Friday, December 22, 2017

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf was written in 1925. This is an unconventional book that is filled with nuanced character depictions as well as all sorts of observations about life. The prose is presented in stream of consciousness style. The narrative shifts between the thoughts of many characters. Clarissa Dalloway is the main character, and most of the book is focused upon her. The novel takes place during one day of her life, though much of the story involves flashbacks and reminiscences. 

Though written in stream of consciousness style, the sentence structure of this book tends to be conventional. I have read a little commentary on the Internet, and I have found that this book is lauded for its innovative style. Woolf’s mix of the conventional and the unconventional does seem unique. Because of the conventional prose and the absence of a chaotic narrative, I found this novel to be the most understandable and accessible stream of conscious narrative that I have ever read. 

Not all that much goes on in this story. Much of the book takes place in the characters’ minds. Thus, this novel is, above all else, a character study.

Clarissa’s mind and past are explored in great detail. This is also true of other characters. Richard Dalloway is Clarissa’s husband. Peter Walsh is an old romantic interest of Clarissa who has just returned from India. Septimus Warren Smith is a World War I veteran suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. We also meet other interesting characters. The peek into the minds of these people is moving and often sublime. 

There are certain themes that recur over the course of the book. Aside from that of PTSD, the role of women is explored. This book is often called a feminist novel. Gender is examined in all sorts of ways in this book. These explorations are complex and nuanced and are in no way simplistic. To do them justice would take a separate blog post. The themes of communication, isolation and time are also presented. I could also devote separate blog entries to each of these subjects. Throughout the story, these various issues are bouncing around in all of the characters’ heads. 

In addition to the above, many of the characters ponder death and aging, as well as meaning-of-life issues. I want to write a few words about the work’s meditations on what seems to be life’s futility in the face of inevitable death. As multiple characters in this narrative are in their early fifties, they are aware that they are not yet old, but that death is not as far as it once was. 

Clarissa is very thoughtful and complex. She contemplates the meaning of life in the context of death at several points in the narrative. Here, Woolf’s writing, characterization and philosophizing are very strong, 

“what did it mean to her, this thing she called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom? An offering for the sake of offering, perhaps. Anyhow, it was her gift. Nothing else had she of the slightest importance; could not think, write, even play the piano. She muddled Armenians and Turks; loved success; hated discomfort; must be liked; talked oceans of nonsense: and to this day, ask her what the Equator was, and she did not know. All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was!— that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all”

There is a lot going on in the above quotation. Clarissa is wondering about the purpose of life. She finds fulfillment in bringing people together through the numerous parties that she throws. Clarissa’s need to bring people together may be a defense against mortality. Finding and creating meaningfulness in life like this reminds me of the themes that existentialist writers, like Albert Camus, explored later in the twentieth century. 

I think that it is also significant that Clarissa highlights her own shortcomings. Perhaps that is indicative of a self-esteem issue. Finally, she realizes that it will all end in death and no one will remember the joy and the meaning that she has found. This is typical of a fatalism in the above that pervades the entire book. Unlike more hopeful stories, none of the characters experience epiphanies where they come to terms with mortality or accept death. Instead, the realization that life will eventually come to an end, wiping out much of what there is to life, hangs over the entire work. 

I think that the above look into Clarissa’s thoughts encapsulates a certain grand level of thinking that ordinary folks often engage in. I find that Woolf captures this kind of thinking both realistically and in a very aesthetically pleasing way. 

I also think that it is striking how much character development, as well as insight into life, is packed into only a couple of sentences. Much of the book is like this. 

This is a curious work. It is in many ways a brilliant book. It is a stream of consciousness narrative that is more accessible than most. It is a fascinating and unique character study. It is not for everyone, as it is mostly a look into characters minds and an exploration of various themes. This book is so packed with ideas. For those interested in innovative literary styles or who like to explore what makes people tick, this book is filled with fascinating things to explore. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis

The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis is an examination of both the men and the process that brought about the creation of the United States Constitution. This is an insightful book that looks closely at how the political beliefs and philosophy of four individuals shaped history in a profound way. The quartet that Ellis refers to is George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. This book digs into some very specific aspects of history. Those interested in this period and these issues will likely find it fascinating. With that, those with only a passing interest in this subject might find it a little too esoteric. 

The book does a good job of explaining the relevant background history. This history is important in understanding the main issues. America’s first Constitution was known as The Articles of Confederation and was ratified by the various states between 1777 and 1781. Until 1789, this document was the blueprint for the American government. Under the Articles, the federal government was extremely weak. There was no executive. Congress had little power. Most power was in the hands of state legislatures. This was essentially an alliance of state governments tied together by a weak congress.

