My Favorite “Texts from Jane Eyre” Excerpts

Brought to you by Mallory Ortberg—and also my mom, who bought me her book last month:

Achilles

we were just wondering
when you might be thinking
of coming back to the war that we’re having

well A of all youre being condecending

what did I say?

it wasnt what you said it was HOW you said it
and B of all i quit war forever
so
that’s when i’m coming back
whenever i un-forever quit war, which is never, so never

what’s this about, buddy?

he took that girl i liked

who did

that guy
I can’t say his name
the guy with the long name and the sun helmet

Agamemnon?

yeah that guy
he took that girl I like

which girl?

I DONT REMEMBER
GOD
what is this
name remembering day
the one who was always holding the wine
or like the orb or whatever
she was always carrying something

okay
okay
would it help if we got her back?

no
it would not help
and youre being condescending again
and im going home

what will you do if you go home?

i dunno
stuff grows out of the ground if you put stuff in it
so maybe ill do that

farming?

yeah
go home and put stuff in the ground and no one will take the girls i like
and i hope you all die in this stupid war

you don’t mean that

you don’t mean your face

what?

leave me alone

Wuthering Heights

god i love you cathy

i love you too
i love you so much
god
it hurts how much i love you

i love you so much 
let’s break each other’s hearts

oh my god let’s
i love you so much i’m going to marry edgar

i love you so much i’m going to run away

i love you so much i’m going to make myself sick

good
good that’s so much love

i love you so much i’m going to get sick again
just out of spite
i’ll forget how to breathe

i’ll be your slave

i’ll pinch your heart and hand it back to you dead

i’ll lie down with my soul already in its grave

i’ll damn myself with your tears

i love you so much i’ll come back and marry your sister-in-law

god yes

and i’ll bankroll your brother’s alcoholism

i always hoped you would

[…]

i love you SO MUCH
i’m going to write your name all over my books and then
i’m going to have someone else’s baby and then DIE

yes
cathy yes that’s perfect
i’m going to kidnap your daughter someday
and i won’t let your nephew learn how to read
because of how much i love you
and scream at your grave
and i’ll rent your room out
to some guy from London

oh my god thank you

Just in case you haven’t had your fill of snark, check out my own reviews of The Iliad and Wuthering Heights.

Happy reading!

#27 Native Son, Richard Wright

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The summer after I graduated from high school, I got a part-time job working at a dog kennel in my hometown. On my very first day, a 30-year-old stoner named Daryn gave me a tour of the facilities and showed me how to rotate the dogs between indoor and outdoor kennels. Most of the dogs were lodged individually, but dogs from the same household were allowed to stay together if requested by the owner.

When we reached the “large dog” wing, two mean-as-shit Rottweilers broke out in a fight. Daryn told me later they were brothers, which explained why they were sharing a kennel and why they were sharing it poorly. Daryn jumped into their kennel to wrestle them apart, shouting “Get the hose!” over his shoulder, and I did. I grabbed the hose and blasted the two dogs right in the chest, one after the other, startling them just enough for Daryn to split them up. I spent the next twenty minutes or so bandaging Daryn’s bloody hands, since he insisted “based on experience” that they didn’t need stitches.

As we left the break room, Daryn laughed and said, “Welcome to Best Friends Pet Resort.” And I remember thinking, This is a TERRIBLE first day on the job.

Native Son opens in 1930s Chicago and the dead of winter. Twenty-year-old Bigger Thomas assures his mother of his plans to accept a job chauffeuring for the Daltons—a rich white family that, incidentally, owns the building Bigger lives in. That afternoon, he meets Mr. Dalton, who agrees to hire him and requests that he drive Mary, his daughter, to school.

But instead of going to school, Mary directs Bigger to pick up her Communist boyfriend, Jan, for a wild night on the town. On returning home early the next morning, Bigger helps a drunken Mary upstairs to her room and panics when her blind mother walks in the door. Hoping to quiet her so she doesn’t give him away, Bigger smothers Mary with a pillow—accidentally killing her.

