Understanding literary theory

I never took a literary theory class in undergrad and I didn’t even read much literary criticism until about a year ago, sweeping through Literature Resource Center and MLA International Bibliography so I could better answer literature reference questions. So, as I have started reading extensive literary criticism in working on this project, and have been trying to write it myself, I realized I needed a better background.

To that end I picked up a few books on it, so I’ll write out what I’ve learned here. Then hopefully what I learn will translate into better and more insightful reactions.

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002. Print

Chapter 1: Theory before “theory”–liberal humanism

This chapter provides a brief historical overview of the institution of English studies in UK universities in the mid 19th century, and the concomitant variant approaches to literature criticism developed during the next century.

The term liberal humanism wasn’t widely used to refer to this style of criticism until the 70s; and disparagingly at that. Liberal, as in not politically radical, and humanist (similarly) as in not Marxist/feminist/theoretical.

Principles behind the founding of English studies (1820s-1900s) include:

  • Studying English literature for a sense of rootedness to past heritage and values (viz., middle class Englishness), especially useful in the face of declining religious faith [which the fearful worried would lead to revolt a la the French Revolution]–read this as “ideological control”
  • Victorian-style class guilt
  • A “genuine desire to improve things for everybody”
  • Desire to spread culture & enlightenment

The “Cambridge pioneers” (I.A. Richards, William Empson, F.R. Leavis) in 1920s developed some innovations leading to the liberal humanist approach:

  • Isolating the text from history & context
  • Attending closely to the text itself
  • Moralistic approach, reading the text to teach the reader of criticism about life & transmit humane values

Barry distills the core elements of doing English in this traditional way into the “ten tenets of liberal humanism:”

  1. Fostering an attitude that good literature transcends time and place and “speaks to what is constant in human nature”
  2. Because it is the enduring which is meaningful in literature, socio-political, literary-historical, and autobiographical context are not required for understanding that value
  3. Indeed, the text must be studied in isolation, as these contexts interfere with the task of engaging in verbal analysis of the text
  4. “Human nature is essentially unchanging…[so] continuity in literature is more important and significant than innovation”
  5. Individual human character is largely static–the subject transcends his environment/social context, etc.
  6. The purpose of literature is to transmit humane values–artistically rather than overtly (which risks being propagandandistic rather than artistic)
  7. Form (e.g., imagery) must be integrated with content (substance) otherwise it risks being mere ornamentation
  8. The language of a work should convey the sincere emotion intended, emerging implicitly from the presentation of events
  9. In the same way, ideas must be enacted–represented concretely–rather than discursively explained or explicitly stated in the work
  10. Preconceived notions and big picture theories (e.g., the nature of reading) do not belong in criticism, whose job it is to “interpret the text, to mediate between it and the reader”

So that’s liberal humanism. Critical theory, on the other hand, grew from the 1930s and increasingly since the 1960s. Although there has been several approaches, they share a common bedrock:

  1. Anti-essentialism: Much of human existence is socially constructed–contingent on social/political/ideological forces and thus dependent on circumstance rather than absolute and concrete; therefore truth itself is malleable
  2. Prior ideological commitments largely determine all thinking, making disinterested investigation into literature impossible. Taken to its logical conclusion, all arguments are relativistic
  3. Language itself conditions, limits, and predetermines what we see; all reality is not just recorded, but is constructed, shaped, and created by language and text. Meaning in literature is not objectively “there,” but is jointly constructed by writer and reader
  4. There are no definitive readings or fixed meanings in literature; deconstruction reveals all texts to be independent linguistic structures whose authors are always “dead” or “absent”
  5. There is no absolute “great” category of books transcending all others. All texts arise of particular socio-political contexts. Likewise there is no generalizable “human nature” as any definition will marginalize other, usually disadvantaged groups.

Chapter 2: Structuralism

Structuralist critics find that meaning resides not inherently in a phenomenon, but is attributed to it by the human mind. The phenomenon can never be detached from the various contexts in which it arose; one regards the “containing structures” as metaphorical chickens hatching from the “individual example” egg. Whereas liberal humanists analyze the egg, structuralists determine the precise nature of the chicken.

The late 19th century linguist Ferdinand de Saussure developed some key insights related to the establishment of meaning in language and functions of grammar:

  1. Words are unmotivated signs: the connection between a word & its meaning is arbitrary and maintained only by convention, indicating that language is a system standing apart from the actual world
  2. Meanings of words are relational, not intrinsic or fixed: a word’s definition is dependent upon its relation to adjoining words. This connection can vary in nature (e.g. paired opposites (dyads) or like characteristics (e.g. paradigmatic chain, like hut-house-mansion))
  3. Language constitutes our world: the words we use construct our perceptions and even sensations
  4. Langue (language) indicates the larger structure and ruleset, whereas parole (remark) indicates the example which may only be understood with reference to the larger structure.

These insights gave structuralists “a model of a system which is self-contained, in which individual items relate to other items and thus create larger structures.”

This model is generalizable, so e.g. a particular novel is the parole to the literary genre of novel as langue. Or, as developed by Levi-Strauss in the 1950s, motifs and themes in a particular myth are the parole to the same patterns found in the langue of a series of myths. The wider signifying system (langue) can be found anywhere there is an “organized and structured set of signs which carries cultural meanings” which constitute networks, each of which “operate through codes as a system of signs” that can make statements and be read and decoded by structuralists/semioticians. During the same time, Roland Barthes took structuralism deeper into cultural and literary studies, helping to spread the tradition from France into Anglo-America.

What structuralist critics do:

  1. Analyze (mainly) prose narratives, relating the text to a larger containing structure, e.g. genres, intertextual connections, “universal” narrative structures
  2. Interpret literature in terms of a range of underlying parallels with the structures of language
  3. Treat systems of signs within Western culture and across cultures

Structuralists classify codes representing the underlying structure of a text–or for some writers, generating all narratives just as grammatical structure generates all sentences. They then scan the text in search of instantiations of the code (Barthes called these lexies); this analysis of structure, symbol, and design is the focus of the commentary.

Parallels, Echoes, Reflections/Repetitions, Contrasts, & Patterns

are sought in

Plot, Structure, Character/Motive, Situation/Circumstance, & Language/Imagery

Once a common set of contrasts, parallels, etc. is found within the text, these may be further reduced to “a set of more generalized ones: the contrast between light and art, male and female, light and dark (in the sense of enlightenment and moral benightedness, as well as in purely physical terms), looking and doing, reality and representation. The thesis of the structuralist is that narrative structures are founded upon such underlying paired opposites, or dyads, so that contrasts such as these are the skeletal structure on which all narratives are fleshed out.”

