Great Books: The Canterbury Tales, by Jen W.

 

 

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The Canterbury Tales are one of those required readings that most people suffer through in high school without really taking the time to understand, deeply appreciate Chaucer’s ability to cover numerous aspects of the human experience or even stop and think about whether or not they find it enjoyable reading. Are you the type of person who likes the type of chaste, romantic stories that you might find in Christian romance novels? Or are you more of the type who loves irreverent humor like the type found in modern farce? Either way, Chaucer has something for you.

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When my students read The Canterbury Tales, the first thing I have them do is read through The General Prologue. I have them make three columns: people that Chaucer likes or approves of, people that Chaucer does not like or disapproves of and people that Chaucer is ambivalent about. Students nearly always get this wrong the first time around. They skim, they don’t see Chaucer’s biting sarcasm, they don’t connect that the implications they would read into the words today are often the same implications that Chaucer intends. Two prime examples of this misunderstanding are with the Summoner and the Pardoner.

Read quickly, students assume the usual modern tropes as they skim the text. These are religious men, so the students assume goodness. The Summoner’s appearance is described in detail, but in seemingly opposing phrases. His face is described as red and “cherubic,” but because it is covered with sores, he has crazy eyebrows over his small eyes and he smells bad. Modern students are accustomed to this sort of rough exterior holding a heart of gold, but Chaucer tends to be more literal. The Summoner’s interior is no better than his outward appearance, he is usually drunk, he is lecherous and a liar. The Summoner was someone who was charged by the medieval church to charge people with spiritual crimes and bring them before the ecclesiastical court. The description of The Summoner’s many faults, his ignorance (he barely knows any Latin, despite hearing it all day when in church), the way in which he brushes off the teachings of the church (pointing out that you can pay a bribe to excuse yourself) both show that Chaucer thinks little good of him. Students recognize this when you have them go back and read the section aloud. One of the main things they catch onto is the quip about children being afraid of him. Are they merely afraid of him due to his outward appearance and gruff, drunken behavior or is there another reason? My students have mostly asked when they came to this line, “is he a pedophile?” I think, yes, that definitely one possible implication that must be entertained, even if it is not a certainty.

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The Pardoner’s description is not much better, but without careful reading it’s easy to miss. The Pardoner is in many physical ways the opposite of the Summoner. He is gentle. He is smooth and hairless. He has flaxen hair. He is carries religious articles. But, a closer look shows other aspects. He is like a gelding. His flaxen hair is greasy and lank. He carries jars of pig-bones. He carries a bag stuffed full of pardons that he is selling for a price, hopefully to a trusting country parson who will pay a dear price for a real religious relic. The implications of his description are a matter of intense controversy. Chaucer surely means the hairless, gelding description to be distinctly negative. Is he really a woman? A hermaphrodite? Is he part of a couple with the Summoner? I don’t think it’s possible to say for certain, it only matters here that sexual immorality of some sort is being implied. These are as much criticisms of the church as they are personal criticisms. The church was in the midst of the great schism. Many of Chaucer’s close friends were executed during the political turmoil of the time. Chaucer was forced to leave London for Kent. There was even a specific event involving pardoners who stole money they claimed to be collecting for a hospital. The Friar’s Tale deals with a summoner who is working for the devil. Clearly, Chaucer is making statements about the corrupt nature of the ecclesiastical structure and politics of the time.

These are the sort of descriptions that can give many students their first realization that the human condition is exactly that, the human condition. There truly is nothing new underneath the sun. Society is no more degenerate now than it was then. Chaucer certainly seems to disapprove of the degenerate nature of several of the pilgrims, but does Chaucer fully approve of the opposite?

The Knight could be seen as the opposite of the first two pilgrims we have looked at. He is first described as “worthy.” He values truth, chivalry, truth, honor and other high-minded qualities. He has ridden to war in defense of Christendom. He is at once wise and humble. But, he is also serious and unhappy. He is the first of the pilgrims to tell his story. His story is chaste, romantic, classical and boring. This is the drawback of clean living. It isn’t very exciting. The same can be said of many modern similar stories. Each of the pilgrims tells a story that reveals their nature and reveals more of what Chaucer thinks about them. Their stories reveal both their proclivities and their prejudices (such as The Prioress’s Tale which is a gruesome, anti-Semitic story).

