As it is, this collection wasn’t put together in Lawrence’s lifetime. Three of them were published together, with one of those having been previously published in a periodical. This group of three is from the early 1920s, around the time of Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo, and Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious. The fourth story is from the very end of his career, after Lady Chatterley, at the time of The Virgin and the Gipsy. These are all love stories, but as one might expect from Lawrence, they’re all a little unusual.

LOVE AMONG THE HAYSTACKS

This is the one from the end of his life, but it really feels a lot more similar to his earlier work focusing on the lives, loves, and opportunities of the rural poor. Maurice is young and in love with the vicar’s young foreign governess. It seems a little miraculous, because there are not many young people in the area, and he and his brothers haven’t had much romantic experience. His older brother Geoffrey is jealous and surly – not because he wants this woman, but because he wants a woman. As they’re harvesting hay, they meet a homeless man and his unhappy wife. That night, Maurice stays in the field to guard the hay, and his Polish lady comes to him. When it starts to rain, she helps him cover the hay, but at the top of one of the stacks the ladder falls down and they’re stuck there all night. Geoffrey comes round to help cover the hay and sees what happened. He covers the hay himself and leaves them to it. The unhappy woman from earlier pops by looking for her worthless husband, and Geoffrey comforts her. By the morning, he has plans to run off to Canada with her, and Maurice and his girlfriend are not as pleased with each other as they had been.

So yes, sex means different things to different people, and at different times. For Maurice and Paula it seems like a disappointment. They are all impatient to make it happen, but afterward they’re bickering and unpeaceful. For Geoffrey and Lydia, it solidifies their feelings for each other and gives them motivation to press forward, even though there are some substantial obstacles to their being together. I know that we euphemize the activity as making love, but it seems to prove and strengthen love, not create it. I suppose I’m supposed to be shocked at the fact that Lydia cheats on her husband and then leaves him, but that’s not content that shocks me any more. A man can’t marry a woman and assume he’s done his part. Relationships bring expectations, and there’s no reason for her to stay with someone she can’t love.

THE LADYBIRD

In the United States we call the titular insect a ladybug, as if it was somehow perturbaceous. The ladybird in the story is on the family crest of a German officer in a prison hospital in England during World War I. He sometimes uses it as a symbol for himself. The protagonist is a young woman he knew before the war; they met while she was on holiday with her parents. Now she’s married to a young officer believed to be dead, and she learns that her old friend is being held close by. He’s a little firecracker, not very tall but very passionate about his feelings and the sense of isolation. Daphne is his only connection to the happy life he knew before the Great War – he had given her a thimble with a ladybird on it as a keepsake. She doesn’t really like him, but she feels drawn to him in a way she can’t describe to herself. There’s something indefinably sexy about this fiery little German, and even though she keeps thinking she’ll stay away, she keeps coming back.

Then, of course, her husband isn’t dead after all. Basil comes back and he’s all light and conformity where Count Dionys is all darkness and rebellion. After a few nights Basil realizes he’s no longer interested in sex. It’s not that big a deal since they have separate bedrooms anyway (tradition in wealthier English families – I hope they’ve given it up). So when they invite the German count to stay with them before his return to the Continent, it’s easy for her to sneak into his room at night. There’s a lot of social pressure for Daphne to be with Basil – he’s the right sort of husband, socially speaking – but I think that in a different society, one where women were free to be themselves and choose for themselves, she would have chosen the Count, and not just at night.

She never saw him as a lover. When she saw him, he was the little officer, a prisoner, quiet, claiming nothing in all the world. And when she went to him as his lover, his wife, it was always dark. She only knew his voice and his contact in darkness. “My wife in darkness,” he said to her. And in this too she believed him. She would not have contradicted him, no, not for anything on earth: lest, contradicting him she should lose the dark treasure of stillness and bliss which she kept in her breast even when her heart was wrung with the agony of knowing he must go.

No, she had found this wonderful thing after she had heard him singing: she had suddenly collapsed away from her old self into this darkness, this peace, this quiescence that was like a full dark river flowing eternally in her soul. She had gone to sleep from the nuit blanche of her days. And Basil, wonderful, had changed almost at once. She feared him, lest he might change back again. She would always have him to fear. But deep inside her she only feared for this love of hers for the Count: this dark, everlasting love that was like a full river flowing for ever inside her. Ah, let that not be broken.