The cloze procedure is a structuralist technique: words are deleted from the text and readers fill the gaps by drawing inferences from the structure. This demonstrates how textual hints feed the process of characterization and thematicization on a smaller scale.

Structuralists also look to how the text encourages/forces readers to inquire into the events of the narrative, speculating on outcomes and enigmas and predicting the patterns of events and motives.

Chapter 3: Post-structuralism and deconstruction

If language shapes the way we perceive the world, and we have no control of the linguistic system, then there is no certain, fixed standard whereby to measure anything. And because we are so dependent upon language for communication, we experience uncertainty and anxiety that our feelings/thoughts/message will not be interpreted correctly when we are engaged in any but casual, familiar linguistic exchange. post-structuralist literary criticism mines this uncertainty for deeper revelations into the work and the work’s implications.

Differences between structuralism and post-structuralism

  1. Origins. Structuralism is derived from the empirical, data-based, scientific field of linguistics an”inherits this confidently scientific outlook: it too believes in methods, system, and reason as being able to establish reliable truths.” Post-structuralism derives from philosophy and inherits that field’s skepticism, avoidance of proclaiming absolute knowledge, and tendency to dig behind things to discover what’s hidden.
  2. Tone and style. Structuralist writing tends towards abstraction, generalization, scientific (detached) coolness, order, and neutrality. Post-structuralist writing tends to be emotive, urgent, flamboyant, and warm.
  3. Attitude to language. Structuralists acknowledge that the world is constructed through language and humans may only access reality through the linguistic medium; but, they find language to be an orderly system and therefore find secure conclusions to be reachable. Post-structuralists find that we cannot be in control of language, so the meanings of texts are uncertain, and the meanings of words are also “contaminated” by their opposites (i.e. you cannot define a word without referencing what it does not signify) and by their own etymological histories.
  4. Project. Structuralists believe we can attain a measure of knowledge by inquiring into the way we structure and categorize reality and our habitual modes of perception. Post-structuralists find the individual (the subject) to be “dissolved” or constructed by social and linguistic forces–a “tissue of textualities”–and their inherent distrust of the notion of reason translates into burning “away the intellectual ground on which the Western civilization is built.”

Barthes 1968 essay “The Death of the Author” asserted “the independence of the literary text and its immunity to the possibility of being unified or limited by any any notion of what the author might have intended, or ‘crafted’ into the work.” This implies that the reader attributes his own meanings, and is not deciphering the author’s “authoritative” meanings. Derrida’s 1966 lecture “Structure, Sign & Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” described the modern intellectual tendency–growing out of the thought of Freud, Heidegger, & Nietzsche–to “decenter;” that is, to quit measuring and judging all things against fixed (Western) standards. These standards were in any case undermined by events like the world wars and Holocaust, by scientific discoveries, and by intellectual and artistic revolutions. The implication here is that just as the death of the author frees the reader to ascribe meanings, the decentered universe frees us to interpret phenomena according to our own standards (which are of course themselves uncertain, as the post-structuralist acknowledges).

Post-structuralist method generally consists of deconstructing the text: readers are not “reconstructing” something built by the author–it is not possible for a writer to construct anything permanent with text. Instead “critical reading must produce the text;” or, “the deconstructive reading uncovers the unconscious rather than the conscious dimension of the text, all of the things which its overt textuality glosses over or fails to recognize.” The writer himself may be unconscious of what he hath wrought; his text has many meanings and implications underneath the surface. These meanings are not just sought in the plot, structure, etc. of the story, but in the whole structures in which the text lies. Post-structuralists particularly look for internal contradictions and inconsistencies and subversion, “aiming to show the disunity which underlies its apparent unity.” Hence as structuralists seek parallels, balances, repetitions, symmetry, contrast, and pattern–textual unity and coherence–post-structuralists seek contradictions, paradoxes, breaks in tone/view, conflicts, omissions, linguistic quirks, and aporia–textual disunity.

What post-structuralists do:

  1. “Read the text against itself” to expose meanings potentially contrary to the surface meaning
  2. Highlight surface features of words, e.g. sound, root meanings, dead metaphors as crucial to the overall meaning
  3. Seek to show the text is characterized by disunity rather than unity
  4. Analyze single passages intensively for “multiplicities of meaning”
  5. Seek breaks in the text (aka discontinuities, or “fault-lines”) as evidence of unconscious repression/glossing over/passing over in silence


In terms of cultural studies, modernism is a phenomenon ranging from the late 19th to the early 20th century, with another spike in the 1960s. It is characterized by experimentation and innovation:

  1. Emphasis on impressionism & subjectivity: how we see rather than what we see
  2. A movement away from apparent objectivity (e.g. omniscient external narration, clear moral positions)
  3. Blurring of distinctions between genres
  4. New liking for fragmented forms, discontinuous narrative, collage
  5. Tendency towards “reflexivity;” i.e. the arts question their own nature, status, role

Whereas both modernism and postmodernism use “fragmented form,” randomness (“aleatory form”), parody and pastiche (i.e. assaulting narratory omniscience), they do so with a different orientation or reaction, as well as different moods or attitudes. The latter registers nostalgia for the past–before so much fragmentation–and possibly notes of despair about the present. “For the postmodernist, by contrast, fragmentation is an exhilarating, liberating phenomenon, sympotmatic of our escape from the claustrophobic embrace of fixed systems of belief.” Modernists were reacting to the over-elaboration of the 19th century, but their reaction was characterized by scaling-down, asceticism, and minimalism. Postmodernism retained neither the restraint nor the “high” tone, opting for excess, gaudiness, and “bad taste.”

What past did modernists revere? To Habermas, modernists were part of the Enlightenment project of solving social problems by replacing obedience to tradition with the scientifically neutral application of reason and logic. He lamented the “lost sense of purpose, a lost coherence, a lost system of values” heralded by the growing dominance amongst intellectuals of post-structuralism. This stance was challenged by Lyotard, who regarded the Enlightenment project as yet another metanarrative like Christianity or Marxism, preferring instead “mininarratives, which are provisional, contingent, temporary, and relative and which provide a basis for the actions of specific groups in particular local circumstances.”

