Posts Tagged ‘books’


foundation

On a vacation with my father and brother to Sanibel Island when I was thirteen we rented this little cabin wherein resided this free love era television that seemed to only get one channel, and it was on that channel on that television in that beach-side cabin that I was first introduced to the wonders of science fiction in the form of the incomparable Star Trek(TOS). I was hooked at once and immediately became an entrenched fan and have let my imagine go boldly ever since. Because of this it came as no surprise to me that I would quickly become enamored of the many pillars of science fiction literature and I am always delighted when my reading cycles thereward leads, and this week it has done just that.
In preparation for diving into the mysteries of the universe of science in the form of Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace I thought I’d couple it with the often prophetic world of fiction, more specifically Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. For fear of having this editorial become as extended a work as my Gone with the Wind piece I think I will take each book as it comes rather than publish them all at once.
Foundation seems to be unique even amongst the giants of the genre in that, rather than focusing on a single character through a set of trials to a conclusion, this novel shrinks the characters beneath the scale of a galactic timeline where the influence of a single life can so easily be lost like so many billions of stars in the far flung cosmos. Because of this I have had to take a different mindset into the world of the foundation and its founder Hari Seldon. If one were to look at this novel with some of the classical tools of criticism this work could suffer mightily. Mr. Asimov’s characters are often as two dimensional as they are temporary. The three main protagonists, Hari Seldon, Salvor Hardin, and Hober Mallow, have little distinguishing characteristics other than the fact that each, in his own time, is the smartest man in the room. Mr. Asimov’s keeps his descriptions to a minimum and leaves the reader to design his own vast galactic empire with the sparse pieces he provides. However, what effort is spared in character and setting is spent tenfold in the math, science, politics, religion, and humanity that shape the vast scope of the overarching narrative.
On its surface this work asks the reader to suspend a good deal of disbelief to be sure, but I feel that hyperbole as example, of which I am no stranger as anyone who has argued with me to an extent where I refer to my society of four people model can attest, is one of science fictions most effective tools. The first challenge comes in the future math of psychohistory. This combination of history, sociology, and statistics predicts, with perfect accuracy through the first novel at least, every action of vast societies containing trillions of people. That being said however, the collapse and aftermath of Mr. Asimov’s galactic empire is not dissimilar to our own historical empires. The second challenge is perhaps a personal one. I am of the belief that the human race, which this work hints at being the foundation for the galactic empire, would necessarily have to evolve out of many of the base traits that seem to have lingered even to the empire at its height. That is perhaps a Roddenberry-esque view of things, but if we are even going to progress to the point of becoming a global society, much less a stellar or galactic one, we will have to make significant strides as a species so much so that it is hard for me to reconcile that feeling with the sixteenth century kings and nobles Mr. Asimov has reigning in the remnants of the fall of the empire.
Beyond these obstacles are challenges of an entirely different stripe and the kind that truly show the great worth of Foundation and of science fiction in general of which this novel and its successors are by many thought chief. These challenges are the best that literature has to offer and that is to openly challenge what and how the reader thinks. Mr. Asimov pulls no punches as he sets his sights on technology, economy, humanity, and religion each in turn and each with staggering effect. When Hari Seldon convinces the last generations of the galactic empire to allow him and thousands of other scientists to seed a colony, aptly called the foundation, they are hoping to preserve, with the aid of the galactic encyclopedia, the sum knowledge of human discovery and innovation. Having this knowledge cannot prevent the fall of the empire but in theory it can prevent much of Seldon’s apocalyptic view of thirty thousand years of death and barbarity before the rise of a second empire. Having done this the foundation comes into contact with the first of what Hari called crises. This initial crisis is the loss of technology and the effect that it would have on the civilization at large. It is chilling to imagine what would happen to today’s population should it suddenly and irrevocably be stripped of its technology. In this instance it is not even taken so much as it was forfeited by the atrophy of mind that Mr. Asimov intimates is the cause for the collapse. The people of the empire’s twilight days have lost the curiosity to understand how things work and thus, after the fall, are unable to maintain all of the technology that sustained them. Because of this progressive ignorance, that is evident even today, the foundation is able to barter safety from its degenerating neighbors by dealing in science and maintaining a balance of power in its immediate vicinity.
From this bartered form of technology rises a religion by which the foundation begins to extend control over the hostile parties nearest it. In order to maintain its independence and a measure of control the foundation turns to mysticism. As coined by Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, and it is on this tenet that the foundation gambles its survival until the next great crisis. The foundation withholds the inner workings of their scientific knowledge, an act I have some moral objection in my distaste for the opinion that scientific discovery actually belongs to anyone though it is hard to see the desperateness of the situation as anything but mitigating, and uses their monopoly on medicine, travel, chemistry, physics, and even luxuries to subjugate the four kingdoms on the outskirts of the old empire. This religion which keeps truth as power is spiritual successor to many of the errors of theological religion and falls victim to the rationalization of the ends justifying the means.
The last major crisis of this first of three parts is when the farce of the religion myth begins to break down as the people nearer the galactic core, in this case the remnants of the old empire and possessors yet of some of the property if not authority thereof, begin to realize that the foundation is using religion to dominate the faithful and begin banning the religious institutions in their domains. During this crisis the foundation must evolve one more time. Realizing the restrictions of the religion myth which they had surrounded their technology with the foundation, which by this point had assimilated non-scientific elements, had to adapt to become mercantile in nature. Freeing the foundation from the oppressive stigma of religion it turned to economic warfare to secure its survival.
I did not go into these crises in detail, nor did I mention the internal struggles that brought the foundation thrice to the tipping points that Hari Seldon predicted, and I refrained from doing so that I might conclude with what I believe is the most striking point of the entire work to this point. Hari Seldon and his disciples, for better or for worse, establish the most staggering monument to hubris that I can possibly imagine. Inflicting ignorance on people for the sake of a mathematical theorem, regardless of your certainty of prognostications, is a dangerous road. This image challenged me throughout the work and had me asking myself again and again what I would do. Is thirty thousand years of death and destruction worth the free will and enlightenment of billions upon billions of people? Where is right and wrong in such a far flung and chaotic scenario? It is these and other questions that have me diving directly into the next volume eager to debate myself yet again and praising Isaac Asimov’s incredible work.

