Tag Archives: The Classics Circuit

The Classics Circuit: The Pearl by John Steinbeck

In 1947 John Steinbeck published a novella titled The Pearl. The story itself was based on a Mexican folk-tale but the telling was pure Steinbeck. The story is set on the coast among a small town with a group of indigenous people who live near the sea. Kino is one of the Indian men. He and his family survive from what they can obtain from the sea, they live in small brush huts and sell pearls to make money to survive. Kino has a wife Juana and an infant son named Coyotito.

As the story begins Coyotito is stung by a scorpion. Desperate Juana insists that the child be taken to the Doctor, an odd request to make for an Indian since the Doctor will probably not treat the child. The Doctor as expected turns the family away without even seeing the baby once he finds they have no money to pay him.  Kino and Juana then head to the ocean to find a pearl with which to pay the doctor. As Kino dives he finds a large, beautiful pearl. A pearl that will be forever be known as “the pearl of the world” by his people for all time to come.

This pearl is the basis for the entire story and while I do not want to give away anything I will say the story itself is not one of happiness. Then again this is a work by Steinbeck and “feel good” stories were not necessarily his forte. The Pearl in the end is a warning…to the poor to stay in their station. To poor people- to be content with what life has given them and to remain within their class structure and most importantly to all- to not tempt fate.

Deeply descriptive and minutely detailed The Pearl is a story that feels as if it has been passed down for hundreds of years. A cautionary tale told by the fire. Steinbeck manages to share the folk-tale while also making it clearly his own. For lovers of Steinbeck it is not to be missed. For the average reader it is a tale of sorrow but beautifully written.

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The Classics Circuit: A Tale of Two Orphans (Austen vs. Dickens)

Welcome to one of my favorite Classics Circuits themes ever. This May we are spotlighting two dueling authors who both are considered to be among the greatest authors of all time. Our first journey is into the world of childhood and the streets of London with Charles Dickens. Secondly we will journey to Mansfield Park for a tale of an adult “orphan” living with relatives in the upper classes of English society with the incomparable Jane Austen. So here we go Austen vs. Dickens:

Oliver Twist is probably one of the most quoted classics of all time. Almost anyone whether they have seen a movie, read the book or not can easily quote Oliver’s famous line “Please, Sir, I want some more”. Published in 1838, the tale was originally told in a series of publications like many of Dickens works.

The dark and somewhat depressing tale of a young orphan on the streets at that time in history is full of abuse, child labor and other generally nefarious activities, criminal acts and threats to Oliver and his innocence.  Oliver is at heart and through and through a good child seeking love and contentment but the rough streets of London prove to be fatal to many like himself. Moving from poor house to workhouse and beyond, the reader is introduced to a cast of characters never to be forgotten.

In my opinion Dickens biggest strength was in his ability to describe detail especially in relation to his characters. They jump off the page in the flesh due to his talent with words and character traits of the smallest degree. Dickens prose is as always abundantly detailed as he describes every situation, setting and individual in a way only he can do. His sense of humor and talent truly shine most when he is describing a character. Many of the names of the characters in the book also relate to them as individuals as well such as Oliver’s name of “Twist” given to him by chance upon his birth and the quick death of his “anonymous” mother. The name of “Twist” refers back to all the twists and turns that Oliver’s story will take.

In the end as Dicken’s works go, Oliver Twist is one of the darker stories he has told. However it truly highlights the dangerous situation children faced during that time in history especially those without a parent to provide for and protect them.

    Written in 1814, Austen’s classic Mansfield Park is the story of a young girl taken in by wealthy relatives due to her family’s poverty. Fanny, one of nine children is sent to live with her Aunt and Uncle. While not the traditional orphan scenario, Fanny Price under goes much of the treatment of an orphan within the home of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. Although Fanny grows up within the same household as her four cousins, she is never treated equally. However her cousin Edmund is her champion who always stands up for her and her place in the family. This eventually leads to Fanny falling in love with him and the ensuing love story written by Austen.

   Unlike Oliver Twist, Austen’s portrayal of Fanny remains mainly in her adulthood between the years of 18 and 19. Fanny is portrayed as shy and deeply sensitive. These qualities are easily manipulated in the home of the Bertrams by both the adults in the family and the children. The tale of Fanny and the question of where life will take her is an interesting portrayal that well illustrates the practice of “wardship” during that period of time.

Austen’s trademark sarcastic wit is abundant as are her mix-ups in love, courting and marriage. The book is well love by many with most only complaining of Fanny Price being too “good”.

Oddly enough no one has ever made that complaint about Oliver Twist. I am supposing that would be due to the fact that one is a child while another somewhat of an adult. However who wins out in the end?

And the verdict is….

In the end for myself personally I would have to say that Mansfield Park wins in this match up. In fact it was a beat down. Whether it is because I am a huge Austen fan or due to the relatively sinister nature of the novel Oliver Twist– there is no doubt which I would pick up again. In the end both books are definite true classics to be enjoyed. However a nice meeting place between these two novels would be Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte which deals with an orphan in both situations and as both a child and an adult. Be sure to check out the other participants in the Austen vs. Dickens tour.

What do you think? Which would win in your mind?