Baudrillard pointed out the hyperreal nature of modern reality, where signs do not indicate an underlying reality, but merely other signs. Signs may:

  1. represent the basic reality of their depictions
  2. misrepresent or distort the reality (e.g. romanticization, glamorization)
  3. conceal or disguise the fact that there is no corresponding reality underneath (“masks the absence of a basic reality”)
  4. bear no relation to any reality at all (e.g. abstract art)

The third point is the key to postmodernism.* In postmodernism, everything is a model or image, all is surface without depth, there is no underlying meaning to anything, what you see is all you get.

*All of society is imprisoning, but we have prisons. So prisons are symbols of incarceration, ostensibly contrasting with the freedom of what is outside the prison. Prisons are there to convince us that the rest of society is free, they “point” to a freedom that does not in fact exist. A “free” society is actually created by the very act of instituting a prison. Likewise, the canvas in Magritte’s painting The Human Condition paints a reality that does not have an independent existence. The alternate reality is itself created by the sign. Disneyland is there to conceal that all of America is adults, machines, childishness. The “scandal” of Watergate created moral accountability to obscure the scrupulousness of capital/power. And as advertising creates representations of people who do not exist, and real people strive to become that representation, “the image tends to become the reality, and the two tend to become indistinguishable.” A free society, the view out the window, Disneyland, Watergate, and perfect masculinity/femininity: all are themselves signs, not reality. But modern society is inundated with signs pointing to signs which point to nothing, so we exist in a state of perpetual dream. This is hyperreality. How easy it is to find examples: the presidential election, the ostensible liberation of consumerism, the addicted mind. What happens to the individual who chases something that does not exist? What happens to the society that is constructed on artifice? Note very carefully here the distinction between simulation, which bears no relation to a reality, and the pretense that there is a reality underneath the sign when there is none.


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A Room With A View, 1907, E.M Forster, British

A Room With A View may not be quite as heavy as many books on this list in terms of plunging the depths of human misery. Some characters are undoubtedly miserable, but Forster does not dwell upon the nature and characteristics of this misery. Plus, the protagonists come to a happy ending. It can perhaps thus be read as a cautionary tale: follow love or end up with repression, a harbinger of misery. I found it to be a keen look into the complexity of social relationships, interpersonal communication, elitism, unconventionality, and human psychology, and a glimpse into the Edwardian middle class and the thawing of frigid Victorian values into the new social liberalism.

It’s quite a fun read, as Forster masterfully creates vivid dialogue, amusing situations, fairly deep characters, a handful of exciting scenes, and an engaging story overall.

Some notes on narration

When I read A Room With A View, it took me a bit to get used to the narrative style: the narrator is either floating in a balloon high, high above the characters, or traveling around their brains in a miniaturized exploration pod giving his interpretation of their thoughts. Therefore the novel implies correct behavior both by depicting interactions between characters–through description and dialogue–and also with interjected omniscient opinions and insights into the inner states of some of the characters. So the narrative style can be sort of off-putting; sometimes it is as if you’re being preached to by the author–not the narrator, so it might be difficult for some to overlook. Luckily, I found the lessons and insights to be mostly agreeable, and the tone amusing, and so I did not overly resent the presence.

Still, it can be difficult to figure out the role of the narrator. The narrator glides between roles. It provides bite size nuggets of (often fairly profound) wisdom. For instance: “Secrecy has this disadvantage: we lose the sense of proportion; we cannot tell whether our secret is important or not” (Chap. XI). Were this a first-person narrator, we could understand from whence the perspective emerged, but here–who is it and where did he come from? It intrudes into the narration: “People congratulated Mrs. Honeychurch [for Lucy’s engagement], which is, I believe, a social blunder, but it pleased her.” What’s the deal? The answer is, Forster’s narrator is reading the text with us…the narrator is not him (the author) nor is it a party to the story…the narrator is neither fixed or omniscient; this anticipates my later revelation

The unfortunate thing about writing my reaction so long after I have been finished with the novel is that I have altered my opinion on Forster’s narrative style substantially during the course of this project (i.e. I am not able to accurately convey how I felt about it during the time I was reading it). While I was reading two other E.M. Forster novels (Howards End and A Passage to India), I had similar questions, until I read a bit of literary criticism on Passage that completely changed the way I viewed the narrative style of Forster, for the better. So, as I write this criticism, it will be nigh impossible for me to pretend as if I’m approaching the novel as I did back in November. The last sentence in the previous paragraph approaches what the change in perspective was, and I will explicate it later when I discuss Passage to India.

Lying to yourself, or Love is Liberation

“But this time I’m not to blame; I want you to believe that. I simply slipped into those violets. No, I want to be really truthful. I am a little to blame.”

-Lucy Honeychurch

At its essence, the novel impels one to trust one’s true impulses towards love, and the raw experience of life, rather than continually tailoring one’s behavior to be in conformity with social convention, which itself is generally out of step with what is important. Following convention generally leads to falsity and discomfiture with life, whilst following one’s way from the being level leads to truth and self-assuredness.

The most discontent people in the novel are also the biggest slaves to convention. Examples include:

  • Miss Bartlett nearly turning down the opportunity to stay in a room with a Florentine view, owing to some snobbish worry of being indebted to the less-than-prestigious Emersons
  • Miss Bartlett falling over herself to sustain Lucy’s propriety–whilst inwardly torn to pieces over her own failure to attain true love earlier in her youth, owing to the same worthless false morality. Glimpse Miss Bartlett’s ravaged perspective on the world, which she is trying to imbue unto Lucy:

…at the end there was presented to the girl the complete picture of a cheerless, loveless world in which the young rush to destruction until they learn better–a shamefaced world of precautions and barriers which may avert evil, but which do not seem to bring good, if we may judge from those who have used them most (Chap. VII).

  • Mr. Eager tying himself in knots over the expression of love between two young Italians, ordering them to “disentangle themselves.”
  • Lucy refusing to pursue or even acknowledge her feelings for George

This last point is the general focus of this write-up: Lucy lied to herself. What does it mean to lie to oneself? Rather than use a psychoanalytic perspective–examining why one represses or obscures an unconscious truth from conscious acknowledgement–I will continue in the same vein as The Way of All Flesh, and use more of a sociological perspective.

