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Category Archives: Classic

Literature Commentary: Barnaby Rudge

Chances are you’ve never heard of this book. I hadn’t either, until I was browsing the Dickens section of my local library and ran across a volume I’d never seen before. Curious, I decided to see if it was up to the standards of his other work. And I am happy to report that yes, it is. It makes me wonder how many other “undiscovered classics” are lurking out there in the jungle of obscurity.

The plot of “Barnaby Rudge” hinges on the English anti-Catholic revolts of 1780, although the story actually begins several years earlier. It revolves around three primary characters: the eponymous Barnaby (a kind, albeit slow-witted, young man), Joe Willet (the romantic, idealistic son of an innkeeper) and Edward Chester (a bold young nobleman, and the son of a decadent London politician). Their lives, and the lives of those they both love and hate, are woven together into a single tapestry of mystery, romance, and danger.

The story opens at the Maypole Inn, on the twenty-second anniversary of a violent murder at the lordly Haredale estate. A mysterious dark rider prowls the countryside, seemingly linked to the victims in some strange way. But young Edward Chester isn’t afraid of any specters – he has vowed to see his love Emma Haredale, niece of the murdered man, regardless of the cost. Assisting him in his efforts is Joe Willet, the son of the Maypole’s owner, who bears a secret affection for the beautiful Dolly Varden, daughter of a London locksmith.

Unfortunately, fate deals the four lovers some cruel blows.

As Mr. Haredale (Emma’s father) and Lord Chester (Edward’s father) scheme to separate their two children, Joe and Dolly must contend with the sinister attentions of the servant Hugh, who is somehow connected to the grim horseman traveling throughout the countryside. To make matters worse, anti-Catholic feeling in England is reaching a fever pitch…and an explosive conflict appears imminent. All of these conflicts somehow touch the lives of Barnaby Rudge, a simple-minded young man, and his careworn-yet-loving mother. And the roles they play in the climax of the story are anything but predictable.

The magic of Dickens lies in his ability to craft characters that are both realistic and archetypal – individuals with recognizably human characteristics, who still manage to embody certain distinctive concepts. For example, the two romances in the story both parallel and contrast one another: both involve noble young men pursuing virtuous young women despite obstacles, yet the relationship between Joe and Dolly is much more emotional than the love story between Edward and Emma. This is entirely intentional: Edward and Emma are represented as pragmatic and level-headed, while Joe and Dolly fulfill the roles of the story’s everyman and everywoman. All of Dickens’ characters, however, are vivid and relatable.

As is the case in all his books, the villains are especially memorable. The revelation of the dark rider’s identity is a chilling twist that lingers long in the mind, leading to some particularly interesting situations toward the end of the novel. Lord Chester is perfectly portrayed as a cunning puppet-master grown fat (literally and figuratively) on the misery of others. It’s a solid cast of characters that rivals that of “Oliver Twist” or “Great Expectations” for its sheer breadth and depth.

Interestingly, the story doesn’t focus much on the roots of the Catholic/Protestant struggle. This book isn’t about ideas so much as it is about people and their motivations. (Dickens does a masterful job of dealing with more abstract-issue conflicts in “Hard Times” and “The Old Curiosity Shop.”) I would’ve liked to hear a little more about the moral dilemmas faced by leaders on both sides of the issue, but that isn’t the point of the book…thus it’s not a particularly disappointing exclusion.

If you like Dickens’ books, you shouldn’t miss “Barnaby Rudge.” Most fans of English literature have probably enjoyed “A Tale of Two Cities” “Oliver Twist” “Great Expectations” or”David Copperfield,” but a huge chunk of Dickens’ work has slipped under the literary radar. It’s not exactly short at 750 pages, but that’s pretty standard for a Dickens work of this complexity. “Barnaby Rudge,” like many of the author’s other little-known works, is a sweeping, dramatic read that most classics fans should enjoy.

VERDICT: 8.5/10
An exciting, epic masterpiece from one of England’s greatest writers.

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Posted by on August 3, 2010 in Classic

 

Literature Commentary: Don Quixote

I refuse to be defeated by any book. Unless I have some serious moral problem with a given work, I will almost never return a book to the library just because I got “bored” of it. There’s just something in my psyche that rebels against throwing in the towel…and Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel “Don Quixote” has long been a burr under my saddle. I started the abridged version many years ago – and didn’t finish it. About six months ago, I tried the unabridged version – and it went back to the library unfinished.

That situation has now been remedied. And I finally feel a sense of completion.

“Don Quixote” is a bit of a paradox. On one hand, it’s a thought-provoking meditation on the nature of chivalry and the impact one man can have on the lives of others…but it’s also a long, tedious slog through page after page of inane dialogue and occasionally bawdy humor. Is it worth your time?

The book is best known for its memorable depiction of Don Quixote jousting with windmills he believes to be giants. The overarching story, however, is a bit more complex than that. Don Quixote is a Spanish nobleman with an affinity for “books of chivalry” (semi-historical adventure stories, vaguely reminiscent of something a 16th-century Clive Cussler might have written). These stories so inspire Don Quixote that he decides to become a knight-errant – a warrior riding from place to place righting injustices and saving damsels in distress.

