A Classic Couple: Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre is one of the books that first made me fall in love with classic literature. I remember reading it on a family road trip before my senior year of high school, captivated by Jane’s independence and resilience. For years librarians, professors, and bookish friends who know that Jane Eyre is a favorite of mine have been recommending that I read Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea. This famous response to Brontë’s classic tells the story of Antoinette–more well-known as Bertha, the “madwoman” that Mr. Rochester keeps hidden away in the attic of Thornfield Hall.

Although this Classic Couple is quite an obvious pairing due to the inherent connection between them, there are nevertheless plenty of interesting similarities and differences to discuss.

+ Protagonists. What I love about both of these novels is that they feature independent, determined, intelligent women as protagonists. While Jane must work against the systemic sexism of her society in terms of marriage and professions, Antoinette is forced to confront an even more paralyzing hurdle: being a Creole woman who is considered neither black nor white in a society dominated by a pervasive racial hierarchy. Although Antoinette is ultimately locked in the Thornfield Hall attic as a “madwoman,” she regains a sense of empowerment through setting the building on fire. In this way, Rhys subverts the “madwoman in the attic” trope by showing that Antoinette can be just as empowering a figure as Jane–if not more so.

+ Mr. Rochester. Both novels feature Mr. Rochester, albeit in very different contexts. While Brontë romanticizes him as an enigmatic love interest that ultimately redeems himself in the end, Rhys exposes the colonialism that runs through his veins. As soon as he hears rumors of the “madness” that runs in Antoinette’s family, Rochester no longer wants anything to do with the marriage. It is clear by his racist comments that he wishes his wife to be more “English” and is repeatedly disappointed to find that she remains connected to her family, her past, and her home. Rhys’s Rochester is someone to be avoided rather than desired, thereby turning Brontë’s characterization of such a man upside down.

+ The attic. It feels strange to read about Grace Poole and the attic of Thornfield Hall from the perspective of Antoinette rather than that of Jane. While Brontë portrays the attic as a space that protects the rest of the house from “madness,” Rhys exposes it as a form of confinement that promulgates this damaging, inaccurate, colonial trope. Antoinette’s brief encounter with Jane outside of the attic reduces the eponymous character of Brontë’s novel to a flat figure, just as the character of “Bertha” is portrayed in Jane Eyre. Escaping the attic is Antoinette’s only way to reclaim a sense of freedom, independence, and control in an England that does not even feel like reality.

There is so, so much more I could discuss about these two novels, but I’ll save that for later posts. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little scratch on the surface of a much larger discussion, and I highly recommend reading both of these brilliant novels.

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What do you think of this classic couple? What other books would you pair with Jane Eyre? 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: The Lost World and Jurassic Park

Today I bring you a very specie edition of A Classic Couple featuring two remarkable books: The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1912) and Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (1990). You may be wondering what a novel by the creator of Sherlock Holmes has to do with the book that inspired my favorite movie. The answer? The Lost World has EVERYTHING to do with Jurassic Park because it’s the classic novel that the contemporary book is based on. 

Just in case you’re anything like me and this fact has completely blown your mind, I’ll give you a few moments to recover.

I discovered this connection just a few weeks ago when I was browsing the shelves of Blackwell’s in Oxford and stumbled upon Conan Doyle’s book. I picked it up because I thought it was a funny coincidence that it shares the same title as the sequel to Jurassic Park. My jaw literally dropped when I read the back cover and learned that this was the inspiration for a book that I hold near and dear to my heart. What are the chances?!?!

Usually in this feature I focus on the similarities between classics and their contemporary pairings; however, these two books share so many obvious elements that I actually think comparing them would be rather dull. Instead, today I’ll be discussing the differences between the two novels.

+ Setting. If you’ve read or seen the film Jurassic Park then you know that it takes place on the fictional Isla Nublar. Not only does this allow Crichton to write without worrying about being geographically accurate, but it also eliminates the need to discuss any inhabitants of the island. Unfortunately, the fact that The Lost World takes place in the Amazon basin of South America  means that the novel is riddled with prejudiced colonial ideology. There is little to distinguish Conan Doyle’s descriptions of the natives that the professors meet and the ape-creatures that violently attack them later on in the novel. This racist view didn’t necessarily surprise me given the publication date of the novel, but it certainly disappointed me.

+ Women. Yet another disappointment in the earlier novel is the near complete absence of women from the story. The only woman we meet is Gladys, who appears at the beginning and end of the novel for the sole purpose of being the narrator’s love interest. While Crichton’s novel could also benefit from a boost of women characters, at least we have Ellie Sattler as an intelligent, brave, complex woman to look up to.

+ Endings. I was surprised and delighted to see how different the conclusions of these two novels are despite their numerous similarities. I don’t want to spoil the endings for anyone, so I won’t share any specific plot details; however, it is enough to say that these two novels present very different views on the relationship between science and nature. While the earlier novel celebrates this scientific expedition as a glorious conquest that should be continued and used as a means of profit, the later novel condemns Jurassic Park as a dangerous yet futile attempt by humans to control nature. Perhaps this contrast can give us important insights into how we viewed scientific advancements at the beginning and end of the twentieth century.

