|Hello, my dear strangers!
I’ve been reading Robinson Crusoe for nearly four months. The reason behind my apparent indolence is simple – this book bored me to no end. I’ve read far longer and far more difficult books, yet for some reason, I just couldn’t stomach this one. Now, I’m finally done and would like to take it all from the beginning and analyse just what it was that bothered me so. And granted, even books that bore us, infuriate us or disgust us may prove to be useful in certain respects and may teach us a great deal. Moreover, while it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which book serves as the first English novel, Robinson Crusoe is today widely considered to be exactly that – the first English novel and should be respected and taken into consideration, if for nothing else, than because of that.
There are some parallels which can be drawn between Robinson and his creator. Both chose to pursue careers which their parents disapproved of. Robinson’s father warned him prophetically about the perils lurking behind the lifestyle he so desperately craved. He told him that the happiest of men were those who lived on the middle ground, neither too high and responsible, nor too low and plagued by difficulties of such lives.
Soon enough, Robinson experienced yet another storm, which had far greater ramifications. The ship sank and Robinson was confronted by its captain who urged him to forget about a life at sea. He even told him that only perils and misfortunes would follow him, if he persisted, right up till the day his father’s prophetic words came true. In spite of having had an opportunity to go back, Robinson chose to remain at sea. Looking back on that decision, he regretted it, though he couldn’t describe well what obstinacy it was that drove him onward or, in his own words – “The instruments of our own destruction”.
Not long after, Robinson became a slave and spent two years as one, along with a Moor and a boy named Xury. Having stolen the ship from his master, he pushed the Moor overboard and went on with Xury. They reached Cape Verde where they came into contact with the locals, before being rescued by a Portuguese ship, where Robinson let the captain have Xury. And that brings me to another point that, in my opinion, needs to be analysed. Robinson was, quite understandably, perturbed at becoming a slave, yet showed no empathy for other slaves and went on to buy them and sell them. Xury was a boy he’d spent over two years with; they shared the same burdens and the same sorrow over having their freedoms taken away. Yet, once he regained his own freedom, Robinson had no qualms about controlling Xury’s life in whichever way he saw fit.
There’s a reason a novel such as this one would never be even remotely as popular today as it was back when it was first written. This was a time of great colonial powers. You had your English, your Dutch, your Portuguese and others sailing across oceans, discovering new continents and territories and enslaving local people who weren’t as technologically advanced . Enslaving entire nations and imposing your native values on them was all the rage back then. Robinson never felt the need to change his own ways or adapt to the rules and customs of another. Even later on, with Friday, after he had spent decades of harrowing loneliness and had had enough time to reflect on past mistakes, Robinson continued to impose himself. Not once did he, as far as I can remember, try to understand Friday’s way of life or try to learn a single word of the local language. Instead, he taught Friday English and dressed him up. In short, he anglicanised him.
Later on, however, after having suffered many close calls and ominous experiences which would’ve had me running back home, Robinson finally underwent his final and longest challenge, which would have him stuck on an uninhabited island for almost three decades. One really cannot help but admire the way Robinson had spent all those years and the gist of the novel, according to literary erudites at least, actually lies in his everyday chores. Robinson’s building of a home, scavenging what could be preserved from the shipwreck, sowing fields and raising livestock can all be looked at as, what someone had summed up as, the true spirit of the English people. Robinson seldom complained about his situation, he quickly adapted to the laws of Nature and found distraction in work and creation, all whilst actively seeking new ways of freeing himself of his dire circumstances.
After many failed attempts to leave the island which had become his home, the island of which he was both the master and the prisoner of, Robinson resigned himself to spending the rest of his days on it. Relief came one day in the form of a cannibalistic young man, whom he had named Friday. Friday offered him comfort, companionship, an escape from loneliness and unwavering loyalty. There’s a bit of a tendency to simplify certain tough aspects of life in this novel, a tendency I simply couldn’t ignore, much as I tried. Robinson’s way of handling his situation was commendable and admirable, yet much too simplified. Defoe had obviously never spent twenty-eight years on a deserted island which would’ve made him privy to one’s nature and behaviour in such a situation.
Yet, even after all that, I still believe there is much to be appreciated about Robinson Crusoe. Defoe’s descriptions, for instance, are excellent, especially those of nature and his protagonist’s daily chores. And, lest we should forget, this is widely considered to be the first English novel. Ever been in a situation where you’re the one who has to speak first and break the ice? Well, this is something like that. So, if nothing else, Robinson Crusoe at the very least paved the way for a new form of storytelling and for all those wonderful works of fiction that ensued. And that, in and of itself, is worthy of respect.
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Hello, my dear strangers!
I wish I had never watched the show. I wish I didn’t know what was going to happen, at least partly, in the later books. While reading the first one, I kept trying to act surprised and to receive all of the information with a fresh set of eyes. I guess I did kind of jump on the bandwagon with this one. I just wish I had read the books first and then got on with the show. In any case, I’ll try to review the book with as much distance and objectivity as I can muster.
