V.S. Naipaul, “A House for Mr. Biswas”

1961

Naipaul’s novel of the sprawling Tulsi house and one man’s attempt to escape it inaugurate an era of postcolonial writing in the Anglo tradition. The prolepsis of the prologue allows us to see Mr. Biswas on his deathbead, surrounded by piles and piles of stuff, but happy because he is dying in his own house: “How terrible it would have been, at this time, to be without [his house]: to have died among the Tulsis, amid the squalor of that large, disintegrating, and indifferent family… to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth” 11. In this way, Naipaul rephrases Joseph Conrad’s “taking away of things” in the “dark places of the earth,” creating a kind of microcosmic colonialism in Mr. Biswas, a refusal of communal 3rd world living in favor of Western values of materialism and independence. (It seems no mistake that Mr Biswas is first a sign painter, and at Hanuman House, no less (the trickster monkey god). Even at the very end of the novel he is measuring to “expand the yard” with Shama. In a parallel to Death of a Salesman, “the debt remained… living had always been a preparation, a waiting. And so the years had passed; and now there was nothing to wait for” 561. It is not the journalism career he has had, but the ambition to achieve something that would promise happiness, which animates Mr. Biswas. Its accomplishment, however, leaves him withering (Sister Carrie). In a parallel twist, after years of complaining about his stomach (material) it is his heart (emotional/spiritual) which gives out, confining him without dignity downstairs, a prisoner in his own house. He gets fired and begs his son Anand to come home, but he flakes out. “And Mr. Biswas never complained again,” but “once again became the comforter” 563. He welcomes his daughter home at the end “as though she were herself and Anand combined” 563. Mr. Biswas dies and is cremated, leaving his family with the house and the debt.

From Wikipedia:

Mohun Biswas is born in rural Trinidad to parents of Indian origin. His birth is considered inauspicious as he is born “in the wrong way” and with an extra finger. A pundit prophesies that the newly born Mr Biswas “will be a lecher and a spendthrift. Possibly a liar as well”, and that he will “eat up his mother and father”. The pundit further advises that the boy be kept “away from trees and water. Particularly water”. A few years later, Mohun leads a neighbour’s calf, which he is tending, to a stream. The boy, who has never seen water “in its natural form”, becomes distracted watching the fish and allows the calf to wander off. Mohun hides in fear of punishment. His father, believing his son to be in the water, drowns in an attempt to save him, thus in part fulfilling the pundit’s prophecy. This leads to the dissolution of Mr Biswas’s family. His sister is sent to live with a wealthy aunt and uncle, Tara and Ajodha, while Mr Biswas, his mother, and two older brothers go to live with other relatives.

Mr Biswas is withdrawn prematurely from school and apprenticed to a pundit, but is cast out on bad terms. Ajodha then puts him in the care of his alcoholic and abusive brother Bhandat which also comes to a bad result. Finally, Mr Biswas, now becoming a young man, decides to set out to make his own fortune. He encounters a friend from his days of attending school who helps him get into the business of sign-writing. While on the job, Mr Biswas attempts to romance a client’s daughter and his advances are misinterpreted as a wedding proposal. He is drawn into a marriage which he does not have the nerve to stop and becomes a member of the Tulsi household. 

With the Tulsis, Mr Biswas becomes very unhappy with his wife Shama and her overbearing family, which bears a slight resemblance to the Capildeo family into which Naipaul’s father married. He is usually at odds with the Tulsis and his struggle for economic independence from the oppressive household drives the plot. The Tulsi family (and the big decaying house they live in) represents the traditional communal world, the way life is lived, not only among the Hindu immigrants of Trinidad but throughout Africa and Asia as well. Mr Biswas is offered a place in it, a subordinate place to be sure, but a place that’s guaranteed and from which advancement is possible. But Mr Biswas rejects that. He is, without realizing it or thinking it through but through deep and indelible instinct, a modern man. He wants to BE, to exist as something in his own right, to build something he can call his own. That is something the Tulsis cannot deal with, and that is why their world—though that traditional world, like the old Tulsi house which is its synecdoche, is collapsing—conspires to drag him down. Nevertheless, despite his poor education, Mr Biswas becomes a journalist, has four children with Shama, and attempts (more than once, with varying levels of success) to build a house that he can call his own. He becomes obsessed with the notion of owning his own house, and it becomes a symbol of his independence and merit.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”

