Friday, June 3, 2022

Lessons from I Am Margaret

 Do I believe this enough to die for it?

In the future world of I Am Margaret by Corinna Turner, every citizen is Sorted at the age of eighteen. All young men and women must take a series of standardized tests. Those who pass are labeled New Adults; those who do not achieve a high enough score are “reAssigned.”

Margaret Verrall’s fate seems sealed: with numeric dyslexia, she can’t expect to score high enough on the math exam, despite her excellent results in the other subjects. As suspected, Margo is sent as a reAssignee to the Facility where she will spend the rest of her days exercising and getting her body into peak form. After that, those in charge will march her into the Lab where she will be dismantled, her organs harvested for use for someone more worthy of them. This world of the future takes our current society’s disrespect for life and carries it to its natural end.

​​To know there is nothing more to it. That a dead body is made up of only two things—useful parts and useless parts. That the human race is made up of the same—useful people and useless people.

Margo summons her Catholic faith to comfort and sustain her. She and her family belong to the Underground, the secret community of believers; in this dystopian world, Christianity and religious practice are forbidden, since their moral tenets obviously oppose the culture of death around them. Margo prays her rosary and her fiance, Bane, even manages to catapult a consecrated Host over the Facility’s wall so she can receive Holy Communion on Easter Sunday (a nice gesture, but troubling as it seems disrespectful to handle the Eucharist in that way).

Still, after being forced to watch a family friend, Father Peter, undergo the cruelest punishment of all (Conscious Dismantlement), Margo struggles with one of her daily prayers. She has a hard time telling God that she will accept death, in whatever form He Wills it.

O Lord, I now, at this moment, accept whatever kind of death it may please You to send me, with all its pains and sorrows.

This is Margo’s internal conflict throughout the novel while the outer conflict involves forming a plan to escape the Facility. Escape becomes especially critical when Margo secretly enters the government’s annual contest: this year, a creative writing challenge. Margo sees this as an opportunity to tell the truth of her story, to help the people of her world understand that she has value and worth beyond her physical organs. 

And this is the simple truth. I am Margaret. I am just like you. If I were not, you would not be going to kill me.

But when she wins the contest and the truth is in print, her life hangs in the balance. Can her fiance help her and the others escape before Margo faces Dismantlement herself? And if she finds herself strapped down to a bed, the Doctor at hand to cut her open and remove her organs, does she have the moral courage to stay true to her faith or will she deny her beliefs in order to preserve her earthly life?

I Am Margaret is a heart-pounding read, especially the final third of the book, which I found particularly gripping and suspenseful. I admired Margo’s fortitude, selflessness, and leadership. I also appreciate how Turner aptly and poignantly incorporates other-abled characters, especially Jonathan, a blind young man, and Sarah, who has a mental disability. Turner does a good job pacing the narrative, too, placing dramatic events right where they are needed to jolt the reader’s sense of security.

That said, I found aspects of the book disagreeable—both on a pragmatic as well as moral level. The book would have profited from professional editing because the grammatical and punctuation errors distracted from the story (strange sentence structures, incorrect use of semicolons and commas, words missing, fragments functioning as sentences). I also felt annoyed by the overuse of character names (when you are having a conversation with someone, you don’t usually use their name to their face repeatedly) and the abundant italicizations. 

On a more serious note, parts of the plot puzzled me. Why would the government not actually read Margo’s book before it went to publication? Additionally, Margo’s fiance is not Catholic; he doesn’t belong to any religion actually and even aggressively tried to persuade Margo not to be Confirmed. Here is just one exchange between the two:

“You know, sometimes I get very jealous of those bits of crisp bread,” Bane would say, if I lamented too strenuously the missing of a Sunday Mass due to lack of priest. “It’s not bread, Bane, it’s Our Lord, you know that.” 

Yet, Margo never addresses this throughout the novel. Wouldn’t she express concern about the salvation of his soul? Or wouldn’t this create more conflict between the two?

The narrative bordered on gory at parts—perhaps it has too vivid imagery and description for some more sensitive readers. Other times the writing was downright crass. Consider this sentence just as one example:

And to give the fear the finger, I decided I would say the Act of Acceptance.

To me, this reads like a kind of desecration. How can a person pray while simultaneously profaning?