THE FOX

This is the one that was published in a magazine, which I find sort of odd because it’s the one that takes on LGBT issues the most obviously. March and Banford are two women who live on a farm during the war. Their farm isn’t super productive, either because gay relationships don’t lead to childbirth and are thus sterile or because they’re not that great at farming. They end up focusing on chickens, which still isn’t that successful because there’s a fox that keeps stealing hens. March sees him once and is shocked into stillness, like that Annie Dillard piece about weasels. Winter is hard on animals, so I don’t really begrudge him the chickens, but then again, they’re not my chickens. Banford is furious about it. She may also be angry that the situation is out of her control; she tends to the house (the traditional women’s work) so she isn’t the one with the gun. March is the more masculine of the two (because even gay relationships have to conform to heterosexual norms), but after staring into the fox’s eyes she can’t kill it.

That was the symbol. The rest of the story is the reality. At war’s end the soldiers are coming home, and one of them wanders into their house. He had lived there with his grandfather before the war, and something vague and unimportant (probably death) led to the women renting the place. He’s young and handy – he even kills the fox for them. But he himself is the fox in this henhouse. Something about March’s defiance of gender roles draws him in. I wonder about him being closeted himself because he’s turned off when he sees her in a dress. He likes March to be mannish, and to be March instead of Nell. Even though he’s much younger, he talks her into marriage, which she of course breaks off once he’s out of the house.

I don’t see on what grounds I am going to marry you. I know I am not head over heels in love with you, as I have fancied myself to be with fellows when I was a young fool of a girl. You are an absolute stranger to me, and it seems to me as if you will always be one. So on what grounds am I going to marry you? When I think of Jill, she is ten times more real to me. I know her and I’m awfully fond of her, and I hate myself for a beast if I ever hurt her little finger. We have a life together. And even if it can’t last for ever, it is a life while it does last. And it might last as long as either of us lives. Who knows how long we’ve got to live? She is a delicate little thing, perhaps nobody but me knows how delicate. And as for me, I feel I might fall down the well any day. What I don’t seem to see at all is you. When I think of what I’ve been and what I’ve done with you, I’m afraid I am a few screws loose. I should be sorry to think that softening of the brain is setting in so soon, but that is what it seems like. You are such an absolute stranger, and so different from what I’m used to, and we don’t seem to have a thing in common. As for love, the very word seems impossible. I know what love means even in Jill’s case, and I know that in this affair with you it’s an absolute impossibility.

So of course he decides to kill one lesbian so he can marry the other. Men can be so depressing and predictable.

Most relationships have to deal with some jealousy at some point. We don’t put our eyes out when we tell someone we love them, and I’m sure even blind people’s eyes wander metaphorically. Jill Banford’s approach, to try to control the situation, is normal, natural, and ineffective. Telling someone what to do and how to interact with others seldom feels like love. That type of fear-based behavior can actually become abusive. But when someone decides you have to die, it’s normal and natural not to like them.

I feel sorry for March, because she has a choice between two people who want to control her and doesn’t see a third option for herself. The soldier boy is the poorer choice, what with the violence and the demand for her to be only a part of herself. One could argue that Banford is the same, but the condition on Banford’s love is that she be loved in return, not that March actively deny a large part of her identity and put up with the death of her lover.

The hetero love story here is really weird and powerfully fucked up. As love often is. But we do see some happiness for March and Banford, so the story isn’t unrelentingly sad. As with so many stories about foxes, it’s a warning. Not that lesbians shouldn’t reject male suitors, they absolutely should, but it’s wise for everyone to be vigilant about people on the edge of violence. Appeasement is a dangerous habit.

THE CAPTAIN’S DOLL

A Scottish captain is stationed in Germany, after the danger of the War has past. He’s sleeping with a local countess who makes dolls to earn her living. She makes one that is obviously him, the military coat and the plaid trousers and everything, and then his wife comes to visit and sees it. The Countess, Hannele, is mystified by their attitude toward sex, that sexual monogamy is insignificant. What matters is the emotions behind it. They can sleep with anyone they want so long as their actual love is only directed at each other. He doesn’t seem to love much of anyone, or at least not very strongly, so it’s of little moment to him, but it’s a big deal to Hannele. She’s not used to this idea, that his soul belongs to his wife but his penis is his own to do with as he likes, and she doesn’t like the situation it puts her in. She thinks that sex means something, and that the fact that he’s fucking her means he cares about her. The situation becomes a little too well known, so of course the wife takes him away. Fucking another woman is fine, but doing it indiscreetly is not. But Hannele won’t sell her the doll.