A Game of Thrones is set in a mythical, medievalish land and the action takes place mostly on the continent of Westeros, though there is some action happening on the continent of Essos as well. The narrative is told largely through the perspectives of eight main characters, with one standing out as the protagonist – Ned Stark. He is a stout man, virtuous, righteous and bold, living his life by an honour code and a set of strict rules. He rules as Lord of Winterfell and warden of the North, the North being one of the seven kingdoms in Westeros ruled from the capital of Kingslanding, where Ned’s close friend Robert Baratheon sits on the Iron Throne. The action starts when Robert’s Hand of the King, Jon Arryn, a man who virtually raised both Robert and Ned, suddenly dies, prompting the king to travel up north and bestow the honour on his old friend. Travelling with him are his Queen, Cersei of the house Lannister, her brothers – the brave Jaime known as the Kingslayer for killing the former tyrannical king and the studious and intelligent Tyrion, a dwarf hated by his family, as well as the royal children, including Joffrey, the odious heir with few, if any, redeemable qualities.
Old feuds, bad reputations and the clashing of moralities make this an uneasy gathering, with the strict, somewhat grim Northerners wary of strangers taking an immediate dislike of the sly Lannisters and with Ned struggling to accept his new responsibilities as the Hand of the King, which would mean he would have to leave his family and move to Kingslanding. The real turning point happens when Bran, Ned’s young son and one of the viewpoint characters, falls of off the ramparts and loses his ability to walk. Bran is uncertain how the fall happened and can’t remember much, but the readers know that he was pushed to his death by Jaime Lannister, having caught him and the Queen, his sister, making love. A cutthroat is soon sent after Bran, further muddying the waters and deepening the bad blood and the mistrust between the two great families.
Other viewpoint characters include Catelyn, Ned’s wife, a strong woman who dotes on her children and bravely fights off the cutthroat, all whilst taking it upon herself to investigate her son’s mysterious fall; Sansa, her eldest daughter, a typically naive girl who believes real life resembles the songs of romance with brave and handsome knights wooing beautiful maidens and who quickly develops an interest in Joffrey; Arya, Catelyn and Ned’s youngest daughter, a tomboy at odds with the conventional gender roles who prefers spending her time practising archery than sitting bowed before her needlework, who always speaks her mind and frequently clashes with her sister; Jon, Ned’s bastard son who doesn’t carry the name of Stark due to his illegitimacy and feels the full weight of his father’s sins on his young shoulders, including Catelyn’s cruel treatment, prompting him to seek a place in the Night’s Watch, an ancient order situated at the gigantic wall built thousands of years prior to protect the realm from the dangers lurking in the northernmost corners of the continent, such as the indigenous peoples known as Wildlings and the Others, a magical race long thought to be extinct.
Most of what we know about the Queen’s family, the Lannisters, comes greatly from the viewpoint of the Starks, whose sense of honour and righteousness makes them paint a less than flattering image of the Southerners. They take Cersei as a cold woman, Jaime as an Oathbreaker who murdered his own king and their father – Tywin, the richest man in Westeros, as a sly manipulator. However, readers are allowed a more detailed image of the great family through the eyes of one of their own. Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf shunned by his family, is an intelligent man who constantly has to prove his own worth. After the business in Winterfell is concluded, he travels north to see the Wall along with Jon who “takes the black”, a popular phrase for those joining the Night’s Watch. On his journey south, however, Tyrion is captured by Catelyn and learns that he is being held accountable for the attempt on Bran’s life. After being taken to Lysa, Jon Arryn’s widow and Catelyn’s deranged sister, he manages to escape with his life only because of his superior wits and cunning. The bad blood between the Lannisters and the Starks was already there to begin with, but the resentment keeps growing on either side and escalates into war following one cataclysmic event.
Spoiler alert (Is this really a spoiler twenty-one years after the release of the book and six years after the premiere of the show?) Jon Arryn’s puzzling death keeps bothering Ned who, after arriving to Kingslanding with Sansa and Arya, witnesses just how much turmoil the country is in and realises that his friend isn’t the same man he used to be and that, while Robert may be a good man, he’s a far cry from a good king. After copious research, Catelyn’s allegations against Tyrion, some help from Varys and Littlefinger, two members of the King’s Council and master schemers and some blunt words spoken by his daughters, Ned finally realises the truth Jon Arryn died for – Robert’s three children are not really his. They are Cersei and Jaime’s illegitimate children, the incestuous relationship serving as more than enough to explain Joffrey’s sadistic nature and utter lack of conscience. In a series of misfortunate events, Ned confronts the Queen, then goes on to accuse her in front of the entire court, leading to his imprisonment. King Robert dies in a hunt, left without knowing the truth and with his death, Ned remains without the only friend in the strange southern capital. His imprisonment leads his eldest son, Robb, a boy of fourteen, to take up arms against the Lannisters, engulfing the country in civil war.
