A Classic Couple: Between the Acts and Station Eleven

I never thought I would be pairing a Virginia Woolf novel with a post-apocalyptic book, but here we are! This week’s Classic Couple features Virginia Woolf’s 1941 novel Between the Acts and Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven. Although these texts are strikingly different in many ways, a closer look reveals some interesting similarities that are worth mentioning here.

Theatre || Perhaps the most obvious similarity between these two novels is the significant role that theatre plays in their plots. In Between the Acts, an audience watches on the lawn as a play is performed before them by their family and friends. The play is a sort of collage of English history, ultimately ending in a display of mirrors that reflects the audience members’ own images back at them to contemplate. In Station Eleven, a traveling theatre troupe and orchestra performs Shakespeare plays for people them come across in the post-apocalyptic future. While not everyone they meet is friendly, the majority of viewers are grateful for the small semblance of normalcy that the performances offer.

Stressful settings || Station Eleven clearly has a very stressful setting: a world that has been destroyed by sickness and seized by corruption, danger, and uncertainty in the aftermath. Although Between the Acts may appear to be quite peaceful in comparison, its context–set in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II- is actually incredibly desperate. Here Woolf challenges the reader to see past the facade of the rather whimsical play and look at what is really going on underneath; in other words, what is literally happening between the acts. (Can I just say that I love the title of this novel?)

Focus on characters || Last but not least, both of these novels place an important emphasis on characters rather than plot. Each cast of characters is wide and varied, representing different generations, socioeconomic classes, and beliefs. Both of these books end in vague and ambiguous ways, leaving it up to the reader to decide what happens beyond the last page. These open-ended conclusions underscore the irrelevancy of the plot in light of character development and growth. While we only get snapshots of characters throughout Between the Acts and Station Eleven, they are enough to make us feel invested in their lives and stories.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this foray into two distinct yet surprisingly similar novels. I would highly recommend both of these books!

Click here to check out other Classic Couples from past posts.

What do you think of this classic couple? What other books would you pair with Between the Acts or Station Eleven? What are your thoughts on either or both of these books? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

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A Classic Couple: Howards End and On Beauty

It’s finally time to return to the long-lost Classic Couple feature! Today I’ll be highlighting a pair of novels that were basically designed to go together: E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910) and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005). Smith wrote On Beauty as a purposeful homage to Forster’s novel, meaning that there are countless fascinating parallels between them. Without further ado, it’s time to explore this classic couple!

Family dynamics || Both of these novels primarily focus on dynamics between different families as well as between members of the same family. For instance, Howards End emphasizes the relationship between sisters Helen and Margaret Schlegel in the context of their relations with the Wilcox family. On the other hand, On Beauty focuses on the clash between Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps as well as their marriages, children, affairs, etc. As relationships become more and more complicated over the course of these novels, Forster and Smith invite the reader to look more closely at her own relationships with others and how they intertwine.

Diverse characters || Although Howards End lacks diversity in terms of race, it does show diversity in terms of socioeconomic backgrounds and class. Margaret and Helen struggle to decide whether or not they should help Leonard, a man who has lost his job and currently can’t make ends meet. Mr. Wilcox doesn’t believe in the idea of “class,” asserting that poor people are poor and rich people are rich and this aspect of society will never and can never change. Meanwhile, On Beauty contains a diverse cast of characters both in terms of class and race. Smith manages to weave discussions of mixed race families, immigrants, and the rather whitewashed academic setting of a liberal college in New England all into one novel.

Women in society || One of my favorite aspects of these novels is their focus on gender, specifically the role of women in society. Although these novels take place nearly one hundred years apart, there are many similarities between the ways women are treated (albeit in a less extreme way today, fortunately). Nearly all of the women in these novels struggle in some form to find their place in society, be it as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, or simply a friend. In Howards End this struggle plays out in the many houses that the women occupy, whereas in On Beauty women endeavor to reclaim their bodies and sexuality from the suffocating gender norms of modern society.