Years later, the wife dies and the captain comes back to Germany, desultorily looking for Hannele. Instead, he finds a still life painting of his doll. Suddenly the doll becomes this intense symbol of everything that he can’t handle about relationships; he sees women as making men into dolls, homunculi they can pose and speak for at tea parties. He doesn’t feel like a human when he’s in a relationship with a woman. I think that men can be equally guilty of creating an image of the beloved in our minds and forcing women to live up to the image; part of the captain’s anger is that he’s being treated the way men treat women. And then, of course, she had sold the doll after all, to a stranger. The shoe is on the other foot now – he thought he meant something to her, but she moved on. No promises of eternal love and fidelity to a man who treated her like shit.

He starts to pursue her with some of that intensity we saw in The Fox; he only wants a woman when she doesn’t want him, apparently. I know that this happens, and is even pretty common, that people go after those who are unavailable to them. I’ve heard it said that men want the challenge, but I think there’s more to it than that. People (not just men) take rejection as a sign that they’re not good enough, as if we all existed on a scale from one to ten and it was easy to say that one person is a two and another is a nine. Everyone wants to believe that they’re a ten, but getting rejected by a seven means that we’re obviously a six or less. We don’t pursue the seven because they represent a challenge in itself; we pursue the seven to prove to ourselves that we are a seven or higher. Basing one’s self-esteem on the esteem of others (particularly their interest in sharing genital contact) is absolutely ridiculous and leads to these absurd and dangerous situations. Lawrence’s stalkers and murderers need to learn how to love themselves apart from their ability to fuck any woman they want.

Women have the right to choose whom and when to fuck. They are the keepers of their own vaginas. They guard the access. Men who behave otherwise tend toward abuse and possibly violence. It’s certainly a misogynistic attitude, and it implies that the man who holds it is not ready for an adult relationship.

“Oh, that eternal doll! What makes it stick so in your mind?”

“I don’t know. But there it is. It wasn’t malicious. It was flattering, if you like. But it just sticks in me like a thorn: like a thorn. And there it is, in the world, in Germany somewhere. And you can say what you like, but any woman, today, no matter how much she loves her man – she could start any minute and make a doll of him. And the doll would be her hero: and her hero would be no more than her doll. My wife might have done it. She did do it, in her mind. She had her doll of me right enough. Why I heard her talk about me to other women. And her doll was a great deal sillier than the one you made. But it’s all the same. If a woman loves you, she’ll make a doll out of you. She’ll never be satisfied till she’s made your doll. And when she’s got your doll, that’s all she wants. And that’s what love means. And so, I won’t be loved. And I won’t love. I won’t have anybody loving me. It is an insult. I feel I’ve been insulted for forty years: by love, and the women who’ve loved me. I won’t be loved. And I won’t love. I’ll be honoured and I’ll be obeyed: or nothing.”

“Then it’ll most probably be nothing,” said Hannele sarcastically. “For I assure you I’ve nothing but love to offer.”

He’s upset, yes, and probably still sexy in his sixties (he is Scottish, after all), but he’s also wrong and ridiculous. Imagine the gall of a woman, to treat a man the same way he’s treated her. Men have robbed women of their humanity, their opportunities to express and be themselves, their right to make their own choices about their bodies, for too much of Western history. A hundred years ago men don’t seem to have been accustomed to recognize that fact. I feel like these three post-World War I stories could have been called Love Amid the Patriarchy. It places Lawrence in kind of an awkward position: some critics will say he’s doing it on purpose to reveal how harmful the patriarchy is, but some will say he’s doing it unconsciously because he’s really on the verge of being a murdering stalker himself. He just found a woman he wanted who wanted him back, so the violence is unnecessary. It’d be great if we could revive him long enough to ask him which.

