Defence Speeches by Cicero

“I imagine you must be wondering, members of the jury, why it is that, when there are so many leading orators and men of the highest rank present here in court, I of all people should have stood up to address you; for neither in age, nor in ability, nor in authority do I bear comparison with these men who have remained seated.”

So begins, Cicero’s first speech, Pro Roscio Amerino, his first speech delivered in a criminal court when he was a young 26-year-old defence advocate.  While Defence Speeches contains five speeches that Cicero gave during the years 80 B.C. to 52 B.C., this speech is my favourite.  It shows Cicero as a fresh, young advocate, willing to take chances, yet also using his wiles to sway listeners to his point of view.  His rhetoric is at once firm and decisive, yet also almost self-effacing at times, but in an astute and cunning manner that only serves to increase his power.  His client, Sextus Roscius, was, in the end, acquitted of patricide, and this case helped begin Cicero’s journey to rhetorical fame.

The defence speech, Pro Milone, is one of Cicero’s most famous, as he defended Titus Annius Milo against the charge of murdering the tyrant, Publius Clodius Pulcher.  It was an unusual defeat for him, but it is one speech for which we have an independent account from a 1st century scholar, Quintus Asconius Pedianus.  Because of the secondary source, we can target possible inconsistencies in Cicero’s presentation of the facts, which are backed by other evidence.  It is said that because the trial was so politically volatile and emotions so unstable, Cicero had to perform under unusual circumstances.  Ancient sources disagree as to the cause of Cicero’s less than stellar performance (some say threats from Clodian supporters, some say the soldiers stationed around the forum made him uneasy) but the end result was a vote of 38 to 13 of “guilty” and Milo was sent into exile.

In spite of the defeat, Milo did not seem to hold a grudge.  When Cicero sent a copy of this defence speech, written at a later date, to Milo, Milo joking replied that it was fortunate that a speech in that form had never been heard in court because he would then not be enjoying the wonderful mullets in Massalia (Marseilles – his place of exile).

Cicero denounces Cataline (1882-88)
fresco by Caesare Maccari
source Wikipedia

If one is familiar with the history of Clodius, one can only conclude that Milo did the empire a favour by getting rid of him.  Suspected of committing incest with his sister, Clodius employed gangs to terrorize the citizens of Rome and the surrounding country, for his own political and monetary benefit.  In 63 B.C., he was able to exile Cicero for his involvement in the illegal execution of five Catlinarian conspirators, and while Cicero was away, proceeded to demolish his elegant house, attempting to have the ground consecrated to deny any further right to build upon the site.  Upon Cicero’s return, Clodius’ gangster tactics continued, as he regularly had his gangs harass Cicero’s workmen as they attempted to re-build his home.

Also included in this book are the speeches, Pro Murena, Pro Archia, and Pro Caelio, where he defends against electoral malpractice, illegal exercise of citizen rights, and civil disturbance, respectively.

From some of these speeches, the reader is given a window into Rome during its more turbulent times, and one realizes, among the grandeur, learning and sophistication, there is continual political unrest and moral decay, boiling in a cesspool of men grasping wildly for prestige and power. It’s a book that probably should be read in “doses”, but the value of the historical import and the insight into human ambition cannot be underestimated.

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

“In the latter days of July in the year 185–, a most important question was for ten days hourly asked in the cathedral city of Barchester, and answered every hour in various ways —- Who was to be the new bishop?”

War has broken out in the city of Barchester.  The different factions are preparing by arming themselves with disingenuous weapons.  Tongues are being exercised, rapier wit is being sharpened, and soon a victor will be declared.

The new chaplain, Mr. Obadiah Slope has arrived in Barchester with the new bishop Proudie and his termagant wife .  Whilst Mr. Slope shows the high opinion he holds of himself, the clergy and certain townspeople take a strong dislike to his oily sycophancy and the fight is on.  Will Archdeacon Grantly be able to run Mr. Slope out of Barchester? Or will Mr. Slope become the new Dean?  Yet his marriage to the widow Eleanor Bold, Mr. Septimus Harding’s daughter, is a certainty.  Or is it?  Bertie Stanhope, the indolent son of Dr. Vessey Stanhope, is a contender for her affections but, oops ….. into the picture strides Mr. Arabin, vicar of St. Ewold and Grantly’s ally, to further muddy the marital waters.  And, as for the battle over the appointment of the new warden of Hiram’s Hospital, will Mr. Harding recover this honoured position, or will Mr. Quiverful triumph over his competitor, effectively providing his wife and children with the support they had heretofore been lacking?

