A Victorian Defense of Unwed Mothers

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Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell, 1953

 Today’s blog post comes with a real life embarrassing story!

I am with my mother and her friend enjoying the wild wonder of our cabin in West Virginia. Watching birds, looking at trees, tubing down the beautiful Cacapon River. Short of taking a trip to Wales, this is the perfect spot to get a picture for Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Poor Ruth, an unwed mother abandoned by her lover, tries to kill herself by jumping into a Welsh river. To get the shot, I need to position myself on the opposite bank from the photographer, so he can get both me and the river in the frame. So, I put my Victorian dress and shawl in my backpack and, against Mom’s protests that the current is too strong, start the arduous process of wading across the shallow part of our rocky little river.

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Arriving safely on the other side, I scramble around the banks until I get as close to both the rapids and the photographer as possible. I put the dress and shawl on over my summer clothes and start trying to look forlorn and suicidal. A few minutes later, I am pretty confident I have something usable. Time to take some risk, try something different. “What else should I do?” I shout across the river to my Mom and her friend.

“Bend your knees!  Look at the water!” Mom shouts back, her voice just barely reaching me over the rushing river.

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Ever ready to oblige, I bend down as if poised to jump. As I stare intently into the churning current, I feel my left foot start to slip on the wet, algae-coated rock. “No! Don’t slip. You can get your balance back,” I tell myself, but my foot slides down the back of the rock into the water and my body inevitably follows. In my desperate attempt to stay grounded, I have fallen in a pike position, butt nestled in a me-sized cradle of rock, hands and feet poking out of the water.

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Hauling myself out, I truly feel the discomfort of sopping wet Victorian garb, including many feet of knitted shawl.

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Seeing my genuinely forlorn expression, my mom tells her friend to keep taking pictures.

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And that is the story of how I fell in the river in Victorian clothing.

Ruth, the eponymous anti-heroine, also survived her aquatic misadventure. Her benefactor, Thurston, finds her and takes her away from the river before she can fulfill her plan. He and his sister continue to care for Ruth. They help her to see her baby as her chance for redemption and grace. They even convince her to join them in their provincial home, disguised as a widow.

Gaskell chose to write Thurston as a dissenting minister with a physical disability. She characterizes him a man of strong religious and moral conviction, an outsider whose perspective enables him to recognize the folly of conventional thinking. He convinces his sister that while lying is sinful, shutting an erring human out from all human sympathy and (Christian?) kindness is the greater evil.

Writing at a time when women lost “respectability” by even mentioning the name of a “fallen woman,” when unwed mothers were turned out of their family homes to languish and die in poorhouses, Gaskell skewers prejudiced behavior towards unwed mothers. She shows poor Ruth as an orphaned young woman working in harsh conditions as a seamstress, with no one to guide her into adulthood. No one to explain what female behavior was acceptable and what lead to ruin. As Gaskell states “she was too young when her mother died to have received any cautions or words of advice concerning the subject of a woman’s life.”

Lonely, she accepts the friendship of a handsome young gentleman, Mr. Bellingham. Desperate for a glimpse of the familiar spot where she was once so happy, she agrees to accompany him to her old family home. Ruth’s employer happens to see her and Mr. Bellingham together and casts Ruth out with absolutely no one to turn to but…Mr. Bellingham.

(Sometimes I have a glass of wine while I write posts. This post is long, so right about here I had two.)

Innocent little Ruth ends up living with Bellingham as a fallen woman, because what the hell else was she supposed to do at that point? They go on vacation in Wales, where they won’t be recognized. Eventually, B’s mother shows up and does what any good mother would do: convinces her son to abandon his now pregnant lover. Now, Bellingham has a life of luxury and hedonism ahead of him and is free to marry any damn Miss Darcy he happens to run across (but he stays in love with Ruth forever, because she’s perfect). Meanwhile, Ruth is doomed to live as an impoverished pariah with no hope of providing a life worth living to her unborn child. Because, misogyny. This is when she starts to think that the bottom of the river might be the best place for her.

Fortunately for Ruth, kindhearted, farsighted, wonderful Thurston prevents her suicide and slowly persuades her that God will forgive her and she can still lead a meaningful life full of whatever kind of approval it is that Christians seek.

Ruth lives for her child, and loves him with the same love as married women. Cuz love doesn’t know what documents are down at the courthouse, y’all.

