The Decade of Literary Explosion: 10 Books in 10 Years

In my previous post, I mentioned that I was making my way through Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a novel of intense psychological depth, gripping suspense, and captivating revelations of the dirt and poverty of man’s depraved being. Truly, apart from Christ we can do nothing, and Crime unflinchingly exposes this theme in the barren alleys of 19th century St. Petersburg.

Simultaneously, I have been watching the 25th anniversary concert of Les Misérables with my daughters. We happened to listen one day to “Look Down” – the opening number with Javert and the chain gang – and my girls loved it, asking to hear it over and over. Soon enough, we watched the concert together, and my girls were asking for Jean Valjean and Fantine; just yesterday, I caught my eldest singing, “24601!” Needless to say, we have all been entranced.

So as my reading has been tunneling the streets of St. Petersburg with Raskolnikov and my listening has been building barricades with Enjolras and Marius, I’ve felt my mind begin to consider similarities in theme, tone, and pathos between the two works. I am hoping to dedicate a future post to investigating such a comparison.

For now, I was further struck by the fact that both works were published within about five years of each other. Looking further, I began to notice that the decade of the 1860s was an extraordinary era of literary flourishing as grand masterpieces erupted from America, England, France, Russia, and many other countries. The foundation had already been set in the previous decade with the impressive publications of The Scarlet Letter and David Copperfield (1850), Moby Dick (1851), Walden and Hard Times (1854), Leaves of Grass (1855), Madame Bovary (1856), and A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Yet, one sees from 1860-1869 a truly magnificent development in literature as groundbreaking works nearly toppled on top of each other, signaling one of the brightest hours in literary history.

Victorian LondonThis list is unbearably narrow, meaning that the work of contemporaries like Matthew Arnold, Charles Spurgeon, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Tennyson, and Abraham Lincoln are criminally unmentioned.

First, in 1860, we see the serialization of Charles Dickens’ greatest novel Great Expectations beginning, culminating the following year in 1861. This novel, a bildungsroman and the second of his to feature a first-person narrator, would ultimately become his finest triumph, chronicling the tempestuous life of Pip Pirrip as he navigates the artificiality of the upper classes in London and discovers the hollowness of his own ambitions in the process.

Next, in 1861, George Eliot publishes her moral allegory Silas Marner, a short but enchanting account of loss and salvation through the memorable appearance of little Eppie Marner to the hardened home of the title character.LesMis-main

In 1862 across the channel, beloved French author Victor Hugo publishes his sensational goliath Les Misérables, the story of Jean Valjean, “the weeping criminal”, as he struggles to accept and redistribute the grace and mercy of a loving God.

In 1864, Dickens returns to the writing table to pen his penultimate novel (and the last completed one before his death in 1870) Our Mutual Friend. Meanwhile in the cold heart of Russia, Fyodor Dostoevsky writes his brief, yet harrowing account of the underground man in Notes from Underground, a turbulent and strikingly honest account of a “sick and spiteful man” working out his pain and suffering in dreaded isolation.

maxresdefaultOn a lighter note (…possibly, depending on your interpretation), Lewis Carroll publishes his famous work Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, and readers everywhere have been led down the rabbit hole ever since.

On a certainly darker note (…again, possibly, depending on your interpretation and your overall personality), Dostoevsky sees the overnight success of his 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment. Who knew an axe murder could be so philosophically intriguing?

Back in America in 1867, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, publishes his first book, a collection of short stories titled The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Twain would go on to write The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; of the latter, Ernest Hemingway claimed, “All of modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.

In 1868 another American classic arises: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. While Twain’s writing would bring light and recognition to the American south, Alcott’s did the same for New England, depicting the power of domestic drama and the fierce bonds of sisterly affection and love. Except when Amy tossed Jo’s manuscript in the fire. Gracious.

Lastly, in 1869, and merely three years after the appearance of Crime and Punishment comes Russia’s other hulking giant: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. If the 1860s were a lineup, Russia may just be batting cleanup with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky publishing a combined 2,000 pages of literary strength. So much snow.

So there you are; ten impressive contributions to literary history in just ten short years. I’m sure Queen Victoria was thrilled… if she could be bothered enough to actually smile.

