Saturday, May 28, 2011

404. Titus Groan- Mervin Peake

History: This book was published in 1946. It is the first in the Gormenghast series.
Plot: The book is set in the huge castle of Gormenghast, a vast landscape of crumbling towers and ivy-filled quadrangles that has for centuries been the hereditary residence of the Groan family and with them a legion of servants. The Groan family is headed by Lord Sepulchrave the seventy-sixth Earl of Groan. He is a melancholy man who feels shackled by his duties as Earl, although he never questions them. His only escape is reading in his library. His wife is the Countess Gertrude. A large-framed woman with dark red hair, she pays no attention to her family or the rest of Gormenghast. Instead, she spends her time locked away in her bedroom, in the company of a legion of cats and birds, the only things toward which she shows affection. Their daughter is Fuchsia Groan. At times snobbish, annoying, and self-absorbed, she can also be extremely warm and caring. Also in the castle are Sepulchrave's identical twin sisters Cora and Clarice Groan. Both suffered from epilectic fits in their youth, as a result of which their left arms and legs are “rather starved”. They have virtually the same personalities and neither is very intelligent – they are perhaps even mentally impaired. Both crave political power and dislike Gertrude, believing that she robbed them of their rightful place in the hierarchy of Gormenghast. Also important to the life of the castle is Lord Sepulchrave's personal servant, Mr. Flay who believes in strictly holding to the rules of Gormenghast.
At the beginning of the novel, two agents of change are introduced into the stagnant society of Gormenghast.
The first, more obvious agent of change is Titus Groan, the heir to Lord Sepulchrave. His birth interrupts the daily rituals which are practised at all levels of the castle society, from the kitchens to the Hall of Bright Carvings in Gormenghast's upper reaches. However, the novel only covers the first two years of Titus' life, and he plays a minor role.
The second is Steerpike, a ruthlessly ambitious kitchen boy, who is the driving force for the plot of Titus Groan. His entry into Gormenghast society, at the same time as Lord Titus is born, introduces a steady rate of change into a stagnant world. Steerpike has an intelligent, Machiavellian mind and a talent for manipulation, but he can also appear charming and sometimes even noble.
Plot summary
As the book starts, two important events occur in the castle: Firstly, an heir is born to Lord Sepulchrave, Earl of Groan and the monarchical ruler of Gormenghast, and his wife, Countess Gertrude. He is named Titus and put into the care of the old nurse, Nannie Slagg. Nannie Slagg is an ancient, tiny woman who serves as the nurse for the infant Titus and Fuchsia before him. She is somewhat senile and has an inferiority complex. Her first duty is to go to the dwellings of the Bright Carvers just outside the walls of Gormenghast to choose a wet nurse for Titus (Gertrude has no interest in raising him). She chooses Keda, the widow of a well-respected Carver who has recently lost a child from her late husband. Keda comes to live in the castle for a time helping to raise Titus. Later, she leaves the castle walls and is impregnated by one of her previous two suitors. The suitors promptly kill each other in a duel for her hand in marriage.
On the same day as Titus' birth, an ambitious kitchen boy of seventeen by the name of Steerpike escapes from the kitchens and the grossly fat, sadistic Chef, Abiatha Swelter. Lord Sepulchrave’s chief servant, Mr. Flay (Swelter’s archenemy), comes upon Steerpike who has become lost in the confines of the castle, and takes him through the castle (large parts of which are uninhabited) to a room outside the quarters of the Earl and the Countess. Here, Steerpike takes the opportunity to spy on the Groan family.
Despite having led him there, the fiercely loyal Flay is angered by Steerpike’s eavesdropping and locks him in a small room. Steerpike, however, escapes out of a window, risking his life above a sheer drop. He manages to climb up onto the roofscape of Gormenghast, and from there begins his rise to power.
After spending a long time walking and clambering on the roof searching for a means to enter the castle, Steerpike manages to climb in through a window- and ends up in the secret attic of Lady Fuchsia Groan. Fuchsia is Titus’ fifteen-year-old sister, who has the large area of long-abandoned attic space all to herself.
A little later, Steerpike accompanies Fuchsia to the house of Dr. Prunesquallor, and becomes his apprentice for a while. Dr. Alfred Prunesquallor is the castle's resident physician. He is an eccentric individual with a high-pitched laugh and a grandiose wit which he uses on the castle's less intelligent inhabitants. Despite his acid tongue, he is an extremely kind and caring man who also is greatly fond of Fuchsia and Titus. (In a few places in the text, Dr. Prunesquallor is given the first name of Bernard, but this was an error by Peake.) He lives with his sister Irma Prunesquallor. Though she is anything but pretty, she is considerably vain. She desperately desires to be admired and loved by men. In this position, Steerpike is able to come into close contact with members of the Groan family, in particular Lord Sepulchrave’s twin sisters, Cora and Clarice Groan. The sisters are not very bright and are power hungry and resentful, believing that Countess Gertrude holds the position that they rightfully deserve.
Burning of the library
Steerpike manages to use the twins' ambition for his own ends. He promises them power and influence, and convinces them that they could achieve their goal by burning down Sepulchrave’s beloved library. Steerpike prepares meticulously for the act of arson. He arranges for the burning to happen when the entire Groan family and their most important servants are inside the library for a family gathering (Steerpike intentionally failed to tell the twins that they were invited as well, strengthening their feeling of bitterness towards Sepulchrave and Gertrude). He intends to lock the doors to prevent an escape, and then come through the window and save everyone inside from the fire, appearing as a hero and possibly strengthening his position and granting him more power in the castle.