Also troubling are the many times that Margo places herself in situations of near occasion of sin. Jonathan, the blind boy, is moved to the girl’s room since the boys are too violent (which seems to be another plot hole—why are all the boys like this?). In order to disguise the fact that he is Catholic (and thus, avoid explaining why he won’t fornicate with any of the girls), Jonathan and Margo share the same bed at night. Although nothing seriously wrong happens between them, things are not entirely chaste either and the farce becomes more than just pretend as attraction between them escalates.

My body felt oddly hot as his bulk hovered over me in the dark. “I would have you safe…” he murmured, and his fingers moved to caress my tingling lips…

Margo’s thoughts are not chaste either:

What’d it said in that latest EuroGov pamphlet on spotting dangerous Underground members? ‘A freakish disinterest in sexual intercourse’? Hah, in their dreams! If I got out of here, Bane and a bed were pretty high on my list of priorities. Via a priest, of course. 

When my children are teenagers, this is not the kind of thing I would like them to read.

So, while I appreciated and enjoyed the premise of I Am Margaret, I found serious problems with several aspects of the writing and the plot. 

I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect on martyrdom. I’ve often wondered if I would have the fortitude to stand firm in my faith, even if doing so meant a gruesome death. I find comfort in Our Lord’s words that the Holy Spirit will come to our aid in such an instance. 

I’ve also thought about the kinds of martyrdom. Not many of us are called to capital “M” Martyrdom: the actual sacrificing of our life for the faith. Yet all of us are called to lower case “m” martyrdom: the daily witness of denying ourselves, resisting temptation, and choosing the right (often harder) path … the picking up of our cross. The truth is that we should die to self every day, in all the small inconveniences, pinpricks, and annoyances. It’s this little martyrdom that trains the soul for the greatest Martyrdom to which any of us might be called. 

Monday, May 23, 2022

Lessons from White as Silence, Red as Song

 In White as Silence, Red as Song by Alessandro D’Avenia, Leo sees his world in color. Every emotion is a color in the mind of this sixteen year old boy. Red is passion and life. Red is the color of Beatrice’s hair, the girl in his grade with whom he’s desperately in love—though he hasn’t summoned the courage to speak with her just yet. Blue is the sea, the calming eyes of Silvia: his best friend and confidant. But worst of all is white: nothingness, silence, solitude. 

As the book begins, Leo seems like a normal teenage guy. He blasts his music, dares his soccer buddy, and races his scooter. His life is busy, fast, and noisy. Then a substitute teacher comes in—a “loser to nth degree,” according to Leo. Leo nicknames the substitute “the Dreamer,” for indeed, that is what the mentor challenges the young people to do:

 “Only when people have faith in what is beyond their reach—a dream—does humanity take steps forward that help it to believe in itself.”

Leo already has his dream: Beatrice. Dreams are red because they are “the blood of life.”

… you know that those things pass. But love doesn’t. Your red star always shines. Beatrice is there, love is in your heart, and it is amazing. It makes you dream, and nobody can take the dream from you because it is somewhere nobody can reach. I don’t know how to describe it: I hope it never goes away.

But Leo’s dream crumbles to pieces when Beatrice doesn’t show up for school for a few days and Leo learns the terrible news that Beatrice has leukemia. Leo’s life suddenly crashes, both literally and figuratively. Racing through life unaware of what the events around him really mean, Leo needs to put on the brakes … but his scooter’s brakes are broken so he crashes and lands in the hospital, immobile with his arm in a cast.

As Beatrice’s health declines, Leo sees his dream evaporating before his eyes. He struggles to understand Beatrice’s suffering and how God can allow it. But dreams almost always involve obstacles and often manifest and develop in ways we don’t expect at first.

White as Silence, Red as Song is a departure from my usual book of choice and at first, it took some adjusting for me to be in the mind of a high school boy. The short chapters are a running train of thought from Leo, varying from the sometimes menial (and humorous) details like taking Terminator—his oversized dachshund with an incontinent bladder—out for a walk to much deeper, philosophical reflections. 

I’ve never been a high school boy, so I can’t verify if this is indeed true, but I did question some aspects of the plot. Do teenage boys really fall in love with someone with whom they’ve had no previous communication? Are they also so unperceptive that they can’t read the obvious clues that their female bestie harbors romantic feelings for them?

Other parts of the plot felt dead-on accurate. Leo’s first recourse when he has a question is to look it up on Wikipedia. (I can empathize, as I’m prone to do this myself!) His insecurity as an adolescent rings so true as well: “I feel so ugly I just want to hide in my room, never looking at myself in the mirror. White.” Yet, at other points, Leo feels like a lion, ready to take on anything. Such are the dramatic highs and lows of the teenage years.