Gone with the Wind

The American Civil War, if I can be forgiven by my neighbors for referring to it thus owing to the fact that the terms War for Southern Independence and War Between the States are simply not as well known, has lately taken center stage in my reading life. Considering myself, among other things, to be a southerner I quickly found myself immersed in the infinitely complex and volatile society of mid nineteenth century America. This trend began with my recent reading of Bruce Catton’s book The American Heritage History of the Civil War which, due to the fascination with this subject that this extremely well written work instilled, led immediately to my moving on to James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom which I am still currently reading. However I have a tendency, if not out and out habit, of coupling factual historical readings with historical fiction set in the same time. This has presented me with the perfect opportunity to finally sit down and read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Even though Ms. Mitchell was born thirty-five years after the end of the war, on my birthday no less, it is the setting of her novel that makes it suit my purposes so well in the same way that Kenneth Roberts’ Arundel accompanied David McCullough’s 1776. Because of the scope and length of Ms. Mitchell’s work I’ve decided to comment in turn on the parts as they are read in order to keep their elements fresh in my mind. Though I’m sure I will not succeed entirely I hope to minimize my opinions as to the war and its repercussions on the world in which I now live, those who know me well know I have a poisonous strain of editorializing in me. Here I wish simply to write, for my own sake and any interested, to record my experience with this book.