Everything goes according to plan: The entire Groan family (including the Earl and his heir) and most of the retainers are saved. Sourdust, the old Master of Ceremonies, dies of smoke asphyxiation and all the books in the library are destroyed in the flames. This comes as a great blow to Sepulchrave, a rather melancholic man, to whom the library was the only joy in his otherwise monotonous life, dominated by the ritualistic duties he must perform every day, every week, every month and every year at appropriate times.
Steerpike hoped to become Master of Ritual (a very prestigious job in Gormenghast) after Sourdust died, but the title, like so many things in the castle, is hereditary, and so goes to Sourdust’s seventy-six-year-old son Barquentine, who has lived almost completely forgotten in a remote part of the castle for sixty years. He is lame in one leg, hideous, and unbelievably dirty. Barquentine is a consummate misanthrope who only cares for the laws and traditions of Gormenghast.
During the weeks following the burning, Lord Sepulchrave becomes increasingly insane, starting to believe that he is one of the Death Owls living in the Tower of Flints (the tallest tower in the castle).
Flay versus Swelter
Flay learns that Swelter intends to kill him. Flay had hit him across the face with a chain before Titus’ christening, escalating a mutual loathing into plans for vengeful murder. Flay observes Swelter practicing the blow with a large cleaver, and so prepares himself for an attack, acquiring a sword for his protection, in case Swelter should ever attempt to murder him while he is sleeping in front of his master’s door.
Things happen differently though: Steerpike, now a full-time retainer of the twins, having quit Doctor Prunesquallor’s service, angers Flay by sarcastically imitating Sepulchrave’s madness. Flay loses control and hurls one of the countess’ white cats at Steerpike. At that moment, the Countess enters the room, and seeing that one of her beloved cats has been abused, immediately banishes Flay from Gormenghast.
Flay is forced to learn how to survive outside the castle, and he sets up various homes in the nearby forest and on Gormenghast Mountain. Having a strong attachment to the castle, and feeling a need to watch over Steerpike and to protect Titus, Flay returns secretly to Gormenghast during the night. Four nights after Titus’ first birthday, Flay finds Swelter wandering the castle with a meat cleaver. Swelter does not know of Flay’s banishment, and expects him to be sleeping where he has always slept up until now. Flay follows him to just outside Sepulchrave’s door, where Swelter discovers that Flay is not there, and soon realizes that he has been followed. Flay lures Swelter to the Hall of Spiders (making use of the fact that Sepulchrave — who is by now quite insane — is sleepwalking), and there they fight a long duel. Eventually, Flay kills Swelter. Lord Sepulchrave arrives on the scene, and decides that Swelter’s body should be taken to the Tower of Flints. After helping Sepulchrave carry the body to the tower, Flay is ordered to stay where he is. The mad Earl babbles about possible reincarnation, bids Flay farewell, and then drags the body into the tower by himself and is attacked and eaten by the starved Death Owls, along with Swelter’s remains.
After the disappearance of the Earl and the chief cook (the exiled Flay is not able to tell anyone what has happened), Steerpike leads a search for them. Naturally, their remains are not found, but Steerpike is able to gain a good knowledge of all the rooms in the castle.
The Earling
Nine days after Sepulchrave's disappearance, Steerpike has a conversation with Barquentine. The Master of Ceremonies tells Steerpike that Titus is now to become Earl of Groan, despite the fact that he is only one year old. He also gives Steerpike the position of his assistant and heir to his post, since Barquentine does not have a child. As the apprentice to the Master of Ceremonies, Steerpike has a good, stable position in the castle.
Steerpike fears that Cora and Clarice are too careless and may tell others that he convinced them to burn down Sepulchrave’s library. Steerpike dresses as a ghost and convinces the twins they will die if they ever speak of the fire. By this stage, Steerpike has considerable influence in the affairs of Gormenghast, even if he is not yet a recognized figure of authority. He still has to influence people to do his work for him. Despite this, both the Countess and Dr Prunesquallor are disturbed and uneasy about all that has happened, and disturbed about Steerpike's sudden rise. Yet neither is able to connect Steerpike as the cause of the tragic events, as he was their apparent savior from the fire in the library.
Soon afterwards, the “Earling” takes place, and young Titus is officially made Earl of Gormenghast. In a ridiculously elaborate ceremony on a nearby lake, little Titus holds aloft the sacred symbols of his status - the stone and ivy branch, and to the horror of observers, promptly drops them both into the lake. At the same moment, his wet nurse Keda gives birth to his 'foster sister' who will grow up to be the feral child called 'The Thing'.
Review: Perhaps much of the reason that the Gormenghast Trilogy has been more obscure to today's fantasy readership than Tolkien is due to its unconventional narrative, plus its unrelenting darkness. There is nothing in Titus Groan in the way of a clear-cut hero, no brave Conan, no crafty Frodo out to save the world from the forces of evil, neatly encapsulated in the figure of a dark lord in his dark fortress or some similar silliness. Virtually all of the players in Titus Groan seem corrupted, drained of life and goodness in some way. In fact, Titus Groan can in many ways be seen not merely as a nightmarish fable, but as a sinister allegory of our own modern society. Then again, as many critics before me have said, this trilogy works so well on such a multiplicity of levels, that one could run through dozens of possible interpretations.