My favorite aspect of the book is the symbolism of the colors, particularly when they take on a theological tone. Leo despises white, a sentiment that becomes stronger when he learns that white blood cells are killing Beatrice. So he donates his blood to help her. The priest who teaches at his school then explains that blood cures people, just as Christ cured people from sin by shedding His blood on the cross. The crucifix is “a letter written to mankind, signed with the blood of God, who saves us all with that blood.” What a powerful and moving imagery, juxtaposing the healing nature of Leo’s donated blood—freely given out of love—and the blood of Christ shed for us on the cross.

I also reflected while reading this book about the importance of a good education in the life of a teen. Leo attends a classical high school, which he complains about due to the rigorous nature of his classes and needing to learn Latin and ancient Greek. Regarding his school, Leo writes that it “breaks your balls from dawn till dusk.”

Yet, it’s through ancient Greek he learns the words leukos (white) and aima (blood), thus forming the word leukemia. Piercing through the noise of video games and rock music is the elevating influence of the books and history Leo learns at school: Dante’s The New Life and the siege of Rome, for example. You can see these ideas and thoughts infiltrating his own thoughts: Leo makes connections between his life experiences and what he is learning in school. 

As Leo struggles trying to understand what is happening to Beatrice, the staff at his school provides counsel and wisdom. The Dreamer, who began as a “loser” substitute teacher, becomes someone Leo can confide in and become vulnerable with, crying about his broken dream and heartache for Beatrice. Meanwhile, the priest at the school challenges Leo to rethink his perception. In a powerful exchange, Leo asks the priest how someone can love God when no one can even touch Him. The priest replies that we touch Christ’s body in the Eucharist, to which Leo counters that the Eucharist is just symbolic. “You think I’ve put my life at stake for a symbol?” the priest counters. 

The people at this classical school become critical presences in Leo’s life, discipling him alongside his parents in helping him understand, process, and influence his world for good. They form his mind and prompt him to question some of his assumptions. I had to wonder to myself: what if Leo didn’t attend this school? What if he didn’t have the presence of the Dreamer or the priest in his life? What if he attended a school that taught the Common Core? Would his character arc have differed? 

One of the biggest factors for parents when looking to buy a home is the available schools nearby … and for good reason. A child’s education is one of the strongest influences in his or her life. Our family relocated for the purposes of schooling: we wanted our children to attend a classical school. The more I understand classical education, the more I esteem and appreciate it. A Christian classical education seeks to form disciples, to imbue wisdom, to treasure what is true, good, and beautiful. It is not just about passing certain standards in order to get into a prestigious college, though classical education does hold the students to a high level of excellence; that excellence, however, is for God. 

I wish all teenagers were as blessed as Leo to find themselves surrounded by such holy, enriching mentors, of past and present. In a world of so much noise, we all need guidance and support to remain still in the silence of white: white space that we can fill with dreams that run red as blood. 

Lessons from The Ministry of Fear

“I’m wanted for a murder I didn’t do. People want to kill me because I know too much. I’m hiding underground, and up above the Germans are methodically smashing London to bits all round me.”

What’s one murder when there is a daily massacre of innocent civilians?

That’s the atmospheric setting of Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear. Written in 1943, the book takes place during the Blitz of 1941, when Germans nightly bombed London. London is falling apart: attacked, living in fear of the enemy, and falling into ruins. It mirrors Greene’s protagonist, Arthur Rowe.

The results of a 9/9/1940 air raid on London

The first section of the book is called “The Unhappy Man” because Rowe has committed murder: he killed his wife. However, the court released him after a stay in a mental institution since the act was deemed a “mercy” killing. Rowe’s wife suffered from a terminal illness and, unable to watch her in pain any longer, he killed her out of pity.

Rowe is haunted by memories and weighed down by guilt. He never questioned his wife as to whether she desired to curtail her suffering by an early, premeditated death. Instead he poisoned her silently and then left her to die alone, knowing that staying by her bedside and breaking their usual routine would arouse her suspicion. He wonders whether he acted out of selfishness: he couldn’t bear watching her anymore and so killed her. This raises one of the themes Greene would explore in his later novel The Heart of the Matter. How do love and pity differ? Love would have suffered alongside his wife; pity murdered her.

“The law had taken a merciful view: himself he took the merciless one. Perhaps if they had hanged him he would have found excuses for himself between the trap-door and the bottom of the drop, but they had given him a lifetime to analyse his motives in.”