After the event in Florence with George, Lucy confided to Miss Bartlett that “I want to be truthful…it is so hard to be absolutely truthful.” It may have been easier for Lucy to be “absolutely” (i.e. honestly) truthful if she had a friend or family member with her who was a bit more sympathetic to and/or knowledgeable about human nature, and who could perhaps draw out of Lucy her true feelings. Instead, she had Miss Bartlett, who labelled George’s behavior as “thoroughly unrefined” and closed the gates to a real conversation. So Lucy could not face her feelings, even if she were inclined, because of her fear of rocking some imaginary boat. All paths leading to sincere disclosure are blocked, unless she can summon some serious courage to go against the grain of her family and culture. Here’s the crux of the problem: human beings have an innate, natural disinclination to confront our fears, but we may also have social pressures on us to fear our own impulses, which makes us afraid to be truthful.

So it is fear that stops us from embracing our personal truths. This fear is implanted heavily in us when we are surrounded by overly self-conscious people (such as the middle class in Edwardian England or superficially-puritanical middle class American suburbs). Conscious of our role, our class, of superiority, of etiquette, of what we’re supposed to do; conscious of the dangers lurking behind every corner when we live life with few restraints.

So when our impulses run counter to our social training, there is disruption. As Lucy broke free from Cecil, she thought she had “deliberately warped the brain,” and could not return home to Windy Corner, where her family still “lived and thought straight.” In fact it was she who was finally thinking straight, as she was finally being honest with herself.

“You’ve got rid of Cecil…But why not announce it?”

It was quite easy to say, “Because George Emerson has been bothering me, and if he hears I’ve given up Cecil may begin again”–quite easy, and it had the incidental advantage of being true. But she could not say it. She disliked confidences, for they might lead to self-knowledge and to that king of terrors–Light. Ever since that last evening at Florence she had deemed it unwise to reveal her soul. (Chap. XIX).

While it was “true” that Lucy ostensibly wanted George not to bother her, it was true only on the surface. But she was right: admitting this partial truth would increase the probability of admitting deeper truths. Shedding a bit of light on the matter could force her to reveal more of her soul than she is ready, and turn her family against her. And her fears are founded: when she elopes with George, her mother is upset with her.

Upon her return from Italy, Lucy defended the Emersons from Mr. Eager’s slander, and meantime lies about their surname so as to shield herself from feelings that would inevitably arise upon the utterance of the word “Emerson.” Later, when forced to reckon with her lie, she finds, “Hitherto truth had come to her naturally. She saw that for the future she must be more vigilant, and be–absolutely truthful? Well, at all events, she must not tell lies” (Chap. X). What do we make of Forster’s question mark/Lucy’s hesitation? Naturally, she is not nearly ready to face the truth of her connection with George, as it is still forbidden. Lucy is caught in a familiar battle for independence, but for her, independence is freedom to love freely: “she tried to remember her emotions in Florence: those had been sincere and passionate, and had suggested beauty rather than short skirts and latch-keys [i.e. work]. But independence was certainly her cue.” Imbued with something of a suffragette spirit (borrowed in part from George’s admonitions to her), Lucy denies to Mr. Emerson that it is love that pulls her away from Cecil (“Oh, how like a man!–I mean, to suppose that a woman is always thinking about a man.”). But it was true.

The novel explores the pathological obsession Edwardians had–as a hangover from Victorianism–of pretending all is well outwardly, whilst inwardly there is much amiss: “The contest lay not between love and duty. Perhaps there never is such a contest. It lay between the real and the pretended, and Lucy’s first aim was to defeat herself” (Chap. XVI). Lucy set out to convince herself that her feelings were false, and her obligations were real. This outward posturing is a major theme of The Good Soldier–and was perhaps the zeitgeist of pre-WWI Europe, where indeed the innards were rotting and devolving whilst the continent boasted of nearly a century of peace and a stature as the most civilized continent in history.

Along those same lines, it was in part this falsity and discomfiture that was holding Europe from modernity. George is a man who wants to “know one intimately” (Chap. XVI)–not the superficial facade put on for the benefit of society, but one deep down, beyond all that. Cecil’s inability to know other people at the being level is a symptom of the disease which has “kept Europe back for a thousand years” (Chap. XVI). Europe and the United States began to break free of all of that during the 1960s and 1970s, although it seems lately as if we’re putting the lid back on it.

Well how do we break free from these fears? Of course, courage; but we must first be inspired somehow to be courageous. Mr. Emerson provides that service to Lucy–preparing to run away from her fears– by confronting her with blunt assessment: “You’re shocked, but I mean to shock you. It’s the only hope at times.” “Ah! for a little directness to liberate the soul!” Indeed!

Tom Campbell has stated that the opposite of love is not hate; the opposite of love is fear. It is fear that keeps Lucy from defying social convention–and in the same way people like Miss Bartlett and Mrs. Honeychurch feed those fears in her because they have them themselves. Likewise George is in some way fearful of the world, stuck in existential dread, but is nonetheless courageous in his pursuit of Lucy. So when Lucy and George decide to trust in love, the fear dissipates and their bliss is evident in the final chapter.

Linked to that–when one loves, there is largely an absence of intellectual rationalization. One simple loves. Love emanates from the being level, not the intellectual level. So as George opens himself to love, he acts spontaneously and kisses Lucy in the violets. Contrast this with Cecil’s ungainly, overintellectualized, “self conscious” kiss. In the realm of love there is verily little space for logic and rationalization. Marriage, oddly, is, on the other hand, held together by it.

It is not just love, but sex and the human body also must be trusted. Mr. Emerson: “The Garden of Eden…which you place in the past, is really yet to come. We shall enter it when we no longer despise our bodies” (Chap. XII) and “love is of the body; not the body, but of the body. Ah! the misery that would be saved if we confessed that!” Sex is of course a raw component of natural and liberated living.

Sadly, judging by the acuteness with which Forster described repressive atmospheres, it seems like the life of repression and lies is one that Forster was utterly and completely familiar with–perhaps even more so than the one of unbridled enjoyment of life. As he was a closeted homosexual for the bulk of his life, afraid to come out due to his fear of upsetting his mother (Corbman), this is not altogether surprising.

Jeffrey Heath quotes Forster’s explication of upper and lower selves: the upper self is the “conscious and alert” self, as opposed to the lower self which resides “in the obscure recesses of our being,”  near the “gates of the Divine.” Heath concludes that in A Room With A View, “Forster has positioned us in the unstable and oscillating cell of the upper self: the “room” of self denied and thwarted through muddle and monotony, and self exaggerated through the imperialism of the ego. He has done so because he wants us to experience a world in which things don’t fit.” The world of the repressive and the false. Indeed, we catch mere glimpses of the luxuries of liberation and truth–the young Italian driver & his lover, the bathing scene with George and Mr. Beebe and Freddy, the final chapter. Though the Emersons represent the fearless embrace of life, they are the only two main characters to whose inner selves we have no access, thus thwarting our quest to explore: if not repression/convention, then what?

