Sunday, March 1, 2009

This frail song of hope and fear.

Current book: The French Lieutenant's Woman
Pages read: 198-350 (end)

I suppose I owe you a bit of an explanation for the long (for me) absence. My husband was in the emergency room on Wednesday with abdominal pain which was diagnosed as a gallstone, and I've spent the last few days taking care of him and visiting various doctors. He has surgery tomorrow morning, so I can't guarantee a post, but I'll have lots of time to read in the hospital, so you never know. The surgery's supposed to be very routine and is an outpatient procedure, but that doesn't stop me from worrying, because I am, in fact, female, and also in love with my husband. So there you go.

To get to the literature, things develop appropriately scandalously (Can I say that? It seems like a contradiction in terms. But then, I don't really care.) in the rest of Fowles's novel. Basically, Charles and Sarah fall in love with one another. Sarah is caught walking in the Undercliff by Mrs. Poulteney's servant, and, as a result, is kicked out of the house and promptly disappears. Charles goes rushing off looking for her, and when he finds her, they acknowledge their mutual affection, however doomed, with a kiss. Afterward, Sarah agrees to leave Lyme Regis and go to Exeter, where Charles is not to follow, but instead marry Ernestina like a good Victorian gentleman. Around this time, he's summoned to his uncle's house and told that his uncle is going to marry, which effectively disinherits him. While not a pauper by any means, this makes Ernestina's wealth greater than his own. In explaining this to Ernestina's father and offering to end the engagement because of his reduced circumstances, Charles discovers that he really does wish the engagement to be broken, and is disappointed when Ernestina's father generously excuses that necessity.

On his way back to Lyme Regis, he and Sam, his faithful servant, stop at Exeter for the night, and Charles is unable to resist the temptation of visiting Sarah there. (Sam, at this point, has a vested interest in Charles and Ernestina's engagement succeeding, due to the fact that Charles will "set him up for life" if he gets Ernestina's money. If the two don't marry, Sam won't get any money, and he's desperate for it in order to establish himself and Mary in the world.) Anyway, so Charles heads over to the hotel in which Sarah's been staying. When he sees her, he's unable to restrain himself, and they end up having sex. (If you can call it that, because really he barely lasts until he's inside her and then promptly ejaculates. Didn't seem like much fun for Sarah. Then again, it is Victorian England, in which it was widely believed that women were incapable of having orgasms. At least, it was believed by men. My guess is that if you took a look in the bedside drawers of Victorian women, you might find evidence to the contrary.) Afterward, she asks nothing of him, and even suggests it would be better for him to marry Ernestina and fulfill his duty. He discovers, however, due to rather visible evidence, that she was a virgin before their tryst. (If you don't recall, this news is rather shocking, since she told him the whole sad (and empowering) story of her defloration by Varguennes. I was shocked. I thought she'd made a strong and liberating sexual decision, but it all seems to be some sort of elaborate ruse. I'm still not sure why she did it. I think, really, it was to get Charles to have sex with her and commit himself, because she knew he'd be less likely to do so if she were a virgin. Technically, it was not any less a strong and liberating sexual decision to just lie about it, come to think of it.) So Charles departs in consternation and heads back to his hotel to consider his options.

In the end, after much soul-searching, he comes to the conclusion that he will break his engagement and marry Sarah. It is his duty, he thinks, to both love and to himself, rather than to the constraints of society, he concludes, that is most important. (And hurray for Charles! He's really strong and quite admirable, which seems a strange thing to call a man who's just cheated on his fiance.) He sends Sarah a letter to this effect, delivered by Sam's hand, and then heads to Lyme Regis to inform Ernestina. She does not take it well. (There's screaming and fainting. It's really not pretty.) When Charles goes back to Exeter, though, he finds Sarah gone, and through his investigations, he's determines that Sam, the mercenary traitor, never delivered the letter to her that informed her of his intentions.

Charles spends the next couple of years searching London, the Continent, and America for Sarah, but also assuaging his agony and rather abrupt drop in social status through the anonymity of travel. Finally, he gets word from his solicitor that Sarah's been found, and goes to visit her. He finds her living in the house of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which is sort of odd and random, and quite happy in her circumstances. She's acting as Rossetti's assistant and model, and, insert music sting here, has given birth to and begun raising Charles's daughter. Charles again asserts his wish to marry her, and she refuses, saying that she has never been so happy and she cannot bear to enter into a marriage in which she would have to bow to a man's control, however amiable. Charles is shocked and hurt, and can't understand the fact that she's not able to make the emotional commitment that a marriage requires. Instead, she offers him a platonic friendship centered around their daughter, but he, shackled by the conventions of society, yes, but also by his need for the intensity of romantic love, refuses, and leaves her forever.

So, it was really good. Fowles has a million things to say about society, and he does so in a complex and subtle fashion that gives his characters a dimensionality rivaled only in the best of novels. Their flaws and irrationalities are neither maddening nor nonsensical, but rather presented so intelligently and realistically that they seem organic and human. As events unfold, we're given a clear picture of the pressures of Victorian England and the agony of breaking out of the straits they create. Fowles shows us not only the favorite literary subject of the upper class, but dips into that of the lower class; while his picture of Sam and Mary makes up less of the novel, it is no less complex. They, too, are multi-faceted and ambiguous.

Still in love with Fowles. This one is definitely worthy of the list.

Next up, the great treatise of Objectivism! Since I'm not reading it in high school, the chances that I'll finish it and act like an asshole for a couple of weeks are greatly reduced.

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