Later in the novel, a friend of Ruth’s finds out Ruth’s secret. She is tempted to tell, because she is jealous of the attention her suitor pays to beautiful Ruth. But, she realizes that she had advantages in life that Ruth didn’t have and the same thing could have easily happened to her if their positions were reversed. That’s right, a Victorian character checked her privilege. Compassion triumphed over jealousy, because Elizabeth Gaskell is a queen.

Ruth becomes celebrated in her tiny town for bravely tending to very sick patients, with no concern for her own safety from infection. Wait, I was just going to tell you the ending, but no! You should read it! The ending is fucked up, though. You will cry.

You might like Ruth if:

  • a human heart beats inside your chest.
  • you love a tale of redemption.
  • you like Tyrion Lannister, but wish he didn’t have to exist in a miserable, sadistic world. Seriously, Thurston reminds me of Tyrion, if Tyrion wasn’t subjected to a world of shit.
  • you love social criticism.

You might not like Ruth if:

  • you hate unwed mothers.

Final thoughts:

Ultimately, this book is a vindication of individual morality and forgiveness over hive-mind prejudice and hate. Yes! The kind of book that makes my heart contract with sympathy, empathy and envy. Sympathy for women, because it takes two to make an unwed mother, but only one pays the price. Sympathy because the price was so disproportionately harsh. Empathy with the author who saw a deep, searing flaw in society cause unnecessary suffering and sought to express the iniquity in the form of a novel. Envy because she did it so well and I will never write such a book as Ruth. This book makes me want to SWF Elizabeth Gaskell. I want to go back in time and become her. This book. Sometimes I just rub the pages on my cheek; that’s how much affection I have for this book. Totally worth falling in a river for. I love you, Ruth.

Barkleby the Scrivener!

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Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville, 1853

Simone is tired of taking pictures of me and wanted to take pictures of her dog instead. So cute! He made an almost perfect scrivener, except he had a tendency to look happy, which is quite out of character. These pictures make me nostalgic for “Wishbone.”

I am one full year behind in my blogging. Meaning, I am posting about books that I read a year ago. Look, y’all, I’m a reader. I love to read. I have to read. I do it everyday. Writing posts takes time though, which I have none of during the school year. Taking pictures takes time too. I am trying to catch up. I reread Bartleby the Scrivener to prepare to write this. It’s a 90 page novella, so rereading didn’t take up too much time. I had some pretty poignant thoughts about this one, and I wanted to go over it again so I could express them to you adequately.

The story is set in a law office and narrated by the principle lawyer. He sets about to tell the tale of a very odd law copyist, or scrivener, that he employed, providing ample descriptions of his other scriveners for contrast. Compared to his colleagues Bartleby is something of a non-entity. While they exhibit signs of indigestion, drunkenness or ill-temper, Bartleby quietly does his copying, rarely ever behaving like a living organism with human needs.

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The trouble begins when Bartleby refuses to do certain tasks. He answers requests from his employer with his signature phrase “I prefer not to,” and declines any further explanation of his behavior. The narrator is clearly befuddled by Bartleby’s behavior and does not know how to proceed. Employees are supposed to obey their employers, but there’s something so pallidly, passively helpless about Bartleby. He’s like an under-pigmented, bottom dwelling fish, incapable of thriving on land.

As the story proceeds, Bartleby prefers not to complete an increasing number of tasks. He remains in his workplace, but does no work. The narrator struggles to know what to do. He knows what is expected of him as an employer. He should throw Bartleby out on the street, but every time he determines to do this, a feeling of sympathy and concern swells up in him. What will become of this man who is so ill-suited to the world?

As Bartleby is such a blank, mysterious character, many interpretations can apply to the story. This is my blog, so I’ll tell you mine. Not quite every person has a brain capable of the functions required to live successfully and independently in human society. Not quite every person can adapt their behavior and personality to the demands of the world around them. Bartleby cannot, or prefers not to, take the actions necessary to function as an employed adult. The narrator grapples with the expectations of his role as an employer and his moral feelings as a compassionate person. The sad reality he faces is that the world does not provide a place for people like Bartleby.

You can see this story as commentary on mental illness, capitalism, individuality, free will or anything else you see in it. Trying not to give away the whole story, I do see a comment from Melville on the tendency of institutions to degrade human morality. Sad, sad, sad, but true. The story is bleak, but I found the narrator’s internal debate over how to treat Bartleby very touching.

