Tuesday, November 29, 2011



Moby-Dick is considered by many to be the Great American Novel. The story follows a wandering sailor named Ishmael on his voyage on the whaling ship which is commanded by the fanatical Captain Ahab. The voyage has one purpose for Ahab, and that is to find and kill the ferocious white sperm whale named Moby-Dick, who had destroyed Ahab's boat and bit off his leg in a previous encounter. Moby-Dick employs stylized language, symbolism, and metaphor to explore numerous themes including class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of God. The narrative uses objective description, reflections, and Shakespearean literary devices, such as stage directions, extended soliloquies, and asides. The book is not only a great narrative, but is full of enriched and beautiful language. Melville wrote it with inspiration and an exhilarating energy. In a way, Moby-Dick is the first modern novel as it uses sermons, essay-like descriptions of whaling, and multiple points of view of narration to create a work that  portrays the destructiveness of obsession and how it leads to a malignant evil. 


Notes is considered by many to be the first existentialist novel, and is a grand look at the human condition from the perspective of a man living on the fringes of society. It takes the form of an excerpt from the rambling memoirs of a bitter, isolated, unnamed narrator, who is a retired civil servant living in St. Petersburg. Part One is a monologue from the underground man's diary. Part Two describes certain events that are simultaneously destroying and renewing the underground man, who acts as an unreliable narrator. The book presents a portrait of humanity that is irrational, uncontrollable, and uncooperative, and believes that human needs can never be satisfied, even through technological progress. Dostoyevsky would go on to write other great novels including Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). 


Huck Finn is about the search for freedom and makes a strong statement about racism in American society. The story centers around a young boy (Huck Finn) who is abused and incarcerated by his drunkard father. Huck escapes, fakes his death, and embarks on a journey down the Mississippi, where he meets an escaped slave named Jim. Jim is trying to find his way to freedom by getting to Ohio. At first, Huck is conflicted but as he gets to know Jim, he changes his opinion about people, slavery, and life in general. The book has been criticized by some for its use of racial slurs and racial stereotypes, but in the end the book humanizes Jim and the novel is critical of racism and slavery. Through his first person narration from Huck's point of view, Twain places Huck in an outside position where he can view the paradoxes and hypocrisies of American culture, while presenting a story that is also at times satirical and humorous.


Heart of Darkness centers around the story of Charles Marlow, who narrates the book and takes an assignment from a Belgian trading company as a river-boat captain in Africa. Marlow encounters darkness in many forms including that of Belgian colonialism.
He encounters the darkness of the Congo wilderness, the darkness of the treatment of African natives, and the darkness within every human being for committing acts of evil. Marlow is transporting ivory, but his mission is also to return Kurtz, another ivory trader to civilization. The journey up the river becomes a metaphor for life in general, and the symbolic story expands on the struggle between good and evil, not only between people, but within the soul of the individual. 


The Metamorphosis is a novella by Franz Kafka that centers around the character of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman, who wakes up to find himself transformed into a monstrous insect-like creature. The book is about the oppression of work and family and how we can become dehumanized, alienated, and completely disjointed from society. Gregor's family is dependent on him to make money for their survival and the story deals with their reaction to his transformation. They eventually see him as a burden. The novella rejects the idea that everything has meaning and purpose. Sometimes things happen in life that cannot be explained.


Ulysses chronicles the passage of Leopold Bloom through Dublin during an ordinary day, June 16, 1904. The title alludes to Odysseus, the hero of Homer's Odyssey, and presents a series of parallels between characters and events in Homer's poem and Joyce's novel. The single-day story is told in 18 episodes and contains 265,000 words in a labyrinth text. Joyce uses stream-of-consciousness, careful structuring, and experimental prose - full of puns, parodies, and allusions, with rich characterization and broad humor. Ulysses is considered by many to be the greatest novel of the 20th Century.


Mrs. Dalloway details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway in post-WWI England. The novel covers the story of Clarissa's preparation for a party that she will host. The book takes an interior perspective and travels forwards and back in time and in and out of character's minds. The action all takes place in a single day, but there are flashbacks to events in the past. The Novel is an example of free indirect discourse storytelling, where every scene tracks the momentary thoughts of a particular character. Besides Clarissa the other major character in the novel is Septimus Warren Smith, who suffers from shell shock and hallucinations from his war experiences which eventually leads to his tragic demise. Woolf, through the narrative is critical of the treatment of mental illness and depression by the medical establishment and society. Virginia Woolf suffered from depression herself and committed suicide in 1941.


