Thursday, March 23, 2017

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Larry Niven’s Ringworld is a reread for me. This novel, originally published in 1970, tells the story of four adventurers who explore a mysterious alien mega-structure. Set in the far future, humankind has begun colonizing the galaxy. Humans have also encountered and interacted with several sentient alien species.

This is a very character-driven book. The list of protagonists consist of: Louis Wu, a playboy who is also intelligent, philosophical and enlightened; Teela Brown, a young woman who has a strange, possibly psychically-based, tendency to experience nothing but good luck; Speaker to Animals, a member of an alien race of feline-like warriors called the Kzin; and Nessus is a member of an alien species called Pierson's Puppeteers.

The Puppeteers are key to the plot. They two-headed Tripods. Their extreme caution is manifested in enormous cowardice. They are also an extremely advanced civilization that is capable of moving entire planets over vast distances.

The story hinges on the fact that The Puppeteers have discovered a massive, artificial ring structure orbiting around a remote star. Its surface is so big that its landmass would encapsulate a million Earths. Its origin, as well as the origin of those who built it, is unknown. The Puppeteers are afraid to mount their own expedition, thus the book’s protagonists are recruited to explore the Ringworld. The narrative details their wanderings on the object. Upon reaching the Ringworld, they discover that the once advanced civilization that occupied the mega-structure has collapsed into near barbarism.  The expedition proceeds to have encounters with all sorts of amazing aliens and phenomena.

Though it is considered, and does loosely fit into the category of hard science fiction, this book is, above all else, fun. The characters are entertaining, and their interactions between each other are as interesting as they are amusing. The adventure that they partake in is grand. The description of both the Ringworld as well as the various planets and technology encountered by the expedition is chocked full of wonder and is imaginative. In addition to all of this, the book is funny. Niven has a dry but active sense of humor, and all of the characters are all amusing.

An idea of the playful/serious/imaginative mix of the book is illustrated in the below passage which describes Louis Wu being attacked by an individual, the “hairy man,” followed by a mob,

“The blow was light, for the hairy man was slight and his hands were fragile. But it hurt. Louis was not used to pain. Most people of his century had never felt pain more severe than that of a stubbed toe. Anaesthetics were too prevalent, medical help was too easily available. The pain of a skier's broken leg usually lasted seconds, not minutes, and the memory was often suppressed as an intolerable trauma. Knowledge of the fighting disciplines, karate, judo, jujitsu, and boxing, had been illegal since long before Louis Wu was born. Louis Wu was a lousy warrior. He could face death, but not pain. The blow hurt. Louis screamed and dropped his flashlight-laser. The audience converged. Two hundred infuriated hairy men became a thousand demons; and things weren't nearly as funny as they had been a minute ago. “

Though the novel brings the reader into contact with incredible things and Niven has put a lot of thought into the science, the physics, biology, astronomy, psychology, etc., is described in enough detail to be interesting but never so much detail to be boring. The author makes many of these fanciful events and objects plausible. There is also a lot of monumental things going on in the universe, such as the existence of the humongous Ringworld itself, the movements of entire planets, galactic explosions, genetic breeding programs that can alter the course of civilizations, etc. Big issues are addressed, such as human evolution, free will, the fate of civilizations, the nature of human suffering, etc. All of this is presented in fascinating and imaginative ways that are never pretensions.

There are philosophical themes floating around. The issue of control is present throughout the narrative. Individuals are constantly trying to control each other, and entire species are often attempting to control other species. As the tale progresses, Teela Brown becomes more central to the book’s themes. Her tendency to be “lucky” has a profound effect on those around her.   Everything just falls into place in ways that benefit her.   This may be impinging on the free will of those around her. This is not always portrayed as a good thing. There is a libertarian tendency and a strong message championing individual freedom here.  Having read a few of Niven’s works, I can say that in the 1980s his books displayed a more traditionally Conservative view, which seems to have evolved from this earlier stage.