Part 1

Before I can begin any in depth discussion of this book I must acknowledge the influence of the 1939 movie. Luckily I have only seen it once so my memory of it is limited to single moments and a very sparse outline of the plot. I will say that the description of Rhett Butler in the work seems so uncannily similar to Clark Gable, the actor who portrayed him, that I have suspicions that the character may have been written with the actor in mind.
The novel opens by presenting one of the most infuriating characters I have ever had the pleasure to read in the person of Scarlett O’Hara. Nearly everything she thinks or does is so perfectly antagonistic to anything I would consider even remotely attractive in a human being that it takes real effort on my part to calm my desire to just shake her, though I do try to make allowances, small ones, for her age and the society in which she was raised. Ms. Mitchell sets up her characters with great skill against the backdrop of southern plantations in the dawn of the 1860’s and despite the slow measured pace of the first chapters I felt I was in a real, if a bit idyllic, place. I say idyllic in that the picture painted of a master that treats his slaves well, goes out of his way to unite slave families, and is unwilling to use corporal punishment, while I don’t doubt that this scenario happened, I likewise believe it was far from the standard practice. However, that aside, the attitudes of the southern aristocracy and their mannerisms seem to coincide fully with the historical accounts from both Mr. Catton and Mr. McPherson. It is the strange contradictory nature of this setting which I believe is so engrossing about the opening of this work. The mix of the hereditary high mindedness of the old world monarchies and rough and ready brawlers, drinkers, gamblers, and good natured country folks is so unique that when the historians refer to “southern civilization” it isn’t hard to see why that distinction needs to be made.
Ms. Mitchell seems to draw the most attention to her characters when she is having them contradict societal norms. Scarlett is unique in that she doesn’t hold to any of the notions of how a lady should behave, a code of conduct that seems to have been quite strictly adhered to by all the other women of the county, and Rhett stands out for similarly having a less than universally southern worldview. Scarlett is spoiled and selfish while Rhett is a scoundrel suspected of a cardinal sin of northern sympathies and ways. There is very little of Rhett seen before the close of part one so as to prevent a more accurate evaluation, however for Scarlett there is sadly more than enough.
Scarlett’s motivations, in a fury for being rebuffed by Ashley Wilkes, turn to spite, vengeance, and selfishness. All of these things could perhaps be overlooked in time but she does them with the intention of causing pain. Perhaps Charles Hamilton deserved what he got when he fell for all the wrong parts of Scarlett O’Hara, and for certain his short life after the marriage spared him from having to see her in any real light, but it is harder to forgive Scarlett as soon as the terrible wake of her selfishness begins to include her son for whom she has little affection. I cannot begrudge her the frustration that comes with the very strict regimen that constrained widows in the south at that time, seeing as she only even remembered her few months husband as a doe-eyed stutterer who worshiped her blindly, but to punish the child because she was foolish, a fact she admits even to herself, is a cruelty beyond words. She is free with her hate and resentments as well as fiery, passionate, and self assured. For all her faults though she is also very compelling and a strong driving force that propels the narrative into the next part and the onset of the war years.

Part 2

There is a subtle skill in the execution of the second part of this work that I think may be hard for me to precisely explain. With the narrative changing scenes from the country plantations of Tara and Twelve Oaks to the newly christened city of Atlanta Ms. Mitchell deftly draws a number of parallels that simultaneously highlight her characters and vastly widen the scope of her work. Scarlett is spoiled, selfish, and annoying, but it wasn’t until a fuller picture of Rhett Butler, of whom only a glimpse was given previous, was provided that I began to see what was so frustrating about the atypical southern belle. In a word, hypocrisy, it is Scarlett’s utter disinterest in the rules of the society in which she lives coupled with her crippling dependence on the good opinion of that same society that is the lynchpin of what drives me crazy about this girl and never is this hypocrisy more apparent than when she is foiled against the scandalous blockader.
Rhett has the same disdain for southern social norms that Scarlett does, however his feelings are not disguised. An open war profiteer, gambler, and social outcast Rhett found an immunity to the slings and arrows of an indignant population by simply being necessary. So in this way, as he did with Scarlett, Rhett exposes the contradictory nature of the things around him. The matriarchs of the city could curse him for a thief in and out of their parlors and bazaars while Dr. Meade could attack him in print, but their indignation was never such that his business ventures seemed to suffer. The outraged southerners still bought his silk and hairpins and other luxuries only further assuring that trinkets of this nature would remain the list of his blockade running in effect choking off the last pipeline for the war goods they swore to be in so dire need of. Buying his tea and his sugar at exorbitant prices and then berating him for the actions they support is laughable in the darkest and most realistic ways. This is the society that won’t accept charity from a prostitute but it will buy useless luxuries from a food speculator. In the interest of equanimity I must acknowledge that as a man Rhett has much more freedom to buck social trends than Scarlett does and it is only because as a reader I have an omnipresent view of her motivations that I know her acquiescence stems more from her want of adoration than it does from fear of reprisals.
Ms. Mitchell presents a much changed south in part two. Where once there were exuberant soldiers gladly running off to war with the gallant tears of the victory assured families they leave behind streaming after them, there are now defiantly optimistic rebels and a population that refuses to admit it’s own war weariness. Beneath this grand backdrop, which looms over the work and the characters in it though is only indirectly experienced through letters and the effects the war is having on the home front, there are several relationships that take on even greater significance in this section. The first, and clearly most prominent, is that of Rhett as he consistently challenges Scarlett’s stubborn adherence to the conventions he hates. However, I think the secondary relationships between Rhett and Melanie, Scarlett and Melanie, and Ashley and Scarlett are all the more telling. Rhett’s softness towards Melanie seems to come from his genuine respect for her owing to the fact that she is naturally the great lady that all of the southern women pretend to be. This hints that perhaps it is the pretense of the society rather than its fundamentals that he is so antagonistic towards. Scarlett on the other hand struggles with her intense jealousy of Melanie for her possession of Ashley, the one thing Scarlett wants most, and a begrudging respect that appears whenever Melanie’s great quality of character cannot be denied. She wants desperately to hate her rival but never seems quite able to dismiss Melanie’s heroic elements, at least until the announcement of Melanie’s pregnancy at which point Scarlett’s jealousy truly usurps her restraints. And through all of this Scarlett steadfastly clings to the certainty that she and Ashley were in love and, but for his stubborn attachment to the cause and his families desires that he should marry Melanie, would be together someday prompting another confession of her feeling just as he leaves to return to the war in Virginia from his Christmas furlough.
It is interesting that the novel is less than half way finished as Ms. Mitchell sets the stage for the final months of the war.

