In life, don’t just leave your things lying around. Someone might get them, chew them up, and even bury them.
When we walk in the morning, I enjoy the company, the sound of her voice, the sight of her among the morning clouds. I wish a little that she hadn’t come so that I could talk to myself, making plans for the day or even for years ahead—but having her with me makes it easier to focus on something, and besides, I know I’ll have time coming up later in the day to be alone, think, and make plans. I’m glad she’s with me, glad she asked if she could walk with me this morning… I’ve found it’s better to let her come to something on her own. It’s something I’ve learned in our years together and apart. It’s something that should be obvious, and maybe is obvious but still hard to accept: people have to convince themselves of something before they make it part of who they are. The best thing I can do, to convince her or anyone I care about to do something I’d like for them to do is simply to first do it myself. If I go for a walk every morning after we exercise, then that opens up the option for her. If she never takes it, that’s fine, because I’ve already convinced myself of the walk’s importance. It’s important to me. If she wants to make it important to her, she can, and like I said, I’m glad for the company—I’m glad for her company.
There’s a little sunburst in the pink morning sky—it bursts over the top of two-story houses. We’re walking diagonally through a desert field of Joshua trees, dry bushes, and little yellow pffs that look like dollhouse flowers, but are simply weeds—tiny, pretty weeds, lovely jagged patches of them on either side of the path. Our tennis shoes scrape and crunch along the snaking dirt path as we make our way back to the street near home. The rising sun is at our left shoulders. We notice the morning’s biting chill. After our exercise and the walk, we feel trembly, but invigorated, refreshed, clean. I’m not talking about how your body feels after a shower. I’m talking about how your mind and soul feel after exercise and a walk at sunrise. Clean.
We’ve talked about nothing, nothing important. Just little things, important because they’re little:
“There were more clouds Monday morning…”
“We should bring the dogs with us…”
“I read that fat-burning doesn’t begin until 45 minutes into exercise…”
“I haven’t been in this field before…”
Perhaps the poet would say, when we got back home after the walk, that we’d never left, since home is with each other. For me, I just liked it. That’s all.
I liked it.
Well, I just finished The Martian last night, and all I can say is WOW!
Summary (from the back cover): “Six days ago astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm forces his crew to evacuate the planet while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded on Mars’s surface, with no way to signal Earth that he’s alive. And even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone years before a rescue could arrive. Chances are, though, Mark won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain old ‘human error’ are much more likely to kill him first. Armed with nothing but his ingenuity, his engineering skills–and a gallows sense of humor that proves to be his greatest source of strength–Mark embarks on a dogged quest to stay alive. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?”
What makes The Martian absolutely fascinating is its “real science” science fiction. Author Andy Weir is a self-proclaimed “space nerd” who studies orbital dynamics and astrophysics as hobbies. He dreamed up The Martian when he was developing his own concept of a manned mission to Mars–just something to pass the time, y’know? And something for which he developed his own software. On considering all the disaster scenarios that could face astronauts, he decided to write a novel about it. What he created is fantastic, not only for its real science, but for the structure of the story itself.
In his short essay at the back of the book, Weir says, “I didn’t want my hero to suffer one unlikely, disastrous coincidence after the next. I decided that each problem Mark faced had to be a plausible consequence of his situation–or, better yet, an unintended consequence of his solution to a previous problem” (384-5). That soon became apparent to me as I was reading. It’s the essence of good writing: plot is king! One solution I remember led to such a huge problem it was nearly heartbreaking. I won’t say exactly what happened, but I will say it involved a handheld drill and a power shortage…
Watney himself is a lovable character with a dark sense of humor, which becomes as important to his survival as his scientific knowledge. I laughed with him, feeling the same sense of dark irony he felt, knowing it was the only thing that kept him from going insane.
The Martian surface, too, is given beautiful, haunting attention. There are moments of silence in which the reader gets to survey the harsh, unforgiving Martian landscape through Watney’s eyes, and it gives you chills.
My only complaint is that Weir is not a stylistically gifted writer. However, his writing gets the job done, and the plot is so spellbinding that you don’t care about the writing; you just want to know what happens next!
The Martian is a fantastic, fast-paced, heart-breaking, breathtaking, triumphant read! The Wall Street Journal says it best: “A celebration of human ingenuity” (Weir front cover)! I’d recommend The Martian to all fans of literature, whether or not they read science fiction. For sci-fi readers, though, it is a must-read!
The commentary at the end of the novel suggests that a movie is in the works. I truly hope so!
The Martian is available here. (Note: I receive no benefits from this review or from the link provided.)