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The Classics Circuit: An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

Hello fellow classic enthusiasts and welcome to The Lost Generation Tour held by The Classics Circuit. As soon as I received word of this tour I immediately knew which book I wanted to spotlight. It was a re-read for me but one of those books that I remember distinctly down to exactly when and where I was when I first devoured it and how long it took me to complete it (approximately a week). On my second reading I took my time and simply enjoyed the nuances and details I might have not have appreciated both as a reader at a younger age and as a first time reader of the book who simply could not get enough of it as fast as possible. The book is one of many on ALA’s List of Banned and Challenged Classics. It is the story of one young man and his insatiable thirst for social advancement and what some may consider the “rags to riches” American dream. The novel is the 1925 classic An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.

This work has been called “the worst-written great novel in the world” while others consider it one of the greatest American novels of any time period. The novel is considered a work of naturalism: a literary style that explores the premise that individuals’ fates are determined by a combination of hereditary and environmental constraints that leave no room for free will or true individual choice. For that reason our main character Clyde Griffiths is considered to be somewhat of an anti-hero.

We begin in Clyde’s childhood on the city streets as part of a family missionary group barely surviving and shunning the world of material possessions and even the stability of modern education for a sidewalk sideshow religious lifestyle. Clyde even as a child rejects this lifestyle, seeing his parents as fools and longing for more. He wishes for everything he sees around him but beyond his grasp, he wishes for power, wealth, to be accepted, to be someone. He wants the American dream and is determined to do anything to get it….no matter the consequences.

The novel continues to follow Clyde through various jobs, shenanigans and lapses in moral judgement until a defining moment when Clyde does the unthinkable for the sake of his ambition. Is Clyde a bad human being or a product of his upbringing and the greed of American society at this time in history? Only you as the reader can truly make that judgement after completing the book but many readers have differing opinions or believe a little of both.

While I don’t want to spoil the book for readers who know nothing of the central premise or ending, I will say that Dreiser based the book on a very sensational murder case involving a young man named Chester Gilette who in 1906 murdered his pregnant girlfriend and later paid the ultimate price: his life.

In the case of An American Tragedy it’s not necessarily the writing that excels…more the truth of the story. The novel works and flows in a way that readers are carried along almost magically despite it’s rather long length. It is a true classic and a testament to the question of whether we choose our own fate…or it is chosen for us by the life we are given to live. Does it take a truly horrible person to commit a crime or are some people pushed to limits that they cannot handle due to their upbringing or what society has led them to believe is most important in life. In the end An American Tragedy gives readers an engrossing story and a debate to settle within themselves. It’s a classic often forgot but not to be missed.

Please remember to also check out The Classics Circuit’s other “Lost Generation” tour stops to find other great classics just waiting to be read.

 

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The Classics Circuit: The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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When The Classics Circuit announced it’s Imperial Russion Tour I knew exactly which book I would be choosing. You see I hate an unfinished book and a dusty copy of The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky has long been sitting on my shelves. I began it once in earnest as I was working my way through the Russian classics but somehow it never stuck and it was abandoned to the shelf. However now I had a reason to take it off and dust off the cover for another try. Yes, in my heart I did want to re-read Anna Karenina or War and Peace but I told myself that I must finish what I once started. And so began my seconding reading of The Idiot.

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The first thing one must understand about the “idiot” is that he is not. Prince Myshkin is only a man who has been waylaid by illness (epilepsy)for most of his lifetime and so has been hampered in developmental and social skills, he is naive and kindhearted. He is truth and honesty and charity all in one. This is what dark Russian literature calls an “idiot”. He is in turn revered and ridiculed. The revering of course comes as it usually does after a large inheritance is bestowed upon him after his return to Russia from Switzerland where he has been in treatment for his condition. Upon returning he becomes part of a tangled love affair that never really comes to fruition between a fallen woman and a virtuous young lady.

I wish I could say that The Idiot had a motivating plot or good ending but like many good Russian novels of its kind it does not. It is a story of religion, romance, passionate hatred, murder, money and exasperatingly long dialogues.  However it is exactly what one expects from the works of it’s time and place. In it are true gems of philosophy, religion and modern thinking. However one must often wade through a hundred pages of what seems like nothing to get to them. As most Russian literature of this time the work is deeply cynical and dark. Motivations rely on money, greed and passion of the most deplorable kind. Virginia Woolf once compared Dostoevsky to Shakespeare. While I will not go that far I will say that he is an essential if one wants to become acquainted with the literature of this time and place. One must also understand the storyline may not be so complete because the main message is about what is being said. One of my favorite lines on religion and faith within the novel is:

The essence of religious feeling does not fall under the province of any reasoning, or any crimes and misdemeanors, or any atheist doctrines; there’s something else here, and it will always be something else, there is something that atheist doctrines will eternally glide over and they will eternally be speaking of “something else“.

Another of my favorite lines described family in a way that was so rich in truth:

Though they did not understand the fact entirely (for it is difficult to understand), still they sometimes suspected that everything in their family somehow did not go like it did in all the others. In all the others everything went smoothly, with them it was a bumpy ride; everyone else glided along as if on rails- and they were constantly going off track.

So in the end was it worth the 667 pages for a few gems of literary writing….yes, I think it was and it is no longer an unfinished book for me which is a pleasure in itself. But one can’t help but wish for happiness for the “idiot”. However I recommend the book no matter but I do warn it is a commitment. I now look forward to Crime and Punishment soon but not before some lighter reading in the meantime.

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