Many people consider this novel a science fiction classic. This book, along with Niven’s entire Known Space series, of which Ringworld is a part, has achieved cult status.  A Google search reveals dozens of websites, some very extensive, devoted to the technology, aliens, characters and philosophy of the books that make up the Known Space series. This series includes many books, including several direct sequels to the Ringworld, of which I have read a few. I may read or reread a few more books in the series.

The book is far from perfect.  Niven’s prose never rises above the mediocre. While the author does philosophize a lot, the philosophy tends to be simplistic and does not show a lot of complexity or nuance. In the end, however, this book’s virtues rise above its flaws.

This is an intelligent and fun work of science fiction. It is populated by lively and amusing characters and ideas. It tackles a lot of big issues in unpretentious ways.  I highly recommend this novel to anyone who likes well thought out but entertaining stories of wonder.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Fidget by Anton Chekhov

I read the Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear translation of this story.

This Post contains spoilers.

As I observed here, one common aspect of Anton Chekhov’s stories is that they champion the voiceless. In the story Anyuta, the tale’s namesake is exploited by her boyfriend, Stepan Klochkov. In response, Anyuta suffers silently. Furthermore, Stepan shows no redeeming qualities.  Having read a fairly large number of Chekhov’s stories, I can say that this type of unhealthy relationship is very common in the great Russian writer’s tales. 

The Fidget is another of the tales of the voiceless as well as their exploitive counterparts. Newlywed Olga Ivanovna neglects her husband, Dymov, and cheats on him with her artist friend, Ryabovsky. The entire story concerns her ill treatment of him. Though Dymov comes to realize what is going on, he never confronts his wife. 

When she decides to cheat on Dymov, Olga Ivanovna ponders, 

“She wanted to think of her husband, but the whole of her past, with the wedding, with Dymov, with her soirĂ©es, seemed small to her, worthless, faded, unnecessary, and far, far away… What Dymov, indeed? Why Dymov? What did she care about Dymov? Did he really exist in nature, or was he merely a dream? “For him, a simple and ordinary man, the happiness he has already received is enough,” she thought, covering her face with her hands. “Let them condemn me there, let them curse me, and I’ll just up and ruin myself, ruin myself to spite them all… One must experience everything in life. Oh, God, how scary and how good!””

As cruel as the above is, there is a tinge of regret in Olga Ivanovna’s mind, despite the fact that she rationalizes her actions with, “For him, a simple and ordinary man, the happiness he has already received is enough” she realizes that what she is doing is wrong.
This is unusual for Chekhov. In most of his other stories, like Anyuta, those that exploit the good and the silent do so without any regret. Furthermore, the malicious person usually gets away scot-free and ends up self-satisfied. However, something unusual happens in The Fidget.

Upon Dymov’s death, Olga Ivanovna is wracked with guilt and regret, 

“Olga Ivanovna recalled her whole life with him, from beginning to end, in all its details, and suddenly understood that he was indeed an extraordinary, rare man and, compared with those she knew, a great man...The walls, the ceiling, the lamp, and the rug on the floor winked at her mockingly, as if wishing to say: “You missed it! You missed it!”” 

Olga pays a price for her horrible treatment of Dymov. Her punishment is self-reproach. The story ends on this note. This reader is left to wonder what becomes of her. Will she go on, full of regrets as broken person, or will she use this tragedy and create something better for herself and for the world?

I think that there is at least some hope in the fact that Olga Ivanovna realizes what she has done. It gives her humanity. This is rare, as Chekhov’s oppressors do not usually show much compassion. Checkhov often wrote stories filled with darkness. Often the humanity he illuminates is only present in the downtrodden. In this tale, however, we see some light even in one who is culpable. 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Ward 6 by Anton Chekhov

This post contains spoilers.

I read the Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear translation of this story.

Like many of his stories, Anton Chekov’s Ward No. 6 explores various aspects of the human condition. It also takes a dive into stoic philosophy.