Part 3

If the war was a far off spectre in the first and second parts of this work Ms. Mitchell brings it barreling into the forefront with the third. It is easy for a student of history to be caught up in the battles, the troop movements, the political theory, and all of the things that make the memory of war entertaining and gallant and picturesque, and it is often this opaque prism through which wars are viewed that turns generals and politicians into history’s heroes. With uncanny skill Ms. Mitchell polishes that rearward looking lens and shows, as best as one can in writing, what we’d rather not remember about the awful nature of war. With the army of General Sherman slowly creeping towards Atlanta, the believed impregnable fortress and lifeblood of the Confederacy, it is hard not to feel real ache as first the luxury, then the comforts, and lastly the safety of the city are eroded away page by page. It is amidst the bloody wreckage of the beleaguered southern army, where the women of Atlanta toiled tirelessly, that I began to see the outlines of a slowly changing Scarlett O’Hara from the one I had known to this point. She still harbors the silent disdain for the war and the cause that are depriving her of all the things she loves about life, yet she still works in the hospital. By this point she had already been openly flaunting her disregard for the old rules of social propriety, which were crumbling every bit as much as the confederate cause, so it is hard to define her dedication to this task as merely an attempt to purchase the good humor of the court of public opinion. She was becoming sharper and colder, but she shows this interminable stubborn strength. It is in this strength that Ms. Mitchell seems to finally couch the lance of a hero, however tragically flawed. Despite her internal rants about Melanie and her baby and everything else that hampers her life Scarlett can never bring herself to leave them or send them away. It is almost as though even with all her promises to do otherwise she time and again cares for those she claims to have no need of.
I think the moment Atlanta finally falls and Scarlett is forced to flee the city is the true turning point for her as a character. She may not hold the weight of responsibility as gracefully as her mother had, but there is nothing lacking in her determination, willpower, and fortitude. She is clear headed and resourceful and, though she longs to rest herself in the protection of someone who will tell her what to do, finds a way to do what nothing in her life had prepared her to accomplish. From leading the household back to Tara upon fleeing Atlanta, to resurrecting in part the once grand plantation she found that the entire responsibility for every life there rested with her alone. Scarlett had always been cold, selfish, and ruthless and these traits grate on the nerves of a society at peace (my nerves were no exception) however, these are the very same traits with which she, and I think I don’t overstate my meaning in using the word, valiantly clings to life. At this point I think it’s important to look into two parts of Scarlett’s character, what she thinks and what she does. Throughout the trials of being driven from Atlanta, saving Tara from looting, and struggling to see that her family is fed and clothed her mind still shouts the constant wishes to be free of the freeloaders and those who look to her for guidance, to find a way to shed herself of Melanie and Beau her baby, and even bemoans the presence of her own son. But if it weren’t for my intrusions on her secret thoughts I would no doubt have the angelic view of Scarlett that Melanie has. This makes me wonder even to the lengths of what makes good and evil. Is he who fights and believes somehow more righteous than he who fights yet does not believe?
Both Rhett and Scarlett are stripped of their engineered detachment from the war and the south and I feel that I was presented a defenseless view of them both. Rhett was confronted with the actions of the ordinary soldier, not the politicians and generals for whom he had such disdain, and I think even after all his show to the contrary was truly ashamed of himself. Not because he didn’t believe in the cause, but because he had no attachment to his fellow man which he saw in its purest form as the soldiers helped each other flee the city. Scarlett, for her part, realizes the truth in what her father had told her many times before, that she had a great love for Tara, and the steely resolve that was forged in those months of tribulation hardens into a determination to do much more than persist, but to thrive. Every bit as strong as her love for Ashley she sets herself to move any mountain, defy any convention, break any law to keep and hold the ground so dear to her and for that I cannot help but admire her and fear for her enemies of which I am sure the coming years of the reconstruction will be chief.