In a town amongst characters, where black can seem white, and up suddenly down, the romping hilarity of the story firmly keeps the reader engaged and attentive.   Trollope, himself had a personal love for his masterpiece:  “In the writing of Barchester Towers I took great delight.  The bishop and Mrs. Proudie were very real to me, as were also the troubles of the archdeacon and the loves of Mr. Slope.”  Sadly his publishers were not initially in accord, claiming the novel to be full of “vulgarity and exaggeration.”  How fortunate, in spite of this initial critique, that this novel has captured the imagination and humour of readers worldwide for nearly 160 years, and has given the people of Barchester an immorality that was originally in jeopardy.

The Barsetshire Chronicles

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

“Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes …..”

I am very hesitant to even attempt to review this book.  How can one do even the slightest bit of justice to an epic like this? How can one even touch on the depth of the myriad of characters, not to mention communicate the complexities of a war that even the participants had difficulty distinguishing?  And how do you review such an epic tale without producing an epic review?

War and Peace follows the lives of five families of Tsarist Russia:  the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, the Bezukhovs, the Kuragins and the Drubetskoys, their interactions and struggles, and the afflictions suffered by each set among the events leading up to and during Napoleon’s invasive campaign in the year of 1812.  Pierre Bezukhov is the illegitimate son of a nobleman and, through a series of circumstances, inherits a great  fortune.  His new position in society chafes against his natural character of simplicity, naiveté, and introspection. The Rostov family is a well-respected family, yet are in financial difficulties. The son, Nikolai, joins the Russian army, his brother, Petya, will soon follow, and their daughter, Natasha, a joyful free-spirit, becomes attached to a number of men throughout the story.  Sophia, an orphaned niece, is raised by the Rostovs, and shows a steady and loyal character as she pledges her love to Nikolai early in the novel.  Bolkonsky senior is a crochety old count who attempts to control his son, Andrei, and terrorizes his daughter, Maria.

Natasha Rostova (c. 1914)
Elisabeth Bohm
source Wikipedia

And so begins the dance between the cast of characters, sometimes a smooth waltz, and at others a frenzied tango.  There is contrast between generations, between old and new ideas, between life and its purpose, yet Tolstoy is adept as showing the gray tones overshadowing the blacks and whites; that situations are not always as they appear.

Tolstoy’s highest attribute is his ability to peel off the layers of each person and look into his soul.  His characters are crafted with such depth and such human motivations that the reader can only marvel at his skill.  And not only can he give birth to such characters, he understands them.  The scenes involving the Russian peasantry, who act completely contrary to reason, yet with such humanness, are evidence of Tolstoys profound comprehension of human nature and the human condition.

Count Leo Tolstoy, 1908
from Wikipedia

I love how Tolstoy lets humanity and compassion show through the animosity and the bloodletting of war.  One of my favourite characters of the novel was Ramballe, the French officer whom Pierre met in Bazdeev’s house and who showed brotherhood and goodwill despite that fact that, given the circumstances, they should have been pitted against each other as sworn enemies. Originally, Pierre is portrayed somewhat as a bumbling oaf, a man of a lower class who, by luck and circumstances has managed to rise to a position of prestige yet has never been able to cast aside his peasant-like origins. However by his actions in the novel, he becomes admirable, echoing a segment of humanity that shows kindness, goodness, bravery and integrity that shines out from the avariciousness and shallowness of high society.

Tolstoy himself was very ambiguous about his masterpiece stating that it was, “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.” He believed that if the work was masterful, it could not conform to accepted standards and therefore could not be labelled.