The ward of the title is a small facility that is part of a hospital complex where the severely mentally ill are housed. Several patients are described in this tale. Central to the story is Ivan Dmitrich Gromov who is confines to the ward. .He is philosophical thinker. Though he clearly is suffering from paranoid delusion, he often shows also great deal of sanity and insight.

The patients live under terrible conditions. They are physically abused. The ward is squalor filled. Dr. Andrei Yefimych Ragin is the Director of the hospital. Though he sees the terrible way in which that the patients are treated, he passively allows it to continue.

There is a lot going on in this story. At its heart are the philosophical discussions between Andrei Yefimych and Ivan Dmitrich. The Doctor is a stoic. He references Marcus Aurelius and other stoic philosophers at several points in the story.

Ultimately Chekov seems to be labeling stoicism as hypocrisy.  At one point Dr. Andrei Yefimych tries to lecture Ivan Dmitrich on the advantages of a stoic attitude,

"You can find peace within yourself under any circumstances. Free and profound thought, which strives towards the comprehension of life, and a complete scorn for the foolish vanity of the world— man has never known anything higher than these two blessings. And you can possess them even if you live behind triple bars”

Ivan Dmitrich is having none of this however. At one point he criticizes the philosophy that the doctor espouses,

“I know that God created me out of warm blood and nerves, yes, sir! And organic tissue, if it’s viable, must react to any irritation. And I do react! I respond to pain with cries and tears, to meanness with indignation, to vileness with disgust. In my opinion, this is in fact called life. The lower the organism, the less sensitive it is and the more weakly it responds to irritation, and the higher, the more susceptible it is and the more energetically it reacts to reality. How can you not know that? You’re a doctor and you don’t know such trifles!”

The narrative contains several lively debates and interactions between the two men. The fact that the doctor is preaching philosophical and emotional indifference from a position of comfort and security is underscored.

When Andrei Yefimych’s luck turns bad, he losses his position, financial security and his home. In a twist of fate, as his mental health deteriorates he is committed to Ward 6. However, he is unable to apply his stoic principles to cope with his terrible situation.

It seems clear, that based upon Andrei Yefimych fate, that Chekov is being highly critical of stoicism. Ivan Dmitrich, critic of stoicism, seems to be the voice of the author here. The hypocrisy and arrogance of Andrei Yefimych’s situation is highlighted in both the dialogues and the storyline.

My take on this is that Chekov has a point, but I do not go as far as him. For people who are in positions of security and ease to lecture those who are not so advantaged on the virtues of indifference, is the height of hypocrisy and arrogance. With that said, people have applied stoic philosophy successfully in dealing with terrible hardship  as well as a means to great success.  As a useful way to cope with suffering it can be enormously beneficial. Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl is but one of many examples of people who cite stoic ideals as the means through which they persevered through horrendous circumstances. However, this thought system should not be applied in a judgmental way. It also is not a universal solution to all the world’s suffering.

Ward 6 is another example of thoughtful but dark Chekov tale. Like many if not most of the author’s works, it is full of insights into human nature and life. This tale in particular, is a intellectual tidbit for those interested in philosophy.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Anyuta by Anton Chekhov

I read the Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear translation of this story.

Anton Chekhov’s stories and plays commonly share certain themes. They often examine people that can be described as voiceless and/or exploited by others. The author’s tales also show the mirror image of these people. They examine the exploiters, taking a hard look at those who hold power and who unashamedly take advantage of and use others.

These themes are well illustrated in the short story Anyuta.  The tale’s namesake is a young woman whose social position leads the upper classes to look down upon her. Stepan Klochkov is the young medical student with whom she is having an affair. Anyuta is under no illusions as to what their future holds in store. She observes,

In all her six or seven years of wandering through various furnished  rooms, she had known some five men like Klochkov. Now they had all finished their studies, had made their way in life, and, of course, being decent people, had long forgotten her.” 