Didn’t we face the same vexation at the end of The Way of All Flesh? Samuel Butler, too, was apparently a homosexual. Perhaps we can conjecture that these authors could not provide a complete picture of the liberated lifestyle because they were both, in the end, thwarted by a closed-minded society? The novel depicting the liberation of the homosexual could not be written until the 1980s (and even then, tentatively); but judging by the heated environment surrounding the issue (e.g. this, this, this) representing the cultural thaw, it will be easier to write it in the 2020s.

Personal Reaction

If the last chapter of this book does not make you examine your own relationship to see if you’ve that much passion, you aren’t reading the book right. At last George and Lucy are free to love, and all else it utterly insignificant. Ah, the liberating power of love, it’s like being doused with cool, crisp water over your grease-covered, mud flaked skin. Certainly I am so lucky to have felt it with my love, and we continue to feel it 8 years later. It is hard to describe how truly liberating it is to love someone so much, and to be loved so much, and to be free to simply be with one another.

Too this book hits close to home in the realm of social convention foisted upon one, as my middle class suburban upbringing clamped a few fears of breaking convention upon myself.

I have been trying to disentangle what “one’s self” is in this context. When are you not being the “real you?” When I was drinking and partying constantly, a large part of that was due to peer pressure and my insecure need to be cool. So if there is a core “self” beyond the need to impress others, we assume that you can strip away those behaviors and be left with the real “self.” Like, underneath actions taken to impress others (ego) the true self resides. But, we can strip away the behaviors, and we still have an insecure, ego-riven, fear-based self there–so that is the real you. You are always the real you, you cannot be anything other than the real you.

But that’s not quite right. For most of us, we have an internal nag pushing us to do better for ourselves. It’s not exactly our conscience; it is our link to the larger consciousness system pushing us to evolve–face our fears and diminish the hold our ego has over our actions. So I must interject my metaphysical beliefs: you are more than this brain, this life. The real “you” is an individuated unit of consciousness which is temporarily experiencing this life in order to grow towards love and away from fear. That true self enters our head when we are open to it–we often call it “intuition” or “gut” or “following our heart.” When in love, that voice speaks loudly and it is hard to ignore. Our IUOC, as well as the larger consciousness system which is us, encourages us (via intuition & feedback) to move towards less entropic (more loving) states. So when we are in a situation in which our peers/parents/society are giving fear-based recommendations, and we have an impulse to resist those for love, chances are we are becoming more in alignment with our “true” selves. Miss Bartlett’s urging Lucy away from George is a manifestation of her own fears, and if Lucy follows those advices, she is moving towards fear and away from love, hence her confusion and angst.


Corbman, Sandra. “Freudian Psychoanalytic Criticism and the Representation of the Mother in the Novels of EM Forster.” MA Thesis. Web. <http://www.pauls.mistral.co.uk/emforster.html&gt;

Heath, Jeffrey. “Kissing And Telling: Turning Round In A Room With A View.” Twentieth Century Literature
40.4 (1994): 393. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 July 2012.

Holt, Lee. “EM Forster and Samuel Butler.” PMLA 61.3 (1946): 804-819. JSTOR. Web.

Hubbell, Jeremy W. “Critical Essay on ‘A Room with a View’.” Literature Resource Center. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Literature Resource Center. Web. 16 July 2012.

McDowell, Frederick. “The Italian Novels and the Early Short Stories.” E. M. Forster. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982. 18-45. Twayne’s English Authors Series 89. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 7 Aug. 2012.

SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on A Room with a View.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. n.d.. Web. 10 Jul. 2012.

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The Way of All Flesh, 1895, Samuel Butler, British

This was a great book to start the project with because it took a load of important 19th century values, and politely exposed them as rubbish. I’m not necessarily looking for iconoclastic books, but I am looking for art that drills a few layers down into the human experience, challenges a few belief systems and conventions. I certainly found it here.

A Few Notes on Context & Tone

The book was actually written from 1872-1884, and not published until 1903, posthumously. It’s not terribly surprising that it was published posthumously; one gets the sense that Butler was treading a tad lightly when dealing with a few characters (Theobald, Christina, Charlotte) and with a few scenes. Indeed, in one of the most pivotal moments of the novel, when Ernest Pontifex is sent to jail for propositioning a young women he confused for a prostitute, the reader must utterly infer what happened, using two or so brief mentions of it after the fact: Butler ceases the scene the moment Ernest steps into the room with her. But aside from this Victorian avoidance of anything sexual, and underneath heavy satire, Butler was rather bold in confronting the norms of the Victorian bourgeoisie.

I have the feeling that Butler was nervous that his family would see themselves too clearly in the novel, and perhaps take offense at his devastating attack on Victorian values and institutions–even with his satirical allusions and narrative elisions. The conjecture that the novel is semi-biographical is corroborated in Holt (1989): “so many other details of the Theobald Pontifex family life are drawn directly from Butler’s youth, including the letter taken verbatim from one his mother wrote him and his brother, that no one can deny that the novel has much basis in reality.” Though the same source notes that “the artistic duplication of events, the arrangement, and the meaning are poetic creations and not slavish transcripts.”

Butler was clearly sick of Victorian mores, and this novel exposes their detrimental effect on the individual through the vehicle of the story, rather than discursively tearing into them. In the cases when the narrator, representing a “sensible” rationality (an agnostic secularist, really), does provide some authoritative “lessons” or “insights” in a detached, “out of nowhere” style–as E.M. Forster often does–these are less effective than the story itself at debunking Victorianism as a mode of life. They are also generally heavy with irony and/or satire:

To parents who wish to lead a quiet life I would say: Tell your children that they are very naughty–much naughtier than most children. Point to the young people of some acquaintances as models of perfection and impress your own children with a deep sense of their own inferiority. You carry so many more guns than they do that they cannot fight you. This is called moral influence, and it will enable you to bounce them as much as you please. They think you know and they will not have yet caught you lying often enough to suspect that you are not the unworldly and scrupulously truthful person which you represent yourself to be; nor yet will they know how great a coward you are, nor how soon you will run away, if they fight you with persistency and judgement. You keep the dice and throw them both for your children and yourself. Load them then, for you can easily manage to stop your children from examining them. Tell them how singularly indulgent you are; insist on the incalculable benefit you conferred upon them, firstly in bringing them into the world at all, but more particularly in bringing them into it as your own children rather than anyone else’s. Say that you have their highest interests at stake whenever you are out of temper and wish to make yourself unpleasant by way of balm to your soul. Harp much upon these highest interests. Feed them spiritually upon such brimstone and treacle as the late Bishop of Winchester’s Sunday stories. You hold all the trump cards, or if you do not you can filch them; if you play them with anything like judgement you will find yourselves heads of happy, united, God-fearing families, even as did my old friend Mr Pontifex. True, your children will probably find out all about it some day, but not until too late to be of much service to them or inconvenience to yourself (Chap. VI, par. 10).