Despite its problematic elements, I still very much enjoyed reading The Lost World and seeing how it compares to its contemporary counterpart. While I appreciate the earlier novel for its originality, I nevertheless must admit that Crichton’s Jurassic Park will always come first for me.

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

Yours,

HOLLY

A Classic Couple: Orlando and Every Day

It’s time for another Classic Couple! I love this feature so much but for some reason it tends to be the last thing on my mind when scheduling posts. In an effort to be more regular about it in the future, today I’d like to share an interesting and unexpected pair: Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando (1928) and David Levithan’s novel Every Day (2012). While reading the former novel for my Virginia Woolf in Modernist Contexts tutorial, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Levithan’s young adult novel that I read a few years ago. Although very different in setting, style, tone, and audience, both novels nevertheless discuss similar themes that many books shy away from.

Changing Bodies || Both novels involve the rather fantastical concept of suddenly, inexplicably, unexpectedly changing bodies. In Orlando, the eponymous protagonist wakes up one day to discover that her body has changed from male to female. Once this change occurs, Orlando remains in this female body for centuries until the novel ends in Woolf’s contemporary time. In Every Day, the protagonist A wakes up in a new body each day, thereby taking on different identities, lifestyles, and physical attributes.

Gender || Due to the emphasis on changing bodies of different sexes, gender is  a major aspect of these novels. Although Orlando’s biological sex has changed, she struggles with the fact that she often feels the same way in regard to her personality as she did when she was a man. In this way, Woolf not only suggests that biological sex has little bearing on one’s gender, but she also asserts that gender is a socially constructed, performed choice that one should be able to make about one’s own identity. A’s gender is even more fluid due to the fact that they seem to be genderless (or all genders at once??) and go by the neutral “they” pronoun.

Identity || As you can probably tell, identity is an important and essential overarching theme in these two novels. Although one’s personal identity is often viewed as something that is stable and changes gradually over time, Woolf and Levithan suggest that it can be more fluid than one may expect. They also stress that identity frequently defies categorization or even description, as language can fail to encompass all aspects of one’s personality due to its narrowing tendencies. It’s difficult to describe Orlando and A without stopping to think about who exactly they are and what their identities are composed of. In a world obsessed with naming and labelling seemingly everything in sight, these novels offer a refreshingly open way of thinking about one’s identity.

I never thought I would be comparing a Woolf novel with a Levithan novel, but Orlando and Every Day go together incredibly well. If you’re interested in either of these novels, I highly recommend checking them out!

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

Yours,

HOLLY

A Classic Couple: Chronicle of a Death Foretold and The Secret History

I don’t often enjoy reading books that are really dark, unsettling, and morbid, but this week’s Classic Couple is certainly an exception. Published a little over a decade apart, Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez (1981) and The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992) both have similar structures as murder mystery novels with a twist.

Answers your question before it is even asked || Both of these novels waste no time telling the reader exactly what death will occur by the end of the story. Rather than reading to see who has died, you’re reading to learn under what circumstances they died. When I first started reading The Secret History a few years ago I was a bit dubious about this format– after all, how interesting could it be if you already know who is going to die? Well, I stand corrected. Tartt’s attention to detail as well as the convoluted, bizarre plot and intriguing characters made the novel even more engaging and interesting than I had initially anticipated. Chronicle of a Death Foretold definitely confirms the effectiveness of this inside-out format with its suspense and ability to pull readers in from the very first page.

Complicates the notion of blame || One of the most interesting aspects of these books is the way they complicate the notion of blame. To a certain extent, one could argue that numerous people are involved with the deaths of Bunny and Santiago Nasar alongside those who literally, physically killed them. A sense of communal blame is especially prominent in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, in which basically the entire community knows that the two Vicario brothers plan to murder Nasar but no one actually tells him. Should these people also be held responsible for the death of Nasar? Should they be considered accomplices in this crime? Or are they simply bystanders trying to do their best to stay out of trouble? These are the sort of questions that make these kinds of novels so difficult to put down.

Still surprising and suspenseful || Despite the large amount of information presented in the beginning, these novels still manage to be surprising and suspenseful. In particular, I was taken aback by how unexpected the deaths felt at the end even though I had plenty of warning ahead of time that they were coming. I think convoluted plots play a role in this surprising feeling (particularly in the case of The Secret History, in which many bizarre events occur), as do the gory details and the suddenness of the event after so much leading up to it. All at once what was a mere story for so long abruptly becomes reality, and the brutal force of the death is hard to swallow.

If you’re ever in the mood for a different kind of murder mystery, definitely check out these haunting, dark, lyrically written novels!

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What are your thoughts on these books? What other books could they be paired with? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

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!

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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

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!

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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.

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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