- “It’s a strange feeling. Everywhere I go, I’m the first. Step outside the rover? First guy ever to be there! Climb a hill? First guy to climb that hill! Kick a rock? That rock hadn’t moved in a million years!… I’m the first person to be alone on an entire planet.” (99)
- “To [NASA], equipment failure is terrifying. To me, it’s ‘Tuesday.’” (152)
- “I’m not giving up. Just planning for every outcome. It’s what I do.” (192)
- “Conclusion: I don’t need the water reclaimer at all. I’ll drink as needed and dump my waste outdoors. Yeah, that’s right, Mars, I’m gonna piss and shit on you. That’s what you get for trying to kill me all the time.” (230)
- “More thinking is required.” (231)
Weir, Andy. The Martian. New York: Broadway, 2014. Print.
Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story. Click here to read the story online for free.
Men of strong, just characters are worthy of note and celebration. In his late nineteenth-century story, “The Gentleman of La Porte,” Bret Harte uses the short story form to celebrate the character of a strong, just man.
There is no plot in “The Gentleman of La Porte”: it is simply a character sketch. A certain “Gentleman” lives in a little triangle valley called La Porte. He is a financially stable man who enjoys good hygiene and style: “As one of the locators of ‘Eagle Mine’ he enjoyed a certain income which enabled him to live without labor and to freely indulge his few and inexpensive tastes. After his own personal adornment—which consisted chiefly in the daily wearing of spotless linen—he was fond of giving presents” (Harte 113). The Gentleman, therefore, is a man who lives comfortably within his means and, as the financially stable often do, offers “gifts” to people. His disposition is also worthy of note: “His deficient sense of humor and habitual gravity, in a community whose severest dramatic episodes were mitigated by some humorous detail, and whose customary relaxation was the playing of practical jokes, was marked with a certain frankness that was discomposing” (112). Although his fellow townsmen think that the Gentleman is thus a rather odd and proper character, they nevertheless trust his disposition such that they elect him Justice of the Peace (113), at which point we come to know him as Judge Trott.
He serves the community well, but has some unexpected peculiarities. Judge Trott “exercised his functions with dignity” but showed “a singular lenity [leniency] in the levyings of fines and the infliction of penalties” (Harte 113). If a person found guilty could not pay a fine, Judge Trott has the court’s Clerk lend the guilty person the money until it is repaid…and until then, Judge Trott pays the court the amount lent. Later, when a criminal refuses to pay the fine and demands jail time, Judge Trott goes down to the prison after the trial and plays a game of poker with the prisoner and the Sheriff, during which the prisoner wins money for his own bail. We wonder if Judge Trott lost the game on purpose. He is just in his rulings, but lenient in his doling out punishment, such that some of his actions are seen “as incompatible with Judge Trott’s dignity, though not inconsistent with his kindliness of nature” (114). Judge Trott’s odd qualities of justice and leniency, where the leniency almost cancels out the justice, might lead some to criticize him. Others, however, might praise him for showing mercy and killing them with kindness, as the principle goes.
Do not mistake Judge Trott’s kindness for weakness, however. Although he is lenient, he has limits and he intends justice to prevail: “It is certain, however, that his lenity would have brought him into disfavor but for a redeeming exhibition of his unofficial strength” (Harte 114). Two events highlight his “unofficial strength.” First, a haughty lawyer from Sacramento is disrespectful in court. When Judge Trott warns the lawyer that he could hold the lawyer in contempt, the lawyer scoffs and says he could pay the fine without a problem. Trott replies, “‘I ought to add…that I don’t purpose to [hold you in contempt]. I believe in freedom of speech and—action!’” and then Judge Trott takes off his official robe, descends from the bench, grabs the lawyer by his shirt, and tosses him out of the window (114). Whoa! Clearly, there are limits to the Judge’s patience.
The second event highlights this especially. A young woman who operates the “Wheel of Fortune” in a local gambling saloon one day destroys the wheel. After testimonies are finished, the jury doesn’t even leave the room and immediately offers a verdict of not guilty, though the woman is clearly guilty. Judge Trott asks the foreman to confirm the verdict, which the foreman does, rather haughtily, and Judge Trott thus says, “‘Mr. Clerk…record the verdict, and then enter my resignation as Judge of this court’” (Harte 114). The townspeople explode with confusion, some begging Judge Trott to reconsider, and others—such as the members of the jury—saying he has insulted them. Nevertheless, he quits for good.
Later, the woman who was found not guilty, Miss Jane Thomson, comes to Judge Trott and asks why he resigned. She thinks he did so for her sake. He replies truthfully, “‘No…I could not remain Judge of a court that was obliged to record a verdict so unjust as that given by the jury in your case’” (Harte 116). During this discussion, Miss Thomson learns that Judge Trott is going blind. Mention of it is made earlier: “More than one irreverent critic had suggested that he had probably lost his own eyes in some frontier difficulty, and had hurriedly replaced them with those of his antagonist” (112). This is an interesting thought and powerful statement on the Judge’s character! Of course, too, we should note that it’s no coincidence that this man of justice is blind.