Then one day fate reaches him in the form of a fête—a fun play on words. With the help of a fortune teller, Rowe supplies the correct weight of the prize cake. (A cake, the reader later learns, that contains secret films with information regarding Britain’s war-preparedness.) As Rowe exits with the cake in hand, the charity organizers attempt to stop him, explaining that they made a mistake and the cake belonged to someone else. Rowe sidesteps their protests and brings the cake home.

The next day, a stranger appears on his doorstep, wanting to have tea with him. The man offers to buy the cake from Rowe, but then a bomb from the nightly raid drops on the building, leaving the stranger unconscious—but not before Rowe realizes that the man has put poison in his tea … Rowe recognizes the smell, since he himself had used the same poison to kill his wife.

This sets Rowe on a path to learn why someone is out to get him. At the charity that sponsored the fête he meets brother and sister Willi and Anna Hilfe (Hilfe is German for aid or help). They promise to help him. Willi accompanies Rowe to the home of the fortune teller and they sit down to a seance she is hosting. Anna telephones, warning Rowe to leave, but he stays—convention making it too uncomfortable for him to cause a scene. 

“Conventions were far more rooted than morality; he had himself found that it was easier to allow oneself to be murdered than to break up a social gathering.”

The lights go out and, when they turn back on, the man next to Rowe is dead … killed by Rowe’s knife.

Now wanted by the police for a murder he didn’t commit, Rowe goes into hiding. He doesn’t know who to trust or who wants him … or why they want him. The Ministry of Fear has him in their grip. During the war, the Nazis would target individuals in countries they sought to control, blackmailing them and trying to force compliance with their plans. 

“They formed, you know, a kind of Ministry of Fear—with the most efficient under-secretaries. It isn’t only that they get a hold on certain people. It’s the general atmosphere they spread, so that you can’t depend on a soul.’”

A tube station functioning as a bomb shelter in 1940

Things become complicated when Rowe loses his memory in another bombing. He becomes a happy man, known by the name of Rigby. He is no longer depressed by memories, and lives comfortably in a recovery center—run, unbeknownst to him, by the enemy. 

This raises the question of memory. Is it a curse or a blessing? As Rigby, Arthur is content. Yet, what is peace in ignorance? 

“‘I don’t remember. There are years and years of my life I still can’t remember.’ ‘We forget very easily,’ Mr Prentice said, ‘what gives us pain.’”

Such false peace comes at a great cost. Without his memories, Arthur is an unknowing victim and the enemies can continue their work without any hindrance. Perhaps this is why Greene titles the final section: “The Whole Man.” Happiness is not the same as wholeness.

Greene called The Ministry of Fear one of his “entertainments,” and it is indeed an entertaining story. The undisclosed identity of the “bad guys” keeps the plot suspenseful while the setting of the Blitz heightens the danger and drama. I wasn’t fond of some of the coincidental plot-points (could Rowe be that gullible to fall into an obvious trap of the enemy?) and the romantic subplot likewise felt implausible. Yet, I enjoyed the deeper themes, along with Greene’s at times questionable, always disturbing and haunting morality. Consider this line, which reflects some seriously askew theology:

“But for the sake of people you loved, and in the company of people you loved, it was right to risk damnation.”

In the end, Rowe gets the girl, but I don’t know if it can rightly be called a “happy ending.” Greene has a twist that leaves the reader wondering whether his protagonist has really changed that much after all. Will pity kill Rowe’s new love just like it had murdered his first? Pity is not a virtue, but a vice, and it will bind and imprison Rowe more than any Ministry of Fear because so often it is what happens in the interior of our soul that destroys us more than any exterior enemy.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Lessons from For Whom the Bell Tolls

 You are instruments to do your duty. There are necessary orders that are no fault of yours and there is a bridge and that bridge can be the point on which the future of the human race can turn.

If you only had three days to live, how would you live them?

For any soldier on the battlefront, the possibility of death, at any moment’s notice, is a constant reality.  As you try to kill your enemy, your enemy tries to kill you: death is the objective of both parties.  Maybe war is about winning, though when so many lives are lost, is there ever a true victor?    

Poet John Donne wrote, “ … any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”  Any time someone dies, that loss of human life has ripple effects.  The human family, of which we all belong as brothers and sisters, mourns the death of any individual.  Does this include enemies too?  Well, yes: enemies who perhaps perished without any opportunity to atone for their misdeeds, who entered the world as innocent children and somewhere along the way, lost their way—perhaps through no fault of their own, but by the people who raised them or teachers who taught them.  