Stepan is a terrible human being. At one point, he uses Anyuta as a human prop and draws markings on her body as he uses her as a study aid for a medical examination.  Chekhov uses this story to illustrate exactly what kind of a terrible person Stepan is. He is a kind that all too often exists among the respectable of society. Despite the fact that he has committed the same social taboos as Anyuta, and despite the fact that he is cruel and lacks empathy, he will be accepted by society and considered a reputable person. This is illustrated at the point that he decides to leave Anyuta.

“It was as if he foresaw the future with his mental eye, when he would receive patients in his office, have tea in a spacious dining room in company with his wife, a respectable woman— and now this basin of swill with cigarette butts floating in it looked unbelievably vile. Anyuta, too, seemed homely, slovenly, pitiful … And he decided to separate from her, at once, whatever the cost.”

I find the above lines show a terrible cruelty and arrogance inside of Stepan. The basin of cigarette butts and swill is more reflective of him than of Anyuta. 

For her part, Anyuta is one of many of Chekhov’s long-suffering protagonists. She is resigned to her position. There is no rebellion. There is something terribly sad about her. However, I think that the author is trying to show something dignified also. Anyuta is stoic, she hurts no one, she is not self-righteous and she demands nothing for herself. 

Chekhov has a knack for shinning light into this ugly side of human nature. He also has a knack for portraying those who are unfortunately on the receiving end of it. Like most of the author’s tales, this one does not have happy ending. With that, I think that, in giving voice to the voiceless, perhaps Chekhov is illuminating their humanity. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent

Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women is a dystopian novel written in 1986. It explores both gender as well as religious issues. A Google search finds that this book has been called a feminist classic, a dystopian classic and a science fiction classic. Though perhaps not a classic, I found it to be a worthy story and a thought provoking exploration of important themes. 

Set thousands of years after a nuclear war, Sargent depicts a world divided by gender as well as power. Though the story is plot driven, this is mostly a novel of ideas. 

In the future that Sargent depicts women exclusively live in cities. Their society is high technology and their lives are comfortable. They segregate themselves from men in order to prevent violence and war from encroaching on their civilization. 

At a young age, males are sent out of the cities. The all male culture that exists outside of the cities is primitive. The society consists of small, violent hunting bands. The men adhere to a religion that worships the image of women. This belief is reinforced through a virtual reality system, controlled by the women, that presents them with deistic and sexualized visions of women. All the virtual women that they encounter are seen as Aspects of a single Goddess known as “The Lady”. From time to time men are called to cities where their semen is collected so that the procreation of humanity can continue. 

Laissa is a young woman who begins to question the tenants of her society. Birana is another young woman who is exiled from the cities into the wilderness as punishment for being an accomplice to murder. Arvil, who is Laissa’s brother, is a young man who encounters Birana after she is exiled. Much of the narrative consists of Birana and Arvil coming to understand one another, falling in love and encountering various groups of men and women as they travel. Their encounters provide lots of grist for social commentary. The book is told in first person narrative split between three different main characters. 

This novel tells an interesting story using interesting characters as vehicles. It is a thoughtful exploration of themes that relate to humanity. The book is full of observations on gender, religion violence, etc. 

Arvil’s character presents, among other things, an examination of a person learning to question religion. Even before he meets Birana, he as questions why “The Lady” allows cruelty and suffering in the world. Furthermore he begins to doubt several assumptions of his theology. At one point he ponders the following,

“I tried to silence my questions, knowing that they would only lead to unholiness, but my mind’s voice persisted. Why did the Lady, knowing men were sinful, allow us to live?”

When he first encounters Brianna, Arvil believes that she is a Goddess. He slowly begins to realize that she is a human being like himself as his skepticism reaches a zenith. 

Obviously this story explores gender issues in all sorts of ways. This book is thoughtful. Even when I disagree with Sargent’s speculations, it is clear that the author has thought deeply and carefully about these topics. I think that one thing that the author gets right is her depiction of violence and cruelty as it relates to gender.  The all - female society that is depicted has some violence in it. Furthermore, its leadership is the source of terrible oppression of the male portion of the population.  At times mass murder is even committed against bands of men for various reasons. But this female - only society is still less violent then human societies have been throughout history. Violence between women exists but is rare. There is no war. I think that there are evolutionary biological reasons that support this picture. Large groups of women will be less violent on average then large groups of men, but at times will still display violence and cruelty. This depiction is contrary to those who argue that gender is entirely a social construct. However, I believe that the "social construct" argument is unsupported by both history and science. 