But the real clincher happens when Ned decides to confess to his alleged treason in order to save his daughters who have been left at the mercy of Lannisters. Arya manages to escape their clutches and spends some time surviving in the tough streets of Kingslanding, while Sansa finally realises what a true monster Joffrey is when he refuses his mother’s advice to strip Ned of his titles, lands and claims and send him to the Night’s Watch and instead beheads him, an event both Sansa and Arya get to witness. The readers of the book are left speechless, the watchers of the show are left speechless, the entire realm of fantasy lovers is left speechless, for how could this happen and who could behead a man such as Ned Stark? It almost seems as though George R. R. Martin was trying to mock the ingrained ideals and notions that have so far defined the fantasy genre. The righteous guy with a strict code of honour always wins and the good always prevail over the evil ones. Not the case here. Even though Ned wasn’t the only viewpoint character, his righteousness, noble nature, honesty and selflessness have made many readers picture him as the novel’s main protagonist, the one who would live and the one whose strength and bravery would prevail over the enemy’s cunning, less honourable ways and ultimately lead his family into victory. The author purposely let us fall in love with him and we singled him out as the Hero, only to have him taken away, killed off in gruesome fashion, his task unfinished. It wasn’t supposed to happen and it is one of the many elements that make George Martin a revolutionary of the fantasy genre. His characters are morally grey, his heroes die and his villains get to dance of their graves. It is what some have referred to as “low fantasy”, as opposed to, say – The Lord of the Rings, which would be “high fantasy”. It is a world in which magic exists and plays an important role, but in which the emphasis is largely on the characters themselves, the characters who never embody pure good or pure evil, but whose grey moral natures and questionable choices drive the story onwards.
Another character worth examining more is Jon Snow. After joining the Night’s Watch, an order with a strict set of rules in which desertion is punishable by death, Jon finds himself torn. His father has been imprisoned, wrongfully accused of treason and decapitated. Jon struggles to accept his fate. Should he ride off to aid Robb in the war against the Lannisters, risking rejection and death, or stay with his new brethren? The answer comes one night when a corpse of a deceased brother of the Night’s Watch becomes reanimated and attacks the Lord Commander. Jon and his brothers realise that there may be a bigger threat lurking beyond the Wall, the so-called Others, an ancient race of icy, zombie-like creatures with the ability to reanimate the dead. The Night’s Watch isn’t sure what to make of this, but the readers learn in the prologue that the threat is very much real. However, Jon’s own uncle Benjen and his party have disappeared beyond the Wall and the Lord Commander isn’t content with just sitting around, with no information whatsoever. He organises an expedition party and asks Jon to join him beyond the Wall.
If Westeros resembles medieval Europe, or even more precisely – medieval England, then Essos, a larger continent which lies on the east across the Narrow Sea, represents a more exotic location, with a sundry of different nations, customs and ways of life. The morals are looser over there, the people even grittier and tougher and the life-spans even shorter. Whereas Westeros is a more unified continent with a structured system, a seat of power and well-established rules one might associate with medieval England, then Essos represents a lawless continent where tribes pillage, slavery exists in abundance and justice is an abstract notion. Its weather, various peoples, fashion and geography make one associate it with Africa or Asia, so – a completely different world to Westeros in values and way of life.
A small portion of the action takes place in Essos, through the viewpoint of Daenerys, a young girl from the fallen house of Targaryen. Remember Jaime Lannister, the Oathbreaker, the Kingslayer? Well, the tyrannical king he murdered was Aerys Targaryen, commonly known as the Mad King. With his death came the fall of his entire house, with the exception of his youngest children – Daenerys and her vicious older brother Viserys. Viserys longs to take back the throne from Robert, whom he calls the Usurper, but has nothing to take it back with – no army, no ships to cross the Narrow Sea, no support and no financial means. He has nothing, except the gift of a great name and a beautiful sister he plans to trade for an army. He marries Daenerys off to a powerful Khal, a title given to the chief or a king, if you will, of the notoriously savage Dothraki people. The Dothraki have many tribes and many Khals. They live outdoors, spend most of their lives on horseback, follow a strange religion and are utterly barbaric, raiding entire villages, looting, raping, taking slaves and burning cities as they go. Naturally, Daenerys, who was brought up in a Westerosi way, feels apprehensive about marrying the warlord at the forefront of such people, a man twice her age who doesn’t speak the Common Tongue and shares none of her values. She marries him anyway, because Khal Drogo’s khalasar is huge and would provide her brother with enough resources to take back the Seven Kingdoms.
