Note: I am considering changing the titles of these monthly blogs. Instead of “October Reading,” for instance, I’m thinking about making it “October Readin'”. The dropping of that final g is sort of like me loosening my tie, saying all right, you made it till the end of the month! It’s time to get casual. Kick your shoes off. Get soulful.
Anyway, I haven’t decided yet.
1. “The Dead” by James Joyce
“The Dead” is the final, and longest, story in Dubliners. I know I need to work more Joyce into my diet, and I thought I would start here, with this longish short-story.
In “The Dead,” the main character, Gabriel, experiences a cosmic realization about his life, the meaning of love, and the mortality which unifies us all. It is a fitting bookend to an earlier story in Dubliners, “Araby.” In “Araby,” the main character understands his own vanity through his youthful yearning for a saint-like female figure. The moment of his epiphany is a painful one, and the story’s final sentence is so memorable that I will here try to reproduce it strictly from my memory. (Go ahead and fact-check me, readers. You can even use wikipedia.)
“Gazing into the darkness, I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity, and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”
How did I do?
In “The Dead,” we have another character struck with a painful moment of self-knowledge. In this case it is Gabriel, the likable but self-important writer and intellectual, who spends an evening at the bustling party of his three elderly aunts. It’s a festive and rowdy celebration, full of warmth and food, and it unfolds as the snow falls unendingly outside. Gabriel’s superiority rubs a few of the partygoers (and ourselves) the wrong way, and he’s aware that he comes off as effete.
When he retires to bed, his wife, Gretta, breaks down and tells him about a “person long ago” who once loved her and is now dead. Gabriel is taken aback by the hidden grief his wife has kept secret for all the years he has known her, and the story ends as
his soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
The song that triggers Gretta’s revelation is “The Lass of Aughrim.” I am no fan of Irish music, but here is a nice version of it.
2. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
There are a few books that I was supposed to read in high school that I totally blew off. Those books haunt me still, and part of me wants to go back and read every one of them. (One of them was The Canterbury Tales, and the fact that I blew it off junior year was one of the major reasons I applied to spend the summer of 2010 studying Chaucer at Yale.)
I was supposed to read Death Comes for the Archbishop in tenth grade honors English, and I don’t think I even got into the first chapter. This novel is a panoramic view of the life of Jean Marie Latour, a French bishop who brings Catholicism to the wilds of New Mexico. It is a touching study of friendship and devotion, and it is lovingly told with many beautiful moments.
I would not consider this one of my favorite recent reads. Many people–my tenth-grade teacher for one–love Cather for her subtlety and nuance. I’m just glad I finished it.
3. Oedipus Rex, Sophocles
4. Antigone, Sophocles
I taught Sophocles to my AP lit class, and we got up to our eyeballs in Oedipus. (Get it?) I have a cutting of Oedipus (by Nick Bartel) that you can do in your classroom with your students in about 45 minutes. So, in the process of planning and teaching my two AP classes, I ended up reading that version of Oedipus Rex four times in two days. That is a whole lot of Oedipus to take in, friends, but I am glad that I did it.
After that came Antigone, which I only had to read once. Whew.
If you haven’t read Sophocles since college (or at all), then you should consider spending some time with him. Dive in! Make this weekend the weekend of the house of Oedipus. Reading these plays is a spiritual experience that will leave you a little shaken, perhaps, but feeling pure and cleansed when you are done.
I’ve been teaching these plays for the last two weeks, and I don’t have anything to add about what they mean or why they are important. Pick up any literary anthology to read that. I’ll just leave you with the story of my half-hearted attempt to name our daughter Antigone.
“We are not naming our daughter Antigone,” my wife said.
“Think about it. Everyone will say, ‘You didn’t really name your daughter Antigone, did you?’ And we can be all like, ‘Oh, yeah. We sure did.’ How intense would that be?”
She didn’t go for it.
That’s all for this month. Coming up next month, I revisit the works of Ray Bradbury.
Billigheimer, Rachel V. “The Living in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’.” CLA Journal 31.4 (June 1988): 472-483. Rpt. in Literature Resource Center. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Literature Resource Center. Web. 9 Oct. 2012.