Some saw this situation under the Articles as untenable. Conducting foreign policy was nearly impossible. The finances of the United States were in a shambles. National infrastructure projects were impossible to initiate. During the War for Independence, the Continental Army was starved and undersupplied due largely to the inefficiency of the Articles. An entire host of other problems existed. 

Though some recognized these problems, Ellis argues the political consensus was that a confederation with a weak federal government was the best form of government. The author makes the case that the popular belief that arose out of the American Revolution was that powerful central governments, with strong executives, were the road to tyranny.

Ellis writes,

the majority of state legislators opposed any effort at political reform, not because they believed it would fail but because they feared that it would succeed. Any energetic projection of power at the federal level defied their understanding of revolutionary principles, making the very weakness of the Confederation Congress its most attractive feature. Meanwhile, beyond the halls of Congress and the corridors of the state legislators, ordinary Americans were getting on with their lives, relieved that the war was over, blissfully indifferent to any political debate that raged beyond the borders of their towns or counties”

He describes how these men swam against the tide of elite and popular opinion. These men, with a little help from a few others, advocated for a change in government. Eventually, Hamilton was the individual who actually called for a Constitutional Convention through a clever political maneuver. Once the convention was convened, the four advocated for a constitution that would be created for a strong central government. Finally, they all worked to convince the individual states to ratify the new constitution. The author makes a convincing case that although those in this group, which he dubs “The Nationalists”, were a minority, their superior organization and determination ultimately won the day.

This book is full of insights and observations about these men and the United States Constitution. Ellis’s contention raises a question for me: had it not been for these four men, is it possible that the United States would not have formed into a cohesive nation? Unfortunately, the author does not explore this topic. I think that the book would have been stronger if he had. Many of us, including those who have read a bit about the subject, tend to fall into thinking that the formation of the United States as a coherent whole was the inevitable consequence of winning the War for Independence. However, the author describes a society that was not initially enthusiastic about entering into a federal union. He tells the story of a nascent nation that was persuaded, prodded and at times even maneuvered into accepting a strong federal government by some smart and strong personalities. Perhaps the forces of history would inevitably have pushed the States into a strong union; perhaps not. It is not clear what would have happened if it had not been for these four men.

These questions relate to Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man Theory,” which postulates that a few influential individuals make decisions that drive much of history. My understanding is that most modern historians reject this belief. Many believe that historical trends are inevitable, no matter the decisions of individuals. Others believe that the truth lies in the middle. I agree with the later. I believe that there are inevitable historical trends, but individuals also make a difference. Sometimes the difference they make is small, and sometimes individuals make an enormous difference. If so, it is still very difficult to know what the world would look like without the influence of “The Quartet.”

If the United States in its present form had never come to be, then world history would surely have been dramatically different. Once again, one can only guess at what things would have been like.

I have also read Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. I thought that both were excellent and balanced biographies. 

Reading this book probably will work best for someone going in with a basic understanding of the related history. For those without a knowledge of the relevant issues, I would recommend first reading a good book that broadly covers the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Lincoln Collier’s and Christopher Collier’s Decision in Philadelphia is an excellent example of such a book.

Ellis’s work is ultimately a fascinating look at how just four men had an enormous impact on history. Though very specific, it is informative and insightful. For folks who have an interest in this topic, I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope

This post contains some spoilers, mostly about previous books in The Palliser Series. 

The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope is the fifth book in The Palliser Series. It is another Trollope novel full of realistic characters and realistic human interactions. Like several other books in this series, it is infused with a lot of politics. 

The novel tells two parallel stories that occasionally intersect. Plantagenet Palliser, who is now the Duke of Omnium, is elevated to the position of British Prime Minister. As we have seen in previous series entries, he is a patriotic, honorable technocrat who wants to do what is right for Great Britain. He recoils from disingenuous politics and the need to play political games. His wife, Lady Glencora Palliser, now Duchess of Omnium, excels at such political games and quickly becomes a power player while supporting her husband’s ministry. 

The second plot thread involves Emily Wharton. Despite warnings from her family and friends, she marries Ferdinand Lopez. Though he comes off as a sophisticated charmer before the wedding, Lopez turns out to be a narcissistic adventurer who turns cruel. The depiction of how Lopez causes chaos and harm to everyone around him, including Emily, her family, his business and political associates is simply brilliant. It is reflective of more modern depictions of narcissistic people. Trollope shows how he really understood human nature here. 