Of course, any good knight-errant needs a lady to inspire him. So Don Quixote settles on the semi-attractive Aldonza Lorenza, a peasant girl from a nearby village. The fact that he has never actually seen her is irrelevant – he promptly decides to call her Dulcinea del Toboso and resolves to perform great deeds in her honor. Along with his faithful squire, the slightly slow-witted Sancho Panza, Don Quixote sets out to win fame and renown in the name of Dulcinea. But such seeming “madness” doesn’t go unnoticed by his neighbors – particularly the village curate and barber. The two men take it upon themselves to “cure” Don Quixote, following him and his squire around the Spanish countryside in the hopes of restoring his senses. Thus begins the adventure of Don Quixote – a long, meandering epic that takes him hither and yon in search of everlasting glory.

At first I hated this book. The first five or six hundred pages are full of digressions and seemingly meaningless episodes that didn’t appear to add anything. Things do pick up in the latter half of of the novel, however…and it becomes clear that Cervantes had a purpose beyond mere entertainment.

It would’ve been easy to write off Don Quixote as simply a comic novel – if not for the complex attitude toward honor and chivalry that the book espouses. (Note that in order to fully explore the depth of this novel, the following discussion contains spoilers.)

At first glance, the story appears to satirize the fantastical adventures of bold knights, cunning enchanters, and beautiful princesses. And as previously mentioned, most people’s image of Don Quixote is of a ramshackle knight trying vainly to knock down windmills. When given only a cursory look, it seems as if “Don Quixote” was written to poke fun at the idealized notions of chivalry and honor popular at the time.

However, such a view misses the true point of the novel.

It took me almost one thousand pages of reading to realize the significance of all the apparently useless adventures early on in the book. Although Don Quixote’s behavior appears to be totally irrational (and his conversation is punctuated with nonsense references to enchantments and wizards), he is actually successful in performing deeds of honor.

The primary conflict in the first half of the book revolves around a love square (something like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). Through Don Quixote’s intervention, the fullest happiness is in fact attained for all the individuals involved. His commitment to living chivalrously forbids him to allow wrongs to go uncorrected.

Later on in the book, Don Quixote and Sancho fall in with a duke and duchess who decide to play along with Don Quixote’s madness. They make sport of him by inventing outlandish situations that appear to be pulled straight from the pages of one of his “books of chivalry.” Don Quixote escapes, but is confronted by a mysterious “Knight of the White Moon” who defeats him in single combat and makes him promise not to leave his village for the space of one year. (In reality, the “Knight of the White Moon” is a fellow villager that the curate and barber have employed to stop Don Quixote.)

The curate and the barber take Don Quixote home in the hopes of curing him. Don Quixote, however, soon becomes fatally ill. On his deathbed, he “regains his sanity” and renounces the absurdly chivalric lifestyle he has previously led. However, in a surprising twist, his fellow villagers (who had previously ridiculed him) recognize the impact he has had on others. They tell Don Quixote that he is mistaken: that he is the Knight of La Mancha and must continue to be so. Despite all the mocking jests they have hurled at him over the years, they cannot escape the truth that he has given them a new way of looking at the world.

And that is the true beauty of “Don Quixote.” It is not a mockery of chivalry so much as it is a celebration of it. Don Quixote’s ironclad commitment to courtesy, honor, and justice does not go unnoticed by those around him – even the ones who formerly sneered at his behavior.

Worldview elements are somewhat synthesized with the previously discussed message of the story. As a whole, the novel affirms traditional moral values (although certain “humorous” scenes are of somewhat poor taste). Although there are a few jokes at the expense of the Catholic Church and the priesthood, Christianity as a whole is treated with great respect. (Readers may wish to be aware that the same respect is not necessarily accorded to Islam – an attitude that is not laudable, but is undeniably consistent with the sentiments of the time.)

So should you read it?

I hate to ever encourage someone to read an abridged version. Having read the full, unabridged version, I honestly question whether an abridged edition would be able to accurately convey the overarching message of the novel (and not just devolve into a string of semi-comic episodes). But since I haven’t read an abridged version, I can’t say anything for sure.

The full version of “Don Quixote” is truly a massive tome. With an unabridged edition that tops out at roughly 1200 pages, it’s almost as long as “War and Peace.” And it’s exceedingly dull in portions (especially those that seem to have no relation to the rest of the story). However, it is also a thought-provoking look at the nature of true chivalry – and that in itself makes the book a worthy read. It doesn’t really kick into high gear until the last two hundred pages or so…but the ending is an emotional touchstone that justifies spending hours wading through the slower segments.

If you’re a fan of classic literature, the uncut “Don Quixote” is probably a must-read. If you prefer more casual entertainment, an abridged version might be more enjoyable. It’s not for everyone…but there’s a reason it’s on all those lists of “great books.”

VERDICT: 7/10
A long parable of chivalry and adventure that is redeemed by its finale.

Addendum: Coldplay fans will appreciate this (I just found this today, and it’s surprisingly relevant!): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3K4TrKus60

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2010 in Classic

 
 
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