Donne’s poem is the inspiration for the title of Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls

Published in 1940, For Whom the Bell Tolls takes place in May 1937 in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.  The protagonist is an American named Robert Jordan, a professor of the Spanish language who moved to Spain and joined the Republican cause.  The action of the novel takes place over the course of three days.  Jordan has a mission: he must destroy a bridge.  To do so, he must enlist the help of a band of guerrillas located in the mountains behind Franco’s line.  

It is a fascinating and painful look at the life of a soldier at war.  There is the logistical aspect to the plot: Robert Jordan is ordered to blow up a bridge, a key tactic in the greater strategy of a battle about to unfold.  He must blow up the bridge at the appointed time.  In any wartime situation, soldiers will encounter friction: the unplanned element of surprise, of unforeseen events that get in the way of carefully laid plans.  Something inevitably goes wrong.  How do you respond?  How can you get the plan back on track?  In this novel, something as seemingly harmless as snowfall leads to deadly consequences.  

Republican soldiers in 1936

There are elements outside one’s control—such as weather—but Jordan must also deal with his compatriots, whom he must enlist for help.  The band of guerrillas poses its own difficulty.  Jordan needs their support, but can he trust them—especially the leader, Pablo, who is embittered after fighting many previous battles and who opposes blowing up the bridge?  On the other hand, there are members of the band who are supportive and encouraging to Jordan, with whom he even develops a strong bond.  This itself becomes an obstacle.  It’s much easier to send someone to their likely death when the person is anonymous to you; it’s harder when he or she is a friend.

Jordan is originally drawn to fighting for the Republic because he believes in the ideology and platform.  Yet, as time has passed, his zeal for the cause has waned.  Who is the enemy?  In a civil war, this becomes hard to discern.  Soldiers on either side share the same language, culture, and history.  They raise their weapons against each other, but it’s not as simplistic as it might seem.  In a poignant scene, Hemingway shows a group of Fascists speaking together one evening, speculating on the possibility of an upcoming battle and remarking on the weather.  It is the same conversation the Republicans are having that evening.  Jordan reflects that many of the Fascists aren’t even true Fascists: they were enlisted to fight, but many would rather just be back home with their families, spending life in the ordinary, human way.  And yet these men across the line must die because they are the enemy.

When death is all around you, how does one cope?  Some soldiers turn their sorrow and despair into hatred in order to keep being a soldier.  Jordan remarks that, in order to persevere in his work, he must forget about the people he has killed; he can’t linger on those thoughts.  Anselmo, one of the guerrillas, yearns to atone for the deaths he has caused:  

“The killing is necessary, I know, but still the doing of it is very bad for a man and I think that, after all this is over and we have won the war, there must be a penance of some kind for the cleansing of us all.”

While the Republic has abolished religion in name and practice, it cannot wipe it from the souls of the Spanish people. Many of the Republican soldiers still turn to God in the critical moment of death.  One guerilla fighter begins chanting Republican slogans to buoy his spirits as an airplane approaches, about to bomb the place where he lays, trapped and defenseless.  Yet these empty slogans quickly change to prayers.  

This, of course, raises the question of religion in warfare.  War—the effort to kill an enemy—is an intrinsically immoral act.  War, quite simply, is never a good thing, though it may be necessary at times.  The taking of another person’s life is always wrong, though circumstances may justify the act.  How can a soldier kill in a moral way?  Is it in one’s mindset?  Though how hard must it be to remember that the man actively trying to kill you is also a beloved son of God!

“I believe in the people and their right to govern themselves as they wish. But you mustn’t believe in killing, he told himself. You must do it as a necessity but you must not believe in it. If you believe in it the whole thing is wrong.”

Robert Jordan has no religious frame of mind and is certain of there being no hereafter, calling the idea “damn foolish business.”  His life is all that he has and, if his life is possibly limited to only these three days before the blowing up of the bridge, then he has to make everything of those seventy-two hours.  For Jordan, having three days to live means making himself emotionally vulnerable by falling in love with Maria and bonding himself to her physically—though, of course, not sacramentally.  But if this world is all that you have to live for, why not?

“The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”

“But you weren’t supposed to live forever. Maybe I have had all my life in three days, he thought.”

