I had to do a third year at my college for health reasons, and basically decided on a complete do-over, doing both AS and A-Level in the final year. This meant that in my English class I came across a lot of the same books several times, and then again when I started uni. I have an issue with books that are overly pretentious or depressing- which is basically half of the books on any given English course.
So, after having struggled through these brick-sized tomes once, under the impression we had a mutual understanding to part ways immediately after, coming across them again feels kinda:
These books and I had had an arrangement- we did not like each other. I acknowledged them as the classics they were, they dragged on for page after page, and that was that. However, almost against my will, I’ve discovered that the more I read them, the more they’re growing on me. I don’t know what it is; that I’m a bit older, or maybe that I’ve matured a bit more, but I’m starting to appreciate them for what they are. Especially since I’ve got to uni; exploring them in more detail, with a couple more years experience of studying English Literature, means that when I face them I feel more:
Let’s go through this.
Starting with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’:
Studying this at college, I got so frustrated with the characters. I felt depressed even at the start- Nick-the-Narrator did nothing to change this or inspire any sympathies; “this went wrong, then this went wrong, I had a dog, it ran away…”. I knew that it had far more depth to it and that it was about something way more important. To me however, the book just seemed to be made up of characters with an endless supply of angst, whose problems weren’t real problems. Their “problems” existed only because the characters had such limitless supplies of money that they could afford to beat around the bush and never address them. They had “rich people problems”. If they’d been regular people with everyday jobs, these issues would have been over and done with just out of sheer necessity, because there wasn’t time in the day to indulge in pained looks and aggrieved sighs. But no, these characters are perfectly happy to let the next 20 years span out with quivering lips and tense silences like the world’s most awkward tea party to conform to shallow societal behavioural expectations; to deal with problems “wouldn’t be fitting”. My overall impression of the book was that a good slap to any one of the main characters would have been enough to sort things out. I just had the constant urge to shake them, go full Edna and shout:
However, after three torturous re-readings, I came to admire it. I saw that the book as a whole was beautiful. I understood how Gatsby built and built Daisy up in his head, transforming her completely, so that when the moment came when he saw her again, she couldn’t hope to match his mental image. I loved the quote:
“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it. . . . high in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl. . . .”
And I was stunned by the last page (after we’d had the idea of the American Dream drilled into us)
“…a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees… had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an æsthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder…Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”
The same with Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’. I had no patience with Lord Henry at first; he seemed as though he was an entirely 2D character made up of nothing but Aesthetic witticisms, spitting them out at random. You could spin him like a game-show-wheel and see what the needle landed on. What’ll it be today, Lord Henry? Ribbons?
“Never trust a woman who wears mauve, whatever her age may be, or a woman over thirty-five who is fond of pink ribbons”
Just trying to picture the characters in their world, I couldn’t imagine what Dorian and Lord Henry talked about all day; he seemed so unutterably boring. And then, really struggling I read it a few more times for school until I suddenly appreciated it. I guess it helped having 3 years worth of A-Level notes on the background/context/neverending doubles imagery, but in any case, I liked the book. I liked Lord Henry. I could really appreciate the characters. That first speech in particular, where LH first gets inside Dorian’s head, when he begins in with the whole
“Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses”
It really emphasised the horrible futility, and the sadness, of Basil’s attempts to save his friend. The book is a piece of art.
Next came Charlotte Bronte’s (no idea how to do the little dots over the “e”) “Jane Eyre”.
Me and this book have really struggled. I have to be honest; at first I could not stand Jane as a character. This book seemed to drag on and on, (especially the boggy bit that was St. John Rivers) and every time Jane’s seemed to pass out in a ditch or puddle on one of her countless dramatic escapades in the country, I have to admit, I held out a little bit of hope that she’d finally die and the book would be over- until the next page: “but my spirit prevailed…” and I’d just be OH FOR CRYING OUT LOUD
But, after I’d calmed down and read it a few more times, I suddenly stopped hating it and switched to the other side completely, and loved Jane’s character. She was completely badass. The fact that the author gave her that much agency meant that Bronte was badass too. Jane was absolutely not about to be a shrinking violet, refused to let the man she loved disrespect her by making her his mistress, and in true Northern fashion, is more than capable of stomping across the moors rather than take any nonsense from broody Byronic men.
That’s one of the things I love about books. They’re not dead objects; the stories are living things that transform each time you read them.
Basically, books are just