Over the time however, Daenerys learns to adjust to her new husband and her new way of life. Unlike Viserys, she learns the language and embraces the customs of her new people. Her brother’s defiance and haughtiness prevent him from making himself meaningful in the eyes of Khal Drogo and his plan backfires. Daenerys comes to break free of his control and cruelty and starts carving out her own personality, determined to become more than just a trophy wife. Her ancestors had at one point conquered the Seven Kingdoms with dragons, but the creatures have since become extinct. However, one of her many wedding gifts include three fossilised dragon eggs which… Well, honestly, why would there be dragon eggs in the story if they’re not supposed to hatch? Not much of a spoiler, really.
There is something primitively beautiful about Martin’s descriptions of the Dothraki and their way of life, something that I couldn’t help but admire. Yes, it is a tough culture where people show no shame and where no societal norms exist to curtail their wild nature. They are utterly unapologetic about their actions, pillaging and raping and burning as they go, walking around naked, eating tough food, living astride a horse and making love under the stars. I’m not saying I could survive in that environment or that I’d even like to try, but there is something liberating and beautiful about them, a sense of pride and freedom and a notion that people need not complicate things with rules and restraints, something old-school that takes things back to their natural, primitive, yet effective manner.
Martin’s style is simply breathtaking. The way he describes and seamlessly drives the narrative on while keeping track of numerous characters and their perspectives is… Well, frankly, it’s the kind of thing that makes aspiring writers like myself despair, the kind of thing that makes us almost embarrassed to get back to our own work, the kind of thing that makes us doubt our ability and talent and makes us want to scrap our projects and resign from writing until we’ve found an idea as original and innovative as A Game of Thrones. In a nutshell, he is an amazing writer.
So, where does this leave us? Ned and Robert are dead, Joffrey has taken the throne, Robb and Catelyn are waging war against the Lannisters, Tyrion is sent to the frontlines by his odious father, Jaime is captured as a prisoner of war, Sansa is in Kingslanding enduring daily torture by Joffrey, Arya escapes the capital with the new recruits for the Night’s Watch, Bran is paralysed and starts having strange dreams which may carry a deeper meaning, Jon is going beyond the Wall and Daenerys loses a family, but gains three baby dragons. What does this all mean? It means I can’t wait to get my hands on A Clash of Kings.
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Hello, my dear strangers!
My Tolkien Odyssey began last year with Roverandom and is now finally finished with The Return of the King. I’ve been completely enchanted by Tolkien’s style, themes and his unique approach to writing and that enchantment will never wear off. There is so much to learn from his pages, so many lessons to walk away with, an abundance of messages on not only how to be a better writer, but how to be a better person. Sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Tolkien’s presence will never diminish and this work – The Lord of the Rings, will continue to stand as the pillar, the crown, his greatest literary achievement for many centuries to come, I hope.
I hate repeating myself, but I believe that honestly no words of praise will ever be excessive when it comes to Tolkien’s masterful use of language, his poetic style, the sheer tenderness of his pen. This was a man who was born to write. And am I glad that he did. He enriched the world of literature beyond words, altering it and steering in the best direction possible.
The Return of the King offers us the very end of the Quest the Fellowship set out to accomplish in the first book (the first of six, not the first of three). There’s no more warming up, no more preparation, the end is nigh. We’re thrown into the chaotic climax along with our protagonists and fully exposed to all of their suffering, pain, despair and sorrow. The pages are drenched in hopelessness.
One can easily envision the man Tolkien was through his words. He was definitely ahead of his time in many aspects and the aspect I liked the best was that of gender roles. His description of Éowyn gives us a clear indication that Middle-Earth can just be just as unfeeling towards women as our world is. Éowyn challenges traditional gender roles. She is bitter about her duties and longs to go to war and fight for what she believes in. A shieldmaiden of Rohan, she angrily states that she is neither a nurse nor a hostess. Her heart is that of a warrior. Going against her king’s wishes, Éowyn rides to war in a disguise and manages to overthrow one of the greatest villains of the novel almost singlehandedly. I’ve already raved about Faramir in my previous review and think that the two of them make a perfect match.
And while I’m on the subject of Faramir, it seems a good time to explore the relationship between him and his father. We were given glimpses of the underlying frustration and their opposing views in The Two Towers, but this tome really covers the gap that exists between father and son. Denethor goes so far as to flat-out tell Faramir that he valued Boromir’s life more his brother’s. He is unsupportive and dismissive of Faramir’s bond with Gandalf, perhaps even jealous. It isn’t until Faramir is brought to his feet virtually dead that Denethor finally comes to realise how much he loves his son, though by that point it doesn’t even matter anymore so much, since Denethor is steeped deep in madness and only wants to burn out of this world. Thankfully, his burning of Faramir is stopped by Pippin’s intervention and although the heroes succeed in rescuing Faramir, Denethor proceeds to burn.
Even though he was given the benefit of the doubt by many characters (and readers), Gollum proves to be beyond any salvation. The ring has its claws in him so deep, that Gollum can no longer exist without it. He is aware of his own powerlessness and the addiction the ring provides, yet cannot let go of it. Literally. Having embraced the only thing he cared for in centuries, Gollum falls to his death, irrevocably pulled over to the other side of his psyche.
