King Lear, Act 1, Scene 2
Yeah, I know. As usual, it’s currently raining outside my window, and I highly doubt any of my English readers are really going to be calling nature a ‘goddess’ at this moment in time, but, having recently read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, both of which celebrate nature with beautifully descriptive passages, I’m actually more pre-disposed to celebrate rather than commiserate at the constant winter that seems to be stalking England at the moment.
So anyway, onto my first book this week: ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by Hawthorne. If I’m honest, the real reason I decided to read this was because I absolutely love the film ‘Easy A’, which references this book all. The. Time. . The main plot revolves around Hester Prynne, a woman found out to be an adulteress in the strict religious society of Puritan Boston in the seventeenth century who is forced to wear the eponymous scarlet letter ‘a’ on her chest and is isolated from society with her strange, fairy-like, illegitimate daughterThe book isn’t so much about the act and discovery of her sin, but more the consequences of it for both her and her daughter, but also her husband and whoever the secret lover is…oooh the mystery!
(I make it sound a lot more cryptic than it is – you’ll guess it in about five pages).
Ok, I’m not going to lie to you; this book did not live up to the hype it got in ‘Easy A’. It had possibly the most boring opening chapter of any novel I’ve read, just random descriptions of how the author found out about the story and all the different characters he met whilst working in a town council somewhere or something…I think…? What was even more annoying was that this opening prologue section had absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story; Hawthorne might just as well have left it out, or at least warned me it was more a preface than a prologue. If you’re going to read this, you might as well skip it.
The actual book was reasonably good; not one of my favourites, but it examined interesting themes like revenge, guilt and blame and justice in pretty great depth. I particularly liked the descriptions of Hester’s isolation, and the slow way in which the villagers came to terms with Hester’s presence whilst never actually accepting her:
“In this manner, Hester Prynne came to have a part to perform in the world. With her native energy of character and rare capacity, it could not entirely cast her off, although it had set a mark upon her more intolerable to a woman’s heart than that which branded the brow of Cain. In all her intercourse with society, however, there was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it. Every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she had inhabited another sphere, or communicated with the common nature by other organs than the rest of human kind.”
Although Hester’s blank mask can get a little annoying at times, it’s clear that this is her only method of survival in the face of such hatred. Living in London, and having travelled quite a lot I suppose I often forget that for some it seems impossible that there is life outside their own small village. This meant it took a little while for me to understand why Hester and her daughter, Pearl, didn’t just leave for somewhere else where they wouldn’t be subject to such daily humiliation and hatred. Yet once I got this, I began to like the book’s long-winded descriptions a bit more. I did find the more supernatural and overtly religious elements a little too much at times, so overall some interesting themes, but not one of my favourite classics.
However. ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ has just made it onto my top ten list. It. Is. Amazing. Whereas in most books (i.e. ‘The Scarlet Letter’) my eyes accidently skip over the descriptions to get to the dialogue or the action, there are whole chapters of beautifully, skilfully written descriptions of nature and the land and they were almost my favourite sections of the book. You can see the expertise from the very first paragraph:
“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet…”
Just… I can’t even describe how amazingly beautiful and effective I think his writing is. Having a little bit of a fan-girl moment over John Steinbeck right now.
Ok, got my breath back 😉 The other effect of the alternate descriptive chapters is to show both the broad and the personal effects of the huge numbers of migrants who travelled from Oklahoma to California in the 1930s. The story of the Joad family was expertly handled, meaning that you really understood the emotions, thoughts and feelings, and, indeed, felt so close to them that each blow, each piece of luck was a personal disappointment, a personal joy. Yet the more general chapters really emphasised the epic scale of the constant false hopes, thwarted desires and broken dreams that populated migrant life. And you know what? It made me angry. Really mad. The description of ‘the fruit was fruitful and starving men walked on the roads’ and the selfishness of the owners were both hugely effective.
“and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
Steinbeck definitely achieved his aim: ‘I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied.’ The ending was in no way conclusive, but actually wasn’t any worse for it.
Basically please just read it! It’s my first ten out of ten book this year and is not just enjoyable, but also extremely thought-provoking.
Well, that’s it for this week! Hope it wasn’t too serious for you –I’m currently deep in Stephen Fry’s new novel ‘Making History’ so next week should be a little more light-hearted 🙂 As usual, thanks for reading and liking and following. Every notification I get makes me that little bit more happy 🙂 Not to be too cheesy or anything 😉