In an effort to destroy the evidence of his crime, Bigger feeds Mary’s body into the furnace. But when her head doesn’t fit, he is forced to decapitate her with a knife (and, later, a hatchet) before returning home for a few hours of sleep.

And I remember thinking, No, THAT is a terrible first day on the job.

This is not to say that Bigger is a likable, sympathetic character. In many ways, he is aggressively unlikable: a violent, contentious bully and rapist, Bigger feels little remorse for killing Mary and actually forgets about his subsequent attack on Bessie (the girlfriend he hopes to silence when it’s clear she can’t tag along on his getaway).

But Wright intended, all along, to write a monster—not a hero. Bigger isn’t meant to be likable; he is meant to demonstrate how the cycle of oppression, hatred, and violence so deeply rooted in U.S. race relations is both self-perpetuating and universally destructive. A poor black man with an eighth grade education, Bigger doesn’t bother with hopes and dreams for the future: With only odd jobs available to support his family, a cramped and rat-infested apartment that still manages to be a ripoff, and a sense of self informed only by the mocking, hateful portrayals of black people in the media, why would he? In his own words:

A guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can’t do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything… You don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing.

For the reader, as for Bigger, the events of the novel feel like a series of inevitabilities slowly closing in. From its earliest pages, Bigger expresses a generalized apprehension—a feeling “like something awful’s going to happen” to him. When something does—Mary’s death—it’s an accident, but he knows no one will believe him. “I knew that some time or other they was going to get me for something,” he says. “I’m black. I don’t have to do nothing for ’em to get me. The first white finger they point at me, I’m a goner.” The discovery of Mary’s body seems inevitable, as the hours tick by, as does Bigger’s imminent flight. Bessie’s slaughter seems inevitable the more she refuses to be his accomplice, and Bigger’s capture seems inevitable the more his manhunt grows in fury. His execution is, of course, a given—and Bigger knows that, too.

Still, murder makes Bigger feel, for the first time ever, powerful. He is both smug and outraged when the Dalton family and a group of reporters underestimate his intelligence in assuming he had nothing to do with Mary’s disappearance or the ransom note he fabricated. His actions following Mary’s death are, absurdly, among the first decisions he ever makes by and for himself. But, ultimately—inevitably—he winds up back where he started:

Not only had he lived where they told him to live, not only had he done what they told him to do, not only had he done these things until he had killed to be quit of them; but even after obeying, after killing, they still ruled him. He was their property, heart and soul, body and blood; what they did claimed every atom of him, sleeping and waking; it colored life and dictated the terms of death.

In Native Son, Wright forces us to confront the gruesome realities of racism and the role we play in it—how fear and hate are both cause and effect when it comes to racial oppression. Just as whites dehumanize(d) blacks, Bigger dehumanizes them, too, leading on both sides to violence. The stereotype of the “barbaric black aggressor,” like most stereotypes, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—and the cycle continues to spin its wheels.

Bigger embodies all of this and more as a black man standing before the “looming mountain of white hate.” He has no choices in life, and therefore no control. And, within this context—our own shared heritage as a nation—Wright asks us: Is Bigger individually responsible for his crimes, or does society share some of the blame? Is it fair to condemn the villains we ourselves created? And is it possible, for one person or many, to turn the tide of the inevitable?

In his essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Wright attempts to account for the resentment, anger, anxiety, and despair that define Bigger and his real-world counterparts. He describes the “Biggers” in his own life, and the fates they met with, and what he learned from them. In pulling at the threads of their shared experience, Wright unravels a truth universally acknowledged yet often taken for granted: We are all, in our essence, alike—and it is our environments that differ.

