Monday, September 21, 2015

The Betty and Veronica Effect in Victorian Fiction

Betty and Veronica are two comic book characters in the comic Archie.  The two women vie for the affection of the titular hero, forming a love triangle.  One would think that Archie would have a more difficult choice if both women were very similar, but no: they are dynamically different, with Betty being the wholesome girl-next-door and Veronica is the dangerous Vamp.  One need only refer to TV Tropes to see that this is a common storytelling technique, seeing whether the hero will choose safety or danger, good or bad, light or dark.  But as I’d like to point out in the following blog entry, this sort of character dynamic is much older than Archie.

I’ve read a lot of Victorian novels, and most—especially those written by male authors—have a tendency towards saintly female characters who are so very good and yet so very, very boring.  Most of them may have upright natures, but they are helpless to stop whatever injustice is done to them or their loved ones.  

Monday, September 14, 2015

A Novel Without A Hero: A Review of Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”

I normally would NEVER use an image of marionettes,
Thackaray's novel is presented as a puppet show, so this image is unfortunately fitting.
William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair is subtitled “A Novel without a Hero.” It’s a moral piece, meant to show the fallibility (the “vanity”) of every human being in a realistic, unapologetic way. It’s also a sort of parody or farce, a self-proclaimed “puppet show” where Thackeray is the puppet-master and omniscient of every action or thought of the characters, on or off the stage. Above all, it is what in literary jargon is referred to as a “picaresque;” an episodic story dealing with the various adventures and mischief-makings of  the hero, who is usually rude and amoral, but nevertheless charms the audience into liking him....or, in this case, her. 

I first learned of the picaresque genre in a college class. The word comes from the Spanish meaning “rogue” or “rascal,” referring to the less-than-sterling character of the protagonist. In that class we read Lazarillo de Tormez, a short story about such a rogue who is trying to explain his actions to the Spanish Inquisition. A more widely-known example of picaresque might be Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, about a boy every reader would secretly like to have been (or at least befriended) as a child, but whom no adult would like the responsibility of babysitting.

In a way, Vanity Fair is comprised of two plotlines that sometimes intersect. The first is for Amelia Sedley, a young lady from the family of country gentility whose family slowly loses all its money and influence, and whose own short-lived, disastrous marriage leaves her a young widow grieving over the ideal memory of a man she barely knew. Amelia is the stereotypical Victorian lady, all purity and amiability and reliance on the men in her life. Her love is selfishly selfless, in that she wants what’s best for her young son so much that she obsesses over him, doesn’t discipline him, and doesn’t stand up for her own rights or what she knows to be right. I said that Thackeray portrays all his characters as flawed: Amelia’s flaw is that she forces herself to fit into the mold of Perfect Sacrificial Lady and Mother so much that she actually idolizes it and her identity is consumed by this ideal.

The second plotline is the picaresque story of Becky Sharp, a shrewd, talented, and amoral young orphan who is classmates with Amelia at the beginning of the book. Aside from the fact that she is clever, witty, level-headed, clear-sighted, frank, a good singer, able to speak French, brave, and beautiful, there is nothing likeable about Becky Sharp. She’s cruel, cold-hearted, mercenary…which is entirely uncalled for, even if she is an orphan with no money and who needs to work or marry well in order to survive. Unlike Amelia who is consumed with an identity that society demands she fit into, Becky claws her way to the top with well-placed words of flattery. Her marriage to the dragoon Rawdon Crawley is just as scandalous as Amelia’s own marriage, and both of these unions are met with disapproval and disowning. Yet Becky has a knack for bouncing back from misfortune, and flirts and flatters her way back into everyone’s good graces. Like Hardy had to derail the independent Bathsheba Everdeen with uncharacteristically foolish decisions, Thackeray has a hard time keeping the reader from downright liking the incorrigible Miss Sharp, and so has to add that she’s a terrible mother--and possibly worse--just to keep us from cheering her on quite so much.

Though Margaret Mitchell apparently denied it with vehemence, in my opinion there is no way that Vanity Fair did not have some sort of influence on the writing of Gone With the Wind. There is far too much resemblance in the characters of Becky and Amelia to Scarlett and Mellie, as well as the whole “two women caught on a battlefield” scenario which appears in both novels.  If you've read Gone With the Wind or at least watched the movie, I’ll simply say that you have some idea of the story of Vanity Fair, without completely giving away every twist or turn of its plot. 

In conclusion, I agree with Thackeray’s subtitle: There is no hero. All the characters, even the faithful Dobbin and the “innocent” children, are flawed by vanity, pride, instinctive neediness or greed, and selfishness. There is no hero in this novel, just as there is nobody perfect in real life. I would, however, suggest that there might possibly be a heroine.  It simply depends on your point of view who that heroine might be.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Iron Ring by Lloyd Alexander: A Review

I love classics.  They are probably my favorite “genre” of book to pick off the shelf, though of course classics can’t be defined into one particular genre of romance, suspense, mystery or tragedy.  Yet no matter how many classics I read—the centuries-old stories lauded by contemporary and modern audiences and critics alike, written about by scholars, argued by academics, and force-fed to students—I always eventually return to Lloyd Alexander.

I had already read all of Jane Austen’s novels, David Copperfield, Robinson Crusoe, several Shakespearean dramas, Jane Eyre, and all of the Sherlock Holmes stories before I picked up my first Lloyd Alexander YA novel.  But for a shy, introverted bookworm such as myself, it was akin to meeting a best friend. 

Lloyd Alexander’s novels for children and teens are almost always action-adventure books.  Often the main character is a young man who must come of age through a series of misfortunes that usually lead him to meet a despicable Villain (often a corrupt bureaucrat abusing his authority) and helped by at one or two Comic Relief sidekicks and one feisty Heroine with whom he falls in love. 

These characters are sometimes a bit caricatured, but in the world Alexander creates—somewhere between a heightened reality and a book of fairy tales and fables—they are definitely vivid and alive.  The reader easily identifies with the emotions and problems of the main heroes.  And then there is always Alexander’s distinctive sense of humor.  And beyond the formula of these novels there is usually something deeper, a theme that is taught in a non-preachy way. 

The Iron Ring is one such story.  Set in a pseudo-Indian world of talking animals, a caste-ridden society, and principalities that struggle amongst each other for power, King Tamar of Sundari is our young, idealistic hero.  When he shows hospitality to a fellow-king—the rude and condescending King Jaya—he finds himself forced to prove his dharma and defend his dignity…by gambling away his life in a dice game.  The next morning he wakes up, and none of his advisors or servants remember Jaya’s visit.  Tamar is almost convinced it was a horrible dream…until he notices an Iron Ring on his finger, a symbol of what he owes Jaya. 

Because he is a man of his word, Tamar sets out to Jaya’s kingdom, unsure if it really exists.  On the way many side-adventures threaten to distract or keep him from his goal: he becomes embroiled in a blood-feud between brother princes, he rescues the impudent Monkey King Hashkat from the King of Snakes, Shesha, and finds himself enthralled by the beautiful and unconventional cow-tender Mirri, to name a few of his adventures. 

The common thread running through every episode is Tamar’s strict code of honor, his strident clinging to dharma, which in the book is explained as the rules of nature for every being’s station in life.  For the monkey Hashkat, for example, he is only following a monkey’s dharma when he is tricky and thieving, while to a human king like Tamar trickery and theft are completely against his lot in life.  The problem with Tamar’s attitude, though, is that he allows social expectations to guide him more than his own moral compass: it is only when he has lost everything that he thought was true about himself that he can finally know what kind of person he is, and is freed to follow what is good and right rather than what is expected of him and his kingly caste.