The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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Edith Wharton gives an accurate picture of the society and customs of New York. The dullness of the characters in their absolute captivity, the artificial and false standards, the drudgery of routine, the gradual rigidity of passion, the numbness of feeling, the loss of life — these are all perfectly relevant. She calls it a kind of symbolic universe, where real things are never said, never done, never even thought about, but simply represented by symbols that are always at will. Wharton’s contradiction of her upper-class society is fully explained in The Age of Innocence, which is both negative and positive. The themes of The Age of Innocence are intriguing. Wharton mercilessly mocks the high society and its conservative and ludicrous moralism with which she grew up, but she also affirms some of the values in such a society. These values include decency, honesty, responsibility, and so on.

Wharton’s affirmation of the real society is actually a kind of submission to the huge pressure of the society, a kind of helplessness, inability to solve, and nowhere to breakthrough. Thus, in such a contradictory society, the fate of the individual is doomed to tragedy. In a sense, Wharton extends from the helpless real world to the ideal spiritual world. The real world is full of limits and contradictions, but the spiritual world she created has infinite possibilities. But in her spiritual world, The Age of Innocence, everything returns to vanity. The fortunes of the Beauforts in the novel epitomize the alternation of old and new In New York. He had no noble blood, and at first, he rose to the upper classes by the strength of his fortune. But his position was untenable, and he was mercilessly exterminated when he violated the established business principles of New York society. The ebb and flow of Beaufort’s personal fortunes represented the constraint of social morality and family values on commerce. At the end of the novel, Beaufort’s daughter Fanny returns to the group and is welcomed and loved. The marriage between Dallas Archer and Fanny at the end of the novel represents the way of life of the new generation at the turn of the century, and also shows the inexorable advance of society, with the former firmly gaining the upper hand in the battle between business and family. The enormous influence of commerce permeates into every aspect of society, promotes and speeds up the development and fission of society, and also reformulates social ethics.

-Coreen C.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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The novel is divided into three volumes. The story is based on a real criminal case in New York, and the hero Clyde Griffiths is also based on a real person. Clyde grew up in a poor religious family and preached on the streets for a living. Young and frivolous Clyde worked as a waiter in a luxury hotel in Kansas City, because of bad friends, all day long indulges in alcohol. In order to avoid trouble, Clyde went to New York to seek refuge with his uncle and fell in love with Roberta Alden, a poor and virtuous workwoman. Later, Clyde met the beautiful daughter of Sandra Finchley, which was enough to lift him out of poverty and into the world of high society. Before long, Roberta became pregnant and even asked to marry Clyde in secret. Poor women workers or rich women? In desperation, Clyde conceived the idea of murdering Roberta. Unexpectedly the matter does not carry out according to his wish and Roberta dies accidentally.

Clyde was subsequently brought to justice. There was an election in the United States, and the attorney general put pressure on investigators to prove Clyde was the murderer. Clyde was still condemned to the electric chair after his assistant fabricated evidence and his lawyer made a lot of money. God could not save him, and his parents still decried worldly materialism and praised God’s mercy. Is it the American dream or the American tragedy? This novel will give you the answer. The novel deeply shows the live view of the American people in the early 20th century that money is the most important, desire is inflated and the general sense of disillusionment. The novel An American Tragedy not only reveals the serious consequences of the hyperinflation of egoism but also reveals the corrosive and toxic effect of the money-oriented American lifestyle on human crime.

-Coreen C.