Among millions of people the deepest convictions of life are never discussed openly; they are felt, implied, hinted at tacitly and obliquely in their hopes and fears. We live by an idealism that makes us believe that the Constitution is a good document of government, that the Bill of Rights is a good legal and humane principle to safeguard our civil liberties, that every man and woman should have the opportunity to realize himself, to seek his own individual fate and goal, his own peculiar and untranslatable destiny. I don’t say that Bigger knew this in the terms in which I’m speaking of it; I don’t say that any such thought ever entered his head. His emotional and intellectual life was never that articulate. But he knew it emotionally, intuitively, for his emotions and desires were developed, and he caught it, as most of us do, from the mental and emotional climate of our time. Bigger had all of this in him, dammed up, buried, implied, and I had to develop it in fictional form.

Wright notes, in closing, that early American authors “complained bitterly about the bleakness and flatness of the American scene.” If only they had lived to see the 20th century, he says, they would find enough tragedy in the African American experience to satisfy their creative appetite: “And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him.” 

Harsh words, maybe—but ones we need to hear, and keep hearing. Which just so happens to be Wright’s specialty.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Wright insists that he doesn’t know “if Native Son is a good book or a bad book.” My vote? Neither. Native Son is a great book, earning its place on The List and then some.

Favorite Quotes:

“Don’t you love me?”
“About as much as you love me.”
“How much is that?”
“You ought to know.”

Either he was too weak, or the world was too strong; he did not know which.

But what was he after? What did he want? What did he love and what did he hate? He did not know. There was something he knew and something he felt; something the world gave him and something he himself had; something spread out in front of him and something spread out in back; and never in all his life, with this black skin of his, had the two worlds, thought and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, been together; never had he felt a sense of wholeness.

Read: 2016

Quick Reviews, Part V

#60 U.S.A., John Dos Passos

John Dos Passos’s historical novels The 42nd Parallel1919, and The Big Money were published together as the U.S.A. trilogy throughout the 1930s. Soaring in ambition, lengthy in execution, and experimental in styleU.S.A. chronicles the early decades of the 20th century—before, during, and after the First World War.

Each novel is constructed in four narrative modes. The first, and most familiar, is a series of fictional narratives following twelve characters as they make their way up the ladder of American society. The second, called the “Newsreel,” is a collection of headlines, article excerpts, advertisements, and song lyrics curated from major newspapers of the era. The third, known as the “Camera Eye,” is a stream-of-consciousness autobiography describing Dos Passos’s own life story. The fourth is an assortment of biographies recounting the lives of public figures from the period.

In other words, U.S.A. reads like a history book gone mad. It’s not exactly fiction, and it’s not exactly non-fiction, and it definitely stretches the definition of “novel.” It is equally concerned with real events and unreal characters. I may not be the target audience for this Frankenstein patchwork of a text, but I can think of a few people who are—and I don’t just mean the author’s contemporaries, who showered it with improbable acclaim.

Highlights of Dos Passos’s masterwork include:

  • Charlie’s bar fight with an opponent who whips out a machete,
  • learning that Thomas Edison first grew to fame at age 15 as the only person ever to print a newspaper from a moving train, and
  • the hopelessly obsolete slang terms, from “hunky dory” (good, fine) to “lettuce” and “kale” (both synonyms for money).

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

U.S.A. is original, but not especially well-crafted… so let’s call it one of the goodest books of all time and leave it at that.

Favorite Quotes:

Ned never said anything unless the talk came around to drinking or sailingships; whenever politics or the war or anything like that came up he had a way of closing his eyes and throwing back his head and saying Blahblahblahblah.

If they thought the war was lousy wait till they see the peace.

Read: 2016


#90 Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin

First things first: I loved this book. Loved it. This is the kind of book that makes the worst of The List worth fumbling through, and puts better-known authors to shame. This is the kind of book that sticks with you years later—that carries a great first impression into a long-term admiration. This is the kind of book you give enthusiastically as a gift, but only to readers you respect.

This is the kind of book that makes you jealous of the author.

Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) follows three generations of an African American family from the Reconstruction era in the South to the streets of 1930s Harlem. Relying heavily on Biblical themes, allusions, terminology, and rhythm of the King James variety, many critics have noted that the novel reads like a sermon.