The Battle of Borodino by Louise-Françoise, Baron Lejeune, 1822
from Wikipedia 

“It is natural for us who were not living in those days to imagine that when half Russia had been conquered and the inhabitants were fleeing to distant provinces, and one levy after another was being raised for the desense of the fatherland, all Russians from the greatest to the least were solely engaged in sacrificing themselves, saving their fatherland, or weeping over its downfall.  The tales and descriptions speak only of the self-sacrifice, patriotic devotion, despair, grief, and the heroism of the Russians.  But it was not really so.  It appears so to us because we see only the general historic interest of that time and do not see all the personal human interests that people had.  Yet in reality those personal interest of the moment so much transcend the general interests that they always prevent the public interest from being felt or even noticed.  Most of the people at that time paid not attention to the general progress of events but were guided by their own private interests, and they were the very people whose activities at that period were most useful. Those who tried to understand the general course of events and to take part in it by self-sacrifice and heroism were the most useless members of society, they saw everything upside-down, and all they did for the common good turned out to be useless and foolish …….. Even those, fond of intellectual talk and of expressing their feelings, who discussed Russia’s position at the time involuntarily introduced into their conversation either a shade of pre tense and falsehood or useless condemnation and anger directed against people accused of actions no one could possibly be guilty of.  ………  Only unconscious action bears fruit, and he who plays a part in an historic event never understands its significance.  If he tries to realize it his efforts are fruitless. The more closely a man was engaged in the events then taking place in Russia the less did he realize their significance ……….”

Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow
Adolf Northern
source Wikipedia

Perhaps Tolstoy is showing us that people are imperfect, with human vice and human foibles and that, in spite of trying to find heroics in war, the actions are only the actions of people trying to survive.  It is history looking backwards that make the heroes, but in reality, the characters in these trials of life are all people acting out their parts in a very human way.  There is no glory in war, only people trying to deal with the circumstances as best they can, and to get by with a little human dignity.  Success can be more a matter of chance than planning, and it is often luck or misfortune that places people in either the bright spotlight of fame, or the dark dungeons of villainy.

I know that many people shy away from War and Peace because of its length, and I did too for a long time.  Another criticism is that Tolstoy’s “war” parts are monotonous.  It certainly is a lengthy novel but by doing some cursive research on this period of Russian history, the reader can gain enough of a base to allow him to relax and be pulled into the story.  And by viewing the wars scenes, not only as history, but as a chance to learn from people’s reactions in situations of stress and conflict, I think they can give us more of an insight into human motivations.  So pick it up and let yourself be swept away into the Russia Empire of the early 1800s.  You won’t be disappointed!

(translated by Aylmer & Louise Maude)



The Book of Margery Kempe

“When this creature was twenty years of age, or somewhat more, she was married to a worshipful burgess [of Lynn] and was with child within a short time, as nature would have it.”

The second book of my Well-Educated Mind Biographies Project took me to the turn of the fifteenth century when the Late Middle Ages was morphing into the Early Renaissance.  Margery Kempe, a married women with 14 children decides that her devotion to God eclipses everything else in her life, and embarks on a mystical journey to get as close as she can to His Love and Grace, and to conform her life to His will.  While the narrative is somewhat disjointed, springing back and forth between different episodes in Margery’s life, the reader must decide:  does Margery have a special relationship with God and are her actions spiritually beneficial, or is she somewhat unbalanced emotionally and do her actions have a negative impact on those around her?

While Margery speaks of her devotion to God and of the special protection and attention he sends her way, a repeated theme runs through this book of her unusually shocking weeping and crying, and how her behaviour alienates the people around her.  In story after story, Margery weeps and wails in loud outbursts, a person or the people get irritated with her and, at the least, want her to stop and, at the most, want her imprisoned.  Margery does show a comprehension that her behaviour sows discord with those around her, and does try to moderate her reactions, but is unable to because of the force of feeling for God in her heart; she simply cannot control her response.