Some time passes and the townspeople learn that the Judge has gone to San Francisco with Miss Thomson, who has married him. It causes a scandal in La Porte, where people believe the Judge conspired with Miss Thomson and her partner-in-crime, Jake Woods, who left her and went elsewhere. It is not the case, but the Judge—even if he knows about it—does not care to change their minds. He knows who he is and what has happened, and that’s all that matters. A man who knew about the Judge says in the Judge and Miss Thomson’s defense:
Gentlemen, when a gal like that throws over her whole life, her whole profession, and a square man like Jake Woods, to marry a blind man without a dollar—just because he once stood up for her—on principle, damn me ef I see any man good enough to go back on her for it! Ef the Judge is willing to kinder overlook little bygone eccentricities o’ hers for the sake o’ being cared for and looked arter by her, that’s his lookout! And you’ll excoose me if, arter my experience, I reckon it ain’t exactly a healthy business to interfere with the domestic concerns of the Gentleman of La Porte. (119)
Whether it’s enough to maintain the Judge’s good name, we aren’t sure. Again, though, it does not matter because the Judge is a self-contained man of a morally upright character.
Rugged individualism and strong morality were once the defining characteristics of an American. Harte illustrates such a character in “The Gentleman of La Porte.” It is a story without a plot, without a significant antagonist, and without a change in the protagonist. It is simply a story about a man we should admire and, at least in some ways, strive to emulate—a gentleman of kindness, justice, and self-esteem.
My review: Although it has a bit of a slow start, the story is well paced. It reads almost like journalism—it literally offers quotes from certain townspeople on the character of the Judge—and this style is appropriate to the story’s purpose (that is, form follows function). There is enough drama to keep the story interesting, as when the Judge throws the lawyer out of the window, and when the Judge and Miss Thomson have their personal interview outside his frontier home. Its theme—just men are above reproach in the pure sense—subtly reveals itself without becoming didactic. Harte’s use of dialects is a little thick, but understandable, and provides a necessary contrast between the characters of the townspeople and Judge Trott. Overall, it is an excellent character story!
- “‘He’s that proud he won’t have anything to say to us.’” (116)
- “It is only the inexplicable in a man’s ugliness that a woman never pardons.” (116)
- “‘You are mistaken, my dear young lady…deeply mistaken, if you think I feel anything but kindness and gratitude for your offer—an offer so kind and unusual that even you yourself feel that I could not accept it. No! Let me believe that in doing what I thought was only my duty as a Judge, I gained your good-will, and let me feel that in doing my duty now as a man, I shall still keep it.’” (118)
Harte, Bret. “The Gentleman of La Porte.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. 109-19. Print.
Post written by Christopher Chinchilla; edited by Cyndi Sabo.
Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story. Click here to read this story for free.
At first, I was worried that Mark Twain was going to make the theme of his short story, “The £1,000,000 Bank-Note,” something along the lines of, Money corrupts good souls. Instead, Twain shows that money does not corrupt a man’s character, it simply reveals it. And in this case, the revelation is virtuous!
Henry, a twenty-seven year-old mining-broker’s clerk in 19th century San Francisco, finds himself, by accident, adrift at sea. He’s rescued by a small brig bound for London. He earns his passage as a common sailor. When he arrives in London, his nice clothes are nearly rags and he has just a dollar in his pocket. In a few short days, he’s nearly starving and ready to risk shame by picking up a half-eaten pear from a London gutter and eating it. But two gentlemen catch his attention and bring him up to their living quarters, which show them to be wealthy men. Henry joins them. They send him away with a £1,000,000 bank-note. Henry doesn’t know it yet, but the men have a bet: one of them says that a person with that bank-note would surely be arrested once found out; the other says that a person with that bank-note could make it an entire month without being jailed. Henry, a desperate American stranger with an honest and intelligent face, is exactly what they need as the subject of the bet. They send Henry away with the bank-note in an envelope. He doesn’t know about their bet and doesn’t know about the money until he exits their quarters and looks in the envelope. All he sees is money, not the sum, and immediately rushes off to a cheap diner to finally eat.
When he discovers the sum of the single bank-note, he’s shocked, but he plays it cool and asks the diner’s owner for change. The diner can’t make the change, but he’s thrilled to see a “millionaire” eating in his establishment and quickly opens a tab for Henry. Later, Henry is desperate for a new suit, even if it’s ill-fitted. He goes into a tailor’s shop and asks for the cheapest suit they have. The tailor gives him a new but ill-fitting suit. Again, Henry offers the bank-note, which the tailor cannot change, but which also sends the tailor into a flurry to outfit Henry with the shop’s finest suits, shirts, and other clothing, putting it all on an account for Henry. Thus, Henry finds that, simply by asking for change from the bank-note, which no one can provide, it nevertheless opens up every store in London to him on credit without his paying a cent: “Could I afford it? No; I had nothing in the world but a million pounds” (97). Everyone accepts the word of a supposedly rich man. Now lodged in a hotel and living comfortably, Henry begins to change the London scene…
He becomes known as “‘vest-pocket million-pounder’” (Twain 99), for that is where he keeps his bank-note. Newspapers take notice of him, such that he is mentioned in every paper in continually increasing notoriety, even over duchesses and dukes. All the while, Henry worries that a “crash” is coming, but when it comes, he will deal with it as best he can. In fact, he devises a simple strategy. The note that accompanied the bank-note said that he was part of a bet, and that if a particular one of the gentlemen won the bet, then Henry would receive “any situation that is in my gift—any, that is, that you shall be able to prove yourself familiar with and competent to fill” (96). Henry decides that he will ask for a sum of £600 per year to begin with, and eventually earn his way up to £1000 per year. This will repay his debts to the people who have opened accounts for him, “[b]ecause, you see, with all my borrowing, I was carefully keeping within my means” (100) and when the month ended, “my employer back from his journey, I should be all right once more, for I should at once divide the two years’ salary among my creditors by assignment, and get right down to my work” (101). Henry is thus very aware of his situation and the fact that he is but a pauper with a million-pound bank-note. He’s incurred debts, but he trusts that the gentleman who wins will be able to provide him with plenty of money to pay off those debts. Henry is a man of conscientious character, which his million pounds reveals.