Overall, I would highly recommend both of these novels, especially read together. I read On Beauty before reading Howards End, but I don’t think the order is necessarily important when it comes to recognizing the many fascinating parallels between them. I love the way Zadie Smith took an old classic and breathed fresh life into it with a modern setting and contemporary issues that we face today. Definitely check this classic couple out!

Click here to check out other Classic Couples from past posts.

What do you think of this classic couple? What other books would you pair with Howards End? What are your thoughts on either or both of these books? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

A Classic Couple: Frankenstein and Jurassic Park

Do you like science fiction? I hope so, because this week’s Classic Couple feature highlights two famous science fiction novels that have made it to the big screen: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1990).

Dangers of science || A major theme of both of these novels is the fact that humankind does not and cannot have complete control over nature. Try as we might, there is no place for humans as supreme rulers in the world. One quote I love from Jurassic Park sums this up nicely:

“But now science is the belief system that is hundreds of years old. And, like the medieval system before it, science is starting not to fit the world any more. Science has attained so much power that its practical limits begin to be apparent. Largely through science, billions of us live in one small world, densely packed and intercommunicating. But science cannot help us decide what to do with that world, or how to live. Science can make a nuclear reactor, but it cannot tell us not to build it. Science can make pesticide, but cannot tell us not to use it. And our world starts to seem polluted in fundamental ways—air, and water, and land—because of ungovernable science.”

Unexpected intelligence || The creatures produced in these novels end up being much more intelligent than the creators initially expended or intended. Both Victor Frankenstein and John Hammond believe they’ll be able to completely control what they scientifically construct, yet this is far from reality. Victor’s Creature argues for his right to happiness and asserts that Victor should create a female companion for him so they can mate. Hammond’s ultimate undoing is the way he underestimates the intelligence of the dangerous raptors who try hunting down all of the people on the island. These men don’t want to acknowledge that humans are not the smartest form of life, yet that is precisely what they learn by the end of these novels.

Violent twists || I always think it’s funny when people are surprised to learn that Jurassic Park is not quite the fun family movie they expect. Newsflash: PEOPLE DIE. While the Creature in Frankenstein has a reputation for being sinister due to movie adaptations over the years, the Creature in the book is actually much more terrifying because he closely resembles a human being. This is science reflecting our own flawed nature right back at us, showing humans that we are not always the peaceful beings we like to believe that we are.

Click here to check out other Classic Couples from past posts.

What do you think of this classic couple? What other books would you pair with FrankensteinWhat are your thoughts on either or both of these books? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

A Classic Couple: Middlemarch and White Teeth

What’s this?? Another Classic Couple feature after months of nothing? That’s right! A Classic Couple is back with a whole new round of classic-contemporary pairings. Today I’ll be comparing two lengthy but worthwhile novels: Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871-2) and White Teeth by Zadie Smith (1999). Although there are countless differences between these novels, there are numerous surprising similarities that are fascinating to uncover. Let’s begin!

Sprawling cast of characters || Both of these novels have enormous webs of characters with multiple generations and new faces appearing throughout the story. I love stories that are primarily character-driven rather than purely motivated by plot, so these books pass the test for me! However, there is a significant difference in the kinds of characters these authors choose to focus on. In Middlemarch, Eliot writes about white middle-class families, whereas Smith’s novel incorporates people of all sorts of socioeconomic classes, nationalities, religions, and backgrounds.

Context || These novels may be set in completely opposite locations– Middlemarch in rural Victorian England and White Teeth in urban late-twentieth century London– yet their contexts are nevertheless essential and integral components of these stories. The settings almost feel like characters themselves because they are referenced so often and in great detail.

Importance of reputations || Since both of these novels focus primarily on family dynamics and relationships between different individuals and groups of people, there is a huge emphasis on one’s reputation in society. Smith’s focus on race adds a complicated yet fascinating layer to “evaluating” people’s “status” in society. Are the younger generations staying true to their different cultural backgrounds, or are they adopting the religions, ideas, practices, and behaviors of their peers?