Happy reading!

3 Classics that Preach the Gospel

pile-de-livres-e1418392637859As my classes this year begin to wind down, I find myself making frequent glances in the rearview mirror, looking back at all the worlds I have led my students through. From the electric streetlights of New York to the vast acreage of the Russian countryside, from the courts of Denmark to the Paris Opera House, the wintry streets of Victorian London to the cramped apartment of a desperate salesman*, I am taken aback by the sheer beauty and splendor afforded in the simple pleasure of reading books.

One particular glory, and perhaps the preeminent one, is the power stories have to speak the truth. As someone once said, fiction is “the lie that tells the truth,” and so, I’d like to share three classic works of fiction that, I contend, edify and encourage the believer through their depiction of the Great Story that God is telling. These are simply a small handful of works that reveal, in some measure, either in their portrayal of man’s tragedy or his redemption, the awesome wonder of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  1. Silas Marner by George Eliot

Falsely accused and abandoned by both his fiancee and his best friend, the weaver Silas Marner’s most grievous despair comes from the loss of his faith in the process. God, it would seem, has also withdrawn, leaving him desperate and alone in a home that has lost all familiarity, all comfort. So Silas retreats from his beloved old life and further into the darkened caverns of his battered heart.

Yet, in true form, all is not lost, for God, the beloved Father, has never left Silas Marner’s side. As the weaver burrows himself deeper in his gloom, God sends a wandering, helpless child through his door, toddling her way to the warm fire. As the novel progresses, Silas must learn to father little Eppie and raise her to love and care in a world lacking such virtues. A beautiful work of loss and redemption, sadness and joy, Silas Marner shows us the goodness of a sovereign God who designs all things, both sorrow and gladness, to His fullest glory.

2. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Pip, the poor orphan boy raised “by hand” by an abusive sister, lives on the scraps and meager margins of life. Opening the novel alone in his parents’ graveyard, Pip suddenly finds himself on the receiving end of death threats from a hardened, terrifying convict, demanding food and a file to free his chains. Yet, though Pip has nothing of a future ahead of him, he dreams of a life in London, the top hats and cobblestone streets, the theater and the busy coaches. In short, Pip dreams of being a somebody.  And so, when a mysterious benefactor sends him an inexplicably magnificent fortune, granting Pip the impossible opportunity to attain his expectations, Pip is ecstatic.

But, as Pip finds, not all that glitters is gold. Throughout Pip’s experience in the city, he must, both literally and figuratively, wave the fog and chimney mist from his eyes, constantly wiping away the crumbling illusions of his makeshift fantasies. The world, Pip discovers, is greedier, crueler, dirtier, and lonelier than he had imagined. What remains for Pip, then, is to watch his worldly ambitions fade to nothing only to discover the true joy and grace that had been beckoning to him all along. Considered by many to be Dickens’ masterpiece, Great Expectations guides its reader from the warmth of home to the prodigal “far country” and, thankfully, back again with the spiritual richness and stylistic aplomb typical of Dickensian fiction.

3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

At once both Gothic thriller and philosophical discourse, Frankenstein perhaps is one of the more misrepresented works of Romantic literature. Dr. Victor Frankenstein is obsessed with scientific exploration and daring feats of progress, namely, the discovery of reanimation and the source of life. Written in the short wake of Galvani’s work with electricity, Shelley’s novel examines the ethical, social, and religious implications of playing God as Frankenstein assembles a motley cadaver from dead men’s limbs and surges it to life. Yet, the creature he thought would bring him worldwide renown and adoration in the scientific community turns out to be a harrowing monster, eight feet tall and more powerful than Frankenstein had ever dreamed. What follows is a cat-and-mouse pursuit as Frankenstein runs from his creature and, ultimately, the consequences of his deeds.