Gandalf remains Gandalf, one of my favourite characters. Wise, determined, passionate and careful about trusting either hope or despair too much. He also knows when to step down. After the demise of Sauron, Gandalf goes on to calmly accept that his time in Middle-Earth is at an end and that he must obediently pass over to another place – a beautiful metaphor for aging and the struggles of accepting death gracefully. His time and involvement in the war haven’t made him more severe and cruel, but rather softened him. He offers Saruman help, though he refuses it in his pride. He also offers us one of his best lines in the form of a simple, sane piece of advice. “So, leave him!”, he tells Wormtongue after Grima expresses his desire to be rid of Saruman’s domineering ways. Simple and sane. It isn’t going well with another person and you feel dominated and unappreciated? Leave them. The nature of your relationship doesn’t matter, only the fact that you’ll help yourself immensely by getting out of such toxic, dysfunctional and sometimes downright abusive relationships.
Another great theme Tolkien introduces us to is the differing ways in which we view others in comparison to their true strengths. Pippin thinks that Denethor looks wiser, more learned and calmer than Gandalf. His appearance may suggest that, though Pippin recognises that he knows Gandalf well enough to know that few mortal men could ever match Gandalf’s wisdom, no matter how ragged and dishevelled he may appear.
While Denethor’s fathers come from a great line of sires, he himself is not regarded as king, only a steward. On the other hand, Théoden comes from a line of lesser sires, “lesser children of lesser men”, yet in his own land, he rules as king.
Despite his small stature and no apparent strengths, Pippin is an instant hit in Gondor. He gets a prestigious local title in the local tongue and is revered as a stranger of great worth, due to his connections with Boromir, Denethor and Mithrandir. While he may confess to Bergil that he is a person of no great power, Pippin’s reputation has already grown out of proportions.
In all three cases, we see a deep wedge between how people perceive themselves and each another and their true strengths, qualities, values and faults.
And at last we come to Sam, beautiful, patient, immensely optimistic Sam, probably one of my favourite characters. Frodo has a heavy burden to carry and it takes a great toll on him, which may serve as his excuse, but even before the Ring of Power ever walked into his life, Frodo was less-than-hero material. He has initiative and inner strength and resilience, yet I just cannot see him as a hero or a protagonist. The reason is probably because all of his deeds pale in comparison with Sam’s. It isn’t even about the deeds, but about one’s mindset and outlook. What Sam has in abundance, Frodo lacks.
For a brief period of time, Sam experiences what it’s like to be the Ring-bearer. He even experiences reluctance when the time comes to give it back to Frodo. And even though his time spent as the Ring-bearer can in no way be compared to Frodo’s, we still get an insight into Sam’s thoughts and realise the kind of person he is, even under enormous pressure and in the presence of great temptations. We all know those people who are so plain, simple and uncomplicated (though certainly complex characters), that even the greatest of evils cannot taunt them. They remain as good and as pure as they ever were. Sam experiences situations few characters find themselves in, yet retains optimism, strength and righteousness. He daydreams about the plainest of pleasures during the darkest of times.
Upon the hobbits’ return to the Shire, Sam manages to pick up and glue the pieces back together, throwing himself into gardening, governing and life. Frodo never manages to achieve the same peace, which is understandable. Some wounds can never be healed. To return from such a great Middle-Earth-shattering adventure replete with perils into one’s sleepy hometown where the people remain largely unaware of the outside world and are too preoccupied with their own frivolous concerns can only be described as disheartening. It comes as no surprise then that Frodo decides to leave such a world behind. In his own words: “The Shire has been saved, but not for me.” It is sad to think about all that Frodo has had to sacrifice in order to make a better world and have it turn out a world he can no longer enjoy in.
When the hobbits say their farewells to the rest of their travel companions and head home, the reader expects them to find peace and the idyllic picture of the Shire they carried with them all the way. However, the last two chapters largely constitute their final struggle against the enemy’s servants. However, this time there is no Aragorn to defend them, no Gimli to bravely charge into battle before them, no Gandalf to offer them sound advice. They must defend their home all on their own. It isn’t until then I think that the reader truly gets to appreciate everything they’ve been through and, maybe even more importantly, everything they’ve learned. They organise the defence of their home and drive out their enemies and we realise that the hobbits have been observing and soaking in everything from the day they left. It is there, on their doorstep, that they make their final stand against the forces of evil, all on their own, albeit on a much smaller scale. And then they get on with their lives, each in his own way.
There are times when I wish a chunk of an asteroid would smack me in the head and leave me with amnesia. Those times largely occur after I’ve read a great book. It’s no wonder then that I find myself wishing for that asteroid now. I wish I could completely lose any knowledge of this novel and its accompanying movies and get to relive it again, fresh and untainted by previous information. I have no doubt that I’ll reread this masterpiece many, many times in the years to come, but the experience will never be as fresh and as new and as rewarding as it is now. Sadly, that asteroid will probably never come for me, which is probably for the best. So, with that, I’ll close the book and return it to the shelf and proceed to make enough popcorn to last me the entire run of The Lord of the Rings marathon I’m about to treat myself to. Just to round-up the experience. And to watch Faramir be cute and awesome.
Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.
Keep reading 🙂
Hello, my dear strangers! 🙂
When I first began reading The Help, I couldn’t help but be drawn in the story immediately. Having already seen the movie, I just knew I had to get my hands on it and quench my thirst for further details. As the plot progressed, I became more and more mesmerised by it and its wonderful characters.
The first thing I’d like to talk about is the writing style. It bothered me a bit at first, mainly because a) it felt too simplified and b) I felt it broke the sacred show-don’t-tell rule way too often. However, as the novel progressed, I found that it somehow worked. Whether because of its themes or the inexperience and naivety of its characters, anyway – somehow it just worked.
The amount of humiliation these characters went through is enough to make even the calmest person out there foam at the mouth. So much ignorance, so many limitations, so many rules. It’s downright unbearable. It’s interesting to draw parallels between the white and the black women portrayed in the novel and realise that both groups, albeit with drastic differences, suffered similar limitations. None of these characters started out free. They were all bound somehow, by societal norms, by the notions of appropriateness, by the time period, by the backwardness of their small worlds. The author has managed to seamlessly blend in her simple writing style with these, at times horrifying scenes, and give each character a unique voice of their own. Even without the title cards announcing which character’s point of view we’d be following in the next few chapters, you’d be able to guess whose story was about to be pushed to the forefront.
The three main characters – Aibileen, Skeeter and Minny – are all immensely interesting and perfectly planned out. I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking about character development, looking at my friends, family members, people I know, but mostly myself, trying to identify all those quirky, contrasting traits that make us who we are. We are such spectacular, jumbled up, complex people in reality, but it’s hard to put all that on paper faithfully. For all my effort, my own characters sometimes come across as one-dimensional and devoid of any real personalities. I suppose that’s something most fledgling writers struggle with. Not Kathryn Stockett, though. She managed to flesh out complex, rounded characters that feel so real, you can almost feel the pages breathing under your fingertips. Even minor characters considered too airheaded to hold a thought or think on their own, such as Elizabeth, have dimension to them, little details planted throughout the book that tell us more about those characters and teach us that minor characters need not be underdeveloped or neglected.
Aibileen is a stoic woman who not only lives under the same restrictions all black women lived under at the time, but experiences another, even more unbearable burden on her soul. The callous death of her only child leaves her cold and emotionally distant to almost everyone. From her perspective, the events of the novel may be interpreted not only as her own, personal liberation and unburdening, but also as a means of healing and coming to terms with her son’s death. Even though that’s the kind of sorrow one never gets over, Aibileen still manages to survive her plight and resurface as a liberated woman.
Minny is interesting in her own right. On the one hand, she is a sassy woman few dare to cross. On the other, she continues to walk on eggshells and put up with her brutish husband, despite a previous sour experience with drinkers. When we first meet her, we get an impression that this is a woman who’d never accept to live a certain way, at least until we’re given a peek into her inner insecurity and the quiet paranoia which makes her cling to her abusive partner. It’s not just his unpredictable nature that Minny has to deal with. After getting on Hilly’s bad side, Minny is forced to accept a job with an odd woman whose quietly strange ways make her want to pull her hair out. In the end however, after six children, an alcoholic husband, dozens of families she’s had to work for and an opportunity to express herself and tell the world everything she feels, Minny gets her freedom. Abandoning a husband and taking your kids away from him was, I presume, difficult in those times even for white women, let alone black ones. However, Minny manages to do it and gains her independence and liberation.
Skeeter is a child of privilege. That may not mean much in the 60s, not for a woman, not even for a wealthy, white woman, but Skeeter’s nature allows her to dream for more and fight for more. A twentieth-century equivalent of Jo March, Skeeter is a little girl with big dreams, high morals, a gift for writing and a courage that stretches far beyond the small world she was raised in. She is most probably the one I relate to the most. Even with all the privileges she enjoys, Skeeter still encounters various obstacles on her road to prove her worth, the first and most shackling ones being the societal norms she’s expected to live within. Her mother and her friends have taken it upon themselves to correct Skeeter’s appearance, interests and manners, all for the noble quest of finding her a husband. Skeeter knows that there is a much bigger world out there, a world beyond the cocooned bubble of her surroundings. Out there somewhere is a world where women can work fulltime without being scorned and looked down on, a world where a husband and kids aren’t a priority in one’s early 20s, a world where education and free thinking are encouraged. Skeeter longs to join that world and longs to integrate it into her own town, a place with little resemblance to it. She starts by telling the truth, by acknowledging all the faults that exist in her own backyard and then by working to correct them or, at least, raise people’s awareness about them. By the end of the novel, she’s gone through experiencing a different world so far removed from her own, through first love and heartbreak, through learning more about her mother and is on her way to bring changes. She too has found liberation.