1925

Set in the summer of 1922, The Great Gatsby is the quintessential, and perhaps original, text in which the surface is the substance, especially of the main character, but also the novel itself. Its New Franklinian concern with capitalism as a virtue finds a home in narrator Nick, who believes himself outside the system, but is simply passively partaking in it. In this way, Tom’s landed inheritance of the system is situated somewhere between Gatsby’s aggressive pursuit in the system and Nick’s total avoidance of it.

In keeping with the thought of surface as content in Gatsby, it’s worth considering the characters’ names: Jordan’s androgyny, Daisy’s false freshness, Gatsby’s name change to something invented and artificial. Nick Carraway’s last name suggests an ungrown seed or sprout, as well as “carried away,” which he is most of the time as he solipsizes Gatsby’s story and adds impossible-to-know details to it. Indeed, the narrative often reaches results passively, so that we don’t know how we got there (the biscuit in the dog’s water or the walk with Daisy told later).

The famous “disembodied face” passage about Daisy signals her as a creature not of the body, but of fancy, which is also how Gatsby himself is imagined. Like a beautiful Kurtz, she is reduced to the power of her voice, which “sounds like money.” The myth of Gatsby compels keeping it up, even despite better evidence. In contrast, both Tom and Myrtle are solidly bodily – Gatsby’s death is to float, while Myrtle’s is to be ripped apart by a car that leaves her breast flapping open.

Willa Cather, “My Antonia”

1918

Willa Cather’s novel explores immigrants and Americans settling in Black Hawk, Nebraska. The unusual frame narrative is that of Jim Burden, whom the unidentified narrator meets on a train and asks to tell Antonia Shimerda’s story. Jim, like Nick Carraway, has blind spots in his idealized, Georgic view of Antonia. We see his narrative, but also its flaws, its failure to cohere, its overdetermined symbolism.

The novel has an episodic/epiphanic structure at the start and end, almost like the land it describes, which “was not a country, but the material out of which a country is made.” In between, it has a more normative structure around Antonia’s extended adolescence and nascent sexuality. It is iterative, quotidian, and insists on a sense of routine even when the events it describes are too particular to have been repeated. It is a kind of double bildungsroman, in which Jim is the ascetic scholar and Antonia the earth mother.

Part of this is to explore the different positions for women – Antonia breeds at home, Tiny loses her toes making a fortune in Alaska, and Lena has a rags to riches story as a successful seamstress. The magic of “my Antonia” is a kind of incantation of the future of America, an embodiment of the frontier after its 1890 “end” according to the US government. The phrase is repeated by her father, Jim, the neighbor widow, and even Antonia herself, who calls her husband “my Anton,” having met the other half with whom she becomes a (re)productive (w)hole.

From Wikipedia:

  1. The Shimerdas – the longest book within the novel. It covers Jim’s early years spent on his grandparents’ farm, out on the prairie.
  2. The Hired Girls – the second longest section of the novel. It covers Jim’s time in town, when he spends time with Ántonia and the other country girls who work in town. Language, particularly descriptions, begin to become more sexualized, particularly concerning Ántonia and Lena.
  3. Lena Lingard – this chronicles Jim’s time at the university, and the period in which he becomes reacquainted with Lena Lingard.
  4. The Pioneer Woman’s Story – Jim visits the Harlings and hears about Ántonia’s fateful romance with Larry Donovan. This is the shortest book.
  5. Cuzak’s Boys – Jim goes to visit Ántonia and meets her new family, her children and husband.

 

Edith Wharton, “The House of Mirth”

1905

Wharton’s novel tells the story of the decline of Lily Bart, a well-bred New York woman climbing the social ladder towards an advantageous marriage who exhausts her possibilities and falls. I’d like to compare this novel to James’ The Ambassadors in the sense that both are concerned with the distinction between sense and sensibility. (Wharton paid for his prefaces in the New York editions.) Whereas in James, the novel plots Strether’s advancement from common sense to sense/sensuality  (sight, taste, touch) to a sensibility of manners (perspective, taste, tact), it seems Wharton is engaged in a slightly different approach – a sort of American Vanity Fair. 