Part 4

The aftermath of the war, as I suspect is true of all wars, was rife with all of the strange hypocrisies peculiar to the inescapable oppressiveness of human society. The north had forbidden the south, through force of arms, from forming their own country which is a harrowing thought for a nation that to this day disbelieves itself capable of this type of tyranny of thought. That is not to say that allowing the existence of a country in which slavery persists is not an inherent evil, but the abolishment of that institution is sadly where the righteousness of the north ends. I will leave the bulk of my discussion on this issue for my closing remarks and it is only here mentioned because it is the early years of the reconstruction that is the centerpiece of much of the fourth part of Ms. Mitchell’s work. With the end of the war Scarlett, and the rest of what had been the confederacy, were confronted with the harsh realities that defeat in war has never been historically associated with leniency from the victor. Georgia had become an occupied territory and many of its white citizens were denied the right to participate in a government they were forced to be a part of. During this occupation pushes her “at any cost” mentality to a new extreme when she is immediately confronted with the stark reality that Tara is in just as much danger from the reconstruction as it ever was from the war. Carpetbaggers and Scalawags begin coming out of the woodwork to build fortunes on the ruins of southern civilization and those who had been a part of the confederacy had little recourse to stop it. The imposition of a new three hundred dollar tax, levied at the behest of the twice disgraced Jonas Wilkerson, threatens to bury Tara and the O’Haras once and for all. It is in the light of this threat that Ms. Mitchell shows the lengths to which Scarlett will go to prevent such an inconceivable tragedy. Casting off what was left of the tolerance of southern society Scarlett is willing to turn Yankee sympathizer, thief, and even prostitute in order to stave off the wolves at Tara’s door.
Here, during the reconstruction, Scarlett’s single-mindedness begins to have consequences she never intended. Her every action thus far has been to secure two goals, one to keep and rebuild Tara, and the other to keep Ashley near her. Until this point her relentless pursuit of these goals has been nothing but a boon to her family and for the most part overlooked by society. However, with the ending of the war the tolerance of her socially unacceptable behaviors dries up along with whatever credit the good will of the Sainted Melanie had bought her. Scarlett forfeits everything in her flight from the two things she fears most, fear and uncertainty. She takes control of Frank Kennedy’s store, after stealing him from her sister with a lie about Suellen’s unfaithfulness, and begins to ruthlessly apply her business savvy to work building a fortune which she believes to be the only reliable weapon against her fears. She colludes with scalawags, carpetbaggers, union soldiers, and republicans, purchases and operates lumber mills with the aid of a tyrannical foreman and convict labor, and deals fast and loose so far as honest and the quality of her products are concerned. This is all an extension of her earlier take no prisoners, at all costs, attitude that asserted itself in her desperate struggle for survival after the fall of Atlanta, but there is also something very different about it. Where defending Tara from a looter at the end of a pistol seemed the righteous act of a woman determined not to let the tide and times snuff her and hers out of existence, her fast dealing and near idolatry on the subject of money and material wealth begins to blur the lines of morality. Ms. Mitchell’s creeping, and I think inevitably tragic, masterstroke of asking, “What are the limits of morality with regard to survival?” in two vastly different scenarios and frightening the reader into the realization that the answers can be far from congruent.
I do not believe that Scarlett is responsible for the deaths of Frank Kennedy and the other members of the Ku Klux Klan that rode into the night seeking a vigilante justice they felt pressured into by the occupying union army. The causality theories regurgitated by so many of my unfortunate generation are abhorrent to anyone who believes that personal responsibility can and must be one of the keystones of our society if it is to withstand the weight of its own humanity, so I do not count the death of Scarlett’s second husband amongst the list of unintended consequences of her actions. However, I believe Ms. Mitchell is setting the stage for a tragic final act where, in true Shakespearean fashion, the trait most responsible for our heroin’s perseverance will ultimately claim her soul. Where else can Scarlett’s mad scramble for wealth and security and engineered happiness lead but to disaster? As Scarlett finally falls into the arms of Rhett in a whirlwind of scandal and rumor it seems as though she’s about to get everything she ever wanted, and exactly what she has asked for.