Hold on while I Find some Quotes for You:

Now, the utterly unsrumised appearance of Bartleby, tenanting my law-chambers of a Sunday morning, with his cadaverously gentelmanly nonchallance, yet withal firm and self-possessed, had such a strange effect upon me, that incontinently I slunk away from my own door, and did as desired.

I believe that this wise and blessed frame of mind would have continued with me, had it not been for the unsolicited and uncharitable remarks obtruded upon me by professional friends who visited the rooms. But thus it often is, that the constant friction of illiberal minds wears out at last eh best resolves of the more generous.

You might like Bartleby the Scrivener if:

  • you hate Ayn Rand (and, really, what reasonable person doesn’t?)
  • you care about the misfits in this world, not the lovable, ragtag misfits, but the unlovables who need our care
  • you care about Trancendentalism

You might not like Bartleby the Scrivener if:

  • you have no interest in hearing about the habits and habitat of mid 19th century law copyists

Final Thoughts:

I like it. This is not a book for those craving adventure, but one for those who love a tale about the lack of social justice entailed in a capitalist system. Does that describe you? Give it a read.

My Heart Beats Fast for Bleak House

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Bleak House, Charles Dickens, 1853

I am so excited about Bleak House, my heart is racing as I type. This book has EVERYTHING.

Within the pages of Bleak House you will find:

  • an orphan of mysterious parentage
  • spontaneous combustion!
  • an elegant and fashionable ice queen with a deadly secret
  • forbidden romance
  • young love struggling to survive in a harsh, perplexing world
  • a touchingly sweet marriage between a flawed couple who understand and forgive each other’s mistakes
  • Charles Dickens’ only female narrator
  • biting criticism of Britain’s justice system
  • a kind, giving female protagonist who takes care of others, but still stands up for herself! (Esther Summerson is the best person ever.)
  • a badass detective
  • so many other elements that I won’t list here, because this book is extraordinarily complex and you should just read it and find out for yourself.

Bleak House is Dickens at his absolute best.  It’s long and there are a lot of characters, which can be challenging for readers, but challenges are good for you and this book is worth it.

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Dickens alternates between a cold and distant third person narrator and Esther’s first person narration. The third person sections are eerie, mysterious and compelling. The first person bits are warm, lovable and endearing.

When I was younger, I often wondered why authors choose to write about the dark, painful aspects of life and human behavior. Outside of children’s literature, it is hard to find a book that celebrates joy and kindness. Bleak House does this! Bam! Found one! Charles Dickens pulled it off. Esther Summerson and her guardian John Jarndyce are so caring and kind, your heart will swell up with appreciation for their goodness. All my reading has taught me to expect trouble whenever possible. If there’s a chance for cruelty, pain or disaster, most authors will take it. Because drama. Dickens is such a capable author, he manages to create a tense, exciting book in which characters faced with tough choices choose compassion, forgiveness, understanding. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that in a way more honest than most novels? Yes, there are people in the world who take advantage of others, but in my daily life I think I encounter more people who try their best to be sweet. I hope you do too. And if you don’t, you can escape into the sweet, sweet refuge of Bleak House.

This book is not as beloved in America as it is over the pond. According to a BBC pole, Brits rank it as the 23rd best book ever. The only Charles Dickens novel ahead of it is Great Expectations. I understand why the book is more appealing to Brits than Americans. The primary antagonist in the novel is the Court of Chancery, a division of the English court system that had jurisdiction over a lot of stuff that I don’t understand as I am not a lawyer. As well as I can gather from Bleak House and wikipedia, they ruled on cases involving inheritance. I think it’s a lot more specific than that, but the case in the book involves inheritance. Anyway Dickens’ criticism is that the lawmen conspired make money by deliberating endlessly and never passing a verdict. As he portrays it, estates are consumed in lawyer’s fees before a verdict is reached. Super corrupt and unjust. The problem is that endless judicial deliberation does not make for a fascinating read. But, it’s worth it! I promise you! Read Bleak House!

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Please enjoy these quotes:

There were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.

The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself.