Lily Bart’s extreme tact (in the sense of manners and strategic acumen) bars her from touching (emotionally or physically) any of the people around her. The notion of tact also has to do with her intact and frigid virginal body. The proliferation of money metaphors in the novel demonstrates how not only Lily, but the novel itself makes sense and sensibility part of the same flat surface, confusing literal and metaphorical, material and spiritual. Many of the novel’s main events are effaced – presented to us later in the form of gossip in which they are retold, rather than presented as events when they occur. A major event is Lily’s misconstruction of the money from Trenor as figurative, rather than literal, and some of the novel’s metaphors go so far from the things they represent as to question the alchemical properties of language, as if it were itself an unreliable market. Rosedale “stood scanning her with interest” 17 and “people say Judy Trenor has quarreled with [Lily] on account of Gus” 167.

“It was true that, during the last three or four weeks, she had absented herself from Bellomont on the pretext of having other visits to pay; but she now began to feel that the reckoning she had thus contrived to evade had rolled up interest in the interval” 123.

Much of this confusion seems to stem from Lily’s mother, who tells her that her beautiful face (like that of a coin) will always get her money. As she declines, she does so “at face value,” so to speak – her struggles are not reflective, but reflected outwardly – she is herself a perfect surface. Trenor has “been somewhat heavily ‘touched’ by the fall in stocks” 171, when Lily is repulsed by Trenor, “the words were worse than the touch!” 195, and Lily “gave to the encounter the touch of naturalness which she could impart to the most strained situations” 306. Towards the end of the novel, “the mere touch of the packet thrilled her tired nerves” when she is addicted to sleeping drugs 389 and it is only in this state that she can be “frankly touched” by Rosedale’s kindness, just pages before her accidental overdose (after which Selden finally touches her) 391.

Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

1937

Ellison, Wright, and Alain Locke disliked this novel, but it has become a classic at least in part because of its unique deployment of free indirect discourse in the story Janie tells Pheoby of her life in three parts. Janie famously moves “from object to subject” in the process, and the last line of the novel is “She called her sould to come and see” 193. Barbara Johnson claims it solves some narrative issues of Jakobson’s conflict between metaphor (universalizing totality) and metonymy (the repetition and renaming of the particular). I don’t have any recent notes on this novel, so I’m going to publish some information from Wikipedia…

Wikipedia summary:

The main character, an African-American woman in her early forties named Janie Crawford, tells the story of her life and journey via an extended flashback to her best friend, Pheoby, so that Pheoby can tell Janie’s story to the nosy community on her behalf. Her life has three major periods corresponding to her marriages to three very different men.

Nanny, Janie’s grandmother, was a slave who became pregnant by her owner and gave birth to a daughter, Leafy. Though Nanny tries to create a good life for her daughter, Leafy is raped by her school teacher and becomes pregnant with Janie. Shortly after Janie’s birth, Leafy begins to drink and stay out at night. Eventually she runs away, leaving Janie with Nanny. Nanny transfers all the hopes she had for Leafy to Janie. When Janie is sixteen, Nanny sees her kissing a neighborhood boy, Johnny Taylor, and fears that Janie will become a “mule” to some man. Nanny arranges for Janie to marry Logan Killicks, an older man and farmer who is looking for a wife to keep his home and help on the farm. Although Janie is not interested in marriage at that time, her grandmother wants her to have the kinds of things she never had the chance to have, and by marrying Logan Killicks Janie’s grandmother thinks it will give her the opportunity to make this possible. Janie has the idea that marriage must involve love, forged in a pivotal early scene where she sees bees pollinating a pear tree, and believes that marriage is the human equivalent to this natural process [think Beloved and the turtles!]. Logan Killicks, however, wants a domestic helper rather than a lover or partner and feels Janie does not do enough around the farm and she is ungrateful. Janie runs off with the glib Jody (Joe) Starks, who takes her to Eatonville.