In any event, all four of these stories are about love and its problems. The soldiers who returned from the war brought with them a set of attitudes that clearly harmed women, and the women themselves are complex, interesting people who deserve love and respect, even if they don’t know how to demand it. Lawrence’s vote is clearly on the side of sexual license, so long as both partners agree to it. His stories demonstrate the importance of talking plainly about sex and what it means. Partners should understand what it means to the other and be willing to accept the burden of expectation it creates, whether the expectation is to go about one’s business like it meant nothing or to be involved with the partner for the rest of one’s life. Being of the same religion, or ethnicity, or orientation, is no guarantee that two people will have the same attitude about sex. You have to talk about it.

Lawrence’s politics are sometimes upsetting, but his language is exquisite. I’ll probably always enjoy his writing, misogynistic and proto-Fascist as it was. These stories are very much in his vein, so whether you like them or not, whether you should read them or not, really depends on how you feel about him. They’re all good examples of what he does, representative pieces of the man. I enjoy them, but you’ll have to make your own choice on that subject.

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I feel like there really isn’t a whole lot to say about this book, except that this is how colonialism works. Or would work under this set of circumstances. In previous readings I’d focused on the first part of the book, all the different initial contacts between America and Mars, but this time I was more interested in what happens to the earth. The stories are placed between 1999 and 2026, so of course his timeline is off (In 2018, the extent of our Martian travel is a droid that sings Happy Birthday to itself once a year), but that is what science fiction is all about – telling us about human nature, revealing the cultural moment, it’s never about A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, it’s about the here and now. Bradbury’s here and now is the United States of the late 1940s; several of these stories were published in periodicals in 1948, though the entire collection came out in 1950.

Bradbury’s Martians are telepathic and technologically advanced. Stage One is killed by a jealous husband – his wife connects with the Earth Man in a way she can’t with him, so he meets the man at his landing site and prevents him from stepping foot on Mars. Stage Two is believed to be insane – when you’re telepathic you project your hallucinations onto other people’s minds, so they think the Earth Men are projections and kill them. Stage Three is just trapped – the Martians build a town modeled on Green Town, Illinois (the one from Dandelion Wine) and disguise themselves as beloved relatives, then they kill them all. Stage Four is successful because by this time almost all the Martians have been wiped out by the chicken pox. And thus we see American strategy: just keep throwing men into the meat grinder until you get lucky.

Most of the book happens before the end of 2005, so there’s really just six years of colonization, in which time the Americans manage to kill an entire planet and do their best to recreate their own in its stead. One guy wanders all over the place planting trees, and they grow up unexpectedly quickly, providing the necessary oxygen. The Americans of color (pre-civil rights, if you’ll recall) all band together to leave their center of oppression and create a new community far away from the white men, who seem anxious to perpetuate their privilege at the expense of women and ethnic minorities. I read an article recently that commented on the destructive logic of terms like Third World and developing countries, so it used ‘minority-world’ to describe the United States and other countries whose lifestyle is similar to ours, and ‘majority-world’ to describe those countries that continue to suffer from food insecurity and a less technological standard of medical care. Which makes sense because worldwide they are in the majority and we are the minority. It’s like we stamped out apartheid in South Africa while ignoring the global similarities, a minority of white Europeans running the world at the expense of the numeric majority of darker-skinned peoples. Can we all take a moment to ponder just how Eurocentric the UN is at a structural level?

In “Usher II,” all the conformity of mid-century America comes to Mars. One man combats it by building a house modeled on Poe’s House of Usher, and it’s full of scenes from Poe’s most famous stories, with a bit of Lewis Carroll thrown in for good measure. He kills the rightmindedness committee and replaces them with robots who will keep the heat off. Now that I think of it, it’s sort of astonishing how many of these stories are about murder, but I guess that’s part of The American Way as well. Why else would we need a movement that calls itself Black Lives Matter, and why else would people get angry about it?

