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Victorian Age, that supposedly dark age of medieval thought, is known for its strict morals and orthodoxy and perhaps a few would associate it with Dickens too. It was those double standard morals that shaped every bit of society from the clothing to the stories in the magazines to the way women and men should behave and carry on relations.
Tess of D’Urbervilles is very much a product of its time. But wait, there’s a twist. And you would have to wait a bit longer to know that or perhaps when you read the book, eh?
Moving on, the novel by Thomas Hardy is singular in that it features a woman protagonist: Tess as the heroine. And like all heroines she too faces her own set of trials and tribulations in love and money matters among other things. And typical of Hardy, the novel is set in the country side-a place he never tires singing praises of as the sylvan beauty as against the raging industrialisation that was changing the British landscape.
The novel begins with Tess’ father finding out from Parson Tringham that he in fact belongs to an old lineage, an ancient line of family who were once rich and owned boundless land. This sets him on the path to use this info to his advantage and therefore sets out his eldest daughter, Tess, to be engaged to work with a rich relative (who are actually upstarts who have merely borrowed the last name!) close by. It is there she meets the brash son of the old lady she has to work for, Alec D’Urberville. And his constant pursuit of her despite Tess’s dislike for him, changes Tess’ life for the worse until she decides to take matter into her own hands and find another occupation in Mr. Crick’s dairy instead of sitting idle crying over her fate. Over there her life unfolds without much ado as she likes it and she falls in love with one of the dairy hands, Angel Clare, who had interestingly even seen her before at a countryside May dance and danced in that very group too. What then happens is a series of romantic trysts along with a bit of tragedy and the book ends on a bittersweet note that will linger for sometime.
So that seems plain enough right? Girl loves the boy and they have ups and downs and somehow then its smooth sailing? So where’s the twist?
But no Tess of D’Urbervilles is more complicated than that. Hardy has nuanced the story well so that it does not read like just another moral story about love, relations and women. It is layered story which at every turn of the page forces you to think beyond the status quo, beyond the rigid morals and social norms and archetypes especially that of the fallen woman and woman as a temptress. He thought way ahead of his time! For one, Tess is not the typical damsel in distress who believes her world has ended if no man loves her or rejects her. She picks up the pieces and gets on with her life and tries to order her life with her own choices. She is the agency for her own life and that is something commendable to see in a Victorian Era book (Indian soaps should learn something from Hardy!). The ending jars with the whole plot and may have been put perhaps to please the moralistic Victorian readers of the time. Who knows?
Hardy himself does fall prey to certain set ways of depicting the woman such as Tess as a divine ethereal being, the portrayal of her physique to emphasise her beauty and put her in the stock character of the temptress, thus exempting the man from any blame.
Yet, the novel is peppered with several gems like his beautiful descriptions of the setting-Blackmoor Vale and others that are too exhaustive to list here. But one I cannot help listing is Tess utterance when she is leaving Alec and her work to go back home in the 2nd part of the novel: ” If I did love you I may have the best o’ causes for letting you know it. But I don’t.” It is a succinct take on the much abused “no” of a woman to her so called admirer, pursuer who expects that he alone can somehow convert that no into a yes. It is clearly stating that a no means a no and if i did love you I would let you know it. Are the Bollywood filmmakers listening??
For the review of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, another marvelous and beautifully written novel, click here.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The opening lines of the enormous Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy would draw in any reader despite the sheer size of the book. I mean who wouldn’t want to derive voyeuristic pleasures from the sorrows of others and feel good about yourselves right? And get some masala/drama in your life right? Isn’t that the principle which the Indian soaps thrive on? Who wouldn’t want to get away from their drab mundane lives to gorge greedily on the much more exciting conflicts of others?
But comparing an Indian soap to one of Tolstoy’s masterpieces is a grave sin in the world of literary canon hegemony but an analogy never harmed anyone now, did it?
Saying that, I will confess that Anna Karenina is a splendid look at the Russian upper class society through the microcosm of a few representative individuals. It really can never be compared to a soap because it has none of its crass vulgarisation of emotions and conflict and societal ills.