Part 5

I don’t really know how to start summarizing my feeling about the closing section of this book. As I finished the last lines I immediately ran to the computer to begin writing and when I got here found myself a bit overwhelmed. Watching as Scarlett and Rhett teeter on precariously towards the breaking point is a heartbreaking sight and I think therein lies the real tragedy of the entire situation and it is the birth of Bonnie seems to be catalyst for the final schism of the Butler family. Even as Rhett moves Heaven and Earth to establish his daughter in the society he had so long derided, Scarlett is clinging to the false security of her association with what are slightingly called “new people” and her misguided belief that the reconstruction’s hold on the south would be as immortal as it was absolute. It is hard not to sympathize with Rhett; through all of his years of waiting for Scarlett to truly come to him and being so terribly afraid of revealing his feelings for her knowing what havoc she could wreak should she even suspect the depths of his love. It is devastating to know, whether Scarlett realizes it or not, that these two scoundrels who love each other so much should be kept apart by their perfect inability to trust one another. Neither one of them is willing to admit, even for a moment, the vulnerability required to take the first step towards openness, and by the time Scarlett belatedly comes to that realization it is too late.
The deaths of Melanie and Bonnie, the former being hard to bear even as a reader and the latter foreshadowing Rhett’s utter collapse, cut the last lines of defense for both of these characters. Rhett had poured all of his unrequited love into the little girl who so reminded him of the woman he felt he could never truly have, and Scarlett finally stumbles into the sad truth of Melanie’s greatness just as she was about to lose her. With the end of the war far behind them and the receding of the omnipresence of the reconstruction Scarlett is left to wonder at the house that her survival instinct built and how fragile it really is. Ms. Mitchell floods the final moments of this epic with an oppressive darkness with Melanie’s failing health, Scarlett and Rhett’s progressively worsening alcoholism, and the general sense that the fortunes and stability of everything they had worked towards and relied upon were dry sandcastles that would never survive real scrutiny. Not to be lost amongst the bevy of tragedies that fill the last pages of this novel Scarlett finally sees Ashley in the light that she had been denying for her entire life. Like all of the sadness that rains at the close of this work it comes just too late leaving any redemption that could be gained from this realization as hopeless as it is without remedy.
But even with such a dark and crushing finale the novel ends with a strange contrast. The novel explores not only the loss of the southern confederacy, but really the southern way of life. It’s greatest pillar, Melanie Wilkes, dies in defiance of the hand fate had dealt her, the apparently indestructible Rhett and Ashley are crushed beneath the weight of things they never had the strength the bear, and soon the homeland they had all known would fade into a memory barely more real than legend. However, despite all of this we are left with Scarlett defiantly unbeaten. She still has her eyes set on tomorrow with every intention of undoing whatever break Rhett had allowed in his love for her. Even without the two people who had been the bulwarks of her strength, Ellen and Melanie, she never appears truly lost though her thoughts fear that potentiality often. Her selfish, stubborn, and pig headed nature along with her uncanny ability to defer the objections of her conscience for her own ends are unendurably frustrating and had me alternating between being her ally and her enemy throughout the length of the work. Whatever else can be said about her I think that, whatever her methods, there is a redeemable quality in her staunch refusal to let anyone or anything break her leaving the only question being whether or not she was ultimately changed by the terrible events that closed the novel.