There are many other characters that go through liberation in this novel, such as Celia and Skeeter’s mother and then there are those who remain the same people they’ve been on page one. Her fleeting moments of lucidity aside, Elizabeth proves to be a weak person, one unable to cross over into a better existence. She’s likely to stay Hilly’s lapdog for the remainder of her life, a person dominated by rules and regulations, her mother and her bleak friendships. All her life, Elizabeth’s allowed to be pushed around by others, unable to carve her own path and yet, unable to say ‘no’ to the things she wasn’t ready for. She is too immature to handle a family, yet finds herself with a husband and two kids because that was the kind of thing she was expected to do.
Hilly, with all her domineering ways, is herself trapped. Trapped by her fear of change, trapped by society’s expectations, trapped by the very burden of being Hilly Holbrook. The very persona she had created for herself is slowly becoming her prison cell. The reputation she had fought to establish is beginning to drown her. By the end of the novel, she is still crude and hard on the surface, yet desperate and more frightened than ever on the inside. The world is changing before her very eyes, yet she isn’t capable of embracing this change and keeps running into dead ends. The reader is left to wonder what will happen to the youngest characters in the book, the ones whose opinions are still not set in stone. Little Mae Mobley (what a stupid name) has plenty of time to grow and mature and we can only hope Aibileen’s teachings will prevail over her mother’s influence.
It is difficult to look at people we love and realise just how flawed they are. Skeeter’s perspective of the two maternal figures in her life changes drastically over the course of the novel. Her love for Constantine and Charlotte is still there, perhaps stronger than before, but her perspective has definitely shifted. Skeeter comes to learn more about them, about their decisions and their regrets. At times, these revelations make her think less of them, perhaps even question her own feelings for them, though all of this gets pretty much smoothed out before the end. However, Skeeter adopts a new, more mature way of thinking and realises that both immense love and immense cruelty may exist within a same person.
Skeeter’s reaction to what her mother’s done to Constantine is particularly captivating, as it captures perfectly that fine balance we all experience, that moment when you finally see the person you love for who they really are. No more walls, no more pretences, only truth. Skeeter can’t help loving Charlotte, especially with her being so sick and frail, yet cannot reconcile herself to accepting her own mother was capable of such deplorable actions. Those are the hard truths we must live with for the sake of people we love. Loving them, sometimes even against our better judgement, means living with the awful things they’ve done, loving them despite those actions.
The most sobering fact about this novel is that, while it may be a work of fiction, inspiration for it was drawn from reality. Women faced practically insurmountable odds in their quest to find themselves and many succumbed to the life that had been planned out for them. It’s interesting that the plot of the novel is set in a time which represents the first rebellion, somewhere between the deeply ingrained family values of the 50s and the rebellion and breaking out of the 60s. The golden age of Hollywood-like dresses and hairdos is slowly being left behind, with people aching to usher in a new era in which anything is possible. It’s certainly an exciting time, but I glad I’m not there. I’d be too exhausted to wage wars every single day, trying to make my surroundings liveable for the kind of woman I want to be, having to wait for decades before any real, tangible change comes. Circumstances are still not perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to be a woman today than it was fifty years ago.
The Help is a wonderfully written novel teeming with serious themes and downright heart wrenching scenes. Norms are challenged, characters pushed to the brink of sanity. The novel offers many difficult questions, some of which are still under debate, even today. One thing is certain, though. There are no easy answers in it, only a mature portrait of a world in which there are two sides to every story, a world in which we are faced with perplexing events every day, a world in which nothing is ever black and white.
Keep reading 🙂
Hello, my dear strangers!
I may have mentioned this before, but there was a short story contest at my Uni a few weeks back. I submitted my story, though I had no high expectations. There were probably about eighty other students entering the contest as well and all I really hoped for was some positive feedback or perhaps a chance to enter the final round. Enter the final round I did and, though I didn’t take home the winning prize, I have nonetheless won second place.
The announcement came during the first exam period of the summer, a very stressful time filled with textbooks and studying and despairing. It gave me a boost of confidence I sorely needed and reassured me that my work was up to scratch. The 1000-word-limit represented a bit of an obstacle, as I’m not very good with “showing and not telling” and require lots of detailed descriptions. I like to dissect emotions and then write down as much as I can about them, once I’ve broken them down into microscopic pieces. So, I decided to experiment a bit and tried my hand at writing in a minimalist style, which is something I’d never done before. And – it paid off!