Starks arrives in Eatonville to find the residents devoid of ambition, so he arranges to buy more land from the neighboring landowner, hires some local residents to build a general store for him to own and run, and the people of the town appoint him mayor. Janie soon realizes that Joe wants her as a trophy wife. He wants the image of his perfect wife to reinforce his powerful position in town, as he asks her to run the store but forbids her from participating in the substantial social life that occurs on the store’s front porch.

After Starks passes away, Janie finds herself financially independent and beset with suitors, some of whom are men of some means or have prestigious occupations, all of whom she turns down. She meets a young drifter and gambler named Vergible Woods who goes by the name of Tea Cake. She falls in love with Tea Cake after he plays the guitar for her. She sells the store and the two head to Jacksonville and get married, only to move to the Everglades egion (“the muck”) where they find work planting and harvesting beans. While their relationship has its ups and downs, including mutual bouts of jealousy, Janie realizes she now has the marriage with love that she had wanted.

The area is hit by the great hurricane. Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog while saving Janie from drowning. He contracts the disease himself. He ultimately tries to shoot Janie with his pistol, but she shoots him with a rifle in self-defense. She is charged with murder. At the trial, Tea Cake’s black, male friends show up to oppose her, while a group of local white women arrive to support her [think bell hooks!]. The all-white jury acquits Janie, and she gives Tea Cake a lavish funeral. Tea Cake’s friends forgive her, and they want her to remain in the Everglades. However, she decides to return to Eatonville. As she expected, the residents are gossiping about her.

  • In Maria J. Johnson’s article “‘The World in a Jug and the Stopper in [Her] Hand’: Their Eyes Were Watching God as Blues Performance”, she states that Hurston’s novel takes a similar structure and aesthetic to blues culture [if jazz is masculine?]. Johnson also shows how the contrast of Hurston’s images, such as the pleasure and pain dynamic of the bee, can be seen in songs by singers like Bessie Smith.
  • The article, “The Cognitive Construction of the Self in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Patrick S. Bernard highlights the connection between the construction of self and cognition in Hurston’s novel. According to Bernard, cognition is the inner essence of an individual that embodies the idea of “thinking, seeing, speaking, and knowing,” but is often determined by one’s exterior environment. Janie, the protagonist, uses her cognitive skills in order to find her identity and throughout the novel develops her cognition further. While Janie is living in a sexist society she continues to rise above her opposition specifically that of her three husbands. Bernard demonstrates this,

In a conversation with Jody, Janie defends ‘womenfolk,’ disagreeing with the sexist claim that God made men “different” because they turn “out so smart” (70). When she states that men “don’t know half as much as you think you do,” Jody interrupts her saying, ‘you getting too moufy Janie … Go fetch me de checker-board and de checkers’ (70-71) so that he and the other men could play (Bernard 9).

The comment from Jody, Janie’s second husband, attempts to suppress her voice and manipulate her thoughts. Rather than acting submissive to Jody, Janie for a brief moment contends with Jody by telling him how men misunderstand women. Jody fears that Janie’s thinking will lead to her gaining more knowledge and naturally to speaking her mind, eventually leading to Janie achieving the power of knowledge to recognize and change the mistreatment and unfairness she has been receiving. Bernard proposes the idea that Jody’s relationship with Janie represents society’s assumption that women are of limited cognition. This assumption positions women in subservient roles that limit their ways of thinking, speaking, and seeing.
In addition to bringing up Janie’s relationship with Jody, Bernard emphasizes how her relationships with her other husbands influenced her cognition. He points out the fact that Logan Killicks, Janie’s first husband, mistreated her by severing any beginning form of self construction by treating her as an infant [think Friedan and de Beauvoir!]. Bernard also brings forth the idea that Janie’s construction of selfhood blossoms when Tea Cake, her third husband, allows her to participate in experiences unimaginable to her. While Logan Killicks gives her no opportunity of expressing herself, Jody overpowers her expressive voice; Tea Cake allows her construction of self to mature.link between self construction and cognition. Bernard’s main point therefore is that self-construction is influenced by cognition, that is, knowing, thinking, seeing and speaking are important to the construction of self in Zora Neale Hurston’s novel.
  • In “The Hierarchy Itself: Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Sacrifice of Narrative Authority”, Ryan Simmons argues that Hurston made a statement against models of authority that supplant an oppressive system with other oppressive systems and offered an alternative. By models of authority, Simmons means the narrative voice of the author and Janie’s narrative voice. Hurston represented the different ideologies of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois through the characters of Logan Killicks and Joe (“Jody”) Starks. Like Washington, Logan models the path of “gradual progress” that wouldn’t threaten the white-dominated sphere of power and Hurston presents his practices as a tradeoff between liberty and modest prosperity. Joe models the path advocated by Du Bois, which is one of assertion of dignity and less compromise. But the issue shown by Joe’s eventual isolation from the community dialogue he helped establish and Janie’s overpowering of him through a usurpation of authority, Hurston shows that the weakness with Joe’s approach is that it mirrors that of white suppression. Instead, Hurston introduces a third way of achieving self-autonomy through Tea Cake. He represents an independence from reliance on communal validation, and instead serves as a mirror for Janie to discover her narrative power. In relation to the author’s narrative power, Tea Cake is the epitome of a good reader, one that is receptive to the transformative message of the text. Language is the understanding and sharpening of one’s identity while communication comes second. In Hurston’s innovative narrative, she is attempting to fulfill the “ideal narrative”, which is one that nurtures and changes both the reader and the author. [think of Banjo, dialectic, Adorno]

