The things that matter

“Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.”

–Marcel Proust


The Things That MatterYears and years ago, when I was a two-week veteran of college life and still relatively starry-eyed about spending the next four years in libraries and classrooms, surrounded by an atmosphere of intellectual discovery and debate, I had my first argument with a teacher over a book—ever—and  I  won.

Oh, I had disagreed with teachers in the past. Like anyone, my public-school education was filled with a mix of people who were more or less dedicated to stuffing learning into the heads of hormonally-distracted teenagers. Often their dedication was at inverse proportion to their exhaustion.  But exhausted or not, they carried far too much authority in my mind to ever be publicly challenged. A few scathing remarks from the more jaded and cynical ones was enough to curb any impulse I had to speak up when, for example, one of my more unfortunate English teachers decided to take us through The Scarlet Letter and, in a dreadful misuse of Freudian theory, point out the phallic nature of every tree in the wood.  (It was years before I could bring myself to read Hawthorne without an icky feeling crawling up my skin).

Perhaps it was the new city, the room full of people that didn’t know me; that I didn’t know at all. Perhaps it was because this class met in an old library, at wide tables surrounded by dark wooden bookcases filled with leather-bound volumes—the kind of setting which made me feel relaxed and at home. Almost certainly it was because the professor for the class—a survey of classic literature—had just introduced me to the concept of “the great conversation”, which is the idea that all the writers and philosophers there have ever been have been holding a dialogue with each other—posing questions for the next generation to answer. But I decided to speak up at last.  I was on familiar ground here—I had been having conversations with books since I first learned how to read.

The argument that started off my college career was over Jane Eyre and the professor had taken the rather odd stance that Jane was a morally weak character. He based this surprising conclusion on the fact that Jane returns to Rochester after hearing him “call” in the middle of the night. She could have no idea that anything had changed since she had run away from a near-bigamous marriage and Rochester’s proposal that they run away together, live out of wedlock. So how could she return? Wasn’t she simply giving in to a proposal that she had already decided was morally wrong?

I stuttered a protest. Jane Eyre has possibly the most moral integrity of any fictional character ever to grace the printed page. When she is abused, she does not break. When she is tempted, she does not give in. At every pivotal point in her life—at times when even the best of us might be forgiven for compromising ourselves for the sake of a kind word or look—she holds true to some internal compass. Jane, I argued, is never weak.

With all the self-assuredness of the very young, I launched into a slightly breathless defense of dear Jane and insisted that to ignore the love that existed between herself and Rochester is what would have been weak.  She leaves him because to be his mistress would be to base her life on a lie. She refuses to marry her cousin instead, because a loveless marriage is also a lie. And she can not ignore her love for Rochester, or pretend it has no place in her life, because that, also, would be to live in a lie. No, the only answer for Jane is to return and confront this love between them. She goes—with no certainty of anything but confronting a terrible situation which will only cause her pain. But she still goes. Because anything less would be running away from the truth.

Mind you, when I was explaining this to the professor and the class, I think I put it a little less rationally: “But she loved him! She couldn’t ignore that!”

Despite my youthful incoherence, I apparently won the day for Jane Eyre, or else the rest of the class was full of hopeless romantics, because they all agreed.  From that moment on, Jane Eyre became a pivotal role model in my life and it is not an uncommon thing for me to think, when confronted with some dilemma, “what would Jane do?”  Jane—my Jane—the one I hold inside myself, is the bravest person I ever met.

It is somewhat comforting to discover, some twenty-odd years later, that my instincts were right about the book, because the noted literary critic Edward Mendelson totally agrees with me, and says so in his most recent book The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life.

It is the kind of book calculated to appeal to people like me, who live their lives in books.  Mendelson has picked seven novels and teased from them lessons about the major developmental stages in life—birth (Frankenstein), childhood (Wuthering Heights), growth (Jane Eyre), marriage (Middlemarch), love (Mrs. Dalloway), parenthood (To the Lighthouse) and aging (Between the Acts). Each section of the book is devoted to one stage, and one novel that seems—to Mendelson—to epitomize the modern human condition, to sum up our wayward existences and to offer to its readers deep philosophical explorations into the nature of identity.

Yeah—that is what I meant to say when I told my professor “But she loved him!”

Mind you, Mendelson’s admiration for Jane Eyre, and all his subsequent conclusions about her character is founded on a much wider acquaintance with the Brontës than I have ever possessed.  Where I just whined and protested that Jane was a fine woman, he is able to draw parallels with Charlotte Brontë’s own philosophical development, make interesting allusions to the Indian practice of suttee (wherein a Hindu widow would immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre), and talk knowledgably about marriage vows and the Book of Common Prayer.   All of which will give the reader a much deeper appreciation for the psychological undercurrents that swirl beneath the story but doesn’t erase the final point: I was right. Jane and Rochester must meet again because they are in love, and love can not be ignored.

Mendelson’s choice of novels to illustrate the stages of life may raise a few eyebrows. Not only are they all by women, but three are by Virginia Woolf, and two by the Brontë sisters.  There is something decidedly odd about using Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to open up a discussion about birth. It is, after all, the most perverse literary birth since the titan Cronus vomited up his devoured children and created the Greek pantheon.  Nor does Wuthering Heights, surely the most furious novel ever written in the English language, really come to mind when thinking about “childhood.”  But Mendelson’s perspective on each of the novels he has chosen wins the curious reader’s attention: if we are not entirely convinced that Catherine and Heathcliffe exist in a unity of soul only capable in childhood fantasy, we are at least intrigued by the idea.  Mendelson brings shades of meaning to books already shrouded in shadows.

Whether or not one agrees with the author’s interpretations or even his choices of books is not really the writer’s point.  There is no reason why, for example, the lessons about growth and maturity he sees in Jane Eyre are not also to be found, in different form, in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.  No reason why the lessons of a life at its close might not be gleaned from John Banville’s The Sea, or Roth’s Human Stain, or from any number of novels by Updike.  Indeed, the reader gets the feeling that Mendelson is encouraging him to do just that. His is a rare breed of literary criticism–he is not so interested in dissecting a book to see what makes the author tick. He is concerned with how books make their readers tick. The Things That Matter is not a book about literature; it is a book about life. When engaging in that curious and near-miraculous process called reading, Mendelson wants the reader to bring the story into himself and claim for his own.

In his lovely novel The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon observes that the art of reading is “. . . an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day.”  It is clear that Edward Mendelson is a great reader.  But what his book does is teach us all to become great readers.  All we have to do is pay attention to the things that matter.

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