behind Russian socialism, Devils, or The Possessed, so specifically predicted the motives and method of the Russian Revolution (and any other socialist revolution) over fifty years before it happened that it should be required reading. Nonetheless, because the content and aim of a work requires a different context for teaching, a unit on Devils or The Grapes of Wrath would look very different from one on, say, The Great Gatsby. While the latter definitely merits offering background to students, the former would need to include enough background on the history and perspectives involved to be able to recognize them. The danger of omitting background from Fitzgerald would be an insufficient understanding of and immersion in the plot; of Steinbeck, an insufficient knowledge of the limits of and counters to the argument.

Part of the power and danger of polemical art lies in its using a fictional milieu to carry an idea that is not meant to be taken as fiction. The willing suspension of disbelief that energizes the former is what allows the latter idea to slip in as palatable. This can produce one of at least two results, both arguably artistic aberrations: either the idea is caught and disbelief is not able to be suspended, rendering the artwork feeling preachy or propagandistic, or the audience member gives him or herself over to the work completely and, through the mythic capability of the artistic medium, becomes uncritically possessed by the idea, deriving an identity from it while believing they are merely enjoying and defending what they believe to be great art. I am speaking from more than a bit of reflection: whenever I see some millennial interpret everything through the lens of Harry, Ron, and Hermione on Twitter, I remember mid-eye-roll that I once did the same with Dagny, Francisco, and Hank.

Every work of art involves a set of values it seeks to concretize and communicate in a certain way, and one culture’s mythos may be taken by a disinterested or hostile observer to be so much propaganda. Because of this, even what constitutes a particular work as polemical may, itself, be a matter of debate, if not personal taste. One can certainly read and gain much from reading any of these books (as The Grapes of Wrath‘s Pulitzer Prize shows), and, as I said, I’m coming at Grapes with the handicap of its being my first read. I may very well be doing what I warn my students against doing, passing judgment on a book before I understand it; if I am, I look forward to experiencing a well-deserved facepalm moment in the future—which I aim to accelerate by reading the rest of Steinbeck’s work (Cannery Row is next). But this is, itself, part of the problem of polemics. Passively reading Atlas Shrugged or The Grapes of Wrath, taking them as reality, and then interpreting all other works (and, indeed, reality) through their lens is not dangerous because they aren’t real, but because within the limits of their selective stylization and values they ARE real. That is what makes them so powerful, and, as with anything powerful, one must learn how to use them responsibly—and be circumspect when leading others into them without the discipline proper to such works.

From dawn to Dostoevsky

In early October 2020 I finished an audiobook version of The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. It was my second time going through the book, the first time being by traditional reading in 2018 – not counting the three unsuccessful attempts over the preceding six years. Upon finishing the book, I took to Twitter to lay out why, in my view, Bros K is the greatest novel, qua novel, ever written. My Tweet threat – which unexpectedly, yet unsurprisingly, took 25 tweets – is copied below this brief context.

For a while I’ve meant to revive my book blog (it really doesn’t deserve the name, considering how few posts I managed), if only to record what I find noteworthy of the several books I teach my middle and high school students. Because the majority of my personal reading over the past few years was written by Dostoevsky or about him, he will, no doubt, fill my blog (as he does my Twitter handle). One could do worse.

What in my younger years I shallowly considered a dour corner of 19th century literature, to be read as a necessary chore (you can see why Bros K took me so long – thank God for the hiding of mysteries until we are ready for them!), has grown closer to my younger obsession with Shakespeare in which I cut my literary teeth than anything I’ve experienced in a while. The more I read of Dostoevsky, the more I want to read of him, and that includes biographical materials.

I’ll save my encomium for later posts (indeed, much of it is below), but broadly I find the more I read of Dostoevsky the more I understand not only the 19th century but also the 20th. Generally an inverted historicist when it comes to literature (I tend to understand history/time periods through the works written at the time, rather than the other way around), I have found this a real boon as a reader, teacher, and writer: reading Dostoevsky has helped me understand not only the novelistic artform, but also 19th century literature as a whole, to say nothing of the frightening accuracy of what he predicted for the 20th century.

In Camus’s words, “The real nineteenth-century prophet was Dostoevsky, not Karl Marx.” It’s to understand this – and the things he tried to articulate – that I decided a few years ago to read through Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography on him, reading and rereading his works in order of writing alongside. I’m gaining much from the obscure and lesser known works, with my eye always on the masterpieces Dostoevsky would later write, but I’ll devote a later post to them.

So, to my original Tweet, which more or less lays out the basics of why I’ve devoted much of the previous couple of years and, God willing, will devote much of the next couple, to understanding the Russian Prophet and his work:

Finished Bros K for the 2nd time last night, this time via audiobook; will prolly take 1-2 more reads–after/while finishing J. Frank’s biog of Dostsky–b4 i can confidently speak on it with understanding (since assuming we understand books often keeps us from understanding em); 

I nonetheless contend it’s the GOAT novel, qua novel, ever written. This is bc it does what a novel is supposed to do (or what they were supposed to do in the 19th c, when the novelistic form peaked): it distills & concretizes all of the major questions/issues in the culture into characters (whom Dost presents via succinct & consistent details which describe both their physical and their psychological & moral states) who, acting out their inner value conflicts, inevitably produce concrete external conflicts–vis a plot.