From its opening chapter, though, futility seems the order of the day, as Peake scathingly attacks the rigidity of an overly soft and conventionalized society as a pointless beast perpetuating its own existence for nothing. The nearly city-sized castle is surrounded by a village of hovels whose inhabitants have no contact with those inside the castle except once a year, during a festival in which brightly painted carvings by the town's feuding craftsmen (the carvings seem the town's only artisanry or industry of any kind) are judged by the castle lord. The winner receives the dubious honor of being allowed to pace the castle walls, and the winning carving itself is shunted off to a room in the castle and never viewed again, except by a little old man who cares for them, who himself never leaves the room and is never seen.
Throughout, the theme of real things being forgotten and lost (entire wings of the castle are unused and falling into disrepair, and even some of their inhabitants are never seen) clashes with that of meaningless rituals repeated for their own sake. And within, there is precious little human closeness. Lord Sepulchrave, the reigning lord, and his wife, Gertrude, have no real relationship at all, he being blanketed by a pall of almost unrelieved melancholy (which finally becomes full fledged madness), and she an already delusional and pathetic creature who takes her only solace in the company of birds and a veritable army of white cats. Other characters are just as fragile, just as profoundly alone.
Yet out of the castle's darkness three characters do attempt to emerge. Fuschia, the introverted adolescent daughter of Sepulchrave and Gertrude, seeks first to withdraw into a world of her own dreams, poems and fantasies, then finally allows herself to be more open in her resentment of the senseless and interminably old traditions that have squeezed the life out of Gormenghast and Castle Groan. Keda, a young woman from the village brought into the castle as a wet nurse for Titus, finally leaves with a brave declaration entirely out of character with her surroundings: "I must have love." Yet even this desire is not without tragic consequences. But the most memorable player here is Steerpike, a youth who rises from a menial position in the castle to one of greater power and influence through the crassest and most brazen acts of manipulation and deception he can contrive. As Castle Groan becomes mired deeper and deeper in its moribund, rigid, and ineffectual tedium, Steerpike's sinister machinations hit everyone like a shock wave, with devastating consequences. Few fantasy writers have the ability to juggle readers' emotions with the dexterity of Peake.
Great fantasy can simply entertain, but great literature is that which not only entertains but explores, reflects, and illuminates our own lives. It's in this regard that the Gormenghast Trilogy takes its place not merely as a masterpiece of the literature of the imagination, but quite plainly as a masterpiece of literature...period
Opening Line: “Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone taken by itself,would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.”
Closing Line: “And there shall be a flame green daybreak soon, and love itself will cry for insurrection, for tomorrow is also a day, and Titus has entered his strong hold.“
Quotes: "Lingering is so very lonely when one lingers all alone."
"Oh how I hate people!"
Rating: Good

403. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte

History: This book was published in 1848 under the pseudonym Acton Bell. Probably the most shocking of the Brontës' novels, this novel had an instant phenomenal success, but after Anne's death, her sister Charlotte prevented re-publication of it. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had an instant phenomenal success and rapidly outsold Emily's Wuthering Heights. Within six weeks, the novel was sold out
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is considered to be one of the first sustained feminist novels. May Sinclair, in 1913, said that the slamming of Helen's bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England. In escaping from her husband, she violates not only social conventions, but also English law. Until the passing of the Married Women's Property Act in 1870, under the law, a wife had no independent legal existence, and therefore had no right to own property or to enter into legal contracts apart from her husband, sue for divorce, or control custody of her children.
Plot: Part One (Chapters from 1 to 15): Gilbert Markham narrates about how a mysterious widow, Mrs. Helen Graham arrives at Wildfell Hall, a nearby old mansion. A source of curiosity for the small community, the reticent Helen and her young son Arthur are slowly drawn into the social circles of the village. Initially, Gilbert Markham casually courts Eliza Millward, despite his mother's belief that he can do better. His interest in Eliza wanes as he comes to know Mrs. Graham. In retribution, Eliza spreads (and perhaps originates) scandalous rumours about Helen.
With gossip flying, Gilbert is led to believe that his friend, Mr. Lawrence is courting Mrs. Graham. At a chance meeting in a road, a jealous Gilbert strikes (with a whip) the mounted Lawrence, who falls from his horse. Unaware of this, Helen refuses to marry Gilbert, but gives him her diaries when he accuses her of loving Lawrence.
Part two (Chapters from 16 to 44) is taken from Helen's diaries and describes her marriage to Arthur Huntingdon. The handsome, witty Huntingdon is also spoilt, selfish, and self-indulgent. Before marrying Helen, Arthur Huntingdon flirts with Annabella and uses this to manipulate and convince Helen to marry him. Helen marries him blinded by love and resolves to reform Arthur with gentle persuasion and good example. Upon the birth of their child, Huntingdon becomes increasingly jealous of their son (also Arthur) and his claims on Helen's attentions and affections.
Huntingdon's pack of dissolute friends frequently engage in drunken revels at the family's home, Grassdale, oppressing those of finer character. Both men and women are portrayed as degraded, with Lady Annabella Lowborough shown to be an unfaithful spouse to her melancholy but devoted husband.
Walter Hargrave, the brother of Helen's friend Milicent Hargrave, vies for Helen's affections. While not as wild as his peers, Walter is an unwelcome admirer: Helen senses his predatory nature, something revealed when they play chess. Walter tells Helen of Arthur's affair with Lady Lowborough. When his pack of friends depart, Arthur pines openly for his paramour and derides his wife.
Arthur's corruption of their son — encouraging him to drink and swear at his tender age — is the last straw for Helen. She plans to flee to save her son, but her husband learns of her plans from her journal, and burns her artist's tools (by which she had hoped to support herself). Eventually, with help from her brother, Mr. Lawrence, Helen finds a secret refuge at Wildfell Hall.
Part Three (Chapters from 45 to 53) begins after the reading of the diaries when Helen bids Gilbert to leave her because she is not free to marry. He complies and soon learns that she returned to Grassdale upon learning that Arthur is gravely ill. Helen's ministrations are in vain. Huntingdon's death is painful, fraught with terror at what awaits him. Helen cannot comfort him, for he rejects responsibility for his actions and wishes instead for her to come with him, to plead for his salvation.
A year passes. Gilbert pursues a rumour of Helen's impending wedding, only to find that Mr. Lawrence (with whom he has reconciled) is marrying Helen's friend, Esther Hargrave. He goes to Grassdale, and discovers that Helen is now wealthy and lives at her estate in Staningley. He travels there, but is plagued by worries that she is now far above his station. He hesitates at the entry-gate. By chance, he encounters Helen, her aunt, and young Arthur. The two lovers reconcile and marry.
Review: Outstanding feminist and realistic novel that had phenomenal success. Unfortunately, that success was short. It ended by Anne's death and Charlotte's prevention of re-publication.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall challenged the prevailing morals of the Victorian era. Especially shocking was Helen's slamming of her bedroom door in the face of her husband after continuing abuse, thereby overturning the sexual politics for the time. One critic went so far as to pronounce it "utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls", though another cited it as "the most entertaining novel we have read in a month past." It is considered to be one of the first feminist novels. The main character, Helen, is spirited and forthright, unafraid to speak to the men in her life with frankness. Anne Brontë portrays this as desirable, compared to the meekness of Milicent, who is trampled and ignored by her unrepentant husband. Helen leaves in tow with her beloved son.
Vice is not unique to the men, however; Lady Lowborough's adultery has a particularly devastating effect on her husband, and the malice of Eliza Millward is poisonous to the entire community. The eternal struggle between good and evil is emphasised by heavy use of Biblical references: sinners who repent and listen to reason are brought within the fold, while those who remain stubborn tend to meet violent or miserable ends.
The novel also something resembles Emily's Wuthering Heights. The preponderance of "H" names (Halford, Helen, Huntingdon, Hattersley, and Hargrave) recalls Wuthering Heights, as well as the estate itself — Wildfell Hall and Wuthering Heights.
The reason this novel is not placed on the same pedestal as the other two is because of the subject matter. In the early 19th century a woman's job as a wife was to pander to her husband's every need. If he was a drunk or an abuser so be it, all she should do is make the most of it. Anne had very different ideas, ideas which are more late 20th century than early 19th century. To leave your husband was in those times unthinkable. To write about alcohol abuse was even more of a taboo. In the preface to Wuthering Heights/Agnes Grey Charlotte wrote that the subject matter in this book was unsuitable and a mistake. Because Charlotte did not think much of it she did not push for its acceptance in the mainstream after Anne's very early death. That was a mistake. There are also rumours Charlotte destroyed a second manuscript of Emily's. Another mistake if it is true.
Opening Line: “You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827.”
Closing Line: “We are just now looking forward to the advent of you and Rose, for the time of your annual visit draws nigh, when you must leave your dusty, smoky, noisy, toiling, striving city for a season of invigorating relaxation and social retirement with us.
Till then, farewell,
STANINGLEY: June 10TH, 1847.”
Quotes: "I see that a man cannot give himself up to drinking without being miserable one-half his days and mad the other."
Rating: Very Good.

Friday, May 13, 2011

402. Marvin Chuzzlewit - Charles Dickens

: This book is considered the last of Dickens picaresque novels. It was originally serialized between 1843-1844. Dickens himself proclaimed Martin Chuzzlewit to be his best work, but it was one of his least popular novels. Like nearly all of Dickens' novels, Martin Chuzzlewit was released to the public in monthly instalments. Early sales of the monthly parts were disappointing, compared to previous works, so Dickens changed the plot to send the title character to America. This allowed the author to portray the United States (which he had visited in 1842) satirically as a near wilderness with pockets of civilization filled with deceptive and self-promoting hucksters.
Plot: Young Martin Chuzzlewit was raised by his grandfather and namesake. The senior Martin, a very wealthy man, has been long convinced that everyone around him is after his money, and so takes the precaution, years before the book begins, of raising an orphaned girl, Mary, to be his nursemaid, with the understanding that she would be well cared for as long as he lived, but upon his death be thrown out onto the streets, penniless. She would thus have great motivation to care for his well-being and safeguard him from harm, in contrast to his relatives, who want him to die. However, his grandson and heir, Martin, falls in love with Mary and wishes to marry her, ruining the senior Martin's plans to keep her uninterested in his fortune. He demands his grandson give up the engagement, but the latter refuses, prompting his grandfather to disinherit him.
Young Martin decides to sign on as an apprentice to Mr. Pecksniff, a talentless, greedy, pseudo-pious poseur who periodically takes in students to teach them architecture, while actually teaching them nothing, treating them badly, living grandly off their tuition fees, and having them do draughting work that he passes off as his own. He has two vain, spoiled, mean-spirited and pseudo-pious daughters, Mercy (Merry) and Charity (Cherry). Unbeknown to young Martin, Mr. Pecksniff, also a relative of Chuzzlewit, has actually taken the grandson on in order to establish closer ties with the wealthy grandfather, thinking that the grandfather's gratitude will gain Pecksniff a prominent place in the will.
While with the Pecksniffs, the younger Martin meets and befriends Tom Pinch, who is in some ways the true protagonist of the novel. Pinch is a gentle, kind-hearted soul whose late grandmother had given Pecksniff all she had, believing Pecksniff would make a grand architect and gentleman of him. Pinch is so virtuous that he is incapable of believing any of the bad things others tell him of Pecksniff, and always defends him vociferously. He also has a sister who is a governess in London. Pinch works for Pecksniff for exploitatively low wages, all the while believing that he is the unworthy recipient of Pecksniff's charity. As the novel opens, we briefly meet John Westlock, Pecksniff's student, who sees the value of Pinch and the evil of Pecksniff, and parts ways from the household.
When Grandfather Chuzzlewit hears of his grandson's new life, he demands that Mr. Pecksniff kick the penniless young Martin out, which Pecksniff promptly does. Then, the senior Martin moves in with Mr. Pecksniff and slowly appears to fall under his complete control. During this sojourn, Pinch falls in love with Mary, but does not declare his love, knowing of her attachment to the young Martin.
One of Martin senior's greedy relatives is his brother, Anthony Chuzzlewit, who is in business with his son, Jonas. While somewhat affluent themselves, they live miserly, cruel lives, with Jonas constantly berating his father, eager for the old man to die so he can get control of his inheritance. Anthony dies abruptly and under suspicious circumstances, leaving his wealth to Jonas. Jonas then woos Cherry Pecksniff, who is very flattered and receptive to his attentions, while insulting and arguing constantly with Merry, whom he refers to simply as "the other one." He then abruptly and cruelly declares to Seth Pecksniff that he wants to marry Merry, and jilts a furious Cherry. During their courtship, Merry continues to tease and abuse Jonas verbally, enjoying her power over him. He in turn responds to this teasing affably, muttering that he will get his revenge once they are married. This indeed happens: after their marriage, he seriously physically and emotionally abuses Merry. Her personality changes from that of a giggly, flighty girl to a crushed and frightened woman. Cherry delights in Merry's pain.
Jonas, meanwhile, becomes entangled with the unscrupulous Montague Tigg and joins in his pyramid scheme-like insurance scam. Introduced at the beginning of the book as Montague Tigg, he is a dirty, petty thief and hanger-on of a Chuzzlewit relative, Chevy Slyme. Tigg has changed his name to Tigg Montague and transformed himself into a seemingly fine man after cheating the young Martin Chuzzlewit out of a valuable pocket-watch. He uses the funds from the watch to buy fine clothes, rent a distinguished-looking office, and purchase other false signs of success and good breeding. This façade is enough to convince investors that he must be an important businessman from whom they may greatly profit.
At this time, Tom Pinch, after years of devoted service, finally comes to see his employer's true character when Mary tells him of Mr. Pecksniff's unwanted advances and mistreatment of her. Pecksniff, having overheard the conversation between Tom and Mary, falsely accuses Tom and demands his resignation. Pinch goes to London to seek employment, and rescues his governess sister Ruth, whom he discovers has been mistreated by the snobbish family employing her. The two set up housekeeping together. He renews his friendship with John Westlock, who has recently come into an inheritance. Pinch quickly receives an ideal job from a mysterious employer, with the help of an equally mysterious Mr. Fips.
Young Martin, meanwhile, has fallen in with Mark Tapley, a kind man from the inn in the town where Pecksniff lives. Mark, a satirical character, is always affable and cheerful, which he decides does not reflect well on him because he is always in happy circumstances and it shows no strength of character to be happy when one has good fortune. He decides he must test his cheerfulness by seeing if he can maintain it in the worst circumstances possible. To this end, he decides to accompany young Martin Chuzzlewit as his unpaid servant (indeed, he uses up his life savings paying for things for Martin) as he makes his way to the United States to seek his fortune. The men travel to America, and then attempt to start new lives in a swampy, disease-filled settlement named "Eden" by the corrupt hucksters who sell him land there. Dickens uses the scenes set in America to make many humorous observations about the generally low, degraded or silly character of the American people. Mark and Martin both nearly die in Eden of malaria. Mark finally finds himself in a situation in which it can be considered a virtue to remain in good spirits. But the grim experience, and Mark's unselfish care nursing Martin back to health, changes Martin's selfish and proud character, and the men return to England, where Martin is resolved to return penitently to his grandfather, humbled and changed. But his grandfather is now apparently under Mr. Pecksniff's control and rejects him coldly (to Pecksniff's glee).
Mr. Pecksniff also becomes financially involved in Montague Tigg's insurance scam through the intervention of Jonas, who is being blackmailed by Tigg, who has acquired some kind of information on Jonas. The information is not revealed until the end of the book, but it is implied that he has evidence that Jonas killed his father.