Then, in 2005, nuclear war breaks out and all the Americans get called back to Earth to fight in the war. This is an excellent example of Bradbury’s bending the facts to fit his theme – if nuclear war had broken out, we wouldn’t have asked the Mars colonists to come back. Nuclear wars aren’t fought by numbers of men – it only takes one to press a button, and if you took all the button pushers it would require to destroy the entire planet, you could invite them over to your house for a party and still have plenty of room for them each to bring a plus-one. It’s the same meat-grinder mindset that began the colonies, the idea that in order to accomplish anything the United States needs a lot of men who are willing to die for their country. Because they will. Because we can’t imagine any other way to do things. Because human life is not something our culture values. Because we see death as poignant and beautiful as long as it is happening to someone else. Because it’s better that people should die than that we should be inconvenienced or grant the privileges we enjoy to someone who seems different from ourselves. Because the only way to make sure that your life matters is to be exactly like the people in power – conformity saves lives, because white American men need to destroy everything that is different and replace it with themselves.

But wait! I hear you say. Aren’t you a white American man? Indeed I am. You’ll also notice that I’ve spent most of my adult life in areas where the white majority is particularly strong. Now that I’m in a city with a higher concentration of people of color, I am constantly interrogating my attitude toward them because it comes up so much more often than it used to. And I do sometimes have problems with difference, like when I see people blatantly not recycling or wearing lime green T-shirts with khaki slacks or speaking loudly in public. I’m not running around murdering people, but I definitely understand the desire to force the world to conform to my own ideas. I have to concentrate on not judging people for the decisions I don’t agree with, and most people make decisions I don’t agree with, which is why it’s so much more relaxing to hide at home instead of going out. People are hard because they are different, and the difficulty is frustrating, but that doesn’t give me an excuse to wipe them out. Difference is valuable, however difficult. We have to stare that reality in the face, just not all the time. It’s exhausting.

As ever, Bradbury’s stories are worth reading and thinking about. His prose is lucid and unadorned, as people preferred it in 1950. I know that I’ve talked about colonialism without bringing up the colonization of the American continent by European settlers, but the comparison is too obvious and too painful to go into. I’d like to think of my ancestors as having been more peaceful, but we were among the first. It’s not realistic for me to imagine that. Colonists didn’t survive by being peaceful; they survived by being tough and killing people who were different than they were. That’s where I came from; that’s what America means; that’s what we have to be proud of. Murder, conformity, and the ability to endure long enough to reproduce. It’s a wonder anyone lets us near global decision-making processes. But I guess if they stood in the way of our making the world exactly as we want it, we’d kill them too. Sometimes I think that 45 may not be the president we wanted, but he may be the president we deserve.

Oh! And I almost forgot about the body-shaming! The last man on Mars meets the last woman, and she can finally eat as much as she wants without people shaming her for liking sweets. Through the man’s perspective, Bradbury fat-shames this woman like nobody’s business. I was really uncomfortable with this story, both because it makes food seem gross and because the guy would rather never see or speak to another human being for the rest of his life than marry a fat girl. It’s a terrible thing to see. I think some readers would have found this story humorous, but our culture is swinging away from body-shaming now, and I think that’s good. It’s just one more way we have failed to celebrate difference.

This book may have been written seventy years ago, but the themes are still pertinent. It still points out to me the ways that I’m not completely satisfied with myself or the culture I grew up in. It’s worth reading because we haven’t learned our lesson yet. I hope we do. I hope my children are more tolerant of difference than I am. I hope the world is moving toward justice and equity. I hope that I’m part of the solution and not the problem.

This book was so delicious and so short that I read it in twenty-four hours. I definitely need more gay sci-fi in my life.

We kiss and the sea catches fire.

The bulk of the story is told by Emmett Leigh, a book collector of our own time. He finds a book of poetry called Time Was in a rubbish bin after one of his favorite bookstores goes out of business. In it there’s a love letter from Tom to Ben, and he goes on a quest to find out who these WWII-era lovers were, what happened to them, and how the letter got into the book and the book got into the shop (archivists, collectors, and sellers do get fascinated by issues of provenance).

But they keep popping up in newsreels and photographs of various wars throughout the twentieth century. The first set of pictures introduces him to Thorn, whose great-grandfather may have known them and whose grandfather is really into the occult. There’s a torrid affair, he moves in with her, but his obsession with time travel and Tom and Ben takes over his life and they separate. He ends up in Rome, where he finally meets Tom and resolves the mysteries.

Interwoven is Tom Chappell’s story, of how he meets Ben Seligman during the war, they fall in love, and then they’re involved in an experiment that goes awry.