You might like Bleak House if you enjoy:

  • social criticism, particularly of the justice system
  • complex novels with mystery
  • those rare books that celebrate the kindness and compassion that humans are capable of

You might not like Bleak House if:

  • you just can’t with long Victorian novels

Final Thoughts:

Listen, this book is a bit of a slog, I will admit that, but the rewards are so rich. It’s like a long hike to the top of a tall peak. Some parts are beautiful. Some parts are boring. But, when get to the top and see the stunning panorama around you, you feel ecstatic, clear-headed, invigorated; you are reminded that life can be supremely and surprisingly beautiful. Your feet hurt, but you get to keep that memory and that point of view with you.

I am not joking, even a little, when I say that in times of trouble I think about Bleak House to help me fall asleep. When nothing is right in your world, you can remember Esther Summerson and rest easy.

Bleak House is a masterpiece.

Also, Lady Dedlock is a fascinating character. If you are sure you’ll never read the book, watch at least part of the BBC miniseries. Gillian Anderson plays her and she’s more perfect than ever. She’ll suck your heart out with her cold blue eyes.

Everything You’ve Heard About Canada Is a Lie, the Susanna Moodie Story

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Roughing It in the Bush, Susanna Moodie, 1852

Just in case you forgot most of what you learned in your history classes: England had an overpopulation problem in the 1830s. Speculators tried to sell Brits on the idea of leaving England to try their fortunes in the New World. Canada, being part of the Commonwealth, was a popular destination for plucky, ambitious adventurers.

Sadly, there was no internet in the 1830s. Hopeful emigrants couldn’t pull up a “My Canadian Farm” blog to ascertain whether the get-rich-quick-in-Canada stories were true. Susanna Moodie and her family heard that in Canada the soil is fertile, the climate is congenial and the natives are welcoming. Best of all, there was some kind of homesteading deal going on where you could get land for free, kind of, if you farmed it. There was no farmland left in England, so they packed their bags and set sail for Quebec.

Things started to go wrong as soon as they sighted Canadian shores. Quebec was hit with a cholera epidemic. Instead of resting from her long voyage in the city, Moodie had to strike out into the wilderness with her husband and baby immediately.

Roughing It in the Bush is a narrative of the trials Moodie and her family faced while attempting to settle the backwoods of Canada. Those trials included:

  • soil not as advertised. Only somewhat fertile.
  • fucking cold winters.
  • fire burns down part of house and almost kills children.
  • rude, impoverished neighbors constantly borrowing tools and not returning them. (Moodie really did not like anyone born in Canada. Occasionally, she encountered another Brit and thoroughly enjoyed their company.)
  • husband had to leave a few times to participate in skirmishes between England and settlers seeking independence. He participated on the Loyalist/Royalist side.
  • constant fear of natives.
  • cold, cold winters.
  • constantly pregnant.
  • wild animals.
  • cold winters.

I found Moodie’s narrative incredibly compelling. Her sense of humor livens up what could easily have been a long list of complaints. Even though, I rarely read non-fiction, I was drawn to her story of hardship. Imagining her out in the woods, pregnant, struggling through dismal winters to keep her family safe and fed…touches your heartstrings.

Eventually, her husband got a job in a town and they moved out of the bush. Moodie describes this moment with an extremely elated sense of relief. Once she was safely established in civilization, she started writing to earn a bit of extra money for her 7,000 kids. She wrote Roughing It in the Bush to dissuade others from buying into the “Free Awesome Farms in Canada!” narrative.

You might like Roughing It in the Bush if:

  • you love Little House of the Prairie, but you just don’t think life as a settler could possibly have been as quaint and idyllic a Laura Ingalls Wilder portrays it.

Final Thoughts:

Margaret Atwood wrote a book of poetry inspired by the life and writings of Susanna Moodie. She’s kind of a big deal in Canadian literature. I liked the book. You might too, if you’re into this kind of thing.

Feminism Can Be Fun! Unless You Are Fanny Fern.

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Ruth Hall, Fanny Fern, 1854

At risk of stating the obvious: I care about the history of the written word. I have a particular interest in the role of women in the history of the written word.

Ruth Hall is a novelization of the life of Victorian literary giant Fanny Fern, written by herself. It is the real life rags to riches story of the woman who rose from the ashes to triumph over the publishing industry and become one of the wealthiest writers of her time. Clearly right up my alley.