If you thought that the pilgrims were going continue in order of medieval societal hierarchy, you are quickly disabused of that notion when The Miller jumps in with his own story. The fact that the pilgrims do not continue in some sort of order gives a democratic or egalitarian feel to the group. The Miller’s Tale is a rollicking one involving adultery and more than a healthy dose of scatalogical humor. The ribald nature of The Miller’s Tale rivals modern movies like The Hangover.

The depth and breadth of Chaucer’s tales, told by his pilgrims, is one of the major things that makes them worthy of reading today. Few modern authors could manage so many different genres and styles of writing. The collection shows that movies like The Hangover are not the result of our cultural downfall or erasing of Christian values in a secular society. Stories both chaste and…well…not so chaste have existed since people started writing down stories in the English language. They even existed at this time, when the church was at the height of its political and social power.

Taken as a whole, both the prologue and the stories are a tale of what it means to be virtuous. Because the truth is, we are all Chaucer. Humans admired many of the same things then as they do now. People might find the risque nature of The Miller’s Tale hilarious or offensive, but it is a tale of getting by on one’s wits, justice and the benefits of maturity. The Parson’s Tale offers advice of not believing everything you hear, not being overly trusting and cautions against greed. The Reeve’s Tale takes a “eat or be eaten” attitude toward human nature that suggests that every man is out for himself.

These tales illuminate the nature of the each pilgrim and often, the nature of humanity of a whole. “Holy” men of highly questionable character, cheating businessmen, people who take their civic duties seriously, women fighting to be recognized as equal to men; the pilgrims are a mix of people that can still be found in modern society. This allows students to appreciate the fact that human nature has remained largely unchanged, that the struggles faced today are not new.

It smacks of Kurt Vonnegut’s quote, “But I have to say this in defense of humankind: In no matter what era in history, including the Garden of Eden, everybody just got here. And, except for the Garden of Eden, there were already all these crazy games going on that could make you act crazy, even if you weren’t crazy to begin with. Some of the crazymaking games going on today are love and hate, liberalism and conservatism, automobiles and credit cards, golf, and girls’ basketball.”

Careful reading allows students to connect with people of the past in a way that sanitized summaries in a textbook do not allow for. It allows them to see that there truly is nothing new under the sun. It humanizes the people of the past. It allows students to think that maybe they can make a small difference in the world, even if they cannot change human nature. Say what you want about the downfall of Christian values, but you cannot deny that people have always enjoyed stories that involve sex and fart jokes.

While sex and fart jokes are a large part of some of the stories, there are other stories that balance those out. Taken as a whole, both the prologue and the stories are a tale of what it means to be virtuous. Because the truth is, we are all Chaucer. Humans admired many of the same things then as they do now.

 

Jen W.jen_wJen is a born and bred Sooner who has spent twenty years following her military husband around the world. Jen started on her homeschooling journey when her eldest daughter learned to read at three years old, and she decided that she couldn’t screw up kindergarten that badly. That child is now a senior in high school, and they have both survived homeschooling throughout. Jen has two more children who are equally smart and have also homeschooled all along.

Frankenstein, by Jen W.

 

In August of 1945, after the bombing of Hiroshima, radio announcer H. V. Kaltenborn said, “For all we know, we have created a Frankenstein! We must assume that with the passage of only a little time, an improved form of the new weapon we used today can be turned against us.” It has been nearly two hundred years since Frankenstein was birthed into existence during the cold, stormy summer of 1816 by Mary Shelley. Frankenstein was a revolutionary novel. Not only did it create a sympathetic, beautiful character out of a monster, but it created a villain out of an educated member of the nobility. The book broke class barriers and protested treatment of the hated “other,” whomever that “other” might be. Since that time, the story has never been out of print and has been regularly reinterpreted and referenced in popular culture over and over again.

Many people have heard the story of how Frankenstein came to be. Percy Shelley took his wife, Mary, and baby William to Lake Geneva in order to meet with Lord Byron. It was July, but the year of 1816 was known as the year without a summer. Scientists today have a variety of theories, that the weather was due to a volcanic eruption in Indonesia or part of the the Little Ice Age or was caused by historically low solar activity or some combination of these factors. Regardless of the cause, the cold, dreary, stormy weather found the trio stuck indoors. Their boredom soon led to a game of telling scary stories. It was Mary’s story of a scientist destroyed by his greatest triumph that would have a lasting impact upon western culture.

