Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Classically Misunderstood

Time for another installment of our occasionl feature Ask the Ape, in which the Ape responds to reader questions, comments, and condemnations. This one comes from Kevin at Interpolations
Because I'm opinionated, I desperately want to hazard a guess about the 5-10 most misunderstood novels of all time. But since I don't know enough about world literature, I'd like you to hazard a guess for me, when time permits. Perhaps it can be a future blog entry.... Cheers, Kevin 
We like this question for two reasons. First, it bravely suggests that  this humble primate can speak intelligently about novels "of all time." Though we are relatively well schooled in literary history, any attempt at a list will necessarily be incomplete (not that that will stop us). Second, it gives us a chance to offer somewhat less common readings of well-known texts.  So, without further disclaimer or ado, five texts (not all novels, though) in need of re-assessment. (Warning: there is some discussion of endings here, so if you haven't read these and want the sanctity of their plot preserved, you best look away).

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
For better or worse, TGG is widely considered a candidate for The Great American Novel. We don't disagree, but it's not quite that simple. One of the primary American cultural narratives is of opportunty and self-creation--both clearly at the center of Jay Gatsby's story. However, TGG seems quite skeptical of the reality of those processes; in the end, his attempts to change his life and sate his desires ends in calamitous fashion. The final image of boats beating ceaselessly against the tide seems surprisingly fatalistic, considering the overwhelming edification of the novel.  Read in this fashion, TGG is a Great American Novel that questions the greatness of America. 

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The main problem here is the joint charisma of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. Their Beatrice/Benedict act is indeed a joy, but our fascination with it camouflages the major class upheavals the book chronicles. One need look no further than the opposite trajectories of the newly rich Bingleys and the aristocratic de Bourghs. The vitality and beauty of Mr. Bingley stands in stark contrast to the sickly, possibly inbred, Anne de Bourgh. Furthermore, that Darcy can even think to marry Lizzy over Anne signals a seismic shift in the class tectonics of the day. It perhaps is no mistake that the electricity of the Elizabeth-Darcy courtship distracts from the collisions of marriage and money that are happening in the background: Austen may well have been wary of putting the decay of the British aristocracy front and center.

The Odyssey of Homer
This is a candidate mostly because it is generally taught in pieces; few general literature classes tackle the whole thing. Most of us who have had any exposure to the wanderings of Odysseus remember his famous encounters with the Lotus-eaters, the Cyclops, Scylla and Chrybdis and so forth. What we don't remember, or were never shown, was that Odysseus could have fabricated the whole thing. When he washes up on the shore of Scherie, he is in desperate straits. Always the trickster, he swindles his way into the royal palace, where he proceeds to narrate to the king and queen all of his troubles and travails. The problem is that he has no corroboration; all of his fellow voyagers have been lost. So there is the very real possibility that Odysseus, inventor of the Trojan Horse, is fabricating most of The Odyssey to elicit sympathy from those who can help him along the way. Homer's great trick here is to put us in the place of the king and queen; we are so ensorcled by Odysseus' tale that we forget to question its veracity.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Another case of the story masking possible meanings. Those who have read C + P won't soon forgot it; it is a engrossing fever-dream of crime, guilt, and ideas. The book is so long and exhausting that by the time we get to the end, when Raskolnikov is serving out his prison sentence, we might not notice the radical conservatism of the novel. Raskolnikov starts out an idealist and a revolutionary; he has decided to put action to thought and kill someone who he, perhaps rightly, thinks is harming the larger community. He is very much a representative of a whole host of radical ideas that were circulating in Europe at the time. C + P, however, ends with Raskolnikov rebuking his former ideas and engaged in a serious, redemptive relationship with the hyper-religious Sonia. For all the transgression of style and in content in the body of the novel, Dostoyevsky brings us back to relatively familiar territory. It is remarkable writerly sleight-of-hand; the reader thinks they are reading one kind of story but are getting quite another.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
This one has some of the properties of The Odyssey, Pride and Prejudice, and The Great Gatsby. The party line about TEWWG, as we understand it, is that the center of the story is the progressive romantic relationship between Janie and Tea-Cake, which ends tragically and surreally. The first problem here is that we again have no corroboration; Hurston stages the novel much as Homer stages The Odyssey. Janie is returning to her hometown, seeking support and succor from her friend. And what could elicit more sympathy than a tale of perfect love lost spectacularly? Even if we chose to read Janie's story as true, the symbolism at the end of that love story is sort of disturbing. Tea Cake contracts rabies and Janie must shoot him or have him murder her. It doesn't take the good Dr. Freud to see how fraught of a "love" story that is. In fact, the unicity of the Jane-Tea Cake union is itself an indictment of the possibility of a real, egalitarian heterosexual relationship. 