Book Review: Ravelstein by Saul Bellow

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The first two parts of Ravelstein, a biographical novel, are mainly about the last and most important stage of Ravelstein’s life. He was terminally ill, but he fought against the disease until his death. The latter part is mainly about the narrator, Chick himself is on the verge of death due to food poisoning, but he has deep thoughts about life and death at this time. Ravelstein was born in a small city and had a very unhappy childhood. His father had been poor all his life and was a tyrant in the family. Ravelstein, who grew up in the shadow of his father, came into contact with society at an early age and went out on his own. After struggling hard for many years, he finally got rid of the poor people’s life being a famous university professor. He taught students from all walks of life, many of them in important positions, including students who played an important role in the Gulf War. He maintained close contact and frequent intercourse with them. Taking advice from his good friend Chick, he turned his teaching research into a best-selling book attacking the theory of relativity, the American education system, and its declining international status and influence, and became a guest of the president of the United States and the prime minister of Britain. From then on, he became a successful member of the upper class of the affluent society in the United States and lived a luxurious and decadent life. While he was enjoying a life of fame and fortune, he found himself terminally ill. Towards the end of his life, he asked Chick to write an autobiography for him.

Ravelstein is a charming and paradoxical Jewish intellectual. he embraced life with the indulgence and intoxication of Dionysus and the dream and aspiration of the god of the sun. He questioned the contemporary American social value and education system but highly praised the classical culture of ancient Greece and Rome and loved classical music. He fell in love with Armani suits, Cuban cigars, pure gold Montblanc gold pens, and so on. He was an advanced intellectual in American society, but his manner was vulgar. When attending various celebrity social occasions, he would often splash coffee or other drinks on expensive clothes and drink them directly from a coke bottle, which even made T.S. Eliot stunned. He is a conservative who does not worship the free market, but uses his talent to produce valuable goods and become rich overnight. He advocates aesthetic, free love, but has gay friends; he grew up trying to escape his Jewish father, the tyrannical king of his family, but in his life he played his father’s role to his students and friends. The unique historical background, social situation and ethnic characteristics of the Jewish people make Jewish writers in the American culture face embarrassment in their creation. Jews in America (especially the upper-class intelligentsia), reluctant to abandon their traditional religion and unable to resist the American way of life floundered in this confusion, searching for their identity with both desire and disappointment.

-Coreen C.

Book Review: Martin Eden by Jack London

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Martin Eden is a semi-autobiographical novel written by American writer Jack London. The story tells about young sailor Martin Eden to get acquainted with Miss Rose of high society by chance, be inspired by her, and began his hard creation career. Despite all the setbacks, he still refused to obey Rose’s arrangement to enter her father’s office and become a promising young man. Then his fortune suddenly changed, and manuscripts that had previously been rejected were published and he became a popular writer. Friends and relatives who despised him before fell over each other to invite him to dinner, and Miss Rose who had broken up with him also came to throw herself on him. This makes him see clearly this world as a cold society; the wonderful illusion that holds him to love also is also disillusioned thoroughly.

In the real American society where Jack London lives, the United States has entered the period of monopoly capitalism. The bourgeoisie not only monopolizes the material wealth of society but also monopolizes the spiritual wealth. The bourgeoisie believes that all good things in the society belong to them, no matter in material life or in spiritual life. In the face of the underclass they turned their noses up. Therefore, in Jack London’s novel Martin Eden, the criticism and accusation of the corruption of the capitalist system, the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, and the inequality of class hierarchy can be seen everywhere. Through the description of the text, the reader can see different faces of the characters in the novel and feel the resistance behind feelings of the hero and heroine, their irreconcilable differences in values, and the nature each class in the capitalist society.

-Coreen C.

Father Goriot by Honoré·de Balzac

Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

“Father Goriot” focuses on exposing and criticizing the naked money relationship between people in the capitalist world. The novel is set in Paris between the end of 1819 and the beginning of 1820. It mainly tells two parallel and overlapping stories. Retired flour-maker Goriot was neglected by his two daughters and died miserably in the attic of an apartment. The young Rastignac changed constantly under the corrosion of Paris society, but he still maintained justice and morality.

It’s also interspersed with stories about Madame de Beauséant and Madame Vauquer. Through the alternating main stages of shabby apartments and luxurious aristocratic salons, the writer paints a picture of the materialistic and extremely ugly society of Paris. It reveals the moral decay of the bourgeoisie under the control of the power of money and the ruthlessness between people, and reveals the inevitable destruction of the aristocracy under the attack of the bourgeoisie, which truly reflects the characteristics of the Bourbon Restoration period.