Again, though, there’s the repeated hint of a “crash” coming, as Henry calls it, because ultimately, he still isn’t sure what the bet is or how he is to win it for the gentleman. But he doesn’t stress over it. Instead, he tells himself, “[L]et it go. That disposes of the indeterminable qualities” (Twain 96). This is the situation he’s in, and he has to make the best of it. What about the crash, though? Does it ever happen?
Henry meets a beautiful society lady and they fall in love in that quick, happy way of youths. Suddenly, with this girl in his life, he decides to ask for £1300 per year to start with, up from £600. This, of course, appears ominous, for as his lady warns him, “‘Oh, please remember that if we ask for too much we may get no salary at all’” (Twain 107). (Indeed, money has revealed her character to be as conscientious and judicious as Henry’s.) But there’s more to the story. Henry happens to meet an American colleague of his who came to London in hopes of selling a mine and making a small fortune, but it hasn’t worked out for him. Henry has a brilliant idea. He knows that the mine is actually worth a great deal, but his friend just can’t seem to sell it. So he tells his friend to use his, Henry’s, name, with its notoriety above and beyond even dukes. The plan works wonderfully. When the 30 days are up, Henry returns to the gentlemen and reports that he has earned £200,000 of his own money thanks to the £1,000,000 bank-note they’ve lent of him, of which he’s not spent even an ounce. Thus, he can pay off his own debts and still have money left over to start anew in any career he chooses.
The gentlemen are astounded and impressed. When the gentleman who has won the bet asks Henry what he wishes for his prize, Henry says, “‘I’m just as grateful as I can be, but really I don’t want one’” (Twain 108). Henry is content with his good fortune, and the literal fortune he has earned from it. (By the way, Henry made small fortunes for other people too, indirectly, such as the diner who opened an account for him. When London heard that the “vest-pocket million-pounder” ate almost exclusively at that cheap little diner, the diner gained fame and earned more customers than it could handle. The tailor shop also made money. Henry’s friend, who sold his mine, also made money. The resulting fortune from the million-pound bank-note is probably more than twice its worth! In true capitalistic fashion, an American turned money into more money and made not only himself rich, but others as well!)
The story ends happily: Henry’s beautiful lady is actually the daughter of the gentleman who won the bet. Henry quickly changes his mind about the prize and asks to hold a certain station: “‘Son-in-law’” (Twain 108). The “deal” is made, although it’s not really a business transaction, but rather a merry circumstance of love. The gentleman actually gives Henry the million-pound bank-note as a wedding gift, which the couple displays in a frame on a wall in their home. Henry tells us, “And so I always say, ‘Yes, it’s a million-pounder, as you see; but it never made but one purchase in its life, and then got the article for only about a tenth of its value’” (109). And we say, “Awwww!”
Money does not corrupt; it simply reveals a man’s character. Henry lapsed a bit when he began dreaming of larger and larger salaries per year, but a lapse in judgment does not a corrupted man make. Instead, he recovered from his mistake before he made it. His journey, too, is surrounded by circumstance and coincidence, and some literary critics might say that coincidence weakens the structure of a story. That’s often true. However, Twain uses coincidence as it relates to life. We may quote Thomas Jefferson as an expression of the story’s theme: “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” Henry was an intelligent and honest man who was stricken with luck (thank goodness for being set adrift at sea!) and made an honest fortune from it. Now that’s a real American!
My review: Coincidence often hurts a story, but Twain makes full use of it and does so brilliantly! What’s more, Twain hints at a disastrous ending, but doesn’t bring it around. The message is that bad things can happen, but if we act responsibly, we can either avoid bad things or deal with them when the time comes. And what is life but a pleasant string of coincidences to the man who makes his own luck? Wonderful story!
- “‘My friend, you shouldn’t judge a stranger always by the clothes he wears.’” (97)
- “But a white-hot idea came flaming through my head, and I gripped my jaws together, and calmed myself down till I was cold as a capitalist.” (106)
- “‘What, man! Certificate of deposit for £200,000. Is it yours?’ ‘Mine. I earned it by thirty days’ judicious use of that little loan you let me have. And the only use I made of it was to buy trifles and offer the bill in change.’” (107)
Twain, Mark. “The £1,000,000 Bank-Note.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. 92-109. Print.
Post written by Christopher Chinchilla; edited by Cyndi Sabo.
Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story. Click here to read the story for free.
“Ligeia” is why Poe fans read Poe. Its effect is wholly phantasmagoric, with no distraction of plot.
The novelist Ayn Rand defines plot as “a purposeful progression of events” (17). However, while Edgar Allan Poe frequently plots his stories well, his measure of a great story has always been the effect it has on the reader. Of the short story, Poe says, “A skillful literary artist…having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out…then invents such incidents [and] combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect” (Sullivan xiv). The effect is king, and everything else—including plot—must serve it. That’s why, when we read Poe’s stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” or “The Cask of Amontillado,” we are left with vague memories of the plots, but full memories of the horrors, i.e., the effects. Poe’s “Ligeia” reveals his love for the effect above all else by stripping the story of everything except effect.
There is no plot in “Ligeia.” The main character has a wife, Lady Ligeia, who dies. He takes a new wife, Rowena, and she also dies. Then Ligeia returns as a ghost and (presumably) takes over the body of Rowena. The nameless narrator can’t distinguish between the two women except a wild quality of expression in the eyes, which is how he knows that Ligeia has returned to him in all her ghostliness. While this is a progression of events, it is not purposeful, and is, therefore, not a plot (Rand 20). A does not lead to B and then to C; instead, A happens, then B happens, then C happens, and that’s that. Why is “Ligeia” interesting then? Hasn’t Poe failed us in this lack of an exciting plot? No, because he leaves us with an effect, one that his fans herald him for: the effect of the horrific, the Gothic, the phantasmagoric. Although he is a master of plot (as evidence, I refer you to the other stories noted above), in “Ligeia,” he instead relies on perhaps the most fundamental element of effect: description.
Most writers use as few words as possible to describe settings and characters, so that they can get on with the elements of their plot—action and dialogue. Poe is an apt example. However, in “Ligeia,” he ignores action and dialogue almost completely and instead describes the setting and characters with extreme detail. Poe spends nearly a page describing Lady Ligeia’s beautiful features, including commentary on the description: “Yet her features were not of that regular mould which we have been falsely taught to worship in the classical labors of the heathen. ‘There is no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness in the proportion’” (50). The strangeness of Ligeia’s features is her eyes, not because of their shape or color, but because of their “expression” (51). We’ll return to this shortly, but it is a well-executed set-up leading to the overall effect.
The narrator goes on to speak of his marriage to Rowena after Ligeia dies. He describes the bridal chamber. He says, “There is no individual portion of the architecture and decoration of that bridal chamber which is not now visibly before me” (Poe 56), and he describes it clearly, including its vaulted ceilings, pentagonal shape, a huge single-pane window that adds a “ghastly” effect of sun- or moonlight over the room, a ceiling of “gloomy-looking oak,” a huge incense burner in the ceiling vaults, and “most grotesque specimens of semi-Gothic, semi-Druidical device” (56). He includes the page-and-a-half description with a summation: “The phantasmagoric effect was vastly heightened by the artificial introduction of a strong continual current of wind behind the draperies—giving a hideous and uneasy animation to the whole” (57, emphasis added). The story concludes with Rowena alternately dying and returning from the dead to die again—suggesting a supernatural influence, which leads to the ghostly return of Ligeia in Rowena’s corpse, identified by the narrator only because of the expression in her eyes.
That’s it. The story ends. It is just something that happened, without much—if any—purposeful action taken on any of the characters’ parts. The expression the narrator describes in Ligeia’s eyes is perhaps the one unifying element of the story, and the element is one of description. Poe did not forget to include a plot. In fact, he purposely left it out of “Ligeia.” Instead, we might estimate that his intention with this story is to highlight what he believes is the most important element of a short story, and why his fans love him so: he is a master of horrific effects that stay in one’s mind long after the details of the plot have faded into obscurity.
My review: Since I’m a great fan of plot and character development, I didn’t much enjoy this story. I’ll admit, though, that I stuck with it to the end because I just had to know what was going on with Ligeia. When she returned, the effect was such that I felt like I had seen a ghost, and I was happy then to find the story was over. Maybe that’s what Poe intended.
- “She came and departed as a shadow.” (50)
- “Yet her features were not of that regular mould which we have been falsely taught to worship in the classical labors of the heathen. ‘There is no exquisite beauty,’ says Bacon, Lord Verulam, speaking truly of all the forms and genera of beauty, ‘without some strangeness in the proportion.’” (50)
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Ligeia.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. 49-61. Print.
Rand, Ayn. The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers. Ed. Tore Boeckmann. New York: Plume, 2000. Print.
Sullivan, Nancy. “Introduction.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. xiii-xvii. Print.
Post written by Christopher Chinchilla; edited by Cyndi Sabo.
Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story. Click here to read the story for free.
As with any well-structured story, the end of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” shocked me. What makes writers such as Hawthorne masters of the short story is that they assiduously apply themselves to two principles of good writing: nothing is accidental; and it’s more than what it seems at first. In “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Hawthorne uses these characteristics to hint at his theme throughout the story, but he states it unmistakably at the end when poor Beatrice says woefully, “‘Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?’” (48). At that point we realize that what we saw as happenstance is in fact purposeful, and what we thought the conclusion would be is actually heading toward a different end.
Let’s discuss the accidental qualities in writing. Good authors rarely have accidents in their stories: elements that are meaningful but that could have been otherwise without much affecting the story. In particular, I’ll note Beatrice Rappaccini’s beauty. When our hero, Giovanni Guasconti, first sees Beatrice, we read this description of her: “[She was] arrayed with as much richness of taste as the most splendid of the flowers [in Rappaccini’s garden], beautiful as the day, and with a bloom so deep and vivid that one shade more would have been too much. She looked redundant with life, health, and energy” (Hawthorne 28). Translation: she’s freakin’ hot. I mean, she isn’t just pretty, she’s vivacious. At first, we think we know what Hawthorne’s doing: he’s given us a pretty girl to look at, and upon seeing her, we understand why Giovanni is taken with her. So, Hawthorne purposely made Beatrice pretty, but it seems somewhat superficial. She could have been far less vivacious and still caught Giovanni’s attention. Because she could have been otherwise, I would call this an accidental quality of the story.
However, it’s far from accidental.
Instead, Beatrice’s beauty is intricately tied to the poisonous flowers around her with which she’s grown up all her life. How do we find that out? Our handsome hero suddenly becomes vivacious himself. On his way to meet Beatrice again, Giovanni checks himself in the mirror “and said to himself that his features had never before possessed so rich a grace, nor his eyes such vivacity, nor his cheeks so warm a hue of superabundant life” (Hawthorne 44). Coupled with the description of Beatrice earlier, it’s clear that Giovanni’s and Beatrice’s vivaciousness is no accidental quality. It is, in fact, the result of her being among the flowers, whose qualities have physically affected her, and him being among her such that her qualities have physically affected him. That is, he’s infected.
At this point, we expect a certain type of conclusion in which Giovanni confronts Beatrice and her odd father, Dr. Rappaccini, whose mutant flowers have caused this poisonous vivaciousness, for indeed, we find out that Giovanni and Beatrice are actually poisonous to other people! Giovanni first accuses Beatrice of knowingly affecting him. “‘[P]oisonous thing!’” he calls her. “‘Thou hast blasted me! Thou hast filled my veins with poison! Thou hast made me as hateful, as ugly, as loathsome and deadly a creature as thyself—a world’s wonder of hideous monstrosity!’” (Hawthorne 46). Strong words there, Giovanni. We might expect it though. Like Frankenstein’s monster, he’s become something that can’t dwell in the world without being feared, and he has a capacity to kill his fellow human beings simply by breathing, something he certainly can’t control except by killing himself. He thus suggests that Beatrice and he kiss, suspecting the kiss will kill them both and rid the world of their monstrous nature. Enter Rappaccini, who admits that this is an experiment and hopes his daughter will thank him for ending her isolation by giving her a young man with whom she can be physically intimate without killing, for that is the real effect of Beatrice’s “poison” on Giovanni.
Okay, so far, so good. Tragic love story of a scifi/horror nature. We see Rappaccini’s megalomania and we extrapolate a theme: It’s dangerous to advance science to the detriment of human life, and to use human beings as unwitting victims. It’s a rather broad theme that is relevant today, given current advancements in genetics.
However, Hawthorne has a much simpler, much broader, and much more fundamental theme in mind: The prejudices of man against woman. That was Hawthorne’s theme all along. But he knows it’s an old theme, easily identified and thus often overlooked. He let it be overlooked in his own story, and then put the spotlight on it right when it would have the most impact: the end.
He spaced out his hints toward this theme well and made us sympathize with a protagonist that we thought was the victim of a shameful plot. Well, Giovanni was at the center of a shameful plot. However, he was warned about whom the plotter might be by his friend, Professor Pietro Baglioni: “‘Signor Giovanni, I will stake my life upon it, you are the subject of one of Rappaccini’s experiments!’” (Hawthorne 35). Giovanni dismisses the warning. And, when he finally sees that he’s been affected, whom does he accuse but Beatrice? She has no idea what’s happened. She bears his accusations with empathy and insists that she wishes him no harm and has no designs against him. She’s even willing to take the possible antidote that Baglioni gave to Giovanni earlier. Rappaccini then enters and explains his designs. Again, we’re led to that theme of shamefully placing science over innocent, unknowing human victims. But then, Beatrice makes the true theme apparent. Having taken the antidote, only to discover that it is actually poisonous to her because of how physically affected she is, she says to Giovanni with her last breaths, “‘Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?’” (48, emphasis added).
Indeed, like the worst of his sex, his prejudice against women blinded Giovanni to truth. He adored Beatrice only as “the beautiful and unsophisticated girl” (Hawthorne 41) he thought she was. As noted above, he later calls her a poisonous thing and says that she has filled his veins with her poison and made him “as hateful, ugly, as loathsome and deadly a creature as thyself” (46). And what is it we commonly accuse women of but poisoning men with passion that blinds them? Giovanni finds himself poisoned by Beatrice’s love, thinking she has dragged him to this horrible state to satisfy herself. He accuses Beatrice of what he knew to be her father’s sin: sacrificing other people to one’s own desires; and she calls him on it.
Hawthorne masterfully executes a story with no accidental qualities and with a meaning far more important than a simple scifi plot. Indeed, science fiction, well used, is one of the best genres in which to work to discuss themes of overarching importance and relevance to humans throughout history. Hawthorne shows us why and how that’s the case in “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” a decidedly science fiction-type story with a very literary theme. Nothing is accidental, not even Beatrice’s beauty. Nothing’s what it seems to be at first because a story about science and megalomania is also about something far more fundamental: the blindness caused by sexism.
My review: A truly pleasurable read! Hawthorne begins simply but quickly adds unexpected qualities that hold the reader’s interest—for example, a gardener who dotes upon his flowers, but goes to great pains to avoid touching them directly. Oddities like this abound in the story, and, as I elaborate upon above, they lead little by little to a cohesive purpose that shocks and pleases. Not a word is wasted, and Hawthorne beautifully describes characters and settings in a manner that simultaneously delights our senses and advances the plot. Also, Hawthorne illuminates at least two very different yet exquisitely intertwined themes. “Rappacini’s Daughter” is a wonderful story whose structure is worth study and emulation. (Also, it is fun to note that long before there was Batman’s nemesis, Poison Ivy, there was Rappaccini’s daughter!)
- “But there is an influence in the light of morning that tends to rectify whatever errors of fancy, or even of judgment, we may have incurred during the sun’s decline, or among the shadows of the night, or in the less wholesome glow of moonshine… [H]e was inclined to take a most rational view of the whole matter.” (29)
- “It was not love, although her rich beauty was a madness to him; nor horror, even while he fancied her spirit to be imbued with the same baneful essence that seemed to pervade her physical frame; but a wild offspring of both love and horror that had each parent in it.” (34)
- “Blessed are all simple emotions, be they dark or bright! It is the lurid intermixture of the two that produces the illuminating blaze of the infernal regions.” (34)
- “The instance that he was aware of the possibility of approaching Beatrice, it seemed an absolute necessity of his existence to do so.” (36)
- “‘I would fain have been loved, not feared,’ murmured Beatrice, sinking down upon the ground.” (48)
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. 25-48. Print.
Thanks to Cyndi Sabo for editing this post.
Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story.
Washington Irving’s classic story of the headless horsemen playfully focuses on the “hero,” Ichabod Crane, who is really nothing of the sort. In fact, if anyone reads the story and believes that Ichabod’s antagonist, the stout and manly Brom Bones, is a bully who pushed down little old Ichabod, well, that reader is sorely mistaken!
Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. Brom fits a classic description: “He was broad shouldered and double jointed, with short, curly black hair and a bluff, but not unpleasant countenance, having a mingled air of fun and arrogance” (Irving 10). Brom certainly looks like a bully when he’s contrasted with the description of Ichabod: “He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame loosely hung together” (3). What’s more, Ichabod is sort of the classic nerd: well-read and a singer as well a singing teacher (5). Brom, on the other hand, is “famed for great knowledge and skill in horsemanship” and the “bodily strength acquir[ed] in rustic life” (10). That is, Brom’s a hard worker in this sleepy Dutch Hudson River town.
The two men pit themselves against each other to win the prize of the luscious Katrina Van Tassel, whose father is master of a farmland rich with abundance of food and rustic luxury. And when the scrawny guy and the brawny guy are after the same girl, aren’t we usually hoping the scrawny guy wins? Well, he doesn’t. Brom wins the girl. And it’s right that he did.
A brief consideration of Ichabod’s ridiculous character tells us why we should herald his downfall. First, Ichabod’s the bully. For example, he picks on the strong children because they are strong, and spares weak children because they are weak. The teacher at the town’s schoolhouse, Ichabod doles out punishment thusly:
[H]e administered justice with discrimination rather than severity; taking the burthen off the backs of the weak, and laying it on those of the strong. Your mere puny stripling, that winced at the least flourish of the rod, was passed by with indulgence; but the claims of justice were satisfied, by inflicting a double portion on some little, tough, wrong headed, broad skirted Ducth urchin, who sulked and swelled and grew dogged and sullen beneath the birch. (Irving 4)
If the puny kids show up late or don’t do their homework, Ichabod simply threatens them but doesn’t hit them. But if it’s one of the strong kids who shows up late or doesn’t do his homework, that strong kid gets twice the lashings. Ichabod makes the strong bear the lashes of the weak, though they commit the same crime. Aside from the consideration that corporal punishment is itself questionable, even if it is acceptable, Ichabod is still a big bully who punishes the strong for being the strong by making them bear the punishment of the weak.