At first, like many people Margery met, her weeping and sobbing drove me crazy.  I think in this book she described every incident that she wailed and moaned, and I was soon in complete sympathy with the people who wanted her either run out of town or put in prison.  Yet about mid-way through the book I began to think ………..  How did Margery conduct herself as a person?  What were her traits and how did she interact with other people whom she met in life?  Yes, her life was completely given to God and he was her primary source of love and care and motivation, but the result of that love was her willingness to help and care for people, her desire to see people saved and experience God’s grace like she had, and, surprisingly, her meek yet powerful words that she used against her accusers. Rarely did she respond in kind to their recriminations, intimidation or threats, but with an honest and sincere demeanour, that often would disarm them.  Did she ever hurt anyone with her behaviour?  No, she was simply annoying and, therefore, was it right to ostracize her, berate her and throw her in prison for being bothersome?

Ultimately I felt that this book said as much about the society around Margery, as Margery herself.  Their intolerance for anyone different than themselves, their impatience at her benign behaviour and their lust for vengeance was quite startling, yet when I compared it to our society today, how different was it really?  Don’t we display the same intolerance, the same prejudice and the same narrow-mindedness as the people of Margery’s time?   Are we exasperated or offended by people with different ideas or bothered when people behave differently than we expect?  I think, if we’re honest, we’d be compelled to answer “yes”.

The book also gives fascinating details of medieval life.  While we, as moderns, always tend to think women were oppressed and had no say in how they lived their lives, Margery chose to live apart from her husband, traveled around Europe often in the company of men, and quite forcefully made her own choices about the path her life would take.  Certainly she was occasionally reprimanded by priests or given advice by townspeople that she should behave like a “normal” woman, but the vast majority of people appeared to accept her lifestyle without comment and are much more concerned or annoyed with the quantity of her weeping and emotional distress.

Margery’s amazing perseverance in her beliefs, and her ability to remaining faithful when she is imprisoned, ostracized, mocked and threatened, are what impacted me while reading this biography.  Her lack of anger and her tolerance towards her persecutors is truly heroic.  While I wouldn’t want to be Margery Kempe, and I didn’t agree with all her decisions, I can certainly see traits within her that would be beneficial in my own life, and for that, I have a reluctant admiration for her single-minded faithfulness and unquenchable spirit.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-coloured hotel.”

Early this year I read The Great Gatsby with, I’ll admit, some trepidation, since I’d read it in high school pretty much hated it. But my second exposure was much more pleasant and, if not my favourite book, I could definitely appreciate certain aspects of its structure, and especially Fitzgerald’s descriptive power.  So when my Goodreads group decided to read Tender is the Night, I was in with only minor hesitation.

Continue reading

Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles

“I am blind and old, Antigone, my child.”

Now blind and aged, Oedipus, with his daughter, Antigone, arrive at a place just outside of Athens called Colonus.  Though warned by a villager that this place in which they wish to reside is sacred, possessed by the all-seeing Eumenides (Furies), a land of Poseidon and Prometheus, and the founding stone of Athens, Oedipus refuses to leave.  A past prophecy has determined that the sacred grove of the Eumenides at Colonus, will be the site of his death, and here he is determined to stay.

Oedipus at Colonus
Jean-Antoine-Théodore (1788)
source Wikipedia

When a chorus of men of the city arrive and, upon learning the identity of Oedipus, they attempt to persuade him to depart from their city, fearing his curse will bring trouble to them.  Oedipus defends his position by agruing that because he had no knowledge of his crimes, he is therefore not responsible for the consequences, in particular, claiming self-defence in the murder of his father, Laius.

But lo, into the fray rides his daughter, Ismene, bringing news that Oedipus’ youngest son, Eteocles, has seized the throne of Thebes from the elder, Polynices, and both sons have heard from the oracle that the outcome of their conflict will depend entirely on the location of their father’s burial.  Yet there is more treachery!  Creon (brother-in-law to Oedipus) is, as she speaks, on his way to ensure that Oedipus will be buried at the border of Thebes, without the ceremony, in an attempt to negate the oracle’s proclamation.
Oedipus at Colonus
Fulchran-Jean Harriet (1798)
source Wikipedia

Denouncing them all as villains, Oedipus meets with Theseus, King of Athens who shows sympathy for his predicament, offering unconditional protection and making him a citizen of his country.  How Oedipus praises his saviour, and declares that his beneficent actions will ensure Athens victory in any altercation with Thebes!