The scientists looked uncomfortable in uniform. All but one. Oh, one. One whose boots were firmly planted. One who wore the uniform like skin, like the sky, who stood tall and certain and lifted his hands to his eyes when he stared at this place he had been taken, who shaded his eyes and so could not see me staring. Staring as if there were nothing else in the world, staring like a radar girl at a lone blip on my screen, my stare reaching out across the world and returning an echo. Until he dropped his hand and I was not quick enough to look away – deliberately so – and his eyes caught mine. We knew. We communicated through the airwaves. Then he was swept through the door into beery camaraderie: Boffins Corner, we called it, and I sat on my bench with my beer in the long evening sun and all my notes, all my words and rhymes and rhythms and images, all my thoughts and all the things I held in my heart, were nothing.

Tom is a teenage poet, English, and when the war strikes he works as a messenger, riding his motorbike all over the place, communication in wartime being such a tricky thing. Ben is working on some secret science-y thing for the army. One of the other soldiers mutters about him being a Jew, and I stand by what I’ve said before: I never can tell, and I’m always amazed at people who recognize Jews from their names and faces. There’s so much genetic variety in the world; how can you claim to see that much detail? I suppose it comes down to racism, and while I don’t want to be a racist, I would like to find people less baffling. I’m having a hard time with facial recognition these days; a colleague pointed out that with the amount of travel I’ve done, I’ve probably seen more faces than most people, so it’s to be expected that I have a hard time retaining new ones.

Now I understand. This is what poetry is for. This is why it exists. No gods, no muses, no inspiration, only the need to find words, syntax, structure and meter for feelings that do not go into words.

Emotions have no definitions other than themselves. They are irreducible, the atoms of sensation. All written art is an attempt to communicate what it is to feel, to ask the terrifying question: Is what I experience in my head the same as what you experience? Terrifying because we can never know for certain. We hope; we risk.

My hopeful, fearful little English heart is in smithereens.

Tom is shy and sensitive, and tries to articulate his feelings. Ben is more outgoing, less self-conscious, and draws Tom the Rhymer out a little more than usual. Ben’s project has to do with uncertainty principles. Think about atomic structure – when I was in school, they taught us that electrons traveled around the nucleus in a nice neat little orbit, but in high school teachers started talking more in terms of electron clouds because the truth is that we can’t really know both where an electron is and where it’s going. The cloud shows us where the electron is most likely to be, but it could exist at any point in that range and we can’t really be certain of the exact location. So, what if we were to take that same principle and apply it to something larger, like a battleship? It would be cloaked from enemy radar because they would never be able to pinpoint its exact location. It would exist in time and space differently than we do.

But the experiment doesn’t just take the boat, it takes Ben and Tom as well. They’re most likely to be found in England in the twentieth century, but they appear all over time and space, only not together. They seem drawn to wars, or maybe wars are just documented more carefully than the rest of our lives. Sometimes they’re together, but sometimes they have to leave notes for each other. Hence the book of poetry and its odd instructions – the stores aren’t to sell it, they should just leave it on the shelf as a sort of mailbox. But then, when one dies, how does the other know? When do you stop searching?

I’ve been wondering these things for myself over the past few days. New Guy engineered a traumatic situation for himself, and is now getting help for the trauma, but I worry about him. He seems to believe that pleasure must be paid for with suffering, so he’s (probably subconsciously) creating situations where he can suffer for being in love with me. I don’t think life has to be like this, and I hope his counselors address this attitude, but still. In the long term, how much suffering is he going to create for us because he feels guilty about being happy? And when do I decide that I’ve had enough? There are handsome men everywhere, and while the concentration here is not as high as it was in the last place I lived (I do love a mountain man), every day I see men that I would approach in the proper social setting. New Guy talks about commitment and marriage and all that, but I don’t yet have the feeling that he’s going to be my last relationship. If in the end what he really wants is to be miserable and alone, I’ll give it to him without feeling too bad about it. These last few weeks he hasn’t been coming down to see me very often, almost like I’m being weaned from his presence. I’ll adjust to his absence, just as I’ve adjusted to everyone else’s.

London would have been just more people and what we want is unpeople. Time and space for us.