 

Upon reading Frankenstein for the first time, some are surprised to find that Frankenstein of the book’s title is not the monster, but the scientist, Victor Frankenstein. We discover the creature never receives a name. He is simply called “the creature.” This accomplishes two things — it is designed to dehumanize the creature, but at the same time it makes the creature a sympathetic character. But we meet neither the monster nor his creator, at first. We first meet a ship captain in treacherous seas.

Robert Walton is a young ship captain who is navigating the waters of the North Pole while looking for passage between the Pacific and Atlantic. The letters he writes his sister reveal his intelligence, the spirit of adventure and discovery that border on obsession, and his loneliness. His crew discovers a man on the ice — starved, exhausted, near death. The captain finds the man well-spoken and genteel. The captain’s nature and situation help him to sympathize with and relate to the man. However, as our young captain describes the intensity of his passion to complete his quest, the rescued man becomes disturbed, begging the captain not to drink from the same cup of madness that had brought about the current circumstances. The captain listens as the man slowly unfolds his story: The story of Frankenstein.

Victor describes his carefree, idyllic childhood which was spent in the company of Elizabeth Lavenza (his cousin or adopted sister, depending upon the edition) and his friend, Henry Clerval. Victor studies philosophy, science, alchemy and the occult, but when a visiting scientist explains electricity to Victor after he witnesses lightning strike a tree, Victor realizes that the alchemists were mistaken in their ideas and latches on to this new and exciting field. This part of Victor’s life seems ideal.

Any loss experienced by the family is compensated for and any difficulty overcome by love and charity. At the same time, with each bit of trauma, Victor proclaims each an omen of his current misery. Even his mother’s death shortly before he leaves for university is described in this manner. Victor’s fatalism has a two-fold effect. First, it builds the tension in the narrative, but eliminates a piece of the suspense because we already know that Victor eventually ends up stuck on the ice of the North Pole. All of the talk of omens and signs indicates that Victor accepts his situation as his fate rather than a self-fulfilled prophecy that Victor could have avoided, if he had made different choices, much like Romeo’s proclamation, “I am fortune’s fool!”

When Victor arrives at the university he meets with a professor of “natural philosophy” who tells Victor that his studies of alchemy have been wasted. Victor decides to study science after attending a lecture on chemistry. Victor quickly becomes obsessed with reanimation, the harnessing of the power of life and death. He neglects every other aspect of his life, focusing on this singular pursuit. His vision is one of wonder and beauty. Following the example of the alchemists he had studied (and whose examples have already been discredited in the novel) Victor works alone in his reclusive apartments.

It is important to note these aspects of his work: He is going against the scientific beliefs of the time, going against scientific discipline, going against the close advice of his professor, and he is reverting to an earlier time rather than working within the framework of the modern science of his time. His studies lack scientific rigor, discipline, oversight and ethics. These are some of the things that will ultimately lead to his downfall.

He begins to patch together a corpse to re-animate. All together, his study of reanimation takes two years. His studies culminate in zapping the creature with lightning, bringing the spark of life back into the decaying corpse. But, as the creature comes to life, Victor finds it repulsive and, after awakening to find the creature looming over his bed, terrifying. Strangely, Victor attempts to simply ignore the living nightmare of his creation, avoiding his apartment. This continues the theme already begun: He is avoiding his responsibilities in favor of acting with the emotion of the moment. Rather than alerting authorities or getting help from the scientific community, he attempts to avoid the issue entirely.

Soon, Victor chances upon Henry who has newly arrived to study at the university. Victor takes him to the apartment, apprehensive that the creature may still be skulking there, but relieved when it is not. Victor falls into a long illness, implying that guilt or remorse may be at work within him. Henry slowly but surely nurses Victor, presenting him with a letter from Elizabeth upon his restoration to health. These attempts at ignoring the problem and hoping it will simply go away hint at the dire consequences that we know will lead to Victor being trapped on a ship in the ice near death.

The plot continues to proceed in a similar manner with Victor shirking his responsibilities, trying to “fix” the problems that compound one upon the other, never admitting his horrific mistakes or seeking help, but patching the problems after the fact as if he were sticking his fingers and toes into a very leaky dyke.