Three days.  What if you had three days to live?  How would you live them?  Many might create a “bucket list” and cross off as many fulfilled dreams as possible.  But perhaps three days to live really means three days to get ready to die: three days to put your soul into order, to atone and repent, to pray and prepare yourself, not just for a dismal end to everything, but for the beginning of a perfect eternity.  

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Lessons from Jamaica Inn

 How far should one go to try to save someone?

That seems to be a central question of Jamaica Inn, a novel by Daphne Du Maurier, one of my favorite authors.  The protagonist of the novel is Mary Yellan, who grew up on a farm working alongside her mother, trying to support themselves after Mary’s father died.  But then her mother became ill and lost the will to live.  On her deathbed, Mary’s mother said:

“I want you to promise me this, child, that when I’m gone you’ll write to your Aunt Patience and tell her that it was my last and dearest wish that you should go to her.”

Mary accordingly leaves her beloved hometown of Helston and travels to her aunt, whom she remembers as a laughing, beautiful woman.  Her aunt is married now to a man who is the landlord of Jamaica Inn, on the Cornish coast.  Mary travels there, along a white road with the wild, barren, desperate moor on either side.  She soon learns that everyone in the area shuns Jamaica Inn, avoiding it at all costs as strange stories circulate about dreadful, mysterious happenings there.

The real Jamaica Inn, shown in 1959

Upon arrival, Mary meets her Uncle Joss Merlyn: almost seven feet tall with thick black hair, powerful shoulders, with a sunken mouth and red blood-flecks in his eyes.  He is an abusive, violent drunk haunted by secrets.  Meanwhile Mary’s Aunt Patience is a mere shadow of the woman she once was.  Her hair is gray and a nervous tick passes across her mouth.  She lives in constant fear of her belligerent husband, obeying his commands and cowering before him—yet, quick to come to his defense.

Mary learns that the locals have reason to fear Jamaica Inn.  Though her aunt stays tight-lipped, she does admit:

“There’s things that happen at Jamaica, Mary, that I’ve never dared to breathe. Bad things. Evil things. I can’t never tell you; I can’t even admit them to myself.”

Her first night there, Mary realizes that if she is to escape she must do it then, before her uncle prevents her.  Yet, as Mary creeps down the hall, she hears her aunt’s muffled cries, stifled in her pillow from the other bedroom.  Mary determines she cannot—will not—leave her Aunt Patience alone with Joss Merlyn.  Mary will stand between them, protect her aunt, and somehow bring her to safety.

It is certainly a noble purpose.  Yet, as the novel continues and Mary becomes more and more mired in the evil happening under her roof, I began to seriously question Mary’s judgment.  By the sheer act of living at Jamaica Inn, Mary is considered complicit with the criminal activity occurring there.  Secret, ghostly wagons appear in the dead of night and, locked in her bedroom, Mary peeks out her window to see her uncle, along with a company of questionable men, fill the wagons with packages … Where did these smuggled packages come from?  Why is there a room kept perpetually locked on the first floor of the Inn?  

One day, when Joss Merlyn is away on some untold business, Mr. Bassat—the local squire—arrives at Jamaica Inn to inspect it and to interrogate Mary and her aunt.  Before they answer the door, Aunt Patience turns to Mary:

The woman looked at her with haggard, desperate eyes. “Mary,” she said, “if Mr. Bassat asks you what you know, you won’t answer him, will you? I can trust you, can’t I? You’ll not tell him of the wagons? If any danger came to Joss I’d kill myself, Mary.” 

There was no argument after that. Mary would lie herself into hell rather than let her aunt suffer.

Mary lies to him to appease her aunt.  As the novel progresses, one can see Mary becoming lost in what is happening at Jamaica Inn.  She even becomes an (unwilling) eye witness to her uncle’s bloody, horrifying business.  

She also meets her uncle’s younger brother, Jem, who lives on the moor and is a horse-thief.  Jem bears some striking similarities to Joss, and, through his flirtations, Mary reflects that she can understand how her Aunt Patience once fell for Joss Merlyn.  

Jem takes Mary to a nearby fair on Christmas Eve, where he cunningly sells a stolen pony back to its unsuspecting owner.  With the money, Jem buys Mary a new headscarf.  They share a kiss and, when the weather turns miserable and the rain begins to pour mercilessly upon them, Jem invites Mary to spend the night with him there in town.  Mary refuses, knowing if she relents in this, she will be lost in her affection for him.  In many ways, she already feels lost.