The male society in this book is extremely violent. This depiction also makes sense. Such hunter - gatherer, illiterate and non - technological cultures are almost always more violent then more organized, urbanized and agricultural  based societies. This is contrary to certain theories that can be characterized as belief in the "noble savage". That is, primitive societies are usually non - violent and posses other ethical attributes that more technologically advanced societies lack. I think that such theories are unsupported by evidence. 

Sargent is also saying something controversial about the female - only culture that she depicts.  Though technologically advanced, it is stagnant. There are many references in the text to the fact that there is no longer any collective will to make scientific advances or to explore the universe. 

At several points in the narrative, Laissa and some of the other women speculate that men, and even violence, might be an important part in spurring human progress. At one point, a critic of this society observes, 

“our past achievements in the sciences, the most important ones, took place during times when people were building their most powerful weapons. One might almost say that building the weapons brought about other, more constructive discoveries that otherwise wouldn’t have taken place…You know, most of the physicists in ancient times, before the Rebirth, were men.”

Though at times throughout history military buildups, research and war have prompted social and technical progress, history also shows that as societies become more peaceful, technical and social progress increases. I would point readers to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature to back this contention up. Thus I do not agree with Sargent’s message here. 

Furthermore, I think that there is no reason to believe that a female only society would be technologically stagnant. Of course, it is impossible to know for sure.

However, Sargent’s theme that society works best when masculine and famine aspects are in balance, seems to ring true. 

This book is not perfect. The writing is at points weak. For instance, Sargent relies excessively on description her characters eyes widening or narrowing to express emotion. Sometimes the dialog is a bit wooden. Though he is an interesting character, Arvil thinks too much like a citizen of an enlightened society despite that fact that he grew up in a warrior/hunter band. 

This book is also not for everyone. The lovemaking scenes between Birana and Arvil are extremely explicit. The story depicts many violent incidents including descriptions of both rape and murder. This violence is not gratuitous but it may disturb some readers. 

Despite a few flaws this is a fine work of speculative fiction that is not afraid to tackle all sorts of the ideas. The story and characters are interesting. The themes explored are thought provoking. I recommend this book for both science fiction fans as well as those interested in stories that explore gender and religious related issues.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the famous novel about nineteenth century Nigerian society and Colonialism’s impact on it. The book was written in 1958, in English. 

This short novel follows Okonkwo, an important man in Igbo society.  The story covers a swath of Okonkwo’s life. He is wealthy, respected  and successful. The tale explores the people that he has relationships with, including his multiple wives, children and friends.  When he accidently kills a man he is sent into a seven - year exile to his mother’s home village. During this time European government and missionaries move into the area. The newcomers disrupt the life of the Iocal people. Okonkwo family and friends are divided as some convert to Christianity at the urging of the newcomers. There is violence between the Igbo and the Europeans. At its height, an entire Igbo village is massacred.

This book works on several levels. The author delves into Igbo culture and society. Many pages are devoted to customs and folklore. The story covers such diverse topics as food, religion and marriage, just to name a few. 

The philosophy and message of this book is complicated. The story exposes the arrogance and wrongness of Colonialism. The Europeans bring death and chaos to the local society. 

There is also something ugly going on among the Igbo.  Okonkwo is a brutal man and a murderer. He physically abuses his multiple wives. He devalues woman. Throughout the text, the author seems to be reminding us that within this society there is a streak of brutality, violence, a devaluating of the feminine. We find out that when twins are born they are left in the forest to die. These horrors reach a low point when Okonkwo murders the young boy that he has taken in as son. All of Igbo society is indicted as the killing was ordered by a religious leader.  