Edward Overton as narrator, of course, dominates the tone as well as the content. He is not addressing stodgy Victorians, but speaking to readers like him–readers who are “in on it”–“it” being knowing how annoying and destructive the types of people (largely people in authoritative positions) whom he exposes are. The story is thus not a persuasive appeal, but more like a case of evidence that people like George and Theobald Pontifex ruin their own life and the lives of those close to them by their cruel and obstinate beliefs. Overton’s blatant elitism over people like George and Theobald Pontifex and Dr. Skinner, must have been excruciating at the time to the ears of upholders of traditional values, but for readers sympathetic to his message, we enjoy being addressed intimately in this way. We snicker collectively.

In the way The Way of All Flesh delivers its message, it has similarity to Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy: never once does Dreiser rail against capitalistic exploitation of the poor, against the disregard of the poor by the rich, or against the perversion of the soul of individuals by the American Dream-fed idealization of wealth, but the novel conveys all of this strictly through the tale of young Clyde Griffiths. The Way of All Flesh also uses the narrative as the primary vehicle for delivery of the message, but it adds to the critique with thick slabs of satire and irony from the narrator Overton. Further, neither Butler nor Dreiser treat their “villains” with fierce disdain, but a bit of detached understanding.

In Chapter LXXXIV, Ernest tells Overton, “‘Well,’ he continued, ‘there are a lot of things that want saying which no one dares to say, a lot of shams which want attacking, and yet no one attacks them. It seems to me that I can say things which not another man in England except myself will venture to say, and yet which are crying to be said.’ There is no doubt that Butler saw himself in that position. Here are a few “shams” Butler exposed by way of The Way of All Flesh:

  • Religiosity (at least, Victorian Christianity) is correlated with truth and kindness
  • The Victorian family system and brutal dominating parenting are good for kids
  • Victorian bourgeois values are good for society
  • Authority figures generally have the interests of their charges in mind
  • Classical education is fulfilling in itself for all students

And here are a few alternatives he proposed:

  • Maturation includes eschewing dominant social norms and values, at least temporarily
  • Self-exploration is important in developing into a whole person, therefore children should be given the freedom to do so
  • Life should be more lived with unconscious effortlessness and “as nearly in the middle of the middle rut” (Chap. LXXVII) as possible

Individualism: Unloading the weights of convention

I will here explore Samuel Butler’s treatment of individualism, self-exploration, and maturation.

In late 20th and early 21st century America, we have forged some clear paths in the institutionalization of the idea that during one’s adolescence (and recently, during one’s “emerging adulthood” stage–the twenties), one must be free to stretch one’s legs, and challenge the norms of the past. We have the 1960s to thank for making this a reality, but reading The Way of All Flesh indicates that the notions were in the air as we entered the 20th century. It is possible that my generation will reverse these gains, but at least those raised in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s have largely embodied the trend.

Although social norms and the environment may encourage it, the willingness to rebel against what everyone around you accepts as legitimate because it is traditional is generally innate (perhaps in all of us, but brighter and likelier to manifest in a certain few), but the courage to do so must be discovered or learned. This is essentially the courage to be follow one’s own intuitions, ways of being, worldviews, whims and impulses; resisting the pressures for conformity that come from parents, state, culture, society, etc. As Marx said in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living;” illustrating this idea with the metaphor:”the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.”

And so The Way of All Flesh takes a look at the journey of shedding the weight of tradition through the experiences of young Ernest Pontifex; I read the book as a story of evolution, with the underlying point that this is a desirable evolution for so-inclined individuals in modern society to make, regardless of their age.

Ernest’s aunt Alethea visits him to see if she may “exploit” him; that is, help to rid him of some of the undesirable qualities (priggishness, closed-mindedness, judgmentalism, tyranny) present in the immediate Pontifex line to which she was unfortunately exposed–“she knew very well where the prigishness came from” (Chap. XXXII, par.12). She does indeed notice natural qualities in Ernest tending towards the free-thinking and spirited side, qualities which presumably she (along with Edward Overton, and perhaps her grandfather John) had, but which are absent or repressed/suppressed in her father George and brother Theobald. Alethea foresaw the eventual emergence of this spirit in Ernest, and the “self” that was to emerge may hold values congruent with hers and Edward’s values, but it was clear that Ernest would first have to wrestle with and overthrow the weight of Theobald’s (and indirectly, George’s) oppression. Having caught typhoid, and on her death bed, Alethea wisely determines to withhold Ernest’s inheritance money until he turned 28, but with a trust in the boy that these qualities will naturally emerge:

Don’t scold him if he is volatile, and continually takes things up only to throw them down again. How can he find out his strength or weakness otherwise? A man’s profession is not like his wife, which he must take once and for all, for better for worse, without proof beforehand. Let him go here and there, and learn his truest liking by finding out what, after all, he catches himself turning to most habitually–then let him stick to this; but I daresay Ernest will be forty or five and forty before he settles down. Then all his previous infidelities will work together to him for good if he is the boy I hope he is.

Ernest indeed moves through some stages in life’s way, which are critical to unloading the weight of the religious and educational past.

Drawing another comparison with American Tragedy: while both Ernest Pontifex and Clyde Griffiths are brought to the brink of ruin owing to their naïveté, tendencies to follow and trust others, and lack of stable parental guidance, Clyde’s pursuit was motivated by his need to gain the approval of other people, whereas Ernest was more concerned with finding personal truth. Dreiser never gave us deep access to Clyde’s mind, but it is likely that he never renounced his desperately slavish need to be validated by his rich and popular peer group, and I doubt he would have even if he had lived into middle age, especially if he was successful. While Clyde was no sociopathic monster, the weights of the American Dream and the idealization of wealth were much to strong for him to resist thinking and doing a monstrous thing. Ernest Pontifex on the other hand was trying on identities for himself, and he did have the innate tendency to challenge the weights of the past, given some “breathing room,” which he obtained, ironically, in prison. It was the paradoxical freedom from society which is afforded in jail, that enabled Ernest to fearlessly confront the past, and begin the long process of unloading some of that weight:

He had an opportunity now, if he chose to take it, of escaping once for all from those who at once tormented him and would hold him earthward should a chance of soaring open before him. He should never have had it but for his imprisonment; but for this the force of habit and routine would have been too strong for him; he should hardly have had it if he had not lost all his money; the gap would not have been so wide but that he might have been inclined to throw a plank across it. He rejoiced now, therefore, over his loss of money as well as over his imprisonment, which had made it more easy for him to follow his truest and most lasting interests.