For those of you who don’t know, Leo Tolstoy is a Russian author, born in the 1800s into a upper class estate owning family much like the ones depicted in the novel. He is known for this novel and another huge book, War and Peace. Despite the size that can put off many novella, quick read obsessed readers of today, Anna Karenina is a brilliant, beautiful novel that is gripping and engaging as it ploughs it way through a range of characters and stories and covers within its range a sweeping yet scathing look at the hollowness of upper class Russian society. For more on the writer and his works..well don’t click anywhere, go find out on your own!
Now to the plot:
WARNING: Spoilers ahead:
Anna Karenina is told from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator. The narrator shifts the attention to several characters and namely the stories of Anna and Levin are often paralleled with the other characters’ mixed in.
The eponymous heroine, Anna, is apparently happily married to a well off bureaucrat,Alexei Karenin, but on the railway station(not sure but I think it was in Saint Petersburg), where she decides to take a train to see her brother-Oblonsky (Stiva) to save his marriage after his affair has created fissures between him and Dolly(Stiva’s wife), she stumbles upon Vronksy and she immediately has seeds of something uneasy moving in her which later blooms into a full blown love affair with the man.
Meanwhile, Levin, Stiva’s friend from the country, has come to propose to Dolly’s young sister, Kitty, on her debutante. However, it seems like she is smitten by this Vronksy fellow as well. Things don’t exactly go as planned for any of them at the debutante. Both Kitty and Levin have their hearts broken as one they love is in love with someone else.
Tolstoy quickly in the first part introduces you to all the characters and sets all the plot lines in action for the story to move forward and we get slowly enmeshed in their troubled, unhappy lives. Anna and Vronksy carry on their affair discreetly at first and then too much in love they decide to defy everyone and live off on their own while Karenin files for divorce. Levin on the other hand gradually recovers from his heart break through work on his farm/estate where he is continually trying to better the farm yields and the lives of his tenant farmers. The clandestine affair quickly spirals downwards as both face the bitter consequences of society’s disapproval (which for Anna is more pronounced than for Vronksy because well since Russian society like most patriarchal societies is quick to blame the woman rather than see it as an affair involving two people).
The novel proffers multiple viewpoints and at first there is no character that is given the privilege of being the right one. Yet somewhere, Levin and his lifestyle and his eventual settling into happiness through a family of his own seems to suggest that he was the author’s voice. In fact, many critics have speculated that Levin is a semi-autobiographical character. Tolstoy’s own wife, Sophia, after reading the first part of the novel commented, “Levin is you, minus the talent.” There are undoubtedly similarities between the two and by the end of the novel, we can be sure that it is Levin and all that he stands for that Tolstoy privileges from among the plethora of his characters.
The book has been called flawless by several modern authors such as Dostoyevsky and Nabakov. What however, I personally feel that Tolstoy falls short of is that he left his defiance incomplete. It was quite uncommon to write about women having affairs and that too so blatantly in his time and in the initial parts he succeeds, through his careful underlining of Anna’s marriage breaking up or being just another societal charade and his skill in outlining the confining conventions of society that reek of hypocrisy, to present a balanced, if not glorified, picture of a woman who is trying to break away from constraints of being a woman. Tolstoy in the end makes her nothing more than a Hardyesque tragic herione who was bound to fall given the sin she committed. This in my opinion just basically goes to show how he left his great defiant novel to be nothing more than a comfortable cosying into the norms and conventions.
To read the novel, click here.
Paradoxes and contradictions are a part and parcel of this ever-on-the-move,pseudo-dreamlike city called Bombay rechristened to Mumbai. And one of the large and growing paradoxes of the city is the way in which the woman of the middle class comes into close contact with the woman of the low class vis-a-vis the great necessity of the elite/middle class called the servant. This necessity though great is hardly ever really talked about except in slandering the people who fulfil that necessity or when they put forward their demands regularly which are dismissed on an equally regular basis.