On his return to England, Young Martin is reunited with Tom Pinch. At this point, Jonas Chuzzlewit murders Montague Tigg when the insurance scam is failing, in order to prevent him from revealing the information he's been using as blackmail. Meanwhile, Tom Pinch discovers that his mysterious benefactor/employer is old Martin Chuzzlewit. The elder Martin reveals that when he saw the ends to which greed would take one (in the case of Jonas and Anthony), he decided to sit back and pretend to be in doddering thrall to Pecksniff, while he carefully planned to give everyone enough rope to hang themselves with. He soon realized the evils of Pecksniff and the good of Pinch. Together, the group confronts Mr. Pecksniff with their knowledge of his true character. Mr. Nadgett leads the group to the discovery of Jonas as the murderer of Montague. They also find out from Anthony's devoted employee Chuffey that Jonas did not murder his father, but did plan to murder him, and in fact thought he had (with poison), when really the father died of a broken heart when he realized his own son wanted him dead. Martin also reveals that he was angry at his grandson for becoming engaged to Mary because he had all along planned to arrange that particular match, and felt his glory had been thwarted by them deciding on the plan themselves, instead. He realizes the folly of that opinion, and Martin and his grandfather are reconciled. Martin and Mary are married, as are Ruth Pinch and John Westlock, and the other characters generally get what they deserve, good or bad. Tom Pinch, however, remains in unrequited, undeclared love with Mary for the rest of his life, never marrying, and always being a warm companion to Mary and Martin and to Ruth and John. The goodness of his heart is such that he is glad to see his loved ones happy, even though he does not partake of this joy himself.
Review: The novel was (and is still) seen by some to contain attacks on America, although Dickens himself saw it as satire, similar in spirit to his "attacks" on the people and institutions of England in novels such as Oliver Twist. Americans are satirically portrayed as snobs, windbags, hypocrites, liars, bores, humbugs, braggarts, bullies, hogs, savages, blackguards, murderers and idiots; and the Republic is described as "so maimed and lame, so full of sores and ulcers, foul to the eye and almost hopeless to the sense, that her best friends turn from the loathsome creature with disgust". Dickens also attacks the institution of slavery in America in the following words: "Thus the stars wink upon the bloody stripes; and Liberty pulls down her cap upon her eyes, and owns oppression in its vilest aspect for her sister"
There is a certain quality or element which broods over the whole of Martin Chuzzlewit to which it is difficult for either friends or foes to put a name. I think the reader who enjoys Dickens's other books has an impression that it is a kind of melancholy. There are grotesque figures of the most gorgeous kind; there are scenes that are farcical even by the standard of the farcical license of Dickens; there is humour both of the heaviest and of the lightest kind; there are two great comic personalities who run like a rich vein through the whole story, Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp; there is one blinding patch of brilliancy, the satire on American cant; there is Todgers's boarding-house; there is Bailey; there is Mr. Mould, the incomparable undertaker. But yet in spite of everything, in spite even of the undertaker, the book is sad. No one I think ever went to it in that mixed mood of a tired tenderness and a readiness to believe and laugh in which most of Dickens's novels are most enjoyed.
Opening Line: “AS NO LADY OR GENTLEMAN, with any claims to polite breeding, can possibly sympathise with the Chuzzlewit Family without being first assured of the extreme antiquity of the race, it is a great satisfaction to know that it undoubtedly descended in a direct line from Adam and Eve; and was, in the very earliest times, closely connected with the agricultural interest.“
Closing Line: “As it resounds within thee and without, the mobile music, rolling round ye both, shuts out the grosser prospect of an earthly parting, and uplifts ye both to Heaven!”
Quotes: “Let us be moral. Let us contemplate existence.”
“But charity begins at home, and justice begins next door.”
Rating: Okay

401. The Third Policeman - Flann O'Brien

History: Brian O'Nolan, writing under the pseudonym Flann O'Brien wrote this novel. It was written between 1939 and 1940, but after it initially failed to find a publisher, the author withdrew the manuscript from circulation and claimed he had lost it. The book remained unpublished until his death in 1966.
In 1940, O'Nolan completed the novel and circulated the typescript among friends in Dublin. He submitted it to Longman's, the English publisher of his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, but they declined to publish it. O'Nolan believed that Graham Greene, a champion of his that earlier, was still a reader with the company, when in fact he was not. Consequently, the novel fell on less sympathetic ears.
The American author William Saroyan, who had become acquainted with O'Nolan during a brief stay in Dublin, offered the use of his literary agent in finding an American publisher, but with no success. O'Nolan made no further attempts at publication and shelved the manuscript, claiming that it had been lost. O'Nolan told his friends that while on a driving through Donegal the boot of his car opened unknown to him, causing the manuscript to flutter out page by page until it was gone. In reality he left it on the sideboard in his dining room, in plain view to him every day as he ate, for 26 years.
The Third Policeman was featured in a 2005 episode of television series Lost with the intent of providing context for the show's complex mythology, with the result that sales of the book in the three weeks following its mention equaled what it had sold in the preceding six years.
Plot: The Third Policeman is set in rural Ireland and is narrated by a dedicated amateur scholar of De Selby, a scientist and philosopher. The narrator, whose name we never learn, is orphaned at a young age. At boarding school, he discovers the work of de Selby and becomes a fanatically dedicated student of it. One night he breaks his leg under mysterious circumstances – "if you like, it was broken for me" – and he is ultimately fitted with a wooden leg to replace the original one. On returning to his family home, he meets and befriends John Divney who is in charge of the family farm and pub. Over the next few years, the narrator devotes himself to the study of de Selby's work and leaves Divney to run the family business.