At one point, Nwoye, who is Okonkwo son, is shown to be enjoying the stories told be his female relatives. But sexism and the glorification of violence leads him to reconsider. 

“That was the kind of story that Nwoye loved. But he now knew that they were for foolish women and children, and he knew that his father wanted him to be a man. And so he feigned that he no longer cared for women's stories. And when he did this he saw that his father was pleased, and no longer rebuked him or beat him. So Nwoye and Ikemefuna would listen to Okonkwo stories about tribal wars, or how, years ago, he had stalked his victim, overpowered him and obtained his first human head…”

It seems that the author is criticizing both European and Igbo society and actions. This book contains strong anti - violence and anti – misogynistic themes. The tale accomplishes this by shedding light upon the malignant effects of violence and the harmful affects of degrading women. 

There is a lot to recommend this work. In addition to the themes mentioned above, this is a wonderful examination of the positive aspects of Igbo culture. The commentary on Colonialism and religion is also complex and deserves a separate blog post.  Okonkwo, despite his flaws, is a brilliantly crafted character. I recommend this book to those who appreciate serious literature as well as anyone who may be interested in learning about the Igbo culture. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

This post contains spoilers. 

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot is the story of Maggie Tulliver. It is a brilliant character study. The tale starts during Maggie’s childhood. She is very close to her brother, Tom. The relationship between the two siblings plays a key role in this story.  At the book’s beginning, Maggie’s father, a fairly prosperous mill owner, is embroiled in a legal battle with a neighbor, Mr. Wakem, the result of which leaves him ruined. The balance of Tom and Maggie’s adolescence is spent in financial straits.

Maggie is sensitive. She is a free thinker who appreciates art and culture. She is different from those around her. Much of the tale illustrates how her gifts and virtues are underappreciated. This lack of appreciation stems from the unfair way that women and girls are viewed, as well as the fact that the people around her are unimaginative and lack understanding. 

Tom grows up to be dull, cold and unappreciative of culture. At times, his behavior is terrible. He takes advantage of Maggie’s great affection for him and uses these feelings to control her. For her part, Maggie has an almost unnatural connection and love for Tom.

Philip Wakem, a character who suffers from physical deformities, is a member of the rival Wakem clan. He is extremely intelligent and sensitive. He and Maggie develop a great affection for one another. Their relationship falls short of romantic love and can best be characterized as spiritual love. Their potential marriage is opposed by Tom, who forces them to separate.

Later in the story, Maggie and Phillip reestablish contact. But they continue their relationship in an unrequited manner. When wealthy Stephen Guest appears on the scene and establishes a romantic connection with Maggie, the situation becomes very complicated. Much of the balance of the book is devoted to the conflict between Maggie’s spiritual feelings for Philip and her romantic feelings for Steven. 

This novel is a great character study. Maggie is a wonderful literary creation. The book is also filled with wisdom that comes served on platter of delectable writing. In the below passage, the mundane character of everyday life is compared to the old days when things were supposedly grandeur,  

“Journeying down the Rhone on a summer's day, you have perhaps felt the sunshine made dreary by those ruined villages which stud the banks in certain parts of its course, telling how the swift river once rose, like an angry, destroying god, sweeping down the feeble generations whose breath is in their nostrils, and making their dwellings a desolation. Strange contrast, you may have thought, between the effect produced on us by these dismal remnants of commonplace houses, which in their best days were but the sign of a sordid life, belonging in all its details to our own vulgar era, and the effect produced by those ruins on the castled Rhine, which have crumbled and mellowed into such harmony with the green and rocky steeps that they seem to have a natural fitness, like the mountain-pine; nay, even in the day when they were built they  earth-born race, who had inherited from their mighty parent a sublime instinct of form. And that was a day of romance; If those robber-barons were somewhat grim and drunken ogres, they had a certain grandeur of the wild beast in them,– they were forest boars with tusks, tearing and rending, not the ordinary domestic grunter; they represented the demon forces forever in collision with beauty, virtue, and the gentle uses of life; they made a fine contrast in the picture with the wandering minstrel, the soft-lipped princess, the pious recluse, and the timid Israelite. That was a time of color, when the sunlight fell on glancing steel and floating banners; a time of adventure and fierce struggle,– nay, of living, religious art and religious enthusiasm; for were not cathedrals built in those days, and did not great emperors leave their Western palaces to die before the infidel strongholds in the sacred East? Therefore it is that these Rhine castles thrill me with a sense of poetry; they belong to the grand historic life of humanity, and raise up for me the vision of an echo. But these dead-tinted, hollow-eyed, angular skeletons of villages on the Rhone oppress me with the feeling that human life– very much of it– is a narrow, ugly, grovelling existence, which even calamity does not elevate, but rather tends to exhibit in all its bare vulgarity of conception; and I have a cruel conviction that the lives these ruins are the traces of were part of a gross sum of obscure vitality, that will be swept into the same oblivion with the generations of ants and beavers."