The creature first murders Victor’s youngest brother. Despite the fact that Victor believes the creature committed the murder and even sees the creature at the site of the murder, Victor allows a young woman to be tried, convicted and put to death for the murder. Victor does nothing to stop it. he is afraid to admit his wrong-doings, afraid to admit his shortcomings, afraid to admit the horror that has come to pass at his hand, afraid that he might not be believed. These are poor excuses for allowing the death of an innocent girl and shine a light on the lengths Victor will go to in order to avoid responsibility for his actions.

The Frankensteins go on vacation as a family to escape their grief. The fact that Victor goes with them, never warning them, is an indicator of his denial. Eventually, Victor meets with the creature. When he hears the creature’s side of the story, Victor actually feels so much sympathy for him that Victor actually agrees to create a mate for him. Victor patches together and reanimates a female corpse, despite knowing that the creature’s murderous behavior. Clearly, Victor is not a man who easily learns his lesson the first time.

The family travels back to Geneva, where Victor promises his father that he will marry Elizabeth, but first he must travel to England. He passes through England, going on to a remote island in Scotland where he will build a mate for the creature. When the she-creature is as hideous as the first creature, Victor destroys her. The creature is furious. He swears revenge and promises to be with Victor on his wedding night. Victor believes the creature wants to kill him. But most readers will be able to read the foreshadowing and recognize that the monster plans a revenge that is like the wrong Victor committed upon him, that of killing his mate.

As Victor starts to leave Scotland he begins to receive a taste of what he has visited upon others. He is accused of murdering another person that was killed by his creature. When he finds out that the victim was his friend Clerval, he falls into a delusional state once again. Once again, a member of his family must nurse him back to health. This time, it is Victor’s father who also talks Victor’s way out of the murder charge. Barely escaping with his life and with a vengeful, murdering monster hot on his heels, Victor merely continues on to Geneva in order to celebrate his wedding. He doesn’t admit the truth, even to his own father. These are further examples of Victor having his head in the sand and ignoring his problems rather than facing them or at least admitting them so that he doesn’t bring everyone else down with his quickly sinking ship.

Given the Victor’s present circumstances and the fact that this story is told in the form of flashbacks, modern audiences can intuit what happens next. Victor marries Elizabeth and the creature murders her on their wedding night. In a fit of grief, Victor’s father also dies. Finally, Victor takes decisive action. He vows revenge upon the monster, chasing it to the far ends of the earth. This is where the story comes full circle. After telling his story, Victor begs the captain to reconsider his desire for glory. As Victor sleeps, the crew confronts the captain for a second time, demanding they return to England if and when the ship is freed from the ice. This time, the captain listens, considers and finally agrees. Soon, Victor dies, but as he lay in his coffin, the creature comes aboard. He speaks to the captain, giving him an eloquent explanation of his own miseries. But. we already know what the captain has decided. He is allowing caution to be the better part of valor. He is placing the lives of his men above his own path to glory. He has decided to take the more ethical path.

This, ultimately, is the lesson of Frankenstein. Victor had been engaged in scientific fancy instead of hard science. Science without oversight, ethics, discipline or responsibility is a dangerous business. At the same time, the history of gothic romance indicates the strong sense of sympathy that Mary Shelley and other Romantics would have had toward Victor’s passion and obsession. This will be a distinct difference between how a Romantic age teenager (Mary Shelley was only 19 when she wrote Frankenstein) and a modern adult will experience the novel. Recently, I heard a young man explaining how Marianne from Sense and Sensibility was the sole character from literature that he felt a strong sense of relation to. This sense of Romance is one that teens and young adults still strongly relate to. It’s important to recognize this within our young adults. Every hurt cuts deeply, every love is the greatest of loves, the sense of wildness found in Bronte’s moors and the obsession of Victor Frankenstein are all imminently relateable. Victor’s obsession is not just with science, but is a duel with death itself. Mary Shelley had recently lost her first baby when she wrote Frankenstein, and one can imagine that this experience influenced her choice of subject. What young person doesn’t dream of living forever or of finding a fountain of youth or permanent reprieve from the pain of the death of loved ones?

