Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Rise of Silas Lapham

When I started reading this, the whole thing seemed to move along very slowly, not necessarily deliberately, and the plot didn't seem very substantial. Everyone in class seemed to agree with that, and most seemed to not like it at all. However, as I moved through the story, the two separate plots emerged and then came together. Howells's ability to make the common interesting is very good. Silas and his family experienced what are probably common situations, and through the use of empathy, Howells makes the reader care what happens.

This is the whole idea of realism, as opposed to romanticism. I'm going to side with the realists, and presume that everyone has a life worth hearing about, that nothing really is ordinary. The commonality of the characters and their actions makes this kind of writing more relatable than romances, and thus has more of an impact on people. And even if the readers haven’t experienced the same things, the realistic happenings can serve to shed more light on the human experience.

But back to the novel. In class we talked about the two different plots: Silas’s act of self-sacrifice, in return for moral satisfaction, and Pen’s more realistic approach, which some may call selfish, for love. The two plots parallel each other throughout the book, until Silas sacrifices everything to walk away with clean hands. He even refuses the one chance he has to reclaim his material wealth. At this point, Pen has her chance to get what she wants, and takes it. I think I was the only one in class to see the difference I’m trying to show in these two actions, though.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Behind a Mask

Behind a Mask is well, surprising. Given the time it was written, and especially the author, I was not expecting to read a tale of deceit, lies, and manipulation – especially by a woman. But Alcott created Jean Muir as such, and while not the most favorable protagonist, she demonstrates a lot of craft and cunning. The immediate foreshadowing of Jean’s true character was interesting, and left me hoping for some sort of redemption for the girl who had undoubtedly led a hard life. But as the story drew to a close, and all Jean did was complete her despicable plan, I was left with much sympathy for the victims of her plot.

The other works from this course so far have upheld the view of women in their traditional roles as domestic, weak, and rather unintelligent, but this blew those ideals away. I’m not familiar with other tales of this era that have similar concepts, namely the powers that women can hold over unsuspecting men, but I would be interested in reading more.

I am left questioning the plausibility of such a case, though. A family of either nobility or wealth falling victim to a poor woman’s con game seems almost far-fetched, and I’m not sure if Alcott is trying to imply something about wealthy families or just demonstrate her cleverness.

The class discussion today revealed to me that as Jean Muir was doing all of this "behind a mask," Alcott in a way was behind the same kind of mask in creating the story. The whole concept of people either assuming the identity of another, or just different roles to serve different purposes fascinates me.