Salman Rushdie, “Midnight’s Children”

1988

Midnight’s Children seems to thwart Jameson’s idea that all third world literature is a national allegory. Its twists and turns of structure are coherent enough to form a web (as James Wood says of this foundational text of hysterical realism, it engenders and enacts a paranoid logic), but erratic enough that they can’t quite be pathologized, almost like the fake illnesses of his grandmother in the first chapter of the novel. The characters’ name changes, too, work in this multifaceted novel as double-down acts of theatricality Monkey becomes Jamila, and people are always stopping or starting talking, striking poses and performances that are multiply legible.

Rushdie claimed Jane Austen and Charles Dickens as “Indian novelists,” and his nods to Joyce are as a fellow victim of colonialism: “O ineluctable superiority of northernness!” 355 and “Mute autocracy of a less-than-two-year-old infant” 515 are just two. The novel’s ending, “to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace,” seems to rework Eliot’s ending to The Waste Land.  [Nabokovian nods include “the pickling of time!” 529, the theme of incest (Saleem and his sister).]

Rushdie’s narrator purports to be a telepathically connected one presenting a sort of collective fiction of India, but he is awfully narcissistic and solipsistic. He was born at exactly midnight on India’s independence day, and he shares magical realist traits with thousands of other children – his is at first to speak to them, and later to lose this power to a sense of smell instead. His face is said to look like a map of India and Pakistan.

Doris Lessing, “The Golden Notebook”

1962

The Golden Notebook, often considered one of the great works of second-wave feminism (though Lessing thought it came too early for that and claims she had no such agenda) tells the story of the writer Anna Wulf and her friend Molly Jacobs. Molly has been married to Richard, from whom she has Tommy. Anna has been married to Willi/Max (she met him while in Rhodesia in the 40s) and has a child, Janet, with him. She also has a long affair with Michael, who does not requite her love, and Saul, a brash American who opens her writing up to new levels, but ultimately disappears and gives way to the next man in line.

Much of the work is a treatise on various social issues, despite Lessing’s insistent claims that this was a “misreading” of the novel. Anna and Molly continually try to reintegrate themselves to Party life, only to find themselves disenchanted and leave again. It’s hard to consider it a misreading when all of this is so plainly spelled out at every turn (‘this is what women are experiencing today’), and this is where the wonderful novel is at its weakest. It engages in gender essentialism, national and political stereotypes (mostly about Americans, Brits, communists, and ‘liberals’), and overstatements of feeling and thought that verge onto D.H. Lawrence’s sometimes overblown “novel of ideas” style.

 

Indeed, the opening scene shows the two alone, discussing marriage, relationships, and themselves as “free women,” restaging the beginning of Lawrence’s Women in Love. In fact, The Golden Notebook restages modernism in a variety of ways. Anna’s concern with representing her bodily functions (unisex and particularly female) resonates with Joyce’s Ulysses, as does the Molly/Marion pair who have both been married to Richard. Richard, a real square and a businessman who cannot express emotion, is reminiscent of Richard Dalloway, and Anna’s surname (Wulf), as well as Molly’s (Jacobs [Room?] can be no accident. Instead of the 6 voices of The Waves, we have 6 parts of Anna and her life.

