The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life
288 pp., 24.63
How to Read
In his extraordinary new book The Things that Matter, Edward Mendelson devotes a few sentences of his introduction to a discussion of pronouns. "A book could be written about the way critics use … pronouns," he comments. There is the "presumptuousness" of the way critics use "we" to suggest like-minded (and therefore right-minded) people; there is "the evasiveness of one"—and, I would add, the implicit universalizing of the critic's own opinions: "One sees in Middlemarch…." But if those tics and strategies are rejected, "That leaves I and you. Parts of this book are written in the second person singular, but that doesn't mean I assume you will agree with everything I say about you, just as I would not assume such a thing if we were talking face to face." One begins this book, then—doesn't one?—a little startled to hear a literary critic so directly acknowledging his own humanity.
But it is as a human being addressing other human beings that Mendelson writes. In treating seven novels—Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, George Eliot's Middlemarch, and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Between the Acts—as explorations of key stages of human life—birth, childhood, growth, marriage, love, parenthood, "the future"—Mendelson assumes that the vast majority of readers of novels over the past two centuries have done well to read fiction in light of their own lives. "This is a book about life as it is interpreted by books"; so goes the first sentence of The Things That Matter, and I think it's important to note the boldness of that sentence's main clause: "This is a book about life."
I call attention to this boldness because I have rarely seen a work of literary criticism that takes such pains to disguise its own ambition, and to do so because it seeks to serve something more important than its own ambition: "the things that matter." George Steiner noted many years ago that, while we may have to work to compile a list of great readers, it's easier to come up with a list of great critics because "critics advertise." Mendelson has no interest in advertising his own aspirations. Only one sentence, also from the introduction, gives away the game: "Taken as a whole, [this book] is designed to provide something on the order of a brief (extremely brief) history of the emotional and moral life of the past two centuries, an inner biography of the world of thought and feeling that came into being in the romantic era of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries."
This goal only makes sense if novels are at or near the heart of "the emotional and moral life of the past two centuries"—but I think it's fair to say that they are. The rise of the novel from an uncertain, fumbling, and generally despised form of cheap popular entertainment to the central and dominant genre of Western literature, all in little more than a century, is one of the more remarkable events in the history of human sensibility. Over the past two hundred years whole generations of readers have learned to measure themselves according to standards set by their favorite books—something that actually becomes a major theme of novelistic fiction itself, most notably in Emma Bovary's obsessive reading of Bernardin De Saint-Pierre's Paul and Virginia, and Anna Karenina's absorption in an unnamed English novel whose heroine's life she wishes she could live.
Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina both "identify with" the characters of the books they read, and that identification leads them to self-destruction. Similarly, Mark David Chapman's identification with Holden Caulfield's protests against "phoniness," in J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, led him to murder John Lennon. No wonder, then, that so many teachers and critics, especially on the university level, dismiss such "identifying" as immature and unsophisticated at best, dangerous at worst. But Mendelson argues that "a reader who identifies with the characters in a novel is not reacting in a naïve way that ought to be outgrown or transcended, but is performing one of the central acts of literary understanding." Moreover, it is the kind of understanding that many great novels positively invite: when Jane Eyre begins the last chapter of her long narration by saying, "Reader, I married him," she is asking us to test our own moral and emotional compass against hers. She is, in effect, asking whether in her circumstances we would have done the same. And it is because readers recognize that the whole novel builds toward this solemn invitation to identify with Jane that the sentence is one of the most famous in English literature. Mendelson's contention is that if we perform these acts of identification poorly, to our own endangerment or that of others, then the proper response is not to abandon that way of reading but rather to practice it more carefully, with what Virginia Woolf called "passionate attention." And we will only do this if we believe that in reading these books are also, somehow, reading our lives.
The last word of each chapter in Things That Matter provides the title for the next one: the chapter on Frankenstein ends with the word "childhood," which is the theme of the chapter on Wuthering Heights; it in turn ends with the word "growth," which leads to the discussion of Jane Eyre; and so we proceed until we reach the last word of the book, "birth." These little grace notes serves to indicate (among other things) how the various "stages" of life blend into one another: the opening chapter on "birth" treats not just Victor Frankenstein as an abortive father, but also shows that the very same traits which make it impossible for him to be a father also make it impossible for him to be a husband. Likewise, chapter 2 considers not just its announced theme, "childhood"—especially as it is experienced by Heathcliff and Catherine—but also shows through the same characters that our deepest experiences as children can influence and perhaps even determine our later erotic lives. (Mendelson points out that this same connection between childhood and adult romance is central to Jane Eyre, though Charlotte Brontë's understanding of the connection directly contradicts her sister Emily's.)