Ernest’s revelations in prison essentially amount to the eschewal of belief–at least weighty beliefs forced upon children by authority figures–and its replacement with rational and objective truth-seeking. This is a process that leads to tearing down authority, period, and majority opinion–a necessary step for budding young independent thinkers.

Consider Krishnamurti on this point:

It is very easy to conform to what your society or your parents and teachers tell you. That is a safe and easy way of existing; but that is not living, because in it there is fear, decay, death. To live is to find out for yourself what is true, and you can do this only when there is freedom, when there is continuous revolution inwardly, within yourself.
. . .We must create immediately an atmosphere of freedom so that you can live and find out for yourselves what is true, so that you become intelligent, so that you are able to face the world and understand it, not just conform to it, so that inwardly, deeply, psychologically you are in constant revolt; because it is only those who are in constant revolt that discover what is true, not the man who conforms, who follows some tradition. (Think On These Things, Chap. 1)

And Overton on Ernest’s time in prison:

As he lay on his bed day after day slowly recovering he woke up to the fact which most men arrive at sooner or later, I mean that very few care two straws about truth, or have any confidence that it is righter and better to believe what is true than what is untrue, even though belief in the untruth may seem at first sight most expedient. Yet it is only these few who can be said to believe anything at all; the rest are simply unbelievers in disguise. Perhaps, after all, these last are right. They have numbers and prosperity on their side. They have all which the rationalist appeals to as his tests of right and wrong. Right, according to him, is what seems right to the majority of sensible, well-to-do people; we know of no safer criterion than this, but what does the decision thus arrived at involve? Simply this, that a conspiracy of silence about things whose truth would be immediately apparent to disinterested enquirers is not only tolerable but righteous on the part of those who profess to be and take money for being par excellence guardians and teachers of truth (Chapter LXV, par. 1 & 2).

And soon afterwards, Overton on Ernest’s own reflections:

It was not simply because he disliked his father and mother that he wanted to have no more to do with them; if it had been only this he would have put up with them; but a warning voice within told him distinctly enough that if he was clean cut away from them he might still have a chance of success, whereas if they had anything whatever to do with him, or even knew where he was, they would hamper him and in the end ruin him. Absolute independence he believed to be his only chance of very life itself (Chap. LXVII, par. 4).

Stated fairly baldy, yeh?

Next, I don’t interpret the novel as severely anti-religious, but it is certainly critical of the effect of Victorian Christianity on the mind and soul and the family and youth of 19th century England.

Butler is a sophisticated commentator, and does not define the weights of the past as the only ones that drag us down in our crawl to maturity. We have general human errors, as well as our personal philosophy and our biological dispositions to contend with.

Ernest is human, all too human, and must make human mistakes. This is demonstrated in his failed marriage, failed business, and the brief time he spent in poverty, whereupon he is “inoculated” (in Overton’s word, Chap. 77, par. 3) against those misfortunes.

And we finally come to Ernest’s major philosophical revelations, which rose out of the ashes of the past and of his past, endearing him closely to the open minded and rational types of the 20th and 21st century: that “no system which should go perfectly upon all fours was possible” (i.e. “no system based on absolute certainty was possible”). And Ernest is contented with this conclusion rather than discomfited. As his prison revelations, this is also an eschewal of belief, but a very important one for 20th century humankind. To put a fine point on it: “Having, in fact, after infinite vexation of spirit, arrived at a conclusion which cut at the roots of all knowledge, he settled contentedly down to the pursuit of knowledge.” This is a high stage of intellectual and being-level development; it is what Tom Campbell may refer to as “open minded skepticism” and “living gracefully with uncertainty.”

Overton comments, when Ernest has this revelation, that “sensible people” have reached this conclusion “without bothering their brains so much.” Overton qualifies it by referring to Ernest’s upbringing as the source of impairment of Ernest’s “taking a common-sense view of things,” but Ernest has a different perspective:

The people like Towneley are the only ones who know anything that is worth knowing, and like that of course I can never be. But to make Towneleys possible there must be hewers of wood and drawers of water–men in fact through whom conscious knowledge must pass before it can reach those who can apply it gracefully and instinctively as the Towneleys can. I am a hewer of wood, but if I accept the position frankly and do not set up to be a Towneley, it does not matter.

As you may infer, Towneley is Ernest’s foil insofar as he is much more at ease in the world and his place in it. What is key in this passage is Ernest’s acknowledgement that it is his own nature that is to blame for many of his difficulties. Although Ernest is innately free-thinking, he must learn his lessons the hard way: direct experience.

So where does Ernest end up? Only a chapter is devoted to this. Ernest becomes a writer and social critic, a bachelor, a nonconformist. It is not for us to decide whether he has reached his proper “final destination,” as the novel is not teleological or even generalizable, but instead is illustrative and explanatory of how a man rids himself of some of the weights of past tradition, childhood trauma, parental pressure, human error, and unprofitable predisposition. What he does from there is his own business and dependent upon his personal circumstances and wishes. I do want to point out that Ernest had a natural inclination to work with his hands (building organs, tailoring clothing) and for that quality to remain unsated is unfortunate. It was perhaps due to pressure from Overton that Ernest finally decided to work in the intuitive rather than the sensory trades–he certainly tended that direction whilst in prison, unencumbered by authoritative urgings. Overton is unambiguous that he pressures Ernest to bend towards his own scribal persuasions. Naturally it is better for Ernest to emulate Overton than Theobald, nonetheless one wonders whether Overton has exerted some more unwanted influence over Ernest that Ernest will later have to pick off. It is possible that Butler too (not, however, Overton) wished Ernest would end up in a trade.

However, it appears that Ernest’s son Georgie perhaps will not be burdened by the weights Ernest struggled to unload:

Georgie though only twenty-one is owner of a fine steamer which his father has bought for him…I do not exactly know how people make money by having a steamer, but he does whatever is usual, and from all I can gather makes it pay extremely well. He is a good deal like his father in the face, but without a spark–so far as I have been able to observe–of any literary ability; he has a fair sense of humour and abundance of common sense, but his instinct is clearly a practical one.