The writing is so good in the above passages. The imagery of the monumental things and people of the past is very impressive. It makes such an effective contrast with the more modern “dreary” and “ruined” villages. In the above quote, even the villains were magnificent, they were  “demon forces forever in collision with beauty” and “they were forest boars with tusks, tearing and rending.”  The prose also creates such an effective contrast between the mundane aspects of life and the awe-inspiring parts of human existence.

Eliot goes on to observe that the giants of the past also overshadow the story’s current characters. 

“Perhaps something akin to this oppressive feeling may have weighed upon you in watching this old-fashioned family life on the banks of the Floss, which even sorrow hardly suffices to lift above the level of the tragi-comic. It is a sordid life, you say, this of the Tullivers and Dodsons, irradiated by no sublime principles, no romantic visions, no active, self-renouncing faith; moved by none of those wild, uncontrollable passions which create the dark shadows of misery and crime; without that primitive, rough simplicity of wants, that hard, submissive, ill-paid toil, that childlike spelling-out of what nature has written, which gives its poetry to peasant life. Here one has conventional worldly notions and habits without instruction and without polish, surely the most prosaic form of human life; proud respectability in a gig of unfashionable build; worldliness without side-dishes.”

The Tullivers and Dodsons mentioned above are Maggie’s maternal and paternal families. Her aunts and uncles are often jealous, vindictive, braggadocios and constantly bickering. While her father is not without his virtues, he becomes obsessed with vengeance upon the Wakems. Tom can be cold and controlling. He becomes work obsessed. He holds no romantic thoughts at all. 

I think that the above quotes are a key to this novel. Maggie’s life can be viewed as the exact opposite of the “sordid life” lived by her relatives. Her relations often live a “a “narrow, ugly, groveling existence.” These passaes come early in the book. In retrospect, Maggie’s story seems to reach the level of magnificence embodied in the past as described here. Her relatives are often vulgar, but she is not. She strives for sublime principles and experiences romantic visions. She has a strong faith and tries to do what is right. Almost everything mentioned in the above paragraph characterizes positive things about Maggie and negative things about her relatives. One cannot help but to think that Maggie would be better suited had she lived in the times of romance, robber barons and drunken ogres. It is a testament to just how much her character shines and that one could picture her among such heroes and villains. 

The angry, destroying god” that made  “their dwellings a desolation” also foreshadows a terrible flood that eventually sweeps away much of the world depicted in this story. 

This book is also filled with ideas, philosophy and observations on human nature. These ruminations are often tied to the story’s themes. Like Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” this work brims full of references to various art forms. 

The plot develops very slowly. Eliot is more interested in developing characters and ideas than in moving things along. Those looking for a plot driven narrative might be bored with sections of this novel. However, the thoughtful and patient reader will be rewarded. 

There is so much to this book. At its heart, it is a great character study told in magnificent prose. In addition to Maggie, it is also filled with complex and well wrought out characters. It is full of philosophy, wisdom and culture. It is an interesting story. Ultimately it is a brilliantly written exploration of characters and ideas.