Questioning truth || Although the contexts of these novels are incredibly different, both pose important questions about what we should take as fact in life and what we should view as fiction. Eliot writes from a perspective of moral realism, meaning that she was challenging accepted notions that Christianity dictated everything rather than burgeoning scientific thought. Likewise, the younger generations in White Teeth start questioning the validity of their parents’ dedication to religion and the belief that there is a set date that the world will end and everyone will be judged for their actions. While Eliot seems to suggest that there should be only one version of truth, Smith asserts the exact opposite.

What do you think of this classic couple? What other books would you pair with MiddlemarchWhat are your thoughts on either or both of these books? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

A Classic Couple: The Turn of the Screw and We Were Liars

In a past Top Ten Tuesday post I shared pairs of classic and contemporary novels that I saw parallels between. One of the spookiest pairs is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) and E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars (2014). These books are take place in very different time periods, settings, and under unusual circumstances; however, there are nevertheless several interesting similarities between them.

Short Length || The Turn of the Screw is actually considered a novella and We Were Liars is only 240 pages long, making these perfect for when you need a quick read. It’s impressive how much of an impact these stories can leave in such a small number of pages.

Isolation || Both of these stories take place under circumstances that lack communication with others. In The Turn of the Screw, the new governess is told that she should not contact her employer (the uncle of the children she cares for). Isolation is much more physical for Cadence because she spends each summer on her family’s private island, disconnected from the mainland.  This separation from society allows unusual events to keep occurring without hindrances.

Suspense || These books are PAGE-TURNERS. I read We Were Liars in one sitting and The Turn of the Screw in two. Though the latter has a slower past, the question of what is going to happen next looms overhead the entire time you’re reading.

Ghosts || I’m not going to talk about this aspect in great detail because I don’t want to give away any huge spoilers. Though ghosts serve different functions in these stories, they’re nevertheless add fascinating twists.

Fantasy vs. Reality || What I love about these stories is that it’s often difficult to identify what is fantasy and what is reality. The distinction is fairly clear at the very end of We Were Liars, but I was still confused when I finished reading The Turn of the Screw. I feel as though part of Henry James’ goal in writing this novella is to blur the line between fact and fiction, forcing the reader to really pay attention to every little detail.

Shocking Endings || I never saw either of these endings coming! I’ve read a lot of mixed reviews of We Were Liars in which readers criticize the conclusion for being predictable and unoriginal, but I honestly never guessed what would happen. I think it has a lot to do with what other content you’ve been exposed to; for instance, if you’ve watched a movie with a similar ending before, then you’re more likely to have seen the ending of the book coming well in advance.

What are your thoughts on these books? Are there other books that share these similarities? Have any recommendations? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

A Classic Couple: Jane Eyre and Jellicoe Road

A while ago I made a post sharing some classic and contemporary pairs and since then I’ve been explaining each pair week by week. Today I’ll be delving deeper into one of my favorite classic couples: Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Melina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road. As you likely already know by now from the countless times I’ve mentioned them on this blog, these are two of my favorite books. Now it’s time to compare them!

Protagonists || Despite the decades that separate them, there are actually many similarities between Jane Eyre and Taylor Markham. Both young women are independent, clever, and resilient. They’re also both orphans: Jane’s parents died of typhus while Taylor’s mother abandoned her at a Seven Eleven when she was eleven years old. The two girls end up being cared for by institutions (the Lowood Institution and the Jellicoe School). Both end up leaving their institutions eventually (though with varying degrees of success).

Love Interests || How could we not discuss Mr. Rochester and Jonah Griggs? Though these men seem disagreeable at first, they are actually sensitive and caring (can’t escape that romance trope!). Though their budding relationships are certainly dramatic at times, it’s nevertheless really fun to read about them.

Hidden Pasts || Jane and Taylor grapple with secrets from the past, both in their own lives and in those of others. Mystery appears early on in Jellicoe Road as Taylor reads the manuscript Hannah has been writing for years. Over time Taylor pieces together the sections that are written out-of-order; however, she doesn’t realize the full implications of the story until much later. For Jane, the mystery comes in the form of secrets she learns about Mr. Rochester’s past. It seems as though everyone has a little something to hide.

