Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Hold you in his armchair you can feel his disease

Current book: Look Homeward, Angel
Pages read: 431-522 (end)

I thought I'd finally figured this book out. I thought I'd discovered why the elder Gant wouldn't die and why Eugene could never really become independent from his family. I thought that the two must be unalterably connected - that when the elder Gant died, Eugene would be free. And I respect the hell out of Thomas Wolfe for proving me wrong.

Ok, plot points first, though. Eugene finishes his summer working various jobs and trying not to starve to death, but ends up with a sense of the great worth one can achieve by earning money with the sweat of one's brow. Back at school, with the majority of the student body enlisting in the military for World War I, he's entirely in charge of the school paper. In October, he's called home because Ben has pneumonia. After a protracted description of Ben's suffering, he finally dies and Eugene returns to college a changed (read: completely insane) young man. Seriously, he spends the rest of his college career wandering around campus in filthy clothes, refusing to bathe and spouting philosophy and poetry (I don't mean to be harsh, but we all knew that guy in college and he wasn't some stargazing genius - he was creepy and insane.)

Anyway, Eugene's professors think well of him, and he graduates draped in glory of various types. Afterward, at home once again, he's confronted with his father's imminent death. Just like always, though, the man refuses to kick the bucket. This time, instead of sticking to the destructive pattern of family strife, however, Eugene finally makes up his mind to leave for Harvard and never come back. (He makes this decision by consulting Ben's imaginary ghost, but what are you gonna do?)

So, the surprise factor, then, was that Eugene was actually able to break away from the family without witnessing his father's death. Instead, he made the break as an active decision, proving that intention and power are far more important to the outcome of one's life than personal background and the vicissitudes of fate. It was, as I mentioned, a bit unexpected, and I liked the statement it made: yes, family and circumstance may drag you down, but you can choose to break free of them, though the cost may be great.

I don't know. I think I liked it. It was a very coming-of-age, bildungsroman kind of thing, but, in the end, interesting and bit unusual. I don't know that I would call it one of the 100 greatest novels of all time, but it's an original twist on an old theme, and successfully characterizes the feeling of the age in which it was written over a broad cross-section of the population of that age, including most of the major socioeconomic groups. It certainly qualifies as important literature, in any case.

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