Tackling heavyweight themes doesn’t always make for a Great book, but it doesn’t do this one any harm. The chief protagonist, 14-year-old John Grimes, struggles with family conflicts, a religious crisis, and his own coming-of-age, along with more peripheral issues like racism and sexuality. Go Tell It on the Mountain is, in fact, semi-autobiographical: After a religious awakening at the age of 14, Baldwin himself became a minister, preaching for three years at a Pentecostal church in Washington Heights.

Do yourself a favor and read this book. In a world of native advertising, Twitter, and emojis-as-wit, it might be time to remind ourselves what quality writing looks like.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Lawd, yes.

Favorite Quotes:

As the years passed, she replied only: “I’m going away from here.” And it hung, this determination, like a heavy jewel between her breasts; it was written in fire on the dark sky of her mind.

Men spoke of how the heart broke up, but never spoke of how the soul hung speechless in the pause, the void, the terror between the living and the dead; how, all garments rent and cast aside, the naked soul passed over the very mouth of Hell.

With the birth of Gabriel, which occurred when she was five, her future was swallowed up. There was only one future in that house, and it was Gabriel’s—to which, since Gabriel was a manchild, all else must be sacrificed. Her mother did not, indeed, think of it as sacrifice, but as logic: Florence was a girl, and would by and by be married, and have children of her own, and all the duties of a woman; and this being so, her life in the cabin was the best possible preparation for her future life. But Gabriel was a man; he would go out one day into the world to do a man’s work, and he needed, therefore, meat, when there was any in the house, and clothes, whenever clothes could be bought, and the strong indulgence of his womenfolk, so that he would know how to be with women when he had a wife. And he needed the education that Florence desired far more than he, and that she might have got if he had not been born.

Slow tears rose to her eyes; of joy, for what she had come to; of anguish, for the road that had brought her here.

Read: 2015


#97 Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Like James Baldwin, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s first book would become his most celebrated—and, like Go Tell It on the Mountain, Journey to the End of the Night (1932) is semi-autobiographical.

But this time we accompany antihero Ferdinand Bardamu from the trenches of World War I to the streets of colonial Africa. From there, he leads us to the Ford factory in Detroit and then homeward to France. Bardamu, disillusioned to the point of cynicism by his experiences as a soldier, is highly critical of the “slaughterhouse” of war, declaring cowardice to be the only safeguard against its lunacy.

My own flashbacks to Catch-22 proved relevant: Céline was, apparently, a substantial influence on Joseph Heller. But Céline’s influence was broader than that by far. French literature had never seen anything quite like Journey—full of slang, obscenities, and vernacular, with an emphasis on the rhythm of spoken language. The book’s release was met with controversy, and Céline narrowly missed out on the Prix Goncourt in a contentious vote.

The end of this anti-nationalist, anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist novel sees Bardamu working as a medical doctor in a poor suburb of Paris, calling war and illness “two infinities of nightmare.” It is precisely this beautiful, blunt language that makes Journey to the End of the Night so compelling—and precisely the kind of melancholy that makes it a tough read.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I’m going to reserve my judgment until next time. This is going back on my TBR.

Favorite Quotes:

That was the only time France ever saved my life, otherwise the opposite has been closer to the truth.

After all, why wouldn’t there be an art of ugliness as well as beauty?

Certain words are hidden in with the rest, like stones. They’re not very noticeable, but before long they make all the life that’s in us tremble, every bit of it in its weakness and its strength.

You can lose your way groping among the shadows of the past.

Read: 2015


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#79 Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White

One of only a handful of classics focused entirely on animals, Charlotte’s Web is a masterpiece of children’s literature that resonates long into adulthood. Simple in style but warm in tone, E. B. White’s barnyard tale is a testament to the power of friendship, with no trace of sentimentality.