So there are our five? Additions? Disagreements? We look forward to your futile attempts to convince us.


  1. Completely agree with you about Gatsby (and others, but Gatsby is my favorite). I often refer to it as a novel about the "myth" of the American dream.

  2. This is a really orginal and well written post. Just why I follow this blog. cheers!

  3. I'm eager to get in on this conversation: didn't Dostoyevsky hold some mystical Christian beliefs? Sonya seems like a stand-in for the writer at times. I wonder if Raskolnikov is redeemed or broken at the end of the novel? About TEWWG--I love the end of the novel, where Janie is telling her story to her friend, and she imagines Tea Cake in the pine trees, and pulls in the horizon like a fishnet...she is complete by herself.

  4. All very interesting ideas (well, I skipped C + P since I haven't read it yet), but I was most intrigued by your point about The Odyssey. I can't believe I never thought about Odysseus making up the whole thing, but it makes perfect sense with his character.

    I wish I could add a book to the discussion, but sadly, I think if it's commonly misunderstood, I probably didn't do much better.

  5. Regarding Odysseus, what aspect(s) of the poem make it "a very real possibility" that he's confabulating to elicit sympathy? If we were to drop the laguage of "possibility," what makes it plausible, even better, higly likely, that O is fabricating? I mean, isn't this a "possibility," metaphysically speaking, of ANY account from a 1st-person POV? Rgds, Kevin

  6. Andi- Hmm, well maybe it's less "misunderstood" than I thought!

    Yes, after Dost. served out his prison sentence in Siberia, his Orthodox Christianity strengthened quite a bit.

    I love TEWWG too, but it's always struck me as strange that Janie's journey toward self-completion needs/has this bizarre and gruesome "execution" of Tea Cake built into it.

    Not only does it make sense with his character, but he lies to virtually everyone else he meets in The Odyssey, so it's part of a pattern.

    You're right of course about the possible/probable line. I would say that the chance he is lying about the whole thing hovers somewhere between the merely possible and the plausible. Like I just mentioned to Catherine, the fact that Odysseus lied to almost everyone he encounters in The Odyssey should put readers on guard. After all, Homer himself is invoking the muses to help him tell the story, so we already know that the line between "fact" and "fiction" is really blurry. Keeping this possibility in mind also shows how much The Odyssey is about stories and the power of story-telling as much as it is about anything else.

  7. Ah, "The Great American Novel." I live in the Philippines, and we have skewed perspectives on what The Great American Dream could be, as well as the failure of that dream. Or maybe that's just me. Anyway, when I went into this book, it wasn't so much that I wanted an explanation, or I wanted to check out what's the big deal about Fitzy.

    And I loved it. Mostly because I felt that Gatsby was all about human folly.

    Funny enough, I didn't read this book as "American Jazz Age!" context -- moreso as "Oh No Rich People With Heartaches!"

    Still, one of the best books I've ever read.

  8. This is interesting. When I read Kevin's question at the top of your post, before I scrolled down, the only misunderstood book I could think of off the top of my head was Crime and Punishment. So I was happy to see it made your list -- your take was spot on.

    I'm not sure if I agree about The Odyssey,though. The question of whether Odysseus was just telling tales is THE question asked in every first-year humanities course (as it is often asked if Achilles really loved Briseis in The Iliad). But maybe, it just depends on how one first approached the book.

  9. I love this question, and your answers. Very thought-provoking. Thanks for sharing - glad to have found your blog!