The splitting of the self that the novel insists on seems to stem from Woolf’s persistent attempts to represent the female splitting and gathering self in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, as well as the passage in A Room of One’s Own where Woolf insists that to write as a woman is always to write multiply. Anna herself tells Tommy that she cannot write in one notebook because it would be an overwhelming chaos.

The novel has 6 component parts: the black, red, yellow, and blue notebooks, the golden notebook that tries to combine them, and the interspersed metanovel segments called “Free Women.” The four notebooks are in first-person by Anna (except the yellow one, where she is called Ella and Molly Julia). They each appear 4 times in the cycle, while the metanovel “Free Women” has 5 sections, and the golden notebook has just 1 section, which is the penultimate of the book and corresponds as a sort of “5th” occurrence of the other 4 notebooks, since it combines them.

The structure of the novel as repeating cycles seems to mimic both political waxings and wanings, the rhythm of everyday domestic life in motherhood, and the female body. Around the middle of the novel, Anna gets her period and continues to mention its inconveniences, pains, and awarenesses for several days’ worth of entries.

I’d like to think about this novel as an extension of the crisis of faith concerns in the works of Waugh, Greene, and Murdoch, but here the faith in question is, ironically, Marxism. I therefore want to experiment with aligning them with sections of the gospel and Eliot’s The Waste Land. The notebooks:

Black: Anna’s memories of her past in Rhodesia, as well as her record of finances (money/sources). (MARK: earliest source, travel, heroism, death) (Burial of the Dead – the difficulty of memory and prophecy, the struggle to express meaning.)

Red: Anna’s diary of her involvement in the Party. (MATTHEW: history, law, based on Mark, written to Jews) (A Game of Chess – sex as strategy, disappointment, disillusionment, concerned with matters of class and gender.)

Yellow: Anna’s own novel about Ella and Julia. (LUKE: longest, most evangelical and poetic, emotional and metatextual) (The Fire Sermon – a cleansing but collapsing of society as we know it.)

Blue: Anna’s diary, largely made up of dreams and fantasies, as well as day-to-day conversations and occurrences. (JOHN: visionary, salvatory, erratic) (Death by Water – the mystical possibility of death and rejuvenation in one).

Golden: Anna’s attempt to bind the other 4 together. (The Holy Gospel as an imbricated text.) (What the Thunder Said – combining fragments against one’s ruin, trying to revivify spirituality and love.)

I think it’s worth considering how this presages the narrative levels in Byatt or many of the “hysterical realism” novels. It also seems to me the first venture into postmodernism, except maybe Naipaul. It certainly implants the fragmented subject firmly in the British literary tradition where it does not seem to have existed before – would also be worth comparing with Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. 

Jean Rhys, “Wide Sargasso Sea”

1966

Moving from Jamaica to Dominica to England, Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of “Bertha” Antoinette Mason in a parallel reworking of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. As the last sentence demonstrates, one of the protests of the novel is against Rochester’s renaming itself, which moves her from “A” to “B,” a sort of lowered ranking as well. Rather than seeing Bertha as “impediment,” which is how she is named in Bronte, the text sees her madness as a dual result of the colonialism and patriarchy that have determined her life. (Interesting that she bites him at mention of the word “legally.”)

Yet Rhys’ novel does not condemn Rochester. He is given tremendous space and perspective in the middle part, so that we leap from Antoinette’s sanity to insanity via his narrative – “a middle passage” in the book. The Sargasso Sea is a swirl in the midst of the Atlantic, collecting and swallowing. Much of the novel centers around the way that most language does not signify, save in songs or names – in this sense, Rhys also reclaims bodily affect as a mode of signification with eyerolls and gestures that Rochester cannot read as anything but madness. Furthermore, the fabula (story-order) and sujet (plot) divide is dramatized through the reader learning key facts by A’s eavesdropping.