In “Father Goriot”, Balzac successfully depicts the complex relationship between class and class consciousness through the fate of Eugène de Rastignac and Goriot. This complex relationship has a historical basis. As two different classes, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie have different economic bases, lifestyles and values, and occupy a dominant position in different historical periods. In France, in this sense, both the rise of Eugène de Rastignac and the fall of Goriot are the inevitable products of certain historical situations. The context set in the novel is 1819.

Although it was the restoration period of Bourbon, the regression was only partial, and the overall trend of historical development could not be reversed. The capitalist mode of production became increasingly stable, and the bourgeois consciousness inevitably became increasingly dominant. The gradual dominance of bourgeois consciousness not only means that the aristocracy is defeated on the whole, but also means that some individual aristocrats are incorporated by the bourgeoisie, such as Eugène de Rastignac.

This shows that the rule of the aristocracy was not only defeated from the outside, but ultimately collapsed from the inside as well. At the same time, the process eliminated members of the bourgeoisie who were not pure, such as Goriot. The bourgeoisie was consolidated from within. This shows the complexity of the historical process in which the bourgeoisie replaced the aristocracy. The struggle between the two took place not only externally, but also internally, not only in the form of revolution, but also in the form of ideological struggle.

Madame de Beauséant and Vautrin are the smartest people in the world. They had insight into a society that was respectable on the outside but dirty underneath. They were Eugène de Rastignac’s worthy mentors, and without them the young peasant would not have awakened so quickly. However, in addition to the words of these two teachers, it was also due to the example of Goriot that finally enlightened Eugène de Rastignac. We do not say this to regard Goriot as a bad man, or to say that he had done something unseemly.

Goriot died alone after his two daughters had bled him clean of his poor savings, and Eugène de Rastignac was a witness to the whole course of this tragic event. It was from here that Eugène de Rastignac saw through the world’s sordid society and was no longer under any illusion about the so-called justice, affection, friendship and so on between people. Therefore, he was determined to enter the upper class arena as a challenger. Sure enough, after some struggles, when the reader sees the young man again in one of Balzac’s other works, he has already mixed up a personal image.

Howards End by E. M. Forster

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Howards End is a humanist work with female protagonists to explore the themes of connection and freedom. It explores the political, economic, class, gender and cultural issues of British society in the early 20th century. It has its specific character depiction, besides paying attention to the emotions of the Schlegel sisters, it pays more attention to the family and the view of money and interests, revealing the huge social inequality caused by the widening gap between the rich and the poor. This novel describes the relationships and entanglements between three families from different social levels, showing the status of class struggle in Britain at that time.

The Schlegel sisters, who represent the spirit and culture of the upper middle class in Britain, and the Wilcox family, who represent the same class in their practical, imaginative and arrogant ways, as well as the complex relationship between the upper middle class and the lower middle class in Britain. No matter the main characters’ detailed psychological narration or the few words of minor characters, Forster vividly depicts the mentality of all kinds of characters under the social conditions at that time. The Wilkes family from the upper classes was cold and hypocritical; the Bast family from the lower classes struggled to make ends meet and could not pursue their own ideals.

The middle class Schlegel sisters were privileged, but were deeply influenced by the democratic and liberal ideas of the time. Among them, the elder Margaret hoped that understanding and tolerance would bring people from all walks of life together. Her sister Helen, on the other hand, was full of sympathy for the lower classes and made no secret of her disdain for the upper classes. Howards End is the country home of Henry Wilcox, the hero of the novel. Henry’s ex-wife, Ruth, often talks about the home she loves to Margaret Schlegel, their accidental friend.

She even wrote a note to give it to Margaret before she died, and the Henry family, surprised and hurt by this, tore it up. Margaret then missed out on Howards End several times. Helen had an affair with Leonard Bast, and the children of a man and woman from different classes, equally despised by the upper classes, inherited Howards End and represented a new force in England. In Howards End, the protagonist Margaret reflects the social ideal of the author Forster. By means of symbolism, the author proposes that spiritual and material things should be connected.