Let’s look at Ichabod’s so-called love for Katrina, too. He’s in it for the farm, the food, and the luxury of old Van Tassal and his daughter: “The pedagogue’s mouth watered, as he looked upon this sumptuous promise of luxurious winter fare” (Irving 8). Ichabod imagines himself heir to Van Tassel’s estate if he can win Katrina:
[H]e rolled his great green eyes over the fat meadow lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchards burthened with ruddy fruit…[and] his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might readily be turned into cash, and the money invested in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness. (Irving 8) …He could not help, too, rolling his large eyes round him as he ate, and chuckling with the possibility that he might one day be lord of all this scene of almost unimaginable luxury and splendour… Then…he’d turn his back upon the old school house; snap his fingers in the face of Hans Van Ripper, and every other niggardly patron, and kick any itinerant pedagogue out of doors that should dare to call him comrade! (16)
What happens? The evening wans and the partygoers depart. Ichabod professes his love for Katrina, who promptly rejects him. Embittered, Ichabod rides out into the night on his horse (borrowed from Van Ripper mentioned above), where he suddenly encounters none other than the headless horseman! Ichabod races forward in a surge of fear. The horseman gives chase. Ichabod looks behind him to see that the horseman is preparing to throw his own severed head at Ichabod. He does and it hits Ichabod. Ichabod goes crashing to the ground.
The next day, Ichabod is gone. Only his hat and a shattered pumpkin are found. Later, we learn that Brom Bones chuckles whenever the part of the story about the pumpkin is mentioned. Why? It’s obvious that the horseman was Brom himself, armed with a pumpkin in the place of a severed head! (For those who think it’s not obvious, move along, nothing to see here!) Brom’s goal: scare the hell out of Ichabod Crane! It wouldn’t be hard to do, so buried in mysticism as Ichabod is. He is a fan and believer, after all, of Cotton Mather’s infamous fire-and-brimstone sermons (Irving 5).
We learn that a traveler from New York says that Ichabod is safe and sound in that city, though, of course, no one from Sleepy Hollow will ever care to investigate that claim, being so steeped in superstition. Brom marries Katrina and inherits her father’s estate with her. Should we be disappointed? Should we condemn Brom for his actions? No! If anyone should have Katrina and the estate, it’s Brom. Brom is a hard worker. He’s even earned the trust of the townspeople such that they often come to him for judgments between disputes (Irving 10). Sure, he probably had eyes on Katrina’s land as much as on Katrina herself, but should we blame him? Katrina’s a grown woman who can have her pick of men. She picks the strongest and best and turns away the weak and abusive, namely, Ichabod Crane, whose intention for her land was, not to upkeep it, but to sell it. We are told that Ichabod “was a huge feeder…an Anaconda” (4)! Indeed, all he can think of is gobbling up Van Tassel’s estate rather than maintaining it.
What happened to Ichabod but a prank that he was asking for? He knew Brom was after Katrina, too, like all the men did. Except none of the other men challenged Brom. Ichabod did. Did he expect that because he was weak, then—according to his own warped sense of justice—he wouldn’t have to bear the consequences of challenging the strong? Of course, there’s nothing wrong with making the challenge, and we might feel proud of Ichabod for getting in the game, and may the best man win! But, when the chips were down, we find that Ichabod never had what it took to play. He’s a manipulative bully and a laughable coward, scared as he was of a pumpkin thrown at him in the night. Of course, that would be a scary thing, there’s no denying that. But, when dawn came and Ichabod saw light and life were still ahead of him, he abandoned the schoolhouse and scurried off. That’s his right. And we might feel some sympathy for him. But please, let’s never think of him as a hero. Brom’s the hero, the knight errant who won the princess, like he should!
My review: Well-executed story structure, but the build-up to the climax was a little long. Ichabod isn’t an interesting enough character to carry the story for the reasons I gave above regarding his character. Instead, what carries the story is Irving’s subtle promise that something will happen with the Headless Horseman. The payoff is enjoyable, but barely worth the wait.
- “…and he would have passed a pleasant life of it, in despite of the Devil and all his works, if his path had not been crossed by a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man, than ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together, and that was—a woman.” (7)
- “Local tales and superstitions thrive best in these sheltered, long settled retreats…” (17)
- “These magic books and the poetic scrawl were forthwith consigned to the flames by Hans Van Ripper, who from that time forward determined to send his children no more to school, observing, that he never knew any good come of this same reading and writing.” (23)
Irving, Washington. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. 1-25. Print.