When Theseus exits, Antigone announces the advent of Creon.  At first, he attempts to manipulate Oedipus using pity, but when he sees this tact will not bring him success, he admits to kidnapping Ismene, and grabs Antigone to forcibly take her away.  Theseus returns in kingly grandeur to scold Creon, then the Athenians overpower the Thebians, returning both girls to their father.

Oedipus Cursing Polynices (1786)
Henri Fuseli
source Wikipedia

One thinks that at last Oedipus might get some peace in his last hours, but it is not to be.  Informed by Theseus that a suppliant has arrived to speak with him, he learns it is his son, Polynices, who begs his father to release the curse he had placed on his sons for their part in his banishment from Thebes, knowing that their conflict is a result of the curse.  Oedipus, in complete disgust of his offspring, refuses and Polynices exits to meet his near-certain fate.

A thunderstorm ensues, which portends Oedipus’ passing.  Oedipus gifts Theseus with the promised gift of protection for Athens and then passes into Hades.  When Antigone wishes to see his tomb, Theseus refuses in response to a promise to Oedipus, never to reveal the location of his tomb.  Antigone departs to attempt to stop her brothers’ conflict.

There is a curious dichotomy in this play with regard to the character of Oedipus.  In spite of the fact he is an exiled, blind old man, with a terrible curse upon him, rarely do you find him subject to the other characters.  In fact, Antigone listens closely to his counsel, he has a command and influence over Theseus, he manages to overcome Creon, and also best his son by refusing to assist him.  On the outside, he is aged, infirm and at the mercy of his hosts, but in actuality, Oedipus is the master of each situation.

Yet Oedipus also places emphasis on his innocence with regard to his crimes.  Again and again, he proclaims to the chorus of Athenian men that he had no pre-knowledge of his transgressions and was, therefore, blameless.  This was a different reaction from Oedipus Rex, where he seemed to take the crimes on to himself, and punish himself for them.

The Death of Oedipus (1784)
Henry Fuseli
source Wikipedia

While on one level, the trials and sufferings born by Oedipus seemed somewhat random in Oedipus Rex, in Oedipus at Colonus we see a culmination of prophecy.  By his exile, Oedipus is brought to the sacred grove of the Eumenides (Furies), fulfilling prophecy, and although this exile was brought about by a curse, Oedipus is actually turned into a hero-type figure by bringing blessing and protection upon the important city of Athens.

Of the 123 plays that Sophocles wrote, only seven complete plays have survived.  That makes me want to cry.  However, parts of plays are still being discovered.  In 2005, additional fragments of a play about the second siege of Thebes, Epigoni, were discovered by employing infrared technology by classicists at Oxford University.  So there is hope that the ancients can still speak to us through time (and new technology) and, as Gandalf said, that is a very comforting thought, indeed!

The book was completed for my Classics Club Spin #6.

Translated by David Grene
Edited by David Grene & Richard Lattimore

⇐  Oedipus Rex  

 

Mount TBR Checkpoint

According to Bev at My Reader’s Block, it’s time to report on my climb up the mountains!  Which mountains have I surpassed?   Which mountain have I reached?  Have I met my goals?  Well, let me investigate!

As far as my challenge goes, it appears that I quickly scaled Pike’s Peak (12 books), continued on to Mount Blanc (24 books) and have just started to ascend Mount Vancouver, which I’ll conquer if I reach 36 books.  It looks like I may be able to reach Mount Ararat this year at 48 books, but it will be a close call.  Can I do it?  Stay tuned to find out!

photo courtesy of Glenn
source Flickr
Creative Commons

Bev kindly posted a few questions that we may choose to answer in honour of our mid-year check-in.

A. Choose two titles from the books you’ve read so far that have a common link. You decide what the link is–both have strong female lead characters? Each focuses on a diabolical plot to take over the world? Blue covers? About weddings? Find your link and tell us what it is.

This one was particularly easy.  The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus all explored the idea of fate, and, from an ancient Greek worldview at least, that you are helpless to escape it.  You’re in the hands of the gods and they control your destiny!