Dostoevsky’s the master bc, while his narr (notably a local Orth monk – a man who has implicitly chosen a life of humble observation & moral contemplation) offers commentary on the events of the plot, he does not arbitrarily impose the plot; rather, it rises organically from the choices of the chars, who, again, are behaving according to the psychology & values produced by both their circumstances & their choices in response to them. Dost’s narration is not one of intrusion but of selection–ie of the details, background, & events relevant to the climactic trial of F. K’s murder. 

Meanwhile, tho the plot is driven by concrete action, there are, nonetheless, identifiable abstract themes–again originating from the chars. These involve the questions in the Euro-Russian culture of the time, the various ans to which we are still dealing w/ after 1.5 centuries: 

Whether belief in God is justified after seeing atrocity (*Dost’s accurate prediction of the Bolsh Rev in his book Devils is worth noting here; that his answer to this primary question has, imo, withstood the 20th c only speaks to his depth & rigor of perception); 

Whether a person or culture can consistently claim the benefits of a moral system (both metaphysical & social) built on an understanding of God w/o believing in God–in the book’s verbiage, “If there is no God all things are lawful,” a question Dost had already examined in C&P; 

Whether holiness, morality, or theosis are to be found in rejection of the world for the monastery/church, or whether they can only be found by being lived out thru a life of love in & for even the most unlovable parts/members of the world (the hero, Alyosha’s, central conflict); 

Whether being born into terrible circumstances (Smerdyakov’s illegitimacy and epilepsy–notably shared w/ the author) justifies resentment for those in better states, and the role pity and (un)gratefulness play in such resentment (one’s reminded of Kierkegaard’s identification in Fear and Trembling of the weight of pity as the impetus for Richard III’s viciousness); 

Whether children, as close to natural man as possible in society, are naturally good, evil, or only potentially either; whether there are hard moral differences between children and adults–a question that both reveals kids as possibly vicious and grown-ups innocent; 

Whether class[ically] lib[eral] ideas like equal rights, comprehensive edu, sep of church & state, freedom of speech, equitable dist of wealth, & Qs of how reason & force should shape soc[iety] (all being imported by the upperclasses to Rus from Fr) bring freedom & virtue or impose burdens & vice; Etc.

To reiterate, Dostoevsky’s narr only rarely directly engages in these questions & themes; his focus is the characters. It is they, through discussion, choices, and, most often, the misalignment of their stated values/desires/motives & their actions, who produce the themes. 

One often can only point out the book’s themes after-the-fact, and even then it can be difficult bc the narrator is not focused on the philosophy/questions of the time; he is, once again, focused on the concrete details of FPK’s murder. THIS IS THE KEY THAT MAKES BROS K THE GREATEST NOVEL, QUA NOVEL: the distillation & presentation of all the philosophical & social issues of the times (and their implicit psychological underpinnings, motives, & ironies) into/via a single, concrete, character-driven plot. 

It’s worth saying that in the 19th c (again, when the novelistic form peaked), novels were not seen as mere entertainment: rather, they were seen as the primary crucibles of finding/discerning truth in an ever-developing cultural milieu (that they are no longer seen thus is, imo, one of the most debilitating effects of the very scientism Dostoevsky warned about–which, btw, he identifies as a primarily religious movement, secular tho it presents itself); this view of the novel was explicit in Russian literary culture, the participants in which saw the novel as the best means of bringing other countries’ ideas to the Russian ppl (most of whom were recently serfs/peasants) w/o losing the good aspects of Russian culture. 

Dostoevsky took this view of the novel and transcended it, broadening & deepening it to deal not just with the questions of his own culture but of European/Western (and, i dare say, all) culture at large. The Bros K contains & responds to ALL PRECEDING CENTURIES since the cross, And his central answer is precisely that: the cross, personally, authentically, consistently. Dealing w/ the same 19th c questions, Nietzsche responded to the changes begun by Luther with the pronouncement “God is dead…and we have killed him…who will wipe the blood from us?” Dostoevsky had already raised the same conclusion & question – & given an answer: Alyosha.

It is in Alyosha’s theosis–in his personally learning to embody the virtues of Christ, w/ neither apology nor apologetics. By living out Christ’s virtues–primary of which is humble love, Alyosha implicitly resurrects–and reinterprets into a 19th c milieu–the Christian truths/virtues that had, in Dost’s opinion, had been alternately sacrificed by the later medieval Cath Church and made impossible/emptied by the modern subjectivity birthed by Luther. 

Whether one reaches the same conclusions as he, it is not the question of where should Russia look for truth but “What IS truth?”, that Dostoevsky asks, & thus he makes his novel a universally relevant work. 🙏 This concludes–but by no means exhausts–my Ted Talk; ty for reading