Here’s the brief story of Fanny Fern’s life. I’m starting from her marriage, because that’s where she started her own life story, not because I suck at feminism: She loved her husband. They had three daughters. The eldest died as a toddler. Her husband died and left her an impoverished widow with two young daughters to care for. Her relatives and his both refused to provide adequate financial support. She lived in squalid conditions, unable to earn enough by sewing to provide for her daughters. She decided to try writing as a means of supporting herself. Her brother worked in the publishing industry, but refused to help her. Several publishers turned her down. Eventually, she found a sympathetic publisher who gave her a shot. Her articles were well received and soon became enormously popular. She never signed an exclusive contract, so newspapers frantically competed to publish her work, making her the highest paid columnist of her time. She laughed in the face of everyone who ever doubted her, including all her living kin except her daughters.

Makes you smile, doesn’t it? It makes me want to cackle gleefully with vicarious pleasure.

As you can imagine, I was a receptive audience for Ruth Hall. I was on board, ready and willing to hear this badass feminist tell the story of how she overcame institutionalized misogyny in the publishing industry. Yes, Fanny Fern, let the glory of your victory rain down on me in delicious droplets of sweet, sweet triumph!

That being said, I didn’t like the book. Tone is important to the enjoyment of a novel, y’all. Fanny Fern is just so sanctimonious that I lost faith in the genuineness of her version of events. She portrays herself as an absolutely perfect, angelic woman. She depicts her in-laws, her father, her brother and her would-be publishers as villainous. I just don’t buy it. Ruth Hall, the character styled after the author, would have been more believable and relatable if she was flawed. Her father’s stinginess would have been more disappointing if he seemed like a man not a devil.

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I so very badly wanted this to be a genuine, honest, open telling of the very real story of Fanny Fern, the woman writer who overcame very real obstacles. But, it isn’t that.

You know what, I am absolutely willing to believe that Fanny Fern’s experience felt like the triumph of a faultless, deserving soul over hostile enemies. But, I know that relatives don’t have to be villains to shut down your dreams. In a patriarchal system, you don’t have to be a spotless, perfect woman to demonstrate that you have gotten less than you deserved. The men who have more aren’t perfect. In a patriarchal system, men don’t have to be evil to refuse women the advantages that they give to other men. They just have to be copying the behavior that they have learned from birth to be standard.

Oh, goodness. My book reviews tend to take unexpected turns. Unexpected by me; readers probably anticipate deeply personal, feminist, moralistic outpourings.

I’m going to wrap this up, because my view on this book is pretty simple.

You might like Ruth Hall if:

  • I honestly don’t know, because I thought I would like it and I didn’t. If you can get past the one-sided, vindictive tone this might seem like a fun story of overcoming the odds to find greatness.

You might not like Ruth Hall if:

  • you like your based-on-actual-events stories to contain flawed, plausible characters. Don’t get me wrong, I love an allegory. I more willing than most readers I have encountered to accept one-dimensional allegorical characters, but when you’re writing about yourself, your own father and brother, and the mother of your beloved dead husband, I just won’t buy that they were monsters or angels. They were people. Maybe not the greatest, most wonderful people, but people.

Final Thoughts: Look, guys, confronting the misogyny or other messed up mindsets in this world can be uncomfortable and unpleasant. I know. I know. I know. But, we need to remember that all the people we encounter, even the ones who hold on to horrible, outdated, oppressive perspectives, are humans. They are probably doing their best at their own level of consciousness. I’m not talking about overtly hateful people. I’m talking about the more subtle, everyday ways that we have of keeping underprivileged people where they are. I think, and this is just my humble opinion, that when we confront these attitudes, we have to do it with a spirit of generosity. This is a constant struggle. Right now, I am thinking about someone who I am tempted to write off as irremediably, toxically, pig-headedly chauvinist. But you know what, I have also seen this person be kind and considerate and caring towards others, including myself. If you have read this far, you are probably someone who sees harmful actions and attitudes in the world around you. You probably want to fight these attitudes. You probably want to cut people out of your life for espousing these points of view. But, when we fight oppression, we must remember that we fight against people, not monsters.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin vs. Django Unchained

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852

Whew, boy. This is going to be a tough post to write. I have mulled, contemplated, ruminated and thought on Uncle Tom’s Cabin and what I should say about it for close to a year now.

I regularly put myself in the position of weighing the righteousness of moral positions taken by Victorian authors. It’s a strange, shaky task. And I’m hard to please. Treatises on the rights of women (i.e. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) are nowhere near feminist enough for me. Every book is objectionably classist or racist.