And because that question was so easy, I’ve chosen to answer another one:

 B. Tell us about a book on the list that was new to you in some way–new author, about a place you’ve never been, a genre you don’t usually read…etc.

Paradise Lost had been on my list for some time but I had very cleverly avoided it.  Seventeenth century poetry in blank verse is scary!!  Yet, when it came up in a read-along I knew that it was the perfect time to participate. And wow!  What an epic!  And how silly of me to wait so long.  I have plans to read Paradise Regained but I don’t think that it can even come close to the brilliance of the original so I’m a little hesitant to start it right away.  In any case, with hindsight, I wish I had read Paradise Lost years ago!

photo courtesy of @Doug88888
source Flickr
Creative Commons

So what have you read off your personal bookshelves this year?

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

“Children, young sons and daughters of old Cadmus, why do you sit here with your suppliant crowns?”

A dark curse is upon Thebes.  Blighted cattle and plants cover the land, the women are barren and a deadly plague creeps throughout the kingdom, sparing no one in its fatal grasp.  Creon, brother-in-law to King Oedipus, reveals that the curse placed on the kingdom is a result of the murder of its last king, Laius, and until the perpetrator is found, there is no hope of relief from their present woes.  Oedipus, king of Thebes, calls the wisest man to the palace, the blind prophet, Teiresias, to discover the identity of the vile culprit.  
Yet through wise Teiresias and the shepherds of Laius, it is revealed that Oedipus was unwittingly the killer, slaying the king on a road to Thebes, in self-defence and completely unaware of his victim’s identity.  Unbeknownst to Oedipus, he was fulfilling a prior prophecy, that he would kill his father and marry his mother.  And true to prophecy, Oedipus, after freeing Thebes from a different curse by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, became the new king of Thebes and married the current queen, Jocasta, also his mother.

Oedipus after he solves the riddle
of the Sphinx (1808)
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
source Wikipedia

Upon hearing the fulfillment of the curse, a stunned and horrified Oedipus flees, yet soon finds Jocasta has hanged herself with shame and, grabbing the brooches from her garments, dashes his eyes out until blood flows in rivers down his face. At the behest of Oedipus, Creon banishes him from the city.

The sins of murder and incest has blighted the life of Oedipus and the lives of his progeny; his sons will be left without a father or inheritance and his daughters will be ostracized, unable to marry.  His anguished speech carries notes of his misery and devastation:

“What can I see to love?
What greeting can touch my ears with joy?
Take me away, and haste —– to a place out of the way!
Take me away, my friends, the greatly miserable,
the most accursed, whom God too hates
above all men on earth!”

The state of blindness and the character of Oedipus are closely linked. Instead of listening to the wisdom of the blind prophet, Teiresias, Oedipus refuses to believe him, therefore choosing blindness over knowledge.  Later in the play, when he accepts the knowledge of his actions, he physically blinds himself, which echoes his emotional blindness earlier in the story.

Can one commit a crime with complete lack of awareness and still be responsible for the repercussions of his actions?  Is the harshness of Oedipus’ penalty and the suffering he endures from the consequences, a justifiable outcome given the circumstances?  Why does no one in the kingdom disagree with the punishment of Oedipus, and appear more shocked by the unintentional sins than the maiming he inflicts upon himself?

Oedipus Separating from Jocasta
Alexandre Cabanel
source Wikipedia

What we can take away from this drama is helplessness in the hands of fate.  Though everyone pities Oedipus and does not blame him, there is nothing they can do in the face of his punishment.  To the Greeks, fate is supreme and unaffected by human choice; Oedipus attempts to avoid his destiny yet only succeeds in bringing it to fruition.  Finally, we are exposed to a chilling Greek worldview, that we can “Count no mortal happy till he has passed the limit of his life secure from pain.”

Apparently Oedipus Rex, while first chronologically of the three Theban plays, is in fact the second in written order.  I will enjoy trying to find out the common threads between the three, and if I feel there are any inconsistencies due to the fact they were composed out of order.  The next one on the schedule is Oedipus at Colonus where we meet Oedipus in exile.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”

Gaining a passionate, yet unguided knowledge for science, young Victor Frankenstein arrives at university with an unquenchable thirst for learning and advancement.  When he involves himself in an isolated solitary experiment to create life, the resulting creature so appalls and revolts him, that he cannot contain his revulsion.  The consequent rejection of his creation culminates in a series of tragedies that could not even have entered Frankenstein’s imagination.