The true beauty of this novel, however, lies in the way Shelley provokes sympathy for the monster. In her world, this creature becomes a being that longs to know its telos, its purpose, in this hostile and chaotic world. The monster, in this sense, is transformed into a type of Adam, created and designed by an expert hand, as he subsequently roams western Europe in search of his maker. Perhaps the most climactic and stirring moment occurs when Frankenstein and his monster meet atop Mount Blanc, embodying the classic , almost mythical confrontation between creature and creator. In this sequence, the monster finally interrogates Frankenstein, begging him to accept him, love him, and explain his purpose for being. Yet, for all his earnest pleading, the monster receives no kindness in turn as Frankenstein berates and abandons him, damning him to his alienated and miserable state alone and confused.

As awful as Frankenstein treats his creature, the story awakens the reader’s heart to the contrary opportunity we all have in addressing our own Maker. Unlike Frankenstein, He will never spurn us with disgust; rather, we serve a good Father who made us in His living image, not from the rotted, corroding skin of death. In this way, Frankenstein shows us the inadequacy of humanism compared to the lovingkindness of a sovereign God. We, as it turns out, make lousy gods.

 

*These works are The Great Gatsby, The Seagull, Hamlet, The Phantom of the Opera, Great Expectations, and The Metamorphosis.

Scrooge, Marner, and the Lethal Love of Money

IMG_2417In Charles Dickens’ near-perfect novella A Christmas Carol, the iconic miser Ebenezer Scrooge endures a painful series of journeys to the past, present, and future to discover the depths of his selfishness and to redeem his crooked heart. Among his famous visits to Mr. Fezziwig’s party, the Cratchit house, and his own grave, one scene in particular is quite moving. As the Ghost of Christmas Past reveals to Scrooge a number of scenes of his boyhood and younger years, a vision of his potential, yet ultimately unrealized marriage to Belle appears, causing Scrooge to beg the Ghost to “show [him] no more!” In this episode, Belle pleads with the younger Scrooge to remember his former love and affection toward her, feelings which had grown cold over time as his piles of gold rose ever higher:

“It matters little,” she said softly. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”

“What Idol has displaced you!” he rejoined.

“A golden one.”

For Scrooge, his obsession with his “master-passion, Gain” through the pursuit of money clouds out the real warmth of a woman who loved him dearly.

Similarly, in George Eliot’s 1861 novel Silas Marner, we see another instance where money-chasing leads to destruction. Upon his exile from Lantern Yard following false charges of theft, the weaver Marner winds up a stranger in Raveloe where he stays alone in his cottage on the fringes of town and hoards his income beneath his floorboards. Like Scrooge, Marner’s soul becomes intimately connected with his wealth as he sits alone at his table in the company of gold coins:

“The light of his faith quite put out, and his affections made desolate, he had clung with all the force of his nature to his work and his money; and like all objects to which a man devotes himself, they had fashioned him into correspondence with themselves. […] His gold, as he hung over it and saw it grow, gathered his power of loving together into a hard isolation like its own.”

For both Scrooge and Marner, their stacks of gold became surrogates for the people they once loved, standing in for fiancees (Belle and Sarah, respectively) they lost long ago. Their love of money, an all-consuming obsession, serves as a coping mechanism for fear, loneliness, and, most of all, purposelessness. Wishing to discover a sense of significance and identity, they resort to chasing money in hopes to find security, control, and assurance that they will never be hurt again. As Jim Carrey famously quipped at the Golden Globe awards, they were on a “terrible search” for joy and satisfaction.

Yet, money-chasing can never provide genuine rest. The quota mentality remains a stubborn factor: How much money must one have to be happy? When will enough be enough?

While the first half of Paul’s statement to Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all evil”is more famous, it is the last half of the verse that is most striking. See the full verse:

“For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (KJV, emphasis added)

Paul notes that money-chasing is not only a poisonous root to further evils but also an invitation for many sorrows to pierce the heart. In other words, the pursuit of money for its own sake is a confident step directly into enemy fire, an intentional upward look at a shower of arrows, barechested and shieldless. The love of money is lethal, a greed and discontentment that festers and rots until the heart is brought to ruin. It drives people away from any sort of need for faith or trust, tempting them to see their own wealth as a mighty fortress. Ironically, our currency is right: In God we certainly trust. I just wonder if that god is the piece of paper we’re holding.

So our only hope is to release our clinched fists and let our dollars go because palms that are freed from the grip of gold are free to be given grace.