The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar explores this very paradox which is ubiquitous but never acknowledged. Quite a paradox within a paradox, eh? So what exactly is this paradox? To state it clearly, the rising middle class or those well established ones always hire a maid/servant (full time or part-time) to do the many chores while they are busy hurrying to offices or catching up on other important tasks like catching up on the latest conniving traps of the new saas (mother-in-law) on the block or going golfing/kitty parties and other some such silly stuff. So while the middle class will never otherwise really come in contact with the low class thanks to the rise of gated communities which makes sure that the ugly side of any place let alone a city is never revealed and is conveniently obliterated in the mind, they come in contact with them through the maids who become (usually of the women thanks to the never changing stereotypes of the roles of men and women!) great companions and friends sharing their lives and worlds which in any other situation would be unthinkable.
The novel elaborates quite evocatively on such a scenario with a touching prologue that captures so vividly the mental state of any city dweller at some point or the other: the need to just run away from all your problems, hoping that the city disappears and while you sit at the sea, hoping it will wash away your sorrows/frustrations etc. The story charts out the individual lives of two women who are world apart: Sera, a rich Parsi women who has had her own share of unhappiness in her married life and Bhima, the maid who works in her house and whose world is falling apart constantly even as she perpetually struggles hard to keep it all together. The story opens with Bhima’s granddaughter, Maya, getting pregnant- from a man whose identity is revealed at the end-which again though temporarily shatters Bhima’s world and all her hopes for Maya and her education which she thought of as her ticket out of the vicious hell of being a maid. Sera and Bhima share a fragile, precarious camaraderie which cuts across class and the usual stereotypes about how a relationship should be between a master and servant. Both have been there for each other in times of need-Bhima when Sera had to heal from her husband’s abuses and Sera when Bhima needed her while her husband was in hospital and other cases. Though they share a a good womanly friendship which is also seen in Sera’s daughter-Dinaz’s fondness for Bhima, the relationship is fraught with the several hesitations and doubts and stereotypes too.
The story weaves its way through Maya’s pregnancy while constantly going into flashbacks into Sera’s and Bhima’s life which work as good reminisces and a way to show how their lives merged and then into the present which stands like it always does with a lot of uncertainty while also being happy in its own small ways and then into the end which reveals the father quite un-dramatically like one of those mundane things you suddenly become aware of like how to chip vegetables or what exactly does a Bachelor’s degree mean or some such dross things that makes up what is called life. And then comes…oh wait…u need to find this on your own so go read it..
It is definitely worth a read as it is a poignant story because of its subject and the jarring clash of two worlds which brings fore jarringly the worlds we conveniently ignore-the struggles Bhima goes through just about everyday for basic necessities is something that would make us the people sitting cushioned in their AC rooms faint. The novel can be bogged down with over use of metaphors and similes but on the whole it is quite an engaging read.
The title, The Space Between Us, is quite appropriate as it questions the space that divide across class, shows how it can be reconciled or perhaps not. It challenges, questions, experiments with it, putting more questions forward but never answering any of them. That is for us to do.
‘Orlando’ may not be Woolf’s most famous novel but it certainly is her most fun and playful novel. While her other works can be tough to peruse, require a lot of concentration and have been viewed as tedious and heavy reads, ‘Orlando’ is an enjoyable read. It seems as if Woolf was taking a break from all her other ‘heavy’ novels to write something ‘light’ and so she penned Orlando. This however does not entail that the novel is a mere story with nothing in terms of depth and meaning. On the contrary Woolf uses her story to make comments on a number of aspects of her society. First and foremost, the novel was written to underline the issue of how the female sex was denied any rights of inheritance. Her friend and lover, Vita Sackville West, who came from a prestigious lineage was denied the inheritance of her ancestral Knole House on account of her being a woman. Woolf highlights this and several other aspects in her novel.