By the time the narrator is thirty, he has written what he believes to be the definitive critical work on de Selby, but does not have enough money to publish the work. Divney observes that Mathers, a local man, "is worth a packet of potato-meal" and eventually it dawns on the narrator that Divney plans to rob and kill Mathers. The narrator and Divney encounter Mathers one night on the road and Divney knocks Mathers down with a bicycle pump. The narrator, prompted by Divney, finishes Mathers off with a spade, and then notices that Divney has disappeared with Mathers's cash box. When Divney returns he refuses to reveal where the cash box is, and fends off the narrator's repeated inquiries. To ensure that Divney does not retrieve the box unobserved, the narrator becomes more and more inseparable from Divney, eventually sharing a bed with him: "the situation was a queer one and neither of us liked it".
Three years pass, in which the previously amicable relationship between the narrator and Divney breaks down. Eventually Divney reveals that the box is hidden under the floorboards in Mathers's old house, and instructs the narrator to fetch it. The narrator follows Divney's instructions but just as he reaches for the box, "something happened":
It was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye; perhaps all of these and other things happened together for all my senses were bewildered all at once and could give me no explanation.
The box has disappeared, and the narrator is perplexed to notice that Mathers is in the room with him. During a surreal conversation with the apparently deceased Mathers, the narrator hears another voice speaking to him which he realises is his soul: "For convenience I called him Joe." The narrator is bent on finding the cash box, and when Mathers tells him about a remarkable police barracks nearby he resolves to go to the barracks and enlist the help of the police in finding the box. On the way, he meets a one-legged bandit named Martin Finnucane, who threatens to kill him but who becomes his friend upon finding out that his potential victim is also one-legged. The narrator approaches the police barracks and is disturbed by its appearance:
It looked as if it were painted like an advertisement on a board on the roadside and indeed very poorly painted. It looked completely false and unconvincing.
Inside the barracks he meets two of the three policemen, Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen, who speak largely in non sequitur and who are entirely obsessed with bicycles. There he is introduced to various peculiar or irrational concepts, artifacts, and locations, including a contraption that collects sound and converts it to light based on a theory regarding omnium, the fundamental energy of the universe; a vast underground chamber called 'Eternity,' where time stands still, mysterious numbers are devoutly recorded and worried about by the policemen; a box from which anything you desire can be produced; and an intricate carved chest containing a series of identical but smaller chests. The infinite nature of this last device causes the narrator great mental and spiritual discomfort. It is later discovered that Mathers has been found dead and eviscerated in a ditch. Joe suspects Martin Finnucane, but to the narrator's dismay he himself is charged with the crime because he is the most convenient suspect. He argues with Sergeant Pluck that since he is nameless, and therefore, as Pluck observed, "invisible to the law", he cannot be charged with anything. Pluck is surprised, but after he unsuccessfully attempts to guess the narrator's name he reasons that since the narrator is nameless he is not really a person, and can therefore be hanged without fear of repercussions:
The particular death you die is not even a death (which is an inferior phenomenon at best) only an insanitary abstraction in the backyard.
The narrator calls on the help of Finnucane, but his rescue is thwarted by MacCruiskeen riding a bicycle painted an unknown colour which drives those who see it mad. He faces the gallows, but the two policemen are called away by dangerously high readings in the underground chamber. The following day he escapes from the barracks on a bicycle of unusual perfection.
As he rides through the countryside, he passes Mathers's house and sees a light. Disturbed, he enters the house and finally meets the mysterious and reportedly all-powerful third policeman, Fox, who has the face of Mathers.] Fox's secret police station is in the walls of Mathers's house. He tells the narrator that he is the architect of the readings in the underground chamber, which he alters for his amusement, thereby inadvertently saving the narrator's life. Fox goes on to tell the narrator that he found the cash box and has sent it to the narrator's home, where it is waiting for him. He also reveals that the box contains not money but omnium, which can become anything he desires. Elated by the possibilities before him, the narrator leaves Fox's police station and goes home looking forward to seeing Divney once again; on arrival he finds that while only a few days have passed in his own life, his accomplice is sixteen years older, with a wife and children. Divney can see the narrator, although the others cannot, and he has a heart attack from the shock. He shouts that the narrator was supposed to be dead, for the black box was not filled with money but a bomb and it exploded when the narrator reached for it. The narrator leaves Divney on the floor, apparently dying.
Feeling "sad, empty and without a thought", the narrator leaves the house and walks away down the road. He soon approaches the police barracks, the book using exactly the same words to describe the barracks and the narrator's opinion of it that were used earlier, the story having circled around itself and restarted. This time, John Divney joins the narrator on the road; they neither look at nor speak to each other. They both enter the police station and are confronted by Sergeant Pluck, who repeats his earlier dialogue and ends the book with a reprise of his original greeting to the narrator:
"Is it about a bicycle?" he asked.
Review: In The Third Policeman, our hero and narrator, a nameless young man with a wooden leg, assists in a money-motivated killing, and, after trying to retrieve the stashed goods some time later, passes into a strange otherness -- a place that superficially resembles the Irish countryside, but which casually disobeys the normal laws of How Things Work. He encounters a small building of impermanent and shifting geometry which turns out to be the local barracks -- it is here that he meets the policemen. The novel has that special quality -- the fantastic made believable, yet retaining its power to amaze -- that is the hallmark of authors like Borges, Kafka, or Barthelme. The events are alternately frightening, baffling, and hilarious, and are brought into three dimensions by perfect, musical prose.