“I can’t make plans or think for myself; I go round and round in a trap, all because of a man I despise, who has nothing to do with my brain or my understanding. I don’t want to love like a woman or feel like a woman, Mr. Davey; there’s pain that way, and suffering, and misery that can last a lifetime. I didn’t bargain for this; I don’t want it.”

“She was a woman, and for no reason in heaven or earth she loved him. He had kissed her, and she was bound to him forever. She felt herself fallen and degraded, weakened in mind and body, who had been strong before; and her pride had gone with her independence.”

When Mary witnesses murder at the hands of her uncle, she realizes she now must act, regardless of what her Aunt Patience says.  Mary must bring justice to her uncle and she risks her life to do so.  Du Maurier brings the reader along on a horrifying, suspenseful journey with Mary, who acts with courage and daring, but who seeks help from a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  

Bodmin Moor in Cornwall

All along, Mary yearns to return to Helston—to neighbors who know her, to the care of farm animals, to working the land.  This has always been her desire, and at the end, she is ready to leave behind the desolate, savage moorland.  “To thine own self be true.”  Mary tells Jem:

… there’s a sickness in my heart for home and all the things I’ve lost.

In my opinion, perhaps the most chilling mystery of the novel is the one du Maurier leaves the reader with: Mary impetuously decides to stay with Jem, who travels north—not south to Helford—where he will wander about, sleeping on the side of the road, never setting down … a life with little comfort or stability. 

Is this a romantic riding-off-in-the-sunset?  Or has Mary definitively lost her own dreams and desires in the haze of love for a man?  Is Mary following in the same steps as the aunt she once tried to save … and will Mary eventually share the same fate?  It was a chilling and unsettling conclusion, leaving the reader with numerous questions and haunting doubts.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Lessons from David Copperfield

David Copperfield, the somewhat autobiographical work by Charles Dickens, was published serially in 1849 and 1850.  It was his favorite novel that he authored and I wonder if he purposely inverted his initials to create David’s name as a nod to their commonalities.  Narrated in first person, David describes his life from the night of his birth until his adulthood.  There is a wide cast of characters, many of whom appear and reappear during various stages of David’s maturity.  It is at times a tragic story; other moments are hilarious.    

David’s life passes through distinct periods: his happy, early childhood; abuse at the hand of his strict stepfather; a period of time in Salem House, a boy’s boarding school; laboring in a factory in London; studying and then working as a legal proctor; eventually, getting married and embarking on a writing career.  As the reader, we see his progress from a naïve little boy to a wise adult; from someone whose heart acts impulsively to one who is discerning.  Yet, through these developments, challenges, and setbacks, David still manages to maintain his innocent goodwill and kindness.  

David’s life, as is the case with any of our lives, intersects with a myriad of people.  He meets many individuals along the way, some of whom have a major impact on his life’s course and his formation, while others merely pass through without leaving an impression on him.

What is curious, however, is the “coincidental” reemergence of characters throughout the novel.  For example, while working in the London factory, David has a kind landlord named Wilkins Micawber.  They part ways, Micawber and his family moving to Plymouth.  Yet, later on in the novel, Dickens is in Canterbury, visiting an acquaintance’s home.  Who should happen to pass by the open door and spot him?  Micawber, of course!  

This is but one example of many where various people from David’s life pop up—running into each other, spotting someone at a social gathering, reading in the newspaper about a teacher from his childhood.  On the one hand, this makes for an engaging plot where the characters interweave and interact in creative ways.  At the end of the novel, Dickens leaves the reader with a strong sense of closure, with all of the characters having clear, set endings.  There are no loose ends here.

Yet, I couldn’t help but reflect to myself that, unlike this novel, life is just very messy sometimes.  I consider people in my life: classmates I knew as a child, teachers I had in school, friends from college, even family members … individuals who crossed paths with me and for a while, we walked this life together: sharing memories, trading secrets, depending on each other. But for one reason or another, our paths have diverged and we no longer communicate with each other.

I suppose I could always “look someone up” on social media, but I purposely avoid those platforms.  So that often leaves me with a big question mark.  What ever happened to so-and-so?  How is he or she doing right now?  The hardest is relationships that ended on a sour note.  What does he or she think of me now … does he harbor anger toward me?  Does she think worse of me?  

David had a close friend named Steerforth, whom he met at his boarding school.  Steerforth was someone David admired and esteemed.  

“You have no best to me, Steerforth,” said I, “and no worst. You are always equally loved, and cherished in my heart.”