Thus, while Mendelson has not written a novel, and his style is not novelistic, Things That Matter shares certain structural features of the works it responds to. This is a very good thing, especially since a more mechanical way of approaching the "stages of life" idea would likely produce a terrible book. But Mendelson evidently operates under the assumption that the way great novels work—by the teasing out of subtly woven themes, the shaping of correspondences that never perfectly match, the circling back to people or events who now look different in the light of later experience, and so on—constitutes a set of valid and powerful insights into how we live our lives and how we might live them. Mendelson takes the remarkable step (remarkable for a literary critic, anyway) of treating great writers as though they are really, really intelligent. Not immaculate sages, mind you—he is shrewd and even cutting in his exposure of some of the blind spots of the great George Eliot—but very intelligent people whose stories have counsel for us, counsel worthy of our attention.
This can be seen in small matters and large ones. There is a school of criticism that celebrates "close reading," but not all of its proponents actually read very carefully. Mendelson is truly a close reader. A lovely illustration of this comes near the end of his chapter on Middlemarch, a book which, as Mendelson notes, places a great emphasis on learning. Indeed, the novel organizes itself around the varieties of human learning, especially to contrast the dry encyclopedism of the old scholar Casaubon to the kind of knowledge—of other people, of history, of the natural world—which Mendelson defines as "the spirit that gives life." The book's protagonist, Dorothea Brooke, desires this true live-giving knowledge above all, but because, as Eliot notes near the beginning of the story, Dorothea is both "theoretic" and "rash"—deficient in experience and impulsive—she makes many serious mistakes in her quest for the learning that seems to her necessary. With all this in mind, Mendelson calls our attention to a single sentence near the end of the book, when Dorothea confronts the fact that by marrying Will Ladislaw she will forfeit her inheritance. "And in her last words in the climactic scene where she and Will declare their love, she is still talking about knowledge, this time the domestic knowledge that the wife of a poor man will need: 'I will learn what everything costs.' "
A small sentence with vast implications about needful knowledge. But Mendelson also sees the implications of the books' obviously encompassing themes. For instance, here's a sentence from the conclusion of the chapter on Jane Eyre, comparing that novel with the masterwork of Charlotte Brontë's sister Emily: "The unity of Catherine and Heathcliff is so complete that it excludes everyone else. The marriage of Jane and Rochester is so fertile that it embraces others." (Says Jane at the end of her story, "My Edward and I, then, are happy: and the more so, because those we most love are happy likewise.")
Throughout his reading of Wuthering Heights, Mendelson shows himself deeply sympathetic to Heathcliff and Catherine; but by the time we reach the end of his treatment of Jane Eyre, we are prepared to see the price that those two famous lovers pay, and that they cause others to pay, for their own experience of union. Mendelson lays out for us the key oppositions of those two great novels—unity versus marriage; completion versus fertility; exclusion versus embrace—and leaves it to us to decide which vision we prefer. But he does not hesitate to affirm his own judgment: "Jane Eyre offers the most profound narrative in English fiction of the ways in which erotic and ethical life are intertwined."
I don't agree with all of Mendelson's opinions. I think he may be too hard on George Eliot at times: at least one instance of ethical shortsightedness he notes in Middlemarch, the "psychological sadism" she directs towards Rosamond Vincy, is revisited and corrected by the compassion she shows to a very similar figure, Gwendolyn Harleth, in her last novel, Daniel Deronda. I also think James Joyce's Ulysses manifests some of the very virtues Mendelson commends, though quite clearly he does not think so. But agreement or disagreement about particular interpretations aren't really to the point of the book. Mendelson doesn't expect me to share each of his verdicts. He expects me to join with him in considering and debating the counsel given by these great books, because this can help us to understand and cultivate "the things that matter." In this regard the book's dedication is noteworthy: "For, to, and about James Mendelson." When a father says that the book he has written about seven novels is for his son, to his son, and about his son, he is saying that he strives for a deep connection between how he reads and how he lives, between the moral passion we ought to bring to books and the moral passion we ought to bring to our closest relationships. In the current intellectual climate, that is a powerful and a challenging affirmation.
Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis (HarperSanFrancisco). He's currently at work on a book about original sin.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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