Sometimes, I tell myself that I should be lenient because the authors are trying their best at their own levels of consciousness. Harriet Beecher Stowe abhorred slavery and wanted Northerners to advocate for abolition, a laudable goal. I can’t fault her intentions. Similarly, when Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist he championed the cause of impoverished orphans. Does that excuse the appalling anti-Semitism in his novel? No. Absolutely not. Don’t tell me “it was a different time.” Bigotry is bigotry—in any era.

Novels can and have raised awareness and built up sentiment and political will that lead to real change and improvement in social justice. Sometimes those same novels kick down when they mean to pull up.

Are you waiting for me to talk about Django Unchained? I’m getting there. But, before I do, let me state two problems I have with Uncle Tom’s Cabin that aren’t critical to the comparison I will draw:

  • Stowe’s depiction of slaves reinforced negative stereotypes that persisted for generations.
  • Stowe dwells too much on the misfortunes of a woman who is a “quadroon” or only one quarter black. Stowe depicts her as beautiful and almost white looking and therefore deserving of compassion, which is a bigoted attitude.

Onto Django. I have seen Django Unchained three or four times. I enjoy it. Like Inglorious Basterds, Kill Bill and Deathproof; Django is a satisfying revenge fantasy. Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre offers viewers ample opportunities to drown their white or male guilt in fountains of Nazi or male abuser or slaver blood. And it feels great. We chuckle gleefully at Tarantino’s depiction of the Klan as flaccid and ridiculous. But, they weren’t impotent clowns; they were vigilantes more powerful than law enforcement. We, the viewers are impotent. We can’t undo slavery. We can’t prevent the Holocaust. We can’t give every female victim of violence the ability or opportunity to defend or avenge herself. So, we fantasize. We watch a movie that takes us on a fun romp through slavery.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is decidedly not a fun romp through American slavery. However, like Tarantino, Stowe presents a white person’s idealized vision of how a slave should respond to persecution. She certainly doesn’t advocate blowing away the denizens of an entire plantation with an assortment of guns. Instead, Stowe venerates Uncle Tom’s pious and long-suffering Christianity. He gives all his troubles over to Jesus and forgives his masters. Tom responds to increasing hardship with increasing forbearance and faith. When his owners sell him to a horrifyingly abusive plantation, he mildly accepts his fate. Tom reaches the zenith of his characterization as a devout and worthy Christian when he persuades another slave, a victim of serial rape who has had her children sold away from her, not to free herself from her torture. She wants to escape by killing her abuser or by killing herself, but Tom’s silver tongue and the shining example of his tolerant Christian suffering convince her to just bear it all.

Honestly, if I have to choose between the white director’s fantasy of a heroic slave’s violent vengeance and the white author’s advocacy of Christian meekness in the face of intolerable suffering, I would have to choose the violent avenger.  Who is Harriet Beecher Stowe to suggest that slaves ought to forgive and tolerate the sins of their masters? Who is she to reject the rightness of an enslaved and abused woman’s urge to fight back?

Do you see what I mean in terms of the difficulty of judging the moral rectitude of bygone days? I have enough trouble just watching a movie without getting outraged over social injustice. My point here isn’t that Harriet Beecher Stowe or Quentin Tarantino are reprehensible. My point, really, is that both of these works of art attempt to answer the question “How should slaves respond to their victimization, ideally?” Which is a question with no right answer and not one I’m entirely comfortable with white authors or directors answering.

The question I’m trying to answer is “Sydney, why are you so weirded out by Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Django Unchained and why are you more weirded out by Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Violence is bad, right?” Here are the answers: 1) Yes, violence is bad. But, don’t stand in a position of privilege and tell someone else not to free herself from unbearable and unending suffering by any means possible. 2) I am not Christian and not of the Victorian Era. So, Christian forbearance and Victorian morality don’t appeal to me. In the face of cruelty, I would rather fight than endure. 3) While I enjoy a revenge fantasy, I don’t think it does us any good, culturally, to go on a fun romp through slavery. It does us better to look slavery right in the face, to reel in horror at the atrocities inflicted by slavers and by the Klan, to acknowledge that the Klan mentality has not died out, to find institutionalized racism and fight it in all its forms.

We can’t go back in time and dismember slave owners, but we can fight. We can fight for better schools for minority children. We can fight to end discriminatory voting laws. We can fight for police accountability. We can fight. Django is fake, but the fight is real and we can fight it.

