Date: 18 October 2013
Books Completed: 181
Books Left: 19
I love reading classics. I think it somehow ties in with my love of history in general, because there is just something about reading a book that was contemporary 100, 200 years ago and feeling connected with that past time and place. I am currently reading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. It’s about Newland Archer, who struggles with the dual sides of his personality. On the one hand, he loves the sense of order that comes from strictly adhering to the rigid protocols of Victorian New York society, but on the other he has avant-garde tastes in literature, music, travel destinations and even some acquaintances. This duality results in a major and eventually moral conflict when he willingly enters into an engagement with the ever-so-conventional May Welland and then finds himself falling in love with her ever-so-bohemian cousin, Ellen Olenska. I’m more than halfway through the book and I am very interested in how Newland, May, and Ellen will handle the impending, inevitable crisis.
I don’t know if it’s because my last post about author patterns is fresh in my mind, but I find myself connecting a character from this book with others from additional classic novels. May Welland’s father must have everything just so, can see no viewpoint other than his own, and ultimately is a great inconvenience to those around him. His family, however, humors and enables him in his thoughtless and selfish eccentricities. Just like Mr. Woodhouse from Jane Austen’s Emma. The whole neighborhood of Highbury caters to Mr. Woodhouse’s peculiarities—arranging their social engagements, menus, and even living arrangements so as not to disturb his hypochondriac whims. Then I was reminded of Mrs. Douglas, who, in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of the Island, cruelly made her son promise not to propose to the woman he loved until she (Mrs. Douglas, that is) was dead. A victim of emotional blackmail, John makes said promise—and keeps Janet waiting 20 years. Catherine Sloper, of Henry James’ Washington Square, has to wait even longer for a marriage that never happens. Dr. Sloper, who has always treated his daughter abominably, refuses to admit Morris Townsend as Catherine’s suitor. She permits herself the rebellion of an engagement, but ultimately will not marry without her father’s consent, which is never forthcoming.
These examples don’t show author patterns as I explored before, but character and plot patterns in classic literature. Mr. Welland, Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs. Douglas and Dr. Sloper are a similar character type that doesn’t seem to have a contemporary counterpart. At least, I can’t readily think of any characters in current novels who fit the pattern. Perhaps this is because modern characters would be unlikely to put up with their antics.
When I read about Mr. Welland et al, the thought that comes most often to mind is how selfish they are. These characters are willing to sacrifice the hopes and dreams or even just the daily living of those around them simply so they can have things the way they want. It is commonly said that successive generations breed more selfish creatures, but I wonder if this is so. It seems to me that in the past the older members of society were the selfish ones, whereas currently, we save that epithet for younger denizens. Time was younger people were expected to be dutiful to their elders, which apparently meant catering to their every desire, no matter how self-centered or unreasonable the demand might be.
Or did it? Perhaps it was more common back then for younger people to acquiesce to the wishes of older friends and family, but these extreme novelized examples are exaggerations, devices used by authors to set up conflict, something no story can live without.
Whatever the case, it is hard for me to imagine current-day characters willingly sacrificing anything/everything they hold dear for the capriciousness of someone else. Maybe the generations have gotten more selfish over time. 100+ years ago, only old people were allowed to be selfish. Now we all are.