Orlando is the name of the protagonist of the novel and many critics have asserted that Orlando is modeled after Vita herself who at the end of the story is able to inherit his lands. The novel is truly modernist in its approach as it uses the idea of the fluidity of time which is the main crux of the novel. Modernists were fascinated with deconstructing the notions of time and its linearity. Consequently, ‘Orlando’ spans four centuries with the protagonist living through various time periods. The time periods are also distinctly described in terms of literary periods. The story starts in the Elizabethan Age with Orlando, a man, who owns vast lands and a huge house and has the privilege of gaining an audience with the Queen herself and ends in 1928. In the four centuries, Orlando falls in love with a Russian princess, becomes a successful Ambassador in Constantinople, writes a novel-Oak Tree, gets it published, meets his literary idols in cafes and undergoes one important change (which if revealed can be a spoiler) that Woolf uses to state the ideas of bisexuality and also gets married among other things. For literature fans, the novel is a fun ride through the various ages, like studying the background of English Literature but in a cool way rather than in a the drab manner of reading up a Daiches or Boris Ford volume. It gives a sweeping survey of the literary periods of English literature but also critiques them simultaneously. The quirky character, Nick Greene, is an author but also a pompous critic who Orlando meets in the Elizabethan Age and then in the Victorian Age but his manner of appreciating the older works rather than the contemporary ones does not change over the centuries. For example, in the Elizabethan Age, he mocked Shakespeare and Marlowe while extolling the Greek writers and their works. He termed the latter as ‘great’ and the former as just a shadow of the latter’s greatness. However, in the Victoria Age, he calls the Elizabethan Age as having produced great literature and the Victorian Age as being wishy washy in the literature it produces. Woolf uses Nick Greene cleverly to prick the hallowed literary canon and to show that what constitutes ‘great’ works is rather subjective and fickle.
Apart from contradicting ideas of male inheritance and taking a jibe at literary tradition, Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ is also very English in its essence. The importance of home, one’s roots, one’s land is highlighted in subtle ways. The work that Orlando writes, ‘Oak Tree’ is itself a symbol of that. Moreover, his sense of Englishness comes through when he is ambassador in Constantinople where he adores the foreign and exotic but also longs for English landscapes. The novel does have hues of the English pride and a respect for British imperialism.
Overall, ‘Orlando’ is a cheerful and lively read and even if you have a love-hate relationship with Virginia Woolf or hate her outright, this novel should not be given a miss.
Nikolai Gogol is usually overshadowed by other great Russian writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. Chekhov and even Pushkin despite the fact that Gogol was as talented as them. Some well read Indians (and other well read readers) might remember Gogol from the book ‘The Namesake’ which pretty much revolves around Gogol’s most famous short story, ‘The Overcoat.’ Some may as a result have even read this particular story. Gogol is known for his short stories yet some of his other works like ‘ The Inspector General’ are as thematically varied and critical as his short stories.
‘Dead Souls‘ is one of his ‘other works’, a novel in fact that encompasses Gogol’s vision to depict ‘all of Russia’ in it. Reading the ‘Dead Souls‘ can be difficult as it has layers of meaning that can be unearthed slowly with every other reading. Yet at the same time it is very rewarding as the novel reveals a clear image of the 19th century Russia and Gogol’s own thoughts about his own country.
‘Dead Souls‘ was classified by Gogol as a ‘poema’ (a poem) rather than a novel as he believed that a poem and an epic poem to be precise could take in all of life. The novel has two parts. The 2nd part was burnt by Gogol himself and only fragments (which are still comprehensible) are left. The poema’s hero is Chichikov who goes to the fictitious town of N to buy ‘dead souls.’ Souls (dusha) in Russian also meant the serfs. 19th century Russia was still predominantly agricultural which was controlled by landlords who had serfs for themselves. It was in a way a feudal agricultural society. At that point of time, serfs that died were still counted as alive until the next census was taken which would happen every 10 years. Chichikov’s idea was to buy these ‘dead souls’ from the various landowners like Manilov, Korobochka,Nozdrev,Sobakevich and Plyushkin and use them as a mortgage to buy land and then himself become a landowner which would enable him to buy actual living serfs and gradually pay the loan as well. Chichikov’s methods were not entirely legal. Instead, he was taking advantage of the loopholes in the Russian law system to further his own interests.
This plot summary completely oversimplifies the story. The layers of meaning emerge only when one peruses the novel and sees Gogol’s critique of contemporary Russia in a satirical manner, how Chichikov convinces the 5 landlords in part 1 to sell their dead serfs, how hellish the entire legal and bureaucratic system is in provincial Russia, how beautifully Gogol merges this human misery with the vast, endless, limitless landscape of his beloved Russia. One of the major highlights of the novel or the ‘poema’ is the skillful juxtaposition of the wretchedness and corruption of the Russians with the beauty of the Russian landscape. Another major highlight is the numerous similes like that of the ‘troika’, the journey, the road, the unique comparison of the men of the town of N with flies at the governor’s ball in chapter 1 itself. The novel is full of numerous new possibilities that the reader will discover. S/he will discover the Russia of Gogol’s time with all its ugliness and artificial glamour and rich natural beauty . The reader will get acquainted with certain typical Russian character portraits in Chichikov and in the guise of the many landlords.
‘Dead Souls‘ may not be the easiest to read with a unique narrative style ( the naive narrator which shows Gogol’s use of the skaz), the numerous digressions (the most lyrical of these are addressed to Russia itself), the detailed descriptions etc. but giving up on this novel will be like giving up a chance to experience Russia itself.
No other age excelled in first person narratives than the Victorian Era and who better than Charles Dickens could be ts finest exponent? With ‘David Copperfield’, safely under his belt, he diligently set out to write one of his finest, ‘Great Expectations‘ which is very similar to the former yet also vastly different. Both have the trademark autobiographical touch in the story and follow the conventional chronological order which the later modernists despised so vehemently. Yet ‘Great Expectations‘ while following the life of Pip, also comments on the English life of that time particularly its artificiality.
The novel is about Pip, an orphan who lives with his domineering sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery and her amiable blacksmith husband, Joe. As a child, Pip coincidentally happened to meet an escaped convict in the marshes. The latter threatened and scared Pip into bringing him victuals which Pip obediently albeit deceitfully(by stealing) brought for the convict the next day. Later on in his youth, he is regularly called on to visit a certain Miss Havisham, who is a rich, old lady stuck in the past. These visits are nothing short of eccentric and humiliating for the young Pip. Humiliating particularly due to Estella’s cruelty of reminding him often of his low class and unworthy status. Consequently, Pip too begins to perceive his situations and his relatives in a poor light, as being unrefined and plain dumb. He desperately wants to get out of such a situation and pretty soon a golden opportunity presents itself before him. Pip comes into a large chunk of wealth and is sent to London to be educated. In short all his great expectations are to come true because in short he becomes a gentleman. The twist is that his benefactor wants to remain anonymous and will only reveal him/herself as and when appropriate. Thus Pip climbs the social ladder under the illusion that his benefactor is indeed a benefactress-Miss Havishman. The revelation of the identity of his benefactor/ess leaves him stupefied in the end and changes his worldviews at that.
I believe that I am a novice to give a prolonged commentary on such a critically acclaimed classic. All I can state is that ‘Great Expectations‘ met all my expectations of reading an engaging Dickens’ novel. The plot is punctuated with the quintessential Dickensian characters-the hypocrite Pumblechook, the warm hearted Joe who is Pip’s best friend, the patient Biddy, bipolar Wemmick, ever the optimist Herbert who is Pip’s closest friend- and scores of others that make the entire story come alive. Coupled with Dickens’ famous biting humour and satire, ‘Great Expectations‘ is a lighthearted novel that makes you laugh in the most serious scenes and other such unlikely places.
The one fault was the sensationalism of ‘Great Expectations.’ Of course, this was in keeping with the norm of serialization of novels during that time which compelled the writers to keep each episode exciting and melodramatic. Moreover, Dickens himself was strongly influenced by the sensationalist movement that emerged in the 1860s’. These two reasons account for the dramatic tone of the novel. Though legitimate reasons in themselves, it is quite incongruous to read a style that only startles and shocks. In the India of today where sensationalism is a the norm, subtlety is much appreciated. But barring the sensationalist factor of the novel, ‘Great Expectations‘, is wholesome and is sure to entertain, tickle your funny bone and even compel you to examine your own position(as the novel makes Pip examine at every turn of the story) in a class and status obsessed society of today.
Step into the world of leukoderma and understand it complexity, problem and the various Indian superstitions revolving around it. Before you groan and go away, let me tell you that this isn’t a book a la ‘Emperor Of Maladies'(though I am told it is a fascinating book) but rather a fictional story of the struggles that a woman suffering leukoderma faces. ‘Mahashweta‘ by Sudha Murthy, from the synopsis at the back and the glittering praise from well established newspapers, promises to be a unique read that delves into the suffering of a disease that afflicts many but doesn’t find its way in the stories. Unfortunately, the novel fails to live up to those promises for which there are many reasons to which we will get back to later on.
‘Mahashweta‘ is aptly dedicated to women suffering from leukoderma and urges them to fight and not be oppressed by their disease. The story begins on a congratulatory note with the birth of a girl child which is a means to establish the single status of Dr. Anand-the successful, handsome and rich doctor- who helped give birth to the baby girl. Later while at his work, Anand is coaxed into buying a Rs. 1000 ticker for a play he has no idea about by the ‘incomparable’ Anupama. The play is a love story between Mahashweta and Pundalik and is part of the book ‘Kadambari’ written by Bhana Bhatta. Anupama plays the heroine and as expected Dr. Anand is mesmerized by her beauty and acting skills. After a few irrelevant incidents, they both get married(how predictable!) despite the difference in their economic status. It is only after marriage that Anupama develops a white patch and it begins to spread despite her clandestine treatment. When her mother-in-law realises this, all hell breaks loose. She accuses Anupama of having tricked her son into marrying him and begins to consider her inauspicious because of leukoderma. She eventually returns to her father’s house, disgraced. Her evil stepmother’s taunts and ill treatment just worsens the situation. To top it all, Dr. Anand- being a doctor at least should know that leukoderma is nothing but a disease and not something that turns a person inauspicious-also does not support Anupama and abandons her when she needed him the most. Anupama, however, does not let the circumstances get the better of her. She bravely decides to go to Mumbai, away from her callous family and in-laws, to eke out a living and carve a place of her own free from any pain, stigma and stereotypes. She is quite successful is achieving her dreams and standing proudly on her own two feet.
‘Mahashweta‘ is a conventional story of the suffering bravely overcoming their difficult trials and tribulations. The only redeeming aspect of the story comes at the end when Anupama decides to remain her own master and be economically independent rather than being bound by someone else’s rules and regulations. Other than this, the novel as a whole is marred by a fragmented narrative, dollops of stereotypes, amateurish writing, no smooth narration and a very soap operatic treatment of the entire story. In fact, I wouldn’t be wrong in saying that ‘Mahashweta‘ is a soap opera in prose style as it has all the prerequisites of one-the constant preoccupation with marriage, the evil mother-in-law and sister-in-law twist, the evil stepmother convention, the too good to be true daughter-in-law who suffers silently, the narrow minded and religious focus of the story at time and the list is endless.
While Sudha Murthy does take up a relatively lesser known disease to tell her story, she does not break any new ground on it as the entire novel is steeped in too many stereotypes particularly about girls and marriage. For eg, on the first page itself, the nurse who assisted in the birth of the girl ponders over how the female child is stronger at birth than the male but later on becomes the one who suffers. The nurse attributes this as being ‘a fact of life’ which is not really true because being feminine or masculine is not a fact of life but rather a cultural construct. The system of patriarchy conditions women to expect suffering in their life. Anything that is exploited or oppressed is associated with the female sex. For eg. it is ‘mother’ earth and never ‘father’ earth. The novel is replete with such redundant stereotypes. Murthy may have wished to challenge them but she does not do a good job as she merely states them with no attempts at challenging them much like any commonplace Indian soap opera.
Moreover,her writing does not have the emotional depth that is perhaps required in such a sensitive story. Most of her attempts at philosophy(through Anupama) are also blunt and shallow.
Although, ‘Mahashweta‘ educates the reader about leukoderma and the debilitating superstitions that even ‘educated’ Indians follow, the novel becomes a drag to read. It reveals the hypocrisy of the Indian society in their attitudes to leukoderma but does not do so in a profound, erudite and personal manner.
Final Verdict: It is best to skip ‘Mahashweta‘ altogether. If you really want to know more about leukoderma, then contact you nearest dermatologist. Or if you don’t have the time, then just click here to know more!