Theobald, the reader may recall, dreamt of becoming a sailor, but he never had the courage to resist his father George, as Ernest had and was thus able to pass along to his son, not as it were from his own parentage, but perhaps by his lack of it, or, at least, his refusal to emulate his father and grandfather’s parenting styles.

Finally, I am here anticipating some later comments on the novels of E.M. Forster; namely, that the upper-middle-class author cannot detach himself enough from his roots to provide a radical alternative (see the review for A Passage to India for a review of my mistake with Forster specifically). But this may be the voice of the radical leftist living inside of me, always desiring a realization of the imaginary future, more so than anything else. Perhaps Butler too wanted to see some greater things from Ernest–and who knows, perhaps Ernest will become a radical social reformer. But at the close of the novel, Ernest is content with merely “addressing the next generation rather than his own” and finally, “In politics he is a Conservative so far as his vote and interest are concerned. In all other respects he is an advanced radical” (Chap. LXXXVI).

As I have already implied, in terms of the Kiersey temperament sorter Ernest is perhaps an Artisan trapped as an Idealist. But perhaps I am projecting, as that is certainly how I feel.

My personal reactions

It took me a while to understand this novel and what it was doing. This was not just because the novel itself took its time to set-up and get moving (Ernest is not even born until chapter 18) but also because I get so wrapped up in the prose and narrative that I can have trouble discerning the larger message.

As you may have noticed by the aspect of the novel I chose to discuss, there is much I can identify with in Ernest’s struggle. I actually had very little hint of rebelliousness until I reached age 18 and my knowledge of my dad’s infidelity slowly began to erode my faith in the institutions which I had previously loved unconditionally: the flag, the country, the idea of a God the father, the general goodness of the government, and other fallacies. Similarly, in the film The Kids Are All Right, the daughter of the lesbian couple resists the impulse of sexual activity throughout the film, until her faith in her family is shattered by (one of her) mother’s infidelity.

Myself and the daughter in that film were lucky enough to be raised by caring and loving parents. Had we not experienced that trauma, we may have ended up toeing our respective lines (myself becoming a Reaganite, and her choosing to resist having sex (regardless of whether or not that was the “right” choice, it was the choice preferred by her more conservative mother). Ernest Pontifex, on the contrary, needed no family tragedy to degrade his faith in convention, as his father was wretched and his mother, though softer, was complicit in his father’s wretchedness. Instead, Ernest needed to learn first-hand that much of social convention is garbage.

A Note on Metaphysics that informs this and, likely, future textual commentaries

As a necessary context, my metaphysical beliefs align largely with Tom Campbell’s model as outlined in his trilogy My Big Theory of Everything (TOE), in which he states that consciousness is the only fundamental reality, that consciousness is non-physical, that reality as experienced by human beings is a virtual datastream rendered to individuated units of consciousness (IUOCs) that is part of a system for the primary purpose of lowering its entropy (and hence the entropy of the entire consciousness system)–i.e. getting rid of beliefs, judgements, fears, and ego, and moving towards what we call on Earth, “love”–and our IUOCs are reincarnated with all slates wiped clean but inherent quality of consciousness, which must be reachieved by the particular Free Will Awareness Unit (FWAU) during the course of its life, from which point the IUOC reduces that QOC. And evolution is key in this process: trying out various possibilities and watching the stronger and more profitable configurations persist whilst the weaker and more entropic ones die out.

So I read The Way of All Flesh as a tale of entropy reduction, of steps Ernest must take to reachieve his inherent Quality of Consciousness. The only way to do that is to experience adversity, make choices based on present functional Quality, get feedback, and readjust accordingly. To experience pain based on small-picture (fear/ego-based) perception of reality and to adjust future behavior based on that feedback is indeed the way of all flesh, and all of us are at different stages. This is not coincidental; Butler accepted Darwinian self-generating evolution as a driver of development. In Campbell’s theory, evolution applies on a fractal scale to physical reality as it does to non-physical evolution of consciousness.


Holt, Lee E. Samuel Butler, Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 10 July 2012.

Kettle, Arnold. An Introduction to the English Novel. New York: Harper, 1960. Web. 10 July 2012. <http://www26.us.archive.org/stream/introductiontoth002032mbp/introductiontoth002032mbp_djvu.txt&gt;

Parsell, Roger E. CliffsNotes on The Way of All Flesh. Web. 18 Jul 2012. <http://www.cliffsnotes.com/study_guide/literature/id-287.html&gt;.

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The deal

OK so in October 2011 I took a few cursory glances at the Modern Library’s Top 100 books of the 20th century list, and found to my chagrin and self-disdain that I am woefully under-read in this realm, and, worse, I have not even heard of many of the works & authors listed there.

So I put together a spreadsheet with the following lists:

To my spreadsheet, I added the nationalities of the authors, and the years of publication (relying heavily on the Novels for Students database provided by the Gale Virtual Reference Library) and set to work on my project.

The Project

I will read four books published during each decade of the 20th century, about that particular decade (or thereabouts).

In this way, I am looking at the century through the eyes of the artists who lived in it. Industrialization, commercialization, war & holocaust, Americanization, disillusionment & disenchantment, the modern nuclear family, individualization. And meanwhile observe trends in the arts and literature. Post-modernism, writing explicitly of sexuality, unreliable narration, stream of consciousness, and other stuff I can’t think of because the last English class I took I was a sophomore in college.

Also, I am lucky enough to work at a university library, so I can access the subscription databases and printed books and periodical literature to read top-notch criticism, which really enhances one’s experience of the books–perhaps a bit too much, speaking to the necessity of keeping one’s own notes.

And we reach my problem. I did not keep good notes. I am now halfway into the 1930s and I have not written down my observations as I read the novels, I’ve only written down a smattering of quotations that struck me, and every book I have read has been checked out from the library which means I have no margin notes and no underlines and highlights to go back to. It’s quite distressing, as my brain has produced some rich insights and read some stirring quotes, but they’ve been dissolved with time.

So I’ve started this blog to start keeping track of my notes and quotes, and I aim to go back and fill in my observations of the books I’ve read as I can. This last is fairly ambitious, but the good thing is I have time and I have no other obligations, having graduated from grad school last May and intentionally stayed out of a second masters so I could do stuff like this.

Here’s the list:

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