Personal Growth || The character development in Jane Eyre and Jellicoe Road is remarkable. We follow Jane as she matures from a little girl into a young woman and Taylor as she comes to understand her own identity and the person she wants to be. Not only are these women brave, resilient, and determined, but they are also kind, caring, and thoughtful by the end of these novels. Brontë and Marchetta didn’t sacrifice softness for strength, which is something I greatly admire.

What are your thoughts on these books? Are there any other books that share these qualities? Have any recommendations? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

A Classic Couple: The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Goldfinch

Weeks ago I made a Top Ten Tuesday post listing pairs of classics and contemporary books. After several people commented with further questions about these pairs, I decided to go through them individually in this weekly feature called A Classic Couple. Today I’ll be sharing similarities between dark, intense, captivating novels: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013). 

Atmosphere || Dark. Intense. Ethereal. The atmosphere of these books is similar to that of a twisted fairy tale. Though the writing is beautiful and the characters are witty, there’s nevertheless a looming sensation that something bad is lurking just around the corner.

Art || It’s no surprise from the covers, titles, and synopses of these novels that art is a common thread that runs between them. Both protagonists become obsessed with paintings: Dorian Gray with Basil’s portrait of himself and Theo Decker with a stolen painting that reminds him of his dead mother. These paintings reveal important aspects of the protagonists’ personalities (physically for Dorian and emotionally for Theo).

“Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?”  {from The Goldfinch}

The above quote comes from The Goldfinch, though it could easy fit in with Wilde’s musings on art in beauty in Dorian Gray. As these characters become obsessed with material objects, wealth, and beauty, they become unhappier, self-absorbed, and distanced from reality. Though their obsessions begin simply out of vanity and grief, they gradually become twisted and more complex.

Ambiguity || Dorian and Theo certainly don’t make it easy to wholeheartedly root for them. Between their bad decisions, foolish mistakes, and horrible treatment of others it seems as though they’re begging to be disliked. However, there’s something about these characters that makes it hard to completely discount them. Perhaps it’s because we recognize bits of ourselves in them: our vanity, pride, grief, confusion, and desire. Dorian and Theo may be flawed, but that’s what makes them human.

(Did I purposely use alliteration in these similarities? Maybe.)

What are your thoughts on these books? Are there any other books that seem similar to either of these? Let me know in the comment section below!

Yours,

HOLY

A Classic Couple: ON THE ROAD and THE ROAD

At a first glance, it might seem as though the only thing that Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road have in common is their similar titles. Though the contexts and genres of these books are very different—the 1940s in the United States vs. a frightening dystopian future—the stories themselves share many themes and ideas.

The road || I’m sure this seems incredibly obvious, but I’m not just talking about the physical road they travel on; rather, I mean the road as a sign of movement in the future and struggle and what lies ahead.

Sense of lawlessness || In On the Road, the “lawlessness” mostly exists because the protagonists want it to; in other words, they simply ignores the rules and norms to which the rest of society adheres. On the other hand, the situation in The Road is a very different story. Without government, authority, and civilization in general there really are no laws to follow anymore. The man and his son must navigate a world where anything could happen.

“Home” is ever-changing || The characters in these books have an understanding that the idea of a “home” can be impermanent and dynamic if you let it be. In other words, home is less of a location and more of a feeling. This mindset is taken on by choice in On the Road and by dire necessity in The Road.

Narration || These novels are written in a sort of stream of consciousness style, as though the existence of paragraph and chapter breaks is almost irrelevant and unnecessary. I had a difficult time putting these novels down because they have such great momentum. It took a little while to get used to the lack of quotation marks and dialogue breaks (especially in The Road) but I think it adds so much to the story overall.

What are your thoughts on On the Road and The Road? Do they remind you of any other books? Have any recommendations? Let me know in the comment section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

A Classic Couple: The Woman in White and Gone Girl

What could a classic novel that was initially serialized in the nineteenth century and a recent bestseller that became a successful movie on the big screen possibly have in common? A lot, actually. Though Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl were published over a century apart, they are nevertheless linked in numerous ways.