Echoes of Frankenstein, often considered the first science fiction story, reverberate though literature, popular culture, politics and even hard science itself. Every debate on scientific ethics from the atom bomb to human cloning carries with it the ghost of Victor Frankenstein. Every scientist carries the weight of his or her ethical burden. Teens and young adults can relate to the single-mindedness of Victor in his quest to defeat death. Those are some of the reasons that Frankenstein continues to be a relevant part of the “great conversation.”

What Can Jane Austen Tell Us About How to Choose a Spouse? by Jen W.

 

A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.

I will never forget sitting in a college survey class as a literature major while a nursing student complained about Pride and Prejudice. “It’s unromantic! It’s boring! Darcy is such a jerk!” Even at 18 years old, the comments made me believe that I had an idea of why divorce rates were so high. I didn’t think it was unromantic or boring, but I have a pretty good idea why other young women believed it was so. “Romance” has been sold as a product for a very long time, but the idea of what it means changes with the times. There is a famous correspondence between Charlotte Bronte and the literary critic George Henry Lewes in which Bronte roundly criticizes Austen as lacking in wildness and passion. Obviously, the books of the Bronte sisters have those things in spades. But, heroes like Heathcliff or Mr. Rochester would raise the eyebrows of any sane parent, just as Edward, the sulky vampire from Twilight, would likely do today in reality.

And that is the trouble with stories that tout the value of fantasy over reality. Sure, many women find men who brood and obsess over them to be exciting on some level. But, these are often the women who wind up pressing domestic violence charges against their partners later. Obsession, unlike what the perfume commercials would have you believe, is an unhealthy emotion. These types of relationships are hardly a recipe for domestic bliss.

It’s true, Jane Austen died nearly two hundred years ago when the lives of the women she wrote about were very different than the many choices that women living in much of the world have today. It is also true that she never married, so what would she know about choosing a spouse? But I contend that a large part of the reason that she is both popular and relevant today is that she was a shrewd observer of human nature, and those observances resonate today. But they resonate in the realities of long-term relationships, balancing a family and running a household instead of engaging in a love affair. Having a torrid love affair simply shouldn’t be anybody’s main goal in life, and it isn’t good enough reason to get married.

Novels, since the birth of the genre, have been full of rejected, seduced, and abandoned maidens, whose proper fate is to die. 

In Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility, she focuses on the plight of a family of women who have not been treated kindly by their only living male relative. They are basically left destitute and rely on the charity of a distant relative. This focus provides a theme that continues through several of Austen’s books, the relative lack of economic and political power of women. Gothic novels are full of young women whose fates are exactly as described in the above quote. But, Austen hoped to give her heroines a chance at a happy, stable life. 

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The novel’s sisters, Marianne and Elinor, are a pair of contrasting heroines whose lack of economic status hampers their ability to marry decently, the only possible salvation from their current destitute status. Marianne is the “sensible” sister of the pair, however, this word at the time had a very different meaning than it does now. Today, we might call Marianne a free spirit or artsy or sensitive or even emotional. By contrast, her sister Elinor represents “sense.” In this context, it shows that she is intelligent, reserved and displays good judgment. We expect to see these two sides at war, but in truth, what we find in the end is that the desired result, according to Austen, is a balance between the two. Elinor nearly loses her chance at love by not being forward enough while Marianne comes close to ruination by sharing too much of her sensitivity and passion with a man not committed to her.

How about the men in the novel? Elinor is attracted to Edward Ferrars because he is intelligent, pleasant-mannered and steady. His sense of duty initially holds him back as he is promised to another and his restraint hurts Elinor. In the end, it is his sense of duty that allows him freedom of choice, and he chooses Elinor. Marianne, on the other hand is first attracted to John Willoughby, a dashing young man who flirts with and flatters Marianne. I’m certain that he sends her pulse racing in a manner that Charlotte Bronte would have approved of. He leads her to believe that he intends to marry her, and she allows him to take a lock of her hair, earning her the disapproval of the more careful Elinor. But he needs a wife of financial means. Even though he claims to love Marianne long after he has given her up, he has treated her in an unkind and careless manner. This is not how you should treat the person that you love. We later find out that Willoughby has impregnated and abandoned at least one other young woman, leaving an impression that this could have been Marianne’s fate as well. Marianne marries Colonel Brandon in the end. He is constant, kind, and takes her into his confidence with painful secrets in order to save her feelings. It is through making wise choices of marriage partners that the women gain both in love and in economics.

I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.

Arguably her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice continues the discussion of women and their lack of economic power. As the novel opens, a wealthy and eligible bachelor has moved into a country neighborhood. This new addition has thrown the neighborhood, particularly the Bennet family, into a tizzy. You see, the Bennets have five daughters, an entailed estate, no male heir, and have saved little to support the girls upon their father’s death. The girls attend a local ball at which time we are introduced to not just one, but two rich bachelors!

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This focus on the wealth of potential suitors seems predatory, especially for modern readers. But, as the novel slowly unveils, it becomes clear that the financial future of the Bennet ladies is full of peril. The wacky family members, the financial distress, the fact that all of the girls are “out”– all of these things spell trouble of the sort that tends to scare off potential suitors.

What types of character traits does Austen find desirable and which does she condemn? Certain we see the condemnation of an excess of pride. Elizabeth’s pride blinds her to the true character of those around her until she is, nearly tragically, proven wrong. Mr. Darcy’s pride is what spurs him to deliver what is arguably one of the worst marriage proposals in history. Both learn to think outside of their personal scope to see the viewpoints of one another.

Other character traits that are undesirable include the flighty, nervous nature of Mrs. Bennet; the self-importance and the fawning, false flattery of Mr. Collins; the overt snobbery of Lady Catherine de Bourgh; Mr. Wickham’s gambling, indebtedness and womanizing; the wishy-washy behavior of Mr. Bingley; the rudeness and meddling of Caroline Bingley. Really, the book at times seems to be a parade of bad behavior and manners. But, by contrast, we have the kindness of Jane, the wit and vivacity of Elizabeth, the dutiful nature of Mr. Darcy. But, what does Mr. Darcy really do to recommend him in marriage? What is it that makes Elizabeth change her mind?

First, she reads the letter he gives her the morning after the disastrous proposal and learns the truth of her incorrect beliefs and the true wrong that Mr. Wickham has done to Mr. Darcy. The fact the he willingly reveals such painful events is the very beginning of intimacy between the two. We first begin to see real change in Darcy when he accidentally surprises Elizabeth and her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. They are on a tour of country estates. He catches Elizabeth off guard by how kind he is to her relatives. He speaks to them as equals. He invites her uncle to come fishing. She learns to see beneath the surface. He learns to open up enough to take care of people outside his direct circle.

The story of Pride and Prejudice is romantic because he takes Elizabeth’s offenses to heart. He opens himself up in ways that are uncomfortable for him. He takes her into his inner circle. He accepts her family. He takes care of her reputation. He defies his own extended family for love of her. He accepts her lower circumstances because he finally realizes that her circumstances have made her the woman that he loves. Likewise, Elizabeth comes to see Darcy as deep, sensitive, caring, intelligent and dutiful. He would never embarrass her like Mr. Collins might. He would never run up debts or attempt to seduce vulnerable young women like Wickham does. He won’t mistreat the people around him as Lady Catherine de Bourgh does. He won’t misspend his money, putting her future children in jeopardy as her own father did. He will take care of her and cherish her in every way.

You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope…I have loved none but you.

The third novel that we’ll look at is Persuasion. An interesting point in this novel is that our heroine, Anne Elliot is the wealthy but less favored daughter of a lord while her only real love interest had been turned away several years before due to his lowly social status. In the meantime, he has raised himself to a distinguished rank in the British Navy (as did Austen’s two brothers) and accumulated a fortune as a successful Navy Captain. Anne Elliot is a beleaguered soul. She is considered a spinster at 27 years old. Her father is in debt due to over-spending, but still maintaining his snobbery. One sister shares these tendencies. The other sister is married and more than a bit of a drama queen, languishing in “ill health” or hysterics when she isn’t the center of attention. The surrounding cast of extended family members and friends simply do not share Anne’s kindness or true refinement of a sort that doesn’t come from fashion or money.

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Captain Frederick Wentworth returns to Anne’s life suddenly when his sister and brother-in-law rent her family home (it is being rented out in order to bring some income back into the coffers). He is aloof and treats her in a manner that shows he still carries the hurts of the past. He even praises one of the young women of their acquaintance for her headstrong manner when she vows not to let the opinions of other people sway her. He makes small efforts to take care of and protect her. But, when this turns to near tragedy, he quickly realizes that this isn’t necessarily the course of a wise woman.

In the meantime, her cousin and her father’s heir, Mr. Elliot, attempts to court her. She finds him attractive. His manners are pleasant and easy. He pays attention to her, which is a huge thing in and of itself for Anne’s confidence and mood. And yet, she doesn’t believe he is being truly open or honest. She tells Lady Russell (who encourages the match just as she discouraged Anne’s acceptance of Frederick’s proposal so many years before) that they would not suit. But Frederick doesn’t recognize Anne’s attempts to put off Mr. Elliott for what they are.

Finally, Frederick overhears Anne passionately explaining to another that women are the most constant in love, never giving up, even when all hope seems lost. This actually renews his own hope and spurs him into action. He writes her a beautiful letter, and she quickly rushes to reconcile with him. They are finally reconciled and their engagement renewed. Ultimately, this is a story of interrupted love in which the problems are overcome by forgiveness.

What traits does Austen warn us about? Vanity, not just in others but she warns us not to succumb to that trait within ourselves, giving over to false flattery. She warns about over-spending, urging economy, frugality and financial planning. She warns about both appearing too frivolous and too serious. She warns both about being too wishy-washy and too headstrong, instead urging us to approach problems with logic and a sense of balance. We should invest ourselves in quality people who are kind, who love us in spite of our many faults or the need to forgive us for past or present hurts. We should match up with spouses who are willing to put up with, take care of and socialize with our family, even when those family members we love are wacky, not socially appropriate or a bit crazy. We should look for ways they take care of us instead of associating with us when it is convenient or they get something out of it. It’s true that things like caring for your family may not seem as wildly romantic on the surface as digging up your grave or creepily watching you sleep. But, solid marriages aren’t made of people without normal coping mechanisms. I advise young women and men to look to Austen for advice on choosing a spouse instead of the Bronte sisters or Stephanie Meyer. You’ll be happier for it.

What's So Great About the Great Books? by Jen W.

 

As a classical homeschooling mom, one of the greatest joys and challenges of teaching my kids has been exploring “great books” with them. I know this is something many people see as an insurmountable challenge to strive for on their own. They look at literature guides that contain terms like “post modern” or “metalanguage” or “deconstructionism.” Those terms can be meaningful, but they can also create a block to looking at the real heart of literature.

I studied literature in college, but I often looked at stories differently than those around me. I often received high scores for great answers, but I sometimes heard that my answers were “wrong.” For me, at its heart, literature is about people. Yes, you can take a feminist, post-modern or deconstructionist view of the world and overlay any piece of literature with it. I think that tells us a lot about how people live now and affords little thought to the bigger picture. Ultimately, too much jargon turns people off of studying literature. It simply isn’t necessary in order to connect with literature on a basic level and let it inform your world.

What did people value in the past? What did they find funny? What did people want in a leader? What did young women find romantic? What characteristics in people make them better spouses? When one looks at those sorts of questions, I think it connects us to people and the past in ways that only great stories can do. There are universal truths and problems to be found in many such stories that hold true in the lives of real people today. This doesn’t mean we will feel a personal connection to every story that we read. It doesn’t even mean we will enjoy every story that we read. But, I firmly believe that wide reading will teach us about the people around us. When books tell us about people, they also tell us about politics, economics and what it was like for a particular person to live in a particular time and place.

In this series, we’ll look at a number of great works. I’ll explore their more universal themes and explain why I (and only I, with the caveat that many experts would disagree with my personal opinions) believe they have stood the test of time and why people should still read them. What this series will not be is a how-to of literary analysis; this is because I think there are already a lot of great resources out there that fill that niche. I will create a separate list of resources for anyone interested in learning more about the mechanics of literary analysis.

  

Jen jen_wW.– Jen is a born and bred Sooner who has spent twenty years following her military husband around the world. Jen started on her homeschooling journey when her eldest daughter learned to read at three years old, and she decided that she couldn’t screw up kindergarten that badly. That child is now a senior in high school, and they have both survived homeschooling throughout. Jen has two more children who are equally smart and have also homeschooled all along.