Theodor von Holst
from 1831 edition
source Wikipedia

Initially, the book begins with an introductory sub-plot of Robert Walton, a scientific adventurer who is on a naval quest to find a northern passage or discover the secret of the magnetic poles.  Walton is portrayed as a man intoxicated with the desire for knowledge, a clear indication that his character mirrors that of Victor Frankenstein, and his idealistic dreams parallel those of the friend he rescues (Frankenstein).  At the beginning of Frankenstein’s story, we see how he immerses himself in science and, by doing so, isolates himself from the friends and acquaintances around him, and remains housebound, separated from the outdoors. Without companionship and nature, the very things that feed our souls, he is blind to the spiritual aspects of humanity, seeing only the physiological perspective of a scientific creation.  In effect, he rejects his own Creator to put himself in His place.

In fact, the first sentence of the book, the beginning of a letter from Robert Walton to his sister, gives the reader a clue as to the lack of awareness the scientist can develop to the world around him:  “You will rejoice to hear that that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”  In a frenzied quest for new discovery, the scientist can often lose any objectivity and will marginalize the prudent advice given by others, who have perhaps more objective insight.

In Frankenstein’s story, we get a cautionary tale of the consequences of unexamined and incautious actions based on a deification of science, yet therein also lies a theme of abandoned responsibility.  If Frankenstein had attempted to communicate with the creature and valiantly hid his disgust of it, would the outcome have been different?  Could he have humanized his creation with sympathy and nurturing?  I have my doubts. Upon the creature’s flight and escape to the woods, he discovers a family living there and, by observing them, he learns to read and write and is exposed to profound literature, which reveals both goodness and evil to him. The creature learns what it means to be human and, in fact, admires the goodness of the family.  However he ultimately chooses evil, using his rejection by humans as an excuse for his deviant actions.  Victor Frankenstein was another unsympathetic character.  Numerous times he had a chance to attempt to stop the evil he had created, yet each time he did nothing, often at the expense of a human life.  I was actually quite disgusted with him.  His inaction was almost on a level with the creature’s atrocities.

Boris Karloff
as Frankenstein’s monster
source Wikipedia

While I found the plot of this novel in some senses exaggerated, in a general sense it brought up a number of important issues for reflection.  Are we responsible for what we create and, if so, to what degree?  Is knowledge something to be pursued with unlimited passion, or should we approach it with a healthy respect, and should restrictions be put on our pursuit of it?  Does the development of character, values and morality depend on genetics or environment? Shelley brought attention to these universal and timeless issues which segued into more specific questions related to the story.  Should the creature be pitied?  Does his abandonment, rejection and isolation justify his actions of revenge?  Was Frankenstein’s rejection directly responsible for the tragic circumstances, and therefore, was he completely to blame for his own fate?  Is the creature evil, or simply a misunderstood creation, who, if loved and nurtured, would have developed love and empathy and a conscience, like most other human beings?

The story of Frankenstein was birthed during a trip to Geneva in 1816. Together with her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley spent the summer there with their companion, Lord Byron.  After Byron proposed that they each write a ghost story, Shelley found herself at a loss for inspiration.  It was only after a conversation about the “re-animation of a corpse,” that Shelley had a waking dream:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.  I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.  Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

And so Frankenstein was born.

Portrait of Mary Shelley (1840)
Richard Rothwell
source Wikipedia

Mary Shelley was the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstoncraft Godwin, the former a philosopher, novelist and journalist, the latter also a philosopher as well as a writer.  With such notable antecedents, Shelley’s exposure to books was unusually vast for a female of her era.  Here is a chronological list of the works of literature which she read during the years of 1814 to 1821.

Here, also, are two other excellent reviews of Frankenstein by M. Landers and Majoring in Literature for your reading pleasure!  Enjoy!

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

“The Revd Septimus Harding was, a few years since, a beneficed clergyman residing in the cathedral town of ______, let us call it Barchester.”