Rhys reclaims pathetic fallacy as well – in Bronte’s novel the hot tropics are the site of passion and madness, but in Rhys’ world, England is cardboard and unreal, while the island’s natural space is vibrant and vivid. It is the desire to cathect herself onto the land around her which fails in England and drives her truly mad.

Iris Murdoch, “The Bell”

1958

Like Waugh and Greene, in The Bell Iris Murdoch takes up the problem of faith – once again, the Catholic minority. Dora Greenfield, a sort of midcentury reincarnation of Dorothea from Middlemarch, is married to the stuffy academic Causabon Paul Greenfield, who continually tries to suppress her. The novel begins and ends with her having left Paul, but focuses on a period during which she returns to him as he studies at a religious community at Imber. The lay people on the outside are experimenting with an almost cultlike ascetiticsm, but within the walls of the convent proper are sealed a number of nuns who never contact the outside world.

The novel is fascinated with these layers of impenetrability: the structure of faith (religious, interpersonal, the mechanization of “miracle” by Toby and Dora), the structure of narrative (“already Imber had become a story,” the constant narrativization and letter-writing, and the last line “tonight she would be telling the whole story to Sally”), the metaphor of the bell (which can either be a means of working inside out or outside in), the surface and depths of the lake – at once transparent and impossibly dark/ natural and manmade, the nature of sexuality (both surface and depth, both clear and muted like the bells). The miracle of all the doublings in the novel also sustains it – Catherine and Nick (muted and loud), James and Michael, Toby and Dora, etc.

Wikipedia’s key to chapters:

  1. Introduction to Paul and Dora Greenfield, Toby Gashe, and James Tayper Pace. Train ride from London to Gloucestershire.
  2. A drive to Imber Court, and introduction to much of the rest of the community.
  3. Paul tells Dora the legend of the bell.
  4. Conversation between James and Michael, and introduction to Nick Fawley.
  5. Dora’s tour of the grounds with Mrs Mark, and, with Michael, the discovery of Toby swimming.
  6. Michael’s nightmare, his background, and a business meeting at Imber Court.
  7. Michael’s history with the Fawleys.
  8. Peter, Toby, Michael, and Dora inspect the birds in the woods.
  9. James’ sermon, and a fight between Dora and Paul.
  10. Toby discovers an underwater bell.
  11. Michael and Toby travel to Swindon.
  12. Michael and Toby’s individual thoughts on their last encounter, and a walk in the woods.
  13. Toby’s thoughts on the walk, and his entry into the abbey.
  14. Dora’s sojourn in London.
  15. Toby sees Dora in the window, and later tells her of the Bell.
  16. Michael’s sermon, and encounter with drunken Nick.
  17. Toby and Dora raise the bell.
  18. Paul tells Michael part of the legend of the bell, and Nick tells Michael that Dora is having an affair.
  19. Michael receives advice from James and the Abbess.
  20. Noel and the Bishop come to Imber Court to christen the bell.
  21. Nick tells Toby to confess.
  22. Dora overhears Nick’s informing Noel, and rings the bell.
  23. The new bell is sunk in the water during a procession, Catherine attempts suicide, and Dora is rescued by Mother Clare.
  24. Paul leaves Imber Court to see to the old bell in London.
  25. James reveals to Michael that he knows about him and Toby. Nick commits suicide.
  26. The community is dissolved, and Michael and Dora work hard together. Michael is in pain. Dora says goodbye to Michael.

Muriel Spark, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”

1961

Set in Edinburgh in the 1930s, this short novel tells the story of Miss Jean Brodie, an unmarried woman “in her prime” who inculcates her “set” of girls with “sophisticated” but misguided information about art, politics (fascism), and sexuality (she refuses to have an affair with Mr. Lloyd, but wants Rose to.) Eventually, she is betrayed by one of her own “set,” but only suspects that it is the plain, beady-eyed Sandy, now “Sister of the Transfiguration” and a writer. I am most interested in the narrative strategy of the text, which is unusual in its persistent use of prolepsis to give away the ending of the story. In this sense, it is a sort of narrative promiscuity, an enactment of the same misguided availability and openness that its title character (Jean Brodie) has taught its focalizing character (Sandy).