Monday, January 08, 2007

The Things That Matter - a review

Review of The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life (Pantheon, 2006)

By Edward Mendelson

Review by Patricia R. Payette for BrontëBlog.

Columbia University professor Edward Mendelson’s new book The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life is a thought-provoking examination of how a collection of “classic novels” carry key messages about life, love and human experience. Two of the novels that Mendelson examines are Brontë classics—Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Mendelson attempts to cover new critic ground by looking at what Wuthering Heights can tell readers about childhood (chapter two) and what Jane Eyre reveals about growth (chapter three).

Mendelson’s book reveals new insights for readers of both Brontë novels. His discussion of Wuthering Heights puts the spotlight on the relationship of Heathcliff and Catherine and portrays their connection not as romantic love, but as “poetic love” and spiritual unification. Mendelson writes: “Convinced that they are each other, not merely like each other, they are baffled at finding themselves separated. And because they are convinced of their unity while knowing themselves to be divided, they each feel that they are somehow not themselves: each one’s real existence is in the other one.” It’s intriguing to see how Mendelson supports his conclusions about their relationship by citing and analyzing what Catherine and Heathcliff say about each other and themselves over the course of the novel.

As children, Mendelson observes, Catherine and Heathcliff experience their connection as a unifying, fulfilling sense of “self” and “oneness,” which is destroyed as they leave childhood (and Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights). The two young people are forced into new familial and gendered roles that separate them on several levels. The author writes: “Their single spirit is divided against itself when they are divided into two separate bodies, and the only way they can escape their bodily prisons, and reunite with themselves and each other, is to let their imprisoning bodies die.” Mendelson skillfully argues that Wuthering Heights reflects Emily Brontë’s personal philosophies about the power of childhood and the implacable forces of nature that sweep over us all, for good and for ill.

Stepping back from the Victorian text, Mendelson concludes that what Emily Brontë wants to tell us about children is that they can experience “wholeness and vision” as part of “their daily lives.” Growing up is therefore fraught with loss and separation that is part of the universal human experience. How we deal with those experiences, contend with the loss of innocence about who we are and the world we live in, is what makes the stories of individuals tremendously compelling and poignant.

Mendelson describes Emily Brontë’s triumph in the novel as centered around her grasp of childhood and the perils of becoming an adult: “The power of Wuthering Heights derives from her understanding of the impulse, more or less hidden in everyone, to find a refuge against time and change, and her understanding of the price you pay for having that impulse even if you never yield to it.” Working from this assumption, it appears that Catherine and Heathcliff are not doomed lovers (as they are often portrayed), but rather dispirited young adults who long to return to childhood in which their souls and happiness were intertwined; they embrace death as an opportunity of escape from their painful spiritual and physical separation.

Mendelson looks at Jane Eyre in the next chapter, contrasting the two sister’s novels in their treatment of similar topics—growth and development. The author posits: “…instead of Emily Brontë’s despairing rush to dissolution and death, Charlotte Brontë portrays an urgent impulse toward integrity, so that the human personality can choose to achieve in itself something of the meaning and importance it perceives in the universe.” The author is right to stress the importance of the “human personality” in Jane Eyre because the evolution of the title character’s personality is at the very center of Charlotte Brontë’s novel. Jane’s singular voice and force of will carry readers from page one through the oft-quoted concluding pages in which Jane announces, “Reader, I married him.” However, Jane’s portrayal of her “self” is complicated.

Scholars and critics have been quick to point to Jane Eyre as a quintessential coming of age novel, yet Mendelson is astute in his observation that Jane Eyre “is a novel of education in which the heroine seems to need no education.” In other words, Jane does indeed manage to move from a position of social and familial disadvantage to financial, familial and romantic success, but she does so by a series of circumstances and coincidences that don’t require her to seriously question her values, morals or behaviors. Jane must only hold fast to her belief in herself and her innate self-worth in order to find her “natural” place in the order of life around her. “Charlotte Brontë provides a detailed model of how to act, but most oddly for a novel of education, she seems to provide no model at all of how to learn to act,” explains Mendelson.

Jane’s quest is not to defy the natural order of things (as Heathcliff and Catherine seem compelled to do), but to find her place in that order when the time is right so that which is lost (her marriage to Rochester, her family fortune, her long-lost cousins, a home of her own) may be restored to their proper place and she can enjoy her happy ending at last. Mendelson’s interpretation of Jane Eyre helps readers to better understand and appreciate the complicated heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s novel.

Mendelson’s interesting literary conclusions about these Brontë novels—and his insights into the other novels by Mary Shelley, George Eliot and Virigina Woolf that he selected for the other chapters of his book—are part of a wider international discourse about the meaning and importance of these “classic novels” and the characters that inhabit them, as well as the authors who created them. In Mendelson’s book, there is an obvious lack of emphasis given to existing scholarly discussions about these texts. He refers to this issue by explaining that he prefers to examine and discuss selective aspects of these novels in the context of their authors’ time and place. Mendelson’s lack of a theoretical lens, and decision not to reference the extensive, existing literary scholarship in order to contextualize his conclusions, may leave some readers wanting a more thorough critical discussion of the historical, cultural, gender and racial dynamics at play in these novels.

Those who love classic novels and embrace the opportunity to read and ponder the messages and meanings of their beloved and well-known texts will value The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life. The book provides an engaging and interesting entry into sustained conversations about the power of classic novels to continue to teach and inform readers about the truths of human experience, past, present and future.

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