Final Thoughts

Having rambled for some time now I will try and keep this brief. It would be small of me to say something so trite as “I enjoyed this book very much”, but with the sting of its turbulence still hanging on me I find it hard to say much else. I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Mitchell’s storytelling, her uncomfortably violent and starkly realistic characters, and the epic scope of what could have been little more than a tragic love story. I could feel the hunger during the lean years of the war, Scarlett’s desperation to forge a lasting security for her and her family, the heartbreak that lingered over Rhett throughout at his inability to break into that stubborn heart beating for a man she didn’t even know she didn’t love, I could even feel the oppressive sense of loss as an entire way of life died away. Some mention of the historical inaccuracies should be made of which I think the almost heroic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan might be the most egregious. I’ll not argue that perhaps there were a few members who saw vigilantism as their only recourse to a corrupt reconstruction government, but to paint the entirety of that type of organization with such a broad and generous stroke is a stretch even for historical fiction. This and other historical alterations, particularly involving the scope of corruption in restoration governments which I think have perhaps been exaggerated for dramatic purposes, and the portrayal of black characters, many of whom come across dangerously close to generalizations based upon stereotypes rather than fully fleshed out characters, should not be disregarded, but I also think that these licenses do not damage the true quality of this work and leaving me questioning my understanding of people and glad having read it. I can ask no more from a wonderful work of art.

A Separate Peace

 

A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, has always been a book surrounded in mystery ever since it entered my care many years ago. Though it has been patiently resting on my desk since it was assigned me by a teacher I can no longer name, though I feel some confidence in saying that it was probably in the middle school years, it has since continually caught my eye in passing. All of my books have been moved and reorganized a dozen times or more in that span and each time for some unknown reason this one would always end up near me. Normally this would be no great thing as it’s not uncommon for me to have books lying about everywhere, but in this case it was a book that I was very little acquainted with. Now I am sure that, before the reading I’m about to discuss, I had read the book at the time of its assignment, however, I am just as sure that I did so under protest which is the manner in which I did all school activities. It’s amusing to see that even though I’m sure I exerted the full force of my engrained antagonism against this book for its chief sin of being homework I still kept it. In all this time it never occurred to me to get rid it and I’m afraid to admit it might be because somewhere inside me I actually believe that because a teacher somewhere told me that this book contained something I needed, when he or she could have given me any of a million books, that it could not be entirely without merit. This startling confession aside I was wandering a bit aimlessly through my room when I became possessed of a need to finally revisit this quiet yet persistent little book. My hand-me-down, mid-seventies, and well worn paperback with browning pages was more than ready to be remembered.

It didn’t take me but a few pages into the first chapter for me to recall the one small plot point that had found a crevice to survive in deep in my memory. When Gene, the narrator, begins to set the stage for the New Hampshire boarding school I remembered a simple little fact, someone falls down the stairs at the end. That was it, the only piece of this novel that had survived from the first reading and all it took was a mention of the polished marble of the first hall to revive it. There is an interesting parallel between the narrative structure and my current reading. Gene is returning to the sight of the novel fifteen years later and laments the efforts to preserve the Devon school. The polished wood and marble seem to him newer and more haunting than when he had lived there, whereas to myself, who was similarly returning to the school after a comparable length of time found it ripe with foreboding. For him the tragedy was behind him and for me it lingered ahead. Gene was confronted with a Devon that was starkly different from the one carved into his memory. The tree, which towered over the landscape as an event far more than it did in any physical sense, the fields, and the dormitories all in conflict with the school he remembered,

 

“This was the tree, and it seemed to me standing there to resemble those men, the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age. In this double demotion the old giants have become pigmies while you were looking the other way.”(Knowles 6)

Though this thought may be indicative of Gene’s want to diminish the significance of that tree it also stirred my native distrust of first person narrators, particularly in flashback. This distrust, which has been an invaluable reading tool and joyfully employed and honed while delving into the depths of such works as The Island of Dr. Moreau and Grinning White Teeth both of which are perhaps due for more extensive reading, sets in early in this novel and daringly lays in the foreground throughout. I found myself constantly wondering if the idealistic portrayal of Phineas was accurate or merely another aggrandized childhood memory. This brings to light one of the major themes that I have found within this work and that is of the question as to whether or not we can, by choice, dictate the reality we live in.