The Honest Gossip Newspaper


In many a town in England there are given charitable bequests to church dioceses, and the honest public assumes that the monies are distributed in a fair and equitable way, in a manner that benefits all who have need of them.  Yet this learned reporter has discovered that in a small holding in Barsetshire, there has been a shocking exploitation of this practice, resulting in twelve respectable old gentlemen being cheated out of their livelihood.  And who is the avaricious fiend to be so bold as to expropriate funds which are not solely meant for him?

The Revd Septimus Harding, the warden of Hiram’s Hospital in Barsetshire, it has been discovered, earns 800 pounds per annum for his position as warden and overseer of the legacy left by the philanthropic John Hiram, namesake of Hiram’s Hospital, yet the gentlemen who were meant to benefit from his legacy, receive housing and a paltry one shilling four pence per day to meet all their needs in their tender and uncertain later years of life.


Ask yourself, can you as a common man remain indifferent to the plight of others?   Can you remain indifferent to the misappropriation of funds by a man who not only takes bread out of the mouths of his brothers, but whose actions leaves a stain on the offices of the sacred and respected agents of mother Church?  Oh, for shame you vainglorious men who have no respect for what is sacred, yet greedily engorge yourselves with money to line your already comfortable existence!  Is it to be borne?  No!  Mr. Harding must be revealed as the avaricious culprit he is, and the money given to the rightful recipients, who deserve it far more than a warden who presently lives comfortably on this legacy while doing nothing to earn its bestowal.  Who will see that justice is served in such a uncomfortable yet critical situation?  This reporter knows just the man!


Our young and zealous reformer, Mr. John Bold, has been working industriously to illuminate this unfortunate circumstance and expose the corruption that has so carefully been concealed .  Can we trust this gentleman in his noble purpose?  Certainly!  Not only does his estimable reputation speak volumes, but in spite of his relationship to the aforementioned’s lovely daughter, Eleanor, he will not let possible future familial ties stand in the way of serving justice.  We have learned that he has wisely consulted a respectable and reputable law firm to deal with this perplexing and delicate matter and that, once begun, nothing will stand in his way.  The bishop and his pretentious son, the archdeacon Theophilus Grantly (also son-in-law to the accused), can puff and blow all they like, but we all know which side is valiantly trumpeting the truth.  It will be heard, and the Reverend Harding will be made to choke on it.



——————————————————-

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows
John Constable 1831
(Trollope said his first vision for The Warden came while walking in
the cathedral close of Salisbury Cathedral)
source Wikipedia

This is a sample of what poor Septimus Harding, warden of Hiram’s Hospital had to withstand: an unfair accusation, judgement, an attack on his character and the possible loss of his livelihood.  His son-in-law, the archdeacon, attempts to defend his father-in-law, yet in a worldly, materialistic, dictatorial manner, which his father-in-law cannot respect or accept.  Harding’s simple, gentle, sacrificial nature, while at first bends under the pressure of his contemporaries, eventually asserts itself in his determination to act in an honourable manner.  In a case where people’s good intentions do more harm than good, we realize that law and justice followed blindly, can have unexpected negative repercussions.  Love and friendship hold a human value that money can never equal, and the loss of the former can create an emotional deprivation that is felt long after the incident is over.

What others said:

Behold the Stars:  “I love it, though – it’s a gentle novel, with real, ‘whole’ characters (George Orwell described it as one of his best works), and Septimus Harding is one of my favourite characters of all time.”

Avid Reader’s Musings:  “Bold sees his purpose as noble and right even though he’s hurting the people he loves.  It makes the reader question his decision, is it truly motivated by his beliefs or by his pride?”

Fig and Thistle:  “Each character is vividly unique and the dialogue is engaging.  This book certainly has a heavy dose of wit and shrewd society skewering, but without cynicism.”

This first book in the Barsetshire Chronicles read-along, hosted by Avid Reader’s Musings and Fig & Thistle, proved to be an excellent introduction to Anthony Trollope and I have already cracked open the next book, Barchester Towers, to continue my visits with the characters and happenings of Barsetshire.

The Barsetshire Chronicles