The Great Gatsby is portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess. The book deals with the American obsession with money, ambition, greed, and the promise of new beginnings. The Great Gatsby is about the rise to glory and the eventual fall from grace, and depicts the dark side of the American dream. The novel is told through the eyes of Nick Carraway who is objective, charming, and genuinely decent. The characters eventually collide into a tragic climax that reveals the hypocrisy of the rich and the falseness of an undeserved love. The strength of the novel is with the lyrical prose Fitzgerald employs to illuminate these themes. 


The Sun Also Rises tells the story of a group of American and British expatriates who travel from Paris to Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights. On the surface the book is a love story between Jake Barnes, who is impotent because of a war wound, and a promiscuous divorcee Brett Ashley. Brett's affair with another character Robert Cohn upsets Jake.  He loses his good reputation with the Spaniards in Pamplona when Brett has an affair with the 19-year old matador Romero. The novel is based on Hemingway's own experiences. He also presents the notion that the Lost Generation, considered to be decadent and damaged by WWI, was actually resilient and strong. The Sun Also Rises uses Hemingway's clean, clear, paired-down prose to investigate the themes of love, death, rebirth, and the nature of masculinity.


The Sound and The Fury centers around the Compson family, former Southern aristocrats who are struggling to deal with the dissolution of their family and its reputation. The novel employs various literary and structural techniques that were considered ground breaking at the time. It is separated into four sections. The first section is written from the perspective of Benjy Compson, who has severe mental handicaps, and is characterized by a disjointed narrative style with many chronological leaps. The second section focuses on Quentin Compson, the older brother, and the events leading up to his suicide. The third section takes the point of view of Jason, who is Quentin's cynical younger brother. The last section takes a third person point of view and primarily focuses on Dilsey, one of the Compson's black servants, although Faulkner presents glimpses of the thoughts and deeds of everyone in the family. The four parts relate many of the same episodes from different points of view and from different times. The narrators are not always trustworthy or reliable. The Sound and The Fury uses an experimental narrative style to depict the descent of an American family.


Henry Miller exploded existing literary forms by combining autobiography, social criticism, philosophical reflection, surrealist free association, and mysticism into an expressive fiction that was based on his own experiences. His works were controversial for the unashamed and detailed depictions of sex, and his work was banned in the United States and other countries for being obscene until 1961. Tropic of Cancer is set in Paris and centers around Miller's life as a struggling writer. Some of the chapters follow a narrative and there are references to Miller's actual friends, colleagues, and workplaces. Other chapters are written as stream-of-consciousness reflections, and the book being in the first person, does not have a linear organization, but fluctuates between the past and the present. The central character who pulls us through the book suffers from hunger, homelessness, loneliness, and despair, and can be abhorrent at times, yet ecstatic with life at others. There are explicit passages of his sexual encounters, but overall the book acts as an immersive meditation on the human condition.


The Stranger is an example of existentialist literature and exhibited Camus' belief in the absurdity of man's existence. The book tells the story of Meursault, a French Algerian who senselessly kills an Arab man and his subsequent arrest and trial for the crime. Part One begins with Meursault being informed of his mother's death and going to her funeral. He doesn't show any of the expected emotions of grief and doesn't express his feelings in the narrative. Meursault is an ordinary, middle-class man, but what sets him apart from humanity is his indifference and lack of empathy for just about anything whether it be the abuse of a woman, the abuse of a dog, or even the death of his own mother. In Part Two, Camus describes Meursault's incarceration and trial for the murder, but Meursault expresses neither guilt or regret. As the trial evolves, all of the above details are brought out as evidence for Meursault's guilt. Is he on trial for the murder?...or for his indifference and actions surrounding his mother's death? Near the end of the book he meets with the chaplain, but rejects his opportunity to turn to God. The chaplain persists and finally Meursault becomes angry, with a climactic outburst about the meaninglessness of existence and the universe's indifference towards humankind. In the end Meursault accepts his fate and acknowledges his mortality and responsibility for his own actions.

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