Wilbur the pig is the runt of the litter, but his life is saved by a farmer’s daughter named Fern. When Wilbur is sold to Fern’s uncle, he receives a chilly welcome from the other barnyard animals—except Charlotte the spider. Wilbur soon discovers that his days are numbered, and Charlotte devises a plan to save his life: Using magazine scraps as a guide, Charlotte weaves words of praise for Wilbur into her web, attracting attention from neighboring farmers and then regional publicity. As his fame grows, so do his chances of survival.

At the county fair, Charlotte spins an egg sac and warns Wilbur that her own life is nearly at an end. Wilbur heroically retrieves her unborn children and carries them back to the barn. Charlotte dies, and Wilbur is devastated when her babies abandon him, too—until he sees that the three smallest spiders stayed behind.

In case you haven’t read it, and in case this isn’t clear above, THIS BOOK WILL KARATE CHOP YOUR HEART INTO PIECES. It was one of the first children’s books to address death and grieving, and we’re clearly not prepared even now for its wistful poignancy.

Or maybe that’s just me.

My final word on this understated treasure of a book: Charlotte the spider is a feminist icon, and I don’t care who says otherwise. All the pathetic whiners who struggle to write female characters with agency can find a quick lesson right here. Charlotte is a brilliant, loyal, and tenderhearted badass who saves her friend’s life and never even asks for gratitude—all while pregnant. She’s an American hero. And if all spiders were a little more like her, I would not hide from them in a disgusted panic.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

If Wilbur is SOME PIG, this is undoubtedly SOME BOOK.

Favorite Quotes:

Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will. 

Life in the barn was very good—night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.

Read: 2016


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#92 A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange (1962) has the rare honor of being a source of shame and regret for its author, overtly and publicly. Nine years after its publication, a film adaptation led by Stanley Kubrick distorted, in Burgess’s view, the book’s most fundamental message—glorifying violence rather than condemning it. This, combined with his American publisher’s exclusion of the novel’s final chapter—in which the protagonist comes to view violence as “juvenile and boring”—left far too much room for misinterpretation, and Burgess spent much of his later career distancing himself from his most celebrated work.

We can destroy what we have written, but we cannot unwrite it,

he said in his introduction to the 1986 edition. Still, however much I sympathize with Burgess’s disappointment over the book’s misguided public perception, I’m very glad A Clockwork Orange exists.

Don’t get me wrong: The violence in A Clockwork Orange is brutal. It’s sickening and horrifying and repulsive. And, were it handled any differently, by a less talented author, I would have hated this book loudly and often for the rest of my life.

But Burgess paints his violence through a portrait, carefully and thoughtfully. The book’s protagonist, Alex, is a sociopath and gang leader in a dystopian future. Clever but cruel, Alex accompanies his friends on a series of random attacks before his arrest and conviction for murder. In prison, he is subjected to an experimental treatment called the Ludovico Technique that functions much like aversion therapy. Alex is temporarily “cured,” raising questions about free will and the evils of government. After a suicide attempt, he returns to his old ways… but in the final, long-omitted chapter, Alex matures enough to consider how his contributions to society might be constructive instead of destructive.

The novel’s most fascinating element, at least for me, was Burgess’s use of fictional slang terms he called, collectively, “Nadsat.” A mixture of Russian loan words, Cockney rhyming slang, Biblical language, German influences, and more, Nadsat is integrated into the text exceptionally well. I listened to A Clockwork Orange on audiobook and would recommend the same to anyone particularly interested in the inventive linguistic features of the novel.

And if you can’t/won’t do that, I’d still recommend reading it the traditional way.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I’ve never seen these exact themes managed quite this well before. But a better reflection of this book’s distinct merit is, perhaps, that I fully expected to hate it, and ended up loving it. It’s tough to stomach, definitely, but well worth the effort.

Favorite Quotes:

What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?

Read: 2016

We’re officially winding down on the Quick Reviews series—only one more to go before I close out The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. If you missed any previous installments, check them out here:

Happy reading!