Genre || The first similarity is probably the most obvious one; however, I think it’s still worth mentioning because it shows the great influence that The Woman in White has had on literature over time. These thrilling, suspenseful mystery novels have been popular with audiences for centuries, especially with their sensationalism and emphasis on domestic scandals.

Narration || Both of these books have multiple narrators, many of which are unreliable. Though most of the narrators of The Woman in White go out of their way to establish their credibility at the beginning of their accounts, we cannot rule out the fact that they may still be biased in their storytelling. As we read Gone Girl we learn to be on guard when Amy is narrating (her charming diary isn’t quite what it seems). Speaking of Amy’s diary, both of these novels incorporate written records as forms of narration. Not only does this add intrigue to the story and depth to the characters, but it also makes for a more interesting reading experience as different writing styles and voices are used for each narrator.

Duality || I love when books focus on dualities because the possibilities are endless. I don’t want to give away any important details of either book; however, I will say that both authors play with the idea of dual personalities, personas, identities, morals, and meanings. We see the struggle between the perceived and the actual; in other words, what others believe in contrast to what we truly are in actuality. Watching these duos unfold is always fascinating!

Explanations || Plots of mystery novels—especially great ones—can quickly become complicated and difficult to follow. Fortunately, both of these books clearly explain to the reader what has happened and how all of the details are interconnected in a cleverly crafted web. By the end of the novel you know exactly what occurred and why, which I always appreciate. Being left hanging at the end of a standalone can be incredibly frustrating!

Considering parallels like these between books can breathe new life into what we read. Though I didn’t love Gone Girl when I first read it, finding elements that it shares with The Woman in White has allowed me to appreciate it a bit more.

What do you think of this classic couple? What other books would you pair with The Woman in WhiteWhat are your thoughts on either or both of these books? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

A Classic Couple: The Song of the Lark and Paper Towns

It seems fitting that books by two of my favorite authors—Willa Cather and John Green—would connect across different centuries. As mentioned in a past Top Ten Tuesday post about pairs of classic and contemporary novels, I’ve found many interesting parallels between Cather’s The Song of the Lark (1915) and Green’s Paper Towns (2008).

Thea and Margo || These protagonists are headstrong, determined, and different from the people in their hometowns. Thea loves music and is seen as a young woman who holds great potential, whereas Margo is an enigma that no one can understand. Despite the man differences between them, they nevertheless share the same reckless, carefree spirit.

Leaving home || Eventually Thea and Margo move away from their childhood homes, leaving behind people who love and care about them in order to chase the prospect of adventure. Thea heads to the big city of Chicago to pursue a career in music, later finding herself traveling to Arizona, Dresden, and New York City. Margo departs suddenly in a shroud of mystery; she doesn’t tell anyone that she’s leaving or where she’s going to. These young women are running to something—adventure, adulthood, independence—but they’re also running from something: their past identities and the preconceived notions held by people they grew up with of who they should become.

Resistance || In both novels, friends from their pasts find Thea and Margo in the new lives they’ve made for themselves and try to persuade them to come back home. Unexpectedly, Thea and Margo refuse. Though Thea does go back and visit her hometown, she does not stay long and feels as though she doesn’t belong there anymore. Margo won’t even entertain the idea of returning to the town where she attended a high school that she technically hasn’t graduated from yet. Their new ideas and identities seem to manifest themselves in new locations.

Wanting “more” || The underlying current that runs beneath The Song of the Lark and Paper Towns is the desire for more out of life. Thea is enchanted by fantasies of big cities, fame, and a life away from her small, dull town; Margo is denounces the “paper people” she grew up around, yearning for those who are less materialistic and actually genuine, authentic, and real. The question remains: Do they really reach their “more”?

What do you think of this classic couple? What other books would you pair with The Song of the LarkWhat are your thoughts on either or both of these books? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY