Feminist Fridays: I wrote an entire essay about hair?

Yes, you read the title of this post correctly: I recently filled an entire eight pages with an essay about hair. Since it has a decidedly feminist perspective, I thought I would discuss it with you all in this week’s installment of Feminist Fridays.

For my English Literature 1910-Present tutorial I was asked to read Not So Quiet… by Helen Zenna Smith, a WWI novel published in 1930. Helen Zenna Smith is actually the name of the protagonist– the author, a journalist named Evadne Price, wrote under a pseudonym. The novel follows a group of ambulance drivers from England working on the front lines in France. These women are volunteers from mostly upper-class families whose parents want their children to be bestowed with the honorable “glory” of the war effort. As I read the novel I couldn’t help but notice the plethora of references to the women’s hair, from when bold Tosh cuts hers to get rid of disgusting lice infestations to when Helen ultimately decides to cut her hair after being kissed by a soldier, suggesting a connection between short hair and overt female sexuality. Why was the mention of hair such a repetitive occurrence? I decided to do some investigating.

My concluding argument ended up being that although the women are able to cut their hair short on the Front because it is a liminal space where women perform masculine acts (such as driving ambulances), the Victorian ideals of virtuous femininity lingering in British society prevent women from fully deconstructing these traditional gender roles. In the literature of the Victorian Era, there was a clear link between long hair and proper womanhood. In Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market” that I discussed in a previous Feminist Friday post, a lock of golden hair is actually used as currency, rendering woman’s body a sort of commodity in the masculine economic sphere. As much as we would love to believe that the dawn of the twentieth century saw the immediate and pervasive rise of the “New Woman,” Smith’s novel shows that the transition was much more gradual.

Why is this important or relevant in the slightest? I think we’d be amiss to believe that these traditional Victorian ideals of what it means to “be a woman” have escaped modern society completely. In actuality, the stigma surrounding “unfeminine” things like short hair still exists today, albeit in less overt ways. If you perform masculine behavior as a young girl, you’re often labelled a “tomboy”…. but why can’t you still just be called a girl? Why must we distinguish between those who perform more masculine behavior rather than feminine actions? And who decides what is “masculine” and “feminine” anyways? This very discussion demonstrates that the lock of golden hair used in “Goblin Market” still hangs over our society’s head.

What are your thoughts on Helen Zenna Smith’s Not So Quiet…Have any recommendations for other works I should read? Do you feel as though hair is an important marker of gender? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

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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

7 Reasons to Read AS I LAY DYING by William Faulkner

William Faulkner is one of my favorite authors. Today, I’m here to persuade you to pick up one of my favorite Faulkner novels: As I Lay Dying. First published in 1930, As I Lay Dying tells the story of the Bundren family as they attempt to move a coffin to Jefferson, Mississippi.

I’ve read this intense novel twice: once last summer just for fun and once this past summer for the Faulkner tutorial I’m currently taking at Oxford. Each time I’ve been taken aback by the depth and complexity of this story. What first appears to be a simple task– transporting a coffin to a burial ground– quickly transforms into a journey that will change the family forever.

If you’ve never read this book, here are seven reasons why you should:

1. Relatively short length || At around 250 pages, As I Lay Dying is more manageable than some of Faulkner’s other texts. The pace moves quickly due to the short chapters and numerous narrators, meaning that it feels even shorter. If book length intimidates you, then this might be a good place to start with Faulkner.

2. Narration || With 15 narrators and 59 chapters, this novel is certainly a whirlwind. This jigsaw puzzle of perspectives forces the reader to piece together the story bit by bit. Each chapter is labelled with the narrator’s name, though Faulkner writes his characters so distinctly that the reader would likely be able to identify the narrator even without the helpful note at the top of the page.

3. Family dynamics || The abundance of narrators also offers the reader a close look at the inner workings of the Bundren family. Over the course of the novel we learn the many secrets this family has been hiding, including knowledge that only certain family members know.

4. Plot twists || There are so many details and layers to this story that I was still surprised when I read it a second time. From uncovered secrets and personality traits to unexpected events in the middle of the night, As I Lay Dying is sure to make you gasp at least once.