Steerforth by Frank Reynolds

Then something tragic happened as young adults that separated them.  While David still appreciated Steerforth’s good qualities, he could no longer keep their friendship.  That is such a difficult part of life.  It’s a kind of death when you’ve had a friendship that brought joy and comfort … and then you have to let the friendship go and part ways.

 “I felt, as he had felt, that all was at an end between us. What his remembrances of me were, I have never known—they were light enough, perhaps, and easily dismissed—but mine of him were as the remembrances of a cherished friend, who was dead.”

Messiness happens in friendship; it happens in marriage too.  David met a young woman named Dora Spenlow and fell completely in love with her, bewitched by her golden curls and the way she found her lapdog, Jip, so amusing.  

I was a captive and a slave. I loved Dora Spenlow to distraction! She was more than human to me. She was a Fairy, a Sylph, I don't know what she was—anything that no one ever saw, and everything that everybody ever wanted. I was swallowed up in an abyss of love in an instant. There was no pausing on the brink; no looking down, or looking back; I was gone, headlong, before I had sense to say a word to her.”

Dora and David, by Frank Reynolds

They married after a long engagement and David couldn’t have been happier.  However, he soon found that married life with Dora presented challenges.  She was a frivolous girl, more skilled at taking care of Jip than maintaining any kind of order in their home.  Their servants stole from them.  Their meals were late and undercooked.  

Any attempt David made to form his wife’s mind and habits dissolved into tears and laments on the part of Dora, who felt undervalued and unappreciated.  She insisted on David considering her his “child-wife.”  Though Dora had a kind heart, she was far from similar-minded for the reflective, intellectual author David had become. 

 “There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.'”

He couldn’t share everything in his heart with her.  I admired David’s ability to still love Dora, despite his recognition of her shortcomings and inability to be a partner on equal footing.  David treated her with devotion and affection, not with resentment—perhaps because David himself carried a piece of childlike innocence in his heart.  Even so, their marriage was undoubtedly messy.

“I loved my wife dearly, and I was happy; but the happiness I had vaguely anticipated, once, was not the happiness I enjoyed, and there was always something wanting.”

In the fictional world of Dickens’s novel, these messy relationships come to a just, clear-cut, neat ending.  The bad guys have an unhappy ending.  The good guys live happily ever after.  There are no question marks or relationships left in the shadows of uncertainty.  

But for us in the real world, life will always be messy.  When I was in college, I had a friend who was there for me when I really needed someone more than ever.  Over and over again, I depended on him as a listening ear, a sympathetic heart, a source of wise advice and counsel.  During one of our conversations he told me, “In ten years’ time, no matter where we end up, you’re the kind of friend I’ll always send a Christmas card to every year.”  I believed my friend and I treasured that sentiment, a sign of the depth and meaning of our friendship.  But I never received a card and, this year, I finally accepted the reality that our friendship was only of the past and what he said then, doesn’t hold true any longer.  


Sometimes, for any manner of reasons, you decide you have to let a friendship fade.  Someone hurt you and you wonder whether he or she would understand why you feel hurt.  Do you dare open your heart to explain, running the risk of just getting hurt even more if the person doesn’t understand?  Or do you slowly step back, answering text messages more slowly and not initiating conversation … knowingly letting the friendship slowly die, aching inside because you never wanted this but can’t see another way out.  This was someone you trusted.  You opened your heart, let this person in.  But because of the closeness, the hurt is even more painful and now the person becomes like a stranger.

Sometimes I wish I lived in the world of a Dickens novel and coincidences would reunite us, answering the question marks.  But we aren’t characters; we are human people with our frailties, vices, and faults.  We make things messy and that messiness follows us.  It isn’t always neatly resolved in this life.  I suppose, looking forward in faith, we can trust that at the Second Coming of Christ, the “good guys” will then receive their happy ending and the “bad guys” their punishment.  At that point, all the question marks will be answered.  

But until then … things are messy.

Yet I find comfort in advice that David received from his eccentric but kind-hearted aunt:

“'It's in vain, Trot, to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present.”

At times my thoughts and memories stray to what used to be, but they cannot linger there.  Instead of lamenting what was, I can focus on what is: the relationships I have before me in the immediacy.  I can focus on being the best wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend that I can to those whom God has placed around me.  Things will sometimes be messy, but when there is unity of mind and purpose, we can pull through the messiness, growing stronger in love, affection, and understanding.  Those are the relationships that will last.