Much of the book’s humor comes from references to the fictional physicist ‘de Selby’, a sort of anti-Newton whose completely absurd theories sound almost plausible in the framework of the novel’s demonic logic. De Selby, noting that light takes a portion of time, however small, to reach its target, came upon the idea that if a network of mirrors were aligned properly a viewer could actually see into the past through a series of repeated reflections:
“What he states to have seen through his glass is astonishing. He claims to have noticed a growing youthfulness in the reflections of his face according as they receded, the most distant of them -- being the face of a beardless boy of twelve, and, to use his own words, ‘a countenance of singular beauty and nobility’.”
Among de Selby’s other arguments are the existence of night as passing clouds of black, volcanically produced pollution; the idea that all names originate from descriptive, prehistoric grunts (and that by decoding this system of grunts, one could ascertain another’s appearance merely by studying their name); the possibility that the Earth is not a sphere, but an ovoid; and the nature of sleep as a series of minor heart attacks (brought on by exposure to the black air).
But de Selby is merely a side story. The main of the book is devoted to the solution of our young hero’s mystery, and to the further mystery of the bizarre policemen which populate the world he has wandered into. The policemen speak in an infectious, over-wrought dialogue that you’ll have to take care not to pick up yourself. They invent devices that turn noise into electricity. They take gauge readings in a subterranean, industrial version of eternity. I don’t want to delve too far into this storyline, rather I urge you to discover it for yourself. You’ll never ride a bicycle again.
Published by Dalkey Archive press (named after another O’Brien book), The Third Policeman, although not O’Brien’s most famous book, is one that must not be allowed to be forgotten. More images are painted in its 200 pages than in the massive Pulitzer contenders of today, more fantasy and dream than in a million pages of Tolkien or Rowling. Reading this book will actually improve your imagination, your speech, your intelligence. And you’ll lose weight (provided you don’t eat until you finish). Far fetched claims, I know, but they’ll hold true within the strange laws of The Third Policeman, as sure as the Earth is sausage-shaped.
Critical interpretations to The Third Policeman have been varied. Anne Clissman, in the first major study of Flann O'Brien's work, considers the book to be "in many ways a continuation of some of the ideas expressed in At Swim".[29] She described the book as "in parts, extremely amusing, but the overall effect is anything but funny" and noted that the book "shows a fixity of purpose and clarity" which she contrasted with the "organised chaos" of At Swim-Two-Birds. Clissman regards the novel as a less experimental work than At Swim:
Its central concern is not, as in At Swim, with varying methods of presenting reality in fiction, but with reality viewed through the medium of scientific and philosophical concepts.[29]
Keith Hopper, writing twenty years after Clissman, regards The Third Policeman somewhat differently. Regarding it as "the first great masterpiece [...] of what we generally refer to now as post-modernism", he argues that the book is not less but more formally experimental than At Swim-Two-Birds:
Contrary to O'Nolan's assertion that this novel was without the 'difficulties and fireworks' of At Swim-Two-Birds, this is a more radical and involved metafictional fantasy.
Hopper interprets the narrator's journey as "a quest to discover the borderland between reality and fiction", noting the narrator's "flickering between an awareness that he is a character trapped within a fictional order and his realist belief that he is a 'real-life' person.
The critic Hugh Kenner, in a 1997 essay entitled "The Fourth Policeman", advanced a hypothesis to explain why O'Nolan had suppressed the manuscript. Noting the complex ways in which the novel draws on pagan traditions in Middle and Early Modern Irish literature, as well as the ways in which it confounds attempts to inscribe it within a realist tradition, Kenner argued that the book created a "cartoon of Ireland" that was "brilliant but disturbingly coherent." Kenner argues that the book's failure to find a publisher must have caused O'Nolan to reread it, whereupon O'Nolan (in Kenner's account) must have been so "unsettled" by the book's effect, "for he liked his effects under rational control [...] and this book grimaced at him, from expressive levels he was careful never to monkey with again", that he suppressed it; not out of despair of it reaching a publisher but because it offended his own "explicitly formed and highly orthodox conscience". Kenner calls O'Nolan's Catholic conscience the "Fourth Policeman" of his essay's title. Kenner finishes the essay by predicting that while The Third Policeman may tend to be neglected in favour of O'Nolan's first novel: will be rediscovered, and again, and again. There's no killing a piece of mythic power like that.
In a letter to William Saroyan, dated 14 February 1940, O'Nolan explained the strange plot of The Third Policeman:
When you get to the end of this book you realize that my hero or main character (he's a heel and a killer) has been dead throughout the book and that all the queer ghastly things which have been happening to him are happening in a sort of hell which he earned for the killing ... It is made clear that this sort of thing goes on for ever ... When you are writing about the world of the dead – and the damned – where none of the rules and laws (not even the law of gravity) holds good, there is any amount of scope for back-chat and funny cracks.
In a passage that was omitted from the published novel, O'Nolan wrote:
Joe had been explaining things in the meantime. He said it was again the beginning of the unfinished, the re-discovery of the familiar, the re-experience of the already suffered, the fresh-forgetting of the unremembered. Hell goes round and round. In shape it is circular and by nature it is interminable, repetitive and very nearly unbearable.
Opening Line: “Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers – smashing his jaw with my spade.”
Closing Line: “"Is it about a bicycle?" he asked.”
Quotes: "Your talk," I said, "is surely the handiwork of wisdom because not one word of it do I understand."
Rating: Not good.