5. Dewey Dell || Dewey Dell is my favorite character because she’s arguably the most interesting character. Now that Addie Bundren is no longer living, Dewey Dell is the only female in the family. Though we do hear from Cora– a woman living near the Bundrens– Dewey Dell’s narrations allow us to peek into the life of a teenage girl during this time period. Though her narration was written by an older man and therefore must be taken with a grain of salt, it’s nevertheless telling that Faulkner decided to focus on pregnancy as a major theme. The idea of virginity is a common thread throughout Faulkner’s works, suggesting that humans have been preoccupied with the concept of purity in womanhood for far longer than we’d like to admit.

6. The challenge || I’m not going to lie: this book is quite challenging at times. What is the reader to do when characters start arguing over whether their mother is a fish or a horse? However, reading this novel twice has taught me that all the details unfold eventually– you just need a little patience.

7. The ending || The last line of this novel has made me gasp out loud each time that I’ve read it (even though I knew it was coming the second time around). It’s amazing that a simple sentence can change how you think about everything you’ve just read.

I hope I’ve convinced you to pick up this brilliant novel!

What are your thoughts on As I Lay Dying? What’s your favorite Faulkner text? Have any recommendations? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

ABSALOM, ABSALOM! by William Faulkner | Review

William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is genuinely one of the most challenging books I have ever read. My character map quickly became my best friend as I struggled to piece together what happens to the Sutpen family over several decades of scandal, marriage, and death. This book has been on my TBR list for years, though I’ve always been intimidated by how difficult everyone says it is to understand. Fortunately, its presence on my Oxford reading list finally pushed me to set aside my concerns and dive right in!

For me, the most challenging aspect of this novel was deciphering exactly what happened in the Sutpen family. Who married who? Who killed who? Who had children and who didn’t? Who is still alive? In what order did this all take place? These questions and many others remained at the forefront of my mind the entire time I was reading. There are so many characters, voices, and events– not to mention the fact that it’s not told in chronological order. It was fascinating and exciting to constantly learn new information; however, it also makes it much more confusing to read. I think this is a novel that would absolutely benefit from being reread in the future now that I have the basic plot in my mind.

I was thrilled when I realized this novel focuses mainly on Quentin and Shreve. Reading The Sound and the Fury only a few weeks before tackling this bookish obstacle gave me a greater appreciation for Quentin given his unpleasant family situation. The inclusion of these two characters also demonstrates one of my favorite things about Faulkner’s works: the countless connections that link them all together. I felt as though Quentin could have been fleshed out more as a character in The Sound and the Fury, so I was glad to hear more from him in Absalom, Absalom!.

Shreve often tells the story back to Quentin even though he clearly already knows it, which I think is an interesting narrative choice on Faulkner’s part. Shreve sort of takes on the position of the reader as he attempts to understand and wrap his head around what happened. His interpretation of past events is much more emotional than Quentin’s; for instance, he consistently refers to Thomas Sutpen as the “demon.” As readers we are able to have this guttural reaction to the Sutpen saga, but Quentin seems more reserved because it is his own family.

“Quentin did not answer, staring at the window; then he could not tell if it was the actual window or the window’s pale rectangle upon his eyelids, though after a moment it began to emerge. It began to take shape in its same curious, light, gravity-defying attitude–the once-folded sheet out of the wistaria Mississippi summer, the cigar smell, the random blowing of the fireflies. “The South,” Shreve said. “The South. Jesus. No wonder you folks all outlive yourselves by years and years and years.” It was becoming quite distinct. He would be able to decipher the words soon, in a moment; even almost now, now, now.

“I am older at twenty than a lot of people who have died,” Quentin said.”

There’s a point in the narrative when Quentin and Shreve seem to become the past, as though the present is nothing more than a blurry continuation of those convoluted events. Retelling the past from different perspectives is a common theme in Faulkner’s texts, which may explain his frequent use of multiple narrators in a single work. It brings up a lot of interesting questions pertaining to how we think about and interpret the past. Whose account of it is the most accurate: Rosa’s, Quentin’s, or Shreve’s? How do you judge the accuracy of someone talking about the past, especially when they haven’t lived through it? So many unanswered questions!

There is so much more I could say about Absalom, Absalom! but I’ll stop for now lest this review become a novel in itself. Overall, I was fascinated and captivated by this novel even though it was difficult to wade through. I wouldn’t recommend this as the first Faulkner text someone should read, but it’s certainly on the list!

What are your thoughts on Absalom, Absalom! ? What’s your favorite Faulkner novel? Have any recommendations? How do you deal with challenging narratives? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

7 Reasons to Read THE SOUND AND THE FURY

William Faulkner’s classic novel The Sound and the Fury holds a special place in my heart as the first book I was ever assigned to read in college. Needless to say, we were all quite confused in my Introduction to Literature class. Why was Benjy also named Maury? Who were all of these different narrators? What happened to Quentin? And why were there suddenly two people named Quentin? We were fortunate enough to have a patient professor who answered these and countless other questions that we hurled at him. Gradually I came to realize and appreciate the brilliance of the novel and I promised myself that I would pick it up again someday.

Little did I know that day would come two years later as I was preparing for my Oxford tutorials.  Rereading The Sound and the Fury magnified my appreciation of it tenfold. Now that I understood the basic plot, I could focus more on the characters, language, and structure of the novel. This experience encapsulates why I love to reread books, especially ones as complex and intense as those that Faulkner writes.

In an attempt to spread my love for this novel, here are seven reasons why you should read The Sound and the Fury:

1 || Yoknapatawpha County. This novel is a great introduction to Yoknapatawpha County, the fictional county in Jefferson, Mississippi in which many of Faulkner’s novels and short stories take place.

2 || Narrative structure. With multiple narrators, narration styles, and dates, this story is bound to make your head spin at times (which might sound awful, but it’s actually really thought-provoking and fascinating and fun).

3 || It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. Reading this novel is like putting together an enormous jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the final product is supposed to look like. Faulkner drops bits and pieces of information throughout the story, leaving the reader to make sense of the details. It feels amazing when you finally feel like you understand another aspect of the story!

4 || Names. One of the things that fascinates me about The Sound and the Fury (and Faulkner’s texts in general) is the immense power and importance of names. An obvious example is Maury, who is renamed Benjamin (shortened to Benjy) because his mother feels as though it is a better Christian name.

5 || Faulkner’s writing. It’s difficult to explain the beauty and brilliance of Faulkner’s writing—it’s much better to actually read it for yourself. (Trust me, it’s worth it.)

6 || Memorable characters. From independent Caddy and patient Dilsey to sorrowful Quentin and fiery Quentin, Faulkner’s characters are not easily forgotten. There are so many characters in this novel, yet they all have such interesting pasts and multifaceted personalities.

7 || It’ll make you think. The Sound and the Fury is a book that I could read over and over again and still walk away with something new to chew on until the next time I read it. Gender, race, class, growing up, time, truth, family, identity—you name it and Faulkner has discussed it!

Have I convinced you yet? What are your thoughts on The Sound and the Fury? What’s your favorite novel by Faulkner? Have any recommendations? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley | Review

Sometimes it seems as though certain books will never leave your TBR… until you finally force yourself to check them out of the library and read them in one sitting!

This was my situation with Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, a classic novel set in London during the year 2540. I’ve been intrigued by the synopsis ever since reading George Orwell’s 1984 a few years ago, yet for some reason I never got around to reading it until recently. (Was it Watsky’s song “Brave New World” that finally pushed me to action? Perhaps.)

Brave New World surprised me with its witty humor and snark. Of course, it’s incredibly dark humor– children are treated as mere numbers and essentially brainwashed into conforming to societal norms– but there are certainly ridiculous parts that made me laugh out loud. It’s precisely these moments of laughter when I realized the brilliance of this novel: it makes you realize that some elements of Huxley’s fictional society are also present in our modern reality. Many of us would rather be entertained and distracted rather than face actual problems that must be solved. Sometimes we treat relationships as a means to our own pleasure rather than a mutual connection between two people. We crave comfort, familiarity, and ease while simultaneously yearning for something more. Above all, we avoid things that are uncomfortable, painful, and unpleasant.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

Throughout the novel Huxley emphasizes the importance and value of hard work, perseverance, and taking chances. The argument is that when everything comes quickly and easy to everyone, the value of things, people, and ideas are soon lost.

“The Savage nodded, frowning. “You got rid of them. Yes, that’s just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. Whether ’tis better in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows or outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them…But you don’t do either. Neither suffer nor oppose. You just abolish the slings and arrows. It’s too easy.”

…”What you need,” the Savage went on, “is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.”