Seldom do I show my work to other people, as I can’t stand the thought of having my baby criticised and butchered by others. However, I’m showing it to you, with the deepest hope that you’ll be kind with your constructive criticism. This story is something of a love letter to my parents, a way to say “Hey, congratulations, you raised a crazy kid and an autistic kid and you’ve still got all your marbles. You made it through to the other side and we couldn’t be more grateful for everything you’ve done for us.” Enjoy.
A day in the life of a woman, a man and a boy
“So, what happened today?”, the woman asked.
All of a sudden, his look turned distant. His smile receded. His hand clutched hers that much tighter. The woman sighed and looked away.
She knew she wouldn’t be getting an answer. She remembered reading once that children process grief and trauma much differently than adults do. There might be shudders within, but no more than a ripple on the surface. Besides, she had already grown used to the boy’s silence.
The principal had already told her about what had happened at school that morning. The story never deviated much. The boy’s strange ways and his innate desire to fit in often clashed with the norms, prompting his peers to distance themselves from him even more, labelling him as the other, the one whose behaviour could never be accepted. His inarticulate screams and puzzling hand gestures never were interpreted for what they really were – earnest attempts at reaching out.
“Sticks and stones”, the woman repeated her trite mantra.
“Zzzzz”, the boy hissed through his teeth. Besides an occasional ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, that was the only sound he had ever uttered.
The woman had noticed an almost imperceptible change in the boy’s demeanour. While he was usually ready to accept such statements with an unwavering faith of a child, he now seemed more sullen and dubious. The doctor had told her that was a good sign. It meant the boy was growing up and accepting injustice that came with being.
They slowly made their way home. The boy didn’t like public transportation. The woman dreaded it as well. There were too many disapproving stares, usually directed at her. She could read the tacit rebuke in the eyes of the elderly ladies.
“Eat your veggies”, the woman said once they had reached their small apartment, placing a colourful plate in front of the boy.
A quiet ‘zzzzz’ was his only comment of objection. He slowly raised the fork and tried to aim at the mouth. As usual, peas scattered everywhere.
The woman quickly gave him a spoon, then collected the peas and tossed them in the cat’s bowl. It suddenly occurred to her that she wouldn’t be able to make it to her high school reunion. The boy had a check-up the following morning, an event that required lots of preparation and soothing words. She wondered sometimes just how much of it he understood.
The doctor had told her it would get better. The priest had advised her not to lose hope. She smiled bitterly at the memory. There was nothing in the holy book of lies to alleviate her pain, nothing that would vouch for advancement. She used to be an aimless child of privilege, the entire world beneath her feet, ready for the taking. As the years went on, her options seemed fewer and fewer. Her idealism was caving under the pressures of responsibility, washed away by the waves of tomorrow.
She sometimes missed the boy. Even though they had lived under the same roof, she missed the illusion of what their relationship would’ve been like, had he been born a healthy baby.
Fear for the future crept back into her bones, yet she wouldn’t fight it. At times, it felt as though fear was the only thing she had. Without it, she failed all of life’s tests.
The door opened and the man walked inside. He smiled and set down a rectangular parcel on the counter. A beam of light coming from the narrow balcony shone over his face and, for a moment there, he looked like he was twenty again, his face wrinkle-free, his shoulders unburdened. The woman smiled. She knew it was a folly. The arrow of time points in one direction only.
“I bought the cake”, he said and gave her a routine peck on the cheek, before going to the bathroom.
“I’ll get the candles”, the woman said.
Another memory snuck back into her thoughts. Shortly after the boy had been born, the man had offered to quit his job and stay home to look after him. The woman loved him for being ready to do it. But she could see that he would never be able to live with such a sacrifice. So, she had quit her job and stayed home instead. She never thought she could do something like that, but one way or another, she kept allowing for more. Her tolerance and the very notion of what was acceptable and what wasn’t perpetually kept expanding. She couldn’t figure out whether that had meant she was losing her principles or her innocence. In any case, day after day, she kept allowing for a little more reality.
The sun was beginning to descend. The woman quickly changed into a pair of old, bleached jeans and her nicest cashmere sweater. Her best friend had given it to her seven months earlier, when they had arranged a meeting in a busy cafe. Her friend had squeezed her in between two power lunches, regaling her with anecdotes from her travels and the successful deals she had closed. The dreaded question hadn’t been far off.
“So, what about you?”, her friend had asked, sipping her pricey cocktail.
The conversation had died down soon afterwards. Her friend had offered her a few sympathetic words of comfort. At the time, they had sounded genuine.
After putting on some light make-up, the woman went to the kitchen and quickly lit the candles atop a simple chocolate cake. She set it down on the dining room table and then peeked in the boy’s room. The man was helping him dress.
They came out shortly afterwards and the man seated the boy in a chair before the cake. They sang for him. They blew out the candles for him. They clapped their hands for him. The woman quickly brought a knife from the kitchen and began cutting the cake. The man knelt down beside the chair the boy was sitting on, embraced him and said: “Happy fourteenth birthday, son.”