This novel is set firmly in the hands of a band of school boys, Phineas and Gene in particular, coming of age during the height of the second world war. Despite the appearance of complete seclusion from the global struggle it seems that the strain of conflict seeps even into the marrow of the school. Athletics and academics evolve into arenas that forge jealousies and rivalries indicating that there is some animalistic competition in human nature that exists regardless of religion, politics, or background. The tragedy behind this fact is that it seems to assert itself without warning or instigation as though it was just there all along waiting for any excuse to usurp the mind wherein it lay waiting. Phineas, as described by a guilt ridden narrator, appears to be alone immune from this competition. He beats a school swimming record with no regard for any accompanying accolade, he creates games that cannot be won, and I think truly believes his staggering physical accomplishments are shared somehow with anyone and everyone. Many of the tragic elements of this novel flashed onto the page and were gone before I could even rightly comprehend what had happened. Gene’s sudden jealousy, his causing Phineas’ fall from the tree, his conflicting need for honest forgiveness and fervent denial all strike in well timed succession throughout the book.

I think that Phineas’ determination to disbelieve the existence of the war, while attributing it to the controlling interests of far away old men, and Gene’s several attempts to alter the history of his actions in his own mind highlight these boy’s need to control the truth of the world in which they live. Phineas looks to protect himself from the truth of what he’s lost both physically and with regard to someone he refers to often as his best friend, and Gene looks to do the same with the shame he feels over what he has done. They both seem to think that if they just believe it hard enough they can convince the world, and thereby themselves, that nothing bad ever happened. Even when Gene finds the courage to confess what he did that truth is too terrible for them to believe openly so they choose to have a delusion that it simply never happened. Of perhaps some historical significance this is quite similar to the United States before its forced entrance into the war where there seemed to be a determined self imposed ignorance of what was going on in Europe in the hopes of remaining detached.

However, the deconstruction of these delusions has two phases that succeed one another towards the end of the book. The first is that of Leper, the naturalist entranced by the image of the war supplied by the government, and the second is Brinker’s tribunal. Both of these events force Leper and Gene respectively to confront the world as it is rather than how they would see it. Gene cannot cope with Leper’s psychotic break and coldly turns away from him. I believe that this is in part because, as he to that point had refused to see, it would force him to admit that in its rawest form human nature might be beyond restraint in which case the evil that consumed him which had caused him to shake his friend from a tree forever changing Phineas’ life would endanger every moment of every day from then on. He could never be certain that another time or another second of lapsed watchfulness would not spill some other horror.  In this way the denial of the evil done becomes every bit as tragic as the evil itself. Even as Brinker begins his school yard tribunal having suspected the truth behind Phineas’ fall both Phineas and Gene hold fast to their desperate belief that it just wasn’t true.

It is Phineas’ flight from the tribunal which led to his falling down the stairs of the First Hall that had stuck with me after all these years, however I did not remember at all what had followed. I had prepared myself for Phineas to die on those stairs which is why finding out that he had only reinjured his broken leg bewildered me and left me emotionally unprepared for his death following the complications with setting the bone. It struck me very soundly in a way that could only be engineered by my vaguest of memories from all those years ago. This makes Gene’s confession, the honest and whole confession which was unlike his first attempt to do so, so much more powerful. The novel builds this tragedy throughout with simple strokes and deceptive subtlety. With the backdrop of a world at war this story shows that even the last refuge of peace there is a darkness hiding.

I make no pretense at review, however I did enjoy the work and its sad reminders that even in our closest friendships we sometimes let jealousies fester. There is no doubt that I gave it a fairer reading then I did before but there is certainly a wealth more here than I have discussed today. It puts me in the mind to revisit other works that have a similar sort of place in my memory such as Bridge to Terabithia. I will return A Separate Peace to its place on my desk and there’s no doubt my mind will linger there again in the fields of the Devon school someday soon.

Knowles, John. A Separate Peace. New York: Bantam, 1975. Print.