The two story threads bump into each other when Lopez decides to run for parliament. All sorts of complications ensue. Many characters from previous books are back, including the immoral but very entertaining Lady Eustace and the young Irish politician, Phineas Finn. A few characters from Trollope’s previous series, The Barchester Chronicles, even appear. 

There is much to talk about in regard to this book. I could devote an entire post to Lopez and the havoc that he wreaks. There is a wide variety of characters and themes interacting throughout the work. In this entry, I want to write a few words about Trollope’s political theory and how it relates to the relationship between Palliser and his wife, Lady Glencora. There is a lot of history between this couple, as they have been featured in all of The Palliser Books. In fact, the series is named after them. 

Palliser is outwardly stiff, overly serious and does not display emotions easily. He is very thin skinned and he is extremely sensitive to public criticism. However, he has also been shown to be a man of high principle, one who is willing to make sacrifices for his wife and his country. Though outwardly unemotional, deep down he has been a fully realized character, full of emotions and someone who usually acts with decency. He is also an extremely competent technocrat who is an expert in the area of government finance. He exudes gravitas, is highly respected and almost venerated in the political world. As mentioned above, he hates political games and recoils from acting as if he likes people whom he does not respect. 

Lady Glencora is also a complex character. She can be impulsive. She has a tendency to be sarcastic. She has principles, but she is willing to bend them for political advantage. She wields her social influence in an effort to strengthen her husband and his political position. In contrast to her husband, she is a great player of political games. 

At one point she thinks about how she bestows social approval to some men in exchange for political support,

They were men whose services could be had for a certain payment,— and when paid for were, the Duchess thought, at the Premier's command without further trouble. Of course they came to the receptions, and were entitled to a smile apiece as they entered. But they were entitled to nothing more” 

The way that Palliser and Lady Glencora contrast and complement one another is fascinating. I think that Trollope is saying that government works best when there is a combination of attributes. Ethics, gravity that engenders respect, as well as competence, are vital. These traits are represented by Palliser. Yet, all these noble virtues would be ineffective and useless in politics if not for pragmatism, personal relations and even little bit of disingenuousness. Lady Glencora represents these aspects of politics.

These contrasting styles do cause some conflict between the two. In one extraordinary passage, Palliser contemplates the situation,

“It might, in fact, be the case that it was his wife the Duchess,— that Lady Glencora of whose wild impulses and general impracticability he had always been in dread,— that she with her dinner parties and receptions, with her crowded saloons, her music, her picnics, and social temptations, was Prime Minister rather than he himself. It might be that this had been understood by the coalesced parties,— by everybody, in fact, except himself. It had, perhaps, been found that in the state of things then existing, a ministry could be best kept together, not by parliamentary capacity, but by social arrangements, such as his Duchess, and his Duchess alone, could carry out. She and she only would have the spirit and the money and the sort of cleverness required. In such a state of things he of course, as her husband, must be the nominal Prime Minister.” 

This all ties in to the complicated nature of the relationship between the two. This relationship stretches back through all of the books of this series. The marriage between the pair was arranged. Despite this, it became clear in Can You Forgive Her? that Palliser quickly fell in love with his wife. Lady Glencora initially was resentful and disliked Palliser’s stiffness and outward reserve. However, when Palliser showed that he was willing to sacrifice his entire career, a career that he practically lived for, to ensure his wife’s happiness, Lady Glencora began to develop both respect and affection for him. 

In this book Lady Glencora thinks about her feelings for her husband,

“She revered, admired, and almost loved him. She knew him to be infinitely better than herself.” 

It is not exactly love that she feels. I am not sure her feelings can even be described in a single word. One needs to read the book to completely understand. 

Political theory and explorations are infused throughout the plot. There is a lot more than I touched upon above, including examinations of what Liberalism and Conservatism are. Though I loved the way in which Trollope worked political theory into the plot, I found that actual politics in this book became little wearisome at times. Sometimes, pages and pages are devoted to minor political matters. 

There is also an unfortunate streak of anti-Semitism in this book. I wrote about this tendency here as it manifested itself in Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds. This is doubly disappointing here as Trollope shows a strong sympathy towards the plight of women in this book and elsewhere. It is such shame that that he could not extend his empathy and understanding to Jewish people as he does towards women.

I should note that some of The Palliser books, such as The Eustace Diamonds, work just fine as stand alone books. In my opinion however, as this novel has important connections to all of the previous books in the series, it is best read after the previous four novels.

The complex nature of the relationship between this couple, and its political implications, is only one aspect that makes this book worth reading. This is a fine addition to The Palliser Series. It is full of Trollope’s signature insights into human nature and relationships. I have one more book in this series to go, The Duke’s Children. I cannot wait to get started on that one.