Checkout My Moby Dick Pics

Call me Ishmael.

Call me Ishmael.

Moby Dick, Herman Melville, 1851

I did it! I read Moby Dick. It took me four attempts. On the first three I only made it about four chapters in; that’s how painfully boring this book is. Stop freaking out, Melville enthusiasts. I promise to say some nice things about the book before I’m done.

Moby Dick is often called “one of the greatest adventure stories of all time.” I think it’s time for this book to get a more honest blurb. Really, only about 20% of the words in this novel are dedicated to the adventure of searching for the white whale, and that’s a generous estimate. An appropriate blurb for the other 80% of the book is “every single thought Herman Melville ever had about sperm whales.” Seriously, it’s like Herman Melville had a bad break up with sperm whales and wrote down all his obsessive, post-breakup thoughts. 600 pages of “sperm whales are so beautiful and so evil.”

Some people really love Moby Dick. At least that’s what they tell me. I have a hard time believing it though. You would have to be passionately interested in 19th century whaling to have a good time while reading this novel. There are chapters dedicated to every part of the body of the sperm whale. There are chapters dedicated to every part of the boat used to hunt the sperm whale. I would rate my interest in 19th century whaling at about a 16 out of 100. I am interested in whales and I would like to know more about their biology, but not from Ishmael, who is an idiot.  One of the first things he says about the sperm whale is that it’s definitely a fish. He argues against Karl Linnaeus’ assertion that whales are mammals. Karl Linnaeus was a prominent biologist whose work is arguably just as important to contemporary biology as that of Charles Darwin. I would be interested in reading Linnaeus’ thoughts on whale anatomy, but I don’t care even a little about Ishmael’s. Melville dedicates more words to this topic than any other in Moby Dick, which leaves me wondering why on earth anyone likes this book. I’ll do my best to guess.

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Buried deep in Ishmael’s ramblings lie some little gems of literary merit. I will enumerate them for you:

  • The bromance between Ishmael and Queequeg. The unlikely friendship between the supposedly savage Pacific Island cannibal and the New England sailor is very endearing. There are actually three noble savages onboard the Pequod: Tashtego, a tall, sexy Native American, Dagoo, a brawny, lionine African, and tattooed Queequeg. They are all spoken of with admiration. However, Queequeg is the only one of the three with whom Ishmael forms a genuine friendship. Tashtego and Dagoo are admired for their physical form and whaling skill. They don’t break out of the noble savage thought cage.
  • The adventure parts are scary and exciting. . .and repulsive. So much whale gore spurting into the ocean, making the waves red and foamy. Yuck.
  • Poor, creepy, haunted Pip.
  • Melville can be silly. There are some bits of hilarity to be found if you’re patient enough to wade through all the whale carcasses to find them. For example, at one point the oil, or sperm, from a slaughtered whale has crystalized and the crew has to manually squish it back to its liquid form. Ishmael describes that process thusly:

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my collaborators’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much to say,–Oh, my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm forever!

I mean, that’s pretty great. Maybe worth reading all of Moby Dick for. Maybe.

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The last thing we need to talk about is Ahab. What a weirdo. I never managed to regard him with the filial loyalty and respect that his crew feels for him. They describe him as “noble” a number of times. Perhaps he was once, but his mind has been twisted by the loneliness or violence of whaling or something. Now he’s just a weirdo. All his dramatic speeches seem really silly to me. Get a grip, dude; you’re seeking revenge for an insult perpetrated by a whale. A whale. It’s not your enemy; it’s just an animal, you psycho. Chill out. Don’t ruin the lives of your entire crew. Oops, too late, you got everyone killed. . .because you couldn’t forgive a whale. That sucks. Ahab sucks.

There are some dramatic moments in this adventure story, but the whole thing seems ludicrous to me.

You might like Moby Dick if

  • you just can’t get enough inaccurate Victorian science.
  • you just can’t get enough information about whaling in the 1840s.
  • you are reading a severely abridged version.

You might not like Moby Dick if:

  • the complicated and sometimes loathsome racial relations will upset you.
  • the gory details of hunting and butchering whales will upset you.
  • you are not a whaling enthusiast.

Final thoughts: Look, if you want to read Moby Dick, best of luck to you. I recommend skipping most of the chapters.