As the facade fades away, the reader realizes that what appears to be a utopian world is actually a dystopian society masked in false promises and illusions. I love Brave New World for the way it makes you think about our own society and what we value in our lives today. It’s interesting to think about how this novel was first published in 1932 yet it’s still relevant almost a century later. To me, this endurance is the definition of a classic.

My only regret is not having read this book sooner. I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone!

What are your thoughts on Brave New World? Have any recommendations of similar books? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

DRACULA by Bram Stoker | Review

Sometimes I reread books and love them even more the second time around.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is not one of those books.

When I read it for the first time a few years ago I enjoyed it, though it wasn’t something I ever thought I would willingly read again. (And I was right: I read it again not because I wanted to but because my required reading list told me to.) I remember wishing that Count Dracula played a larger role in the story beyond the first one hundred pages or so and that the novel in general would have been a bit shorter.

I agree with you wholeheartedly, Holly of the past.

Dracula frustrates me for a number of reasons. The absence of Count Dracula through the majority of the book is disappointing. The plot is needlessly convoluted and the pacing is too slow. At first I liked how the story is told through journal entries and letters, but as I read on I realized that this style of narration was preventing the novel from moving at a faster speed. It also felt as though I was being told the same ideas and plot points three or four times after reading about it from all of the different characters’ perspectives. After a while most of the journal entries and letters felt really redundant.

This book is also frustrating due to the prior knowledge we have about the story before we even open to the first page. We know that Count Dracula is a vampire from cultural context, meaning that the surprise is completely taken away. When Lucy becomes sick later on in the novel it’s immediately obvious that vampires are the cause, yet it takes hundreds of pages for the characters to come to that same conclusion. In a strange way, reading Dracula felt like reading a story that I’ve known my whole life.

I understand why Dracula is an iconic novel and I appreciate it for being a well-written and meticulously crafted book; however, it’s simply not something that I find engaging, entertaining, or enjoyable to read.

What are your thoughts on Dracula? Have any spooky reading recommendations for the Halloween season? 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

WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Brontë | Review

I’ll admit that when I first read Wuthering Heights a few years ago I wasn’t very impressed. The characters were ridiculously melodramatic, the names were confusing, and there seemed to be no point to this dark, tumultuous novel. However, recently reading it again for one of my courses has made me question my initial impressions. They say that some things get better with age; for me, Emily Brontë’s classic novel Wuthering Heights certainly falls into that category.

First, I am fascinated by the layered narration through which Emily tells her story within a story. Initially the reader is led to believe that Mr. Lockwood, Mr. Heathcliff’s most recent tenant, will be narrating the novel; however, one soon realizes that we are told the story by Nelly Dean through the ears of Mr. Lockwood. This layered narration adds depth and context to the story of Cathy and Heathcliff. Reading Wuthering Heights almost feels as though you are being read an unsettling bedtime story that will surely give you nightmares nights to come.

Since I had already read this book once before, I now had the luxury of reading it again without having to worry about understanding the basic plot. (Also, pro tip: creating character maps beforehand is a life saver!) Instead, I could now focus on the characters themselves and the motivations behind their behavior. Rather than be frustrated by their melodramatic tendencies, I started to admire how Emily had crafted such memorable characters that reflected and interacted with their surroundings in such interesting ways. Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange seemed almost more like characters than locations, influencing what occurred within their formidable walls.

Heathcliff caught my attention in particular; as I’m sure he does for many readers. I began to notice that most descriptions of his appearance, demeanor, and actions portray him more as an animal than a man. He is wild, savage, ruthless, and lacks any semblance of tact, courtesy, and empathy. Yet why is it that I still felt bad for this cruel “creature”? Emily’s ability to foster a connection between the reader and Heathcliff is one of the many brilliant aspects of this novel. Heathcliff may be rude and violent and unpredictable, but he is still human. The image of Heathcliff as a maltreated young orphan never quite goes away.

I wouldn’t say that Wuthering Heights is an enjoyable novel to read; rather, it is endlessly fascinating, engaging, and thought-provoking. I appreciate this text for challenging me as a reader and making me think about connections between characters, settings, and language more deeply; however, it’s not something I would choose to pick up on a whim or bring along with me for a relaxing day at the beach. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to read this novel again and I can even see myself picking it up for a third time in the future.

What are your thoughts on Wuthering Heights? Do your opinions of novels change when you reread them? Have any recommendations of what I should read next? Let me know in the comment section below!

Yours,

HOLLY