Only by joining together, the symbol of The United Kingdom, “Howards End” can be saved. Howards End is a symbol of family, and Margaret’s visit to Howards end is also a cultural journey to find her roots. Howards End presents all kinds of social contradictions faced by the British society under the impact of industrialization and mechanical civilization in the early 20th century. The novel revolves around the complex relationship between the Howard manor and three characters of different classes, realizing the unity of material ecology and spiritual ecology.

In his novels, Forster praised nature, reflected on the relationship between man and nature, and expressed the survival thoughts of integrating into nature and returning to nature. This reflects the author’s creative and forward-looking green thinking, humanistic spirit and modernist spirit, and has some enlightening significance to the goal of building a harmonious society. The narrative modes and techniques used in the novel also influenced the modernist novels and inspired the writers of modernist novels to continue their pursuit and exploration of artistic truth. Through Howards End, Forster arouses the British people’s thinking about modern civilization and traditional culture, and urges them to re-examine the conflict and integration of different cultural identities and different classes.

Dangling Man by Saul Bellow

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This is the first novel of Saul Bellow and it talks about the declining lifestyle of Joseph, who believes that a spiritual satisfaction overweighs material perfection. For some reason, I think that this character has a great pride lurching in himself. He denies his slovenly condition of life by claiming that it’s austerity which is the factor that should be valued in our daily life.

What makes the entire situation worse is that Joseph’s brother, Amos is really rich. He always offers unlimited financial support for Joseph and his wife Iva, but Joseph never accepts it, again, due to his obstinate pride. Sometimes I think it won’t be a bad decision to just say “thank you” and accept the money for the simple reason that pride won’t feed you, clothe you, live with you forever. But money fulfills all three circumstances.

My favorite part of this book would actually have to be the fight scene between Joseph and his 15 year old overweening niece Etta. As a wealthy only child, she is undoubtedly spoiled by her parents. She gets whatever she wants. And as a small child, she is used to hearing how poverty has had her dad stricken, but now she is lucky because she doesn’t have to worry about it anymore. This naturally places her in a position to despise poor people, especially if they are her relative, meaning Joseph.

Etta’s disrespect for Joseph was magnified when she called him a “beggar” because Joseph was using her piano without her permission and refused to hand it over to her. In turn, Joseph was riled by this act and beat Etta up. Now, Joseph and Etta have a lot of similarities, not only do they look physically similar, but they both think that they are always right no matter what. One thinks that she is always right because of her rich parents who provide her with boundless support, one thinks that he is alright right because of his spiritual purification.

-Coreen C. 

Book vs. Movie: The Great Gatsby

The Great Gastby encompasses life in 1920’s America. Nick Carraway moves to New York to experience life in the stock market, whereupon he rents a house next door to Jay Gatsby. Throughout the summer, he becomes involved with Gatsby’s affairs, helping his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and Gatsby reunite after five years apart. On top of that, Daisy’s husband, Tom, has found his own contentment in Myrtle Wilson, one of many women he has seen since being married. As one might expect, these many secrets are not kept hidden for long, and of course, Nick gets involved.

As a novel, I understand why it may be chosen for required reading in English. There is a lot of material to work with. For me, reading it on my own, there were some parts that I felt were missing that could have been analyzed further in an English class. However, I did enjoy the book, as I felt it was an accurate portrayal of life in the 1920’s.

The movie, on the other hand, was not what I expected at all. The parties that Gatsby held at his mansion were more like parties of this century rather than anything from the 1920’s. On it’s own, the movie is extravagant and well executed. It’s present day twist is similar to Romeo+Juliet, the 1996 rendition of the romantic tragedy also starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Both films, directed by Baz Luhrmann, appeared to cater to present day audiences more than stay true to their respective literary works.

Despite the discontinuities between the novel and the movie, I enjoyed and recommend both. I just wish someone had given me a heads up about the movie.

– Leila S., 12th grade

The Great Gatsby, both the film and book versions, are available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.