The project of moving in together is becoming more complicated than I had wanted it to be. I’m hoping for some time and space, but we’ll see what develops. He’s a good guy; he just doesn’t take what he wants. He waits for someone to give it to him, and even then you have to set it in front of him and wait. He pursued me pretty hard at first, but now that it’s been seven months he’s lost his sense of urgency. He’s so caught up in the long-term big picture that we’re missing out on the simple, daily experiences that constitute a life together. My constantly changing life has focused me almost exclusively on the short term, and without that, I lose interest.

This is a fantastic book, as much about historical research as it is about love. Those of you who get uncomfortable about the sexy bits need not worry – there’s only one racy scene, and it’s fairly short and not very detailed. The story is about love, the ways we hold onto it through human interaction and documentation. The time we have together always feels so insufficient – hence the optimism in the way Tom signs his letters:

Time was, time will be again,

There’s always a time in every relationship where that’s not true, where time stops. Our time together ends. The goal is to delay that event for as long as possible, to use our time to the best advantage. I’d like to think that Tom and Ben do that, though we see more of the seeking than the finding. I know that Emmett doesn’t. I hope that I do, that when I’m at the end of my life looking back there will be more love than loss, more finding than searching, that I will think of love as long periods of joy instead of the short moments of suffering in between.

 

Sometimes reading a book reminds us of a friend so forcibly that we read the whole thing smiling.

Don’t worry that you’ve never heard of this book. It seems few have. The author published it about five years ago, and her only previous publication on Amazon is a book of poems from fifteen years prior. I enjoyed it rather a lot, so the fact that she doesn’t put something out every other year should be no deterrent. I rather like the idea of a novelist who doesn’t approach writing like a nine-to-five job. I’m not opposed to a slow, reticent muse.

This book is very similar to the picaresque adventures of Smollett and Fielding, which I suppose links them to Gil Blas and Don Quixote as well. Gabriella Mondini is a doctor in Venice in 1590. Trained by her father, of course, because how else would a woman get such an education in the sixteenth century? It turns out that many of the women in Venice prefer a woman as a doctor, a preference I fully understand, so she’s actually fairly successful. Unfortunately, the physicians’ guild is a jealous set, and they expel her from their ranks. It’s sort of fortunate, because ten years before her father had gone on a journey, and he recently wrote that he will not return. The Dottoressa’s goal, then is to travel across Europe in search of her father, in an effort to keep him from disappearing from her life.

The other goal is to finish the book. Her father began writing The Book of Diseases, a compendium of his lifetime of learning about medicine, but he is too disorganized to bring it to completion, so Gabriella has taken this task on as well. Many of the diseases sound more poetical or mythical than real, as are the cures, but if you look past the Renaissance point of view, she’s dealing with a variety of mental illnesses that happen in women who are constrained by the Renaissance point of view. The systematic and extreme thwarting of self-direction of half the population is going to throw society out of balance, and the thwarted individuals as well.

But one dank January, she would not return to us. Every afternoon for a month I visited Messalina, spoke to her, touched her arm or hand, but she didn’t respond. Once, in a moment of weakness, I confided to my friend an unforeseen yearning for other parts of the world. I confess that her silence encouraged me, and I began to work out my plans in the presence of her fixed demeanor. Other times I hoped that my schemes would draw her into my own imaginings or that my discontent would distract her from her own. But it became clear that I wasn’t helping her to recover. She was always seated at the window, her chin resting upon one solemn fist, her eyes blankly measuring nothing.

It seems that in literature, journeys always entail loss. This may be an American tradition – I’m thinking of Captain Ahab and the Bundrens – but often, we read about journeys, the characters lose whatever they brought with them. If the journey is a metaphor for life, then I guess we get filled full of garbage as children that we have to get rid of as adults. The journey is about losing tools, losing friends, until all the traveler has is her own body, which she has to disguise as a man to avoid being robbed, raped, or locked in a convent. Sometimes things come back, sometimes lovers come back, but those moments of joy cannot be expected or anticipated. Sometimes reunions are not as sweet as we had hoped.

The state of medicine in sixteenth century Europe is unrecognizable as medicine today. Part of it seems like sadism, forcing the patient to vomit, bleed, or defecate, and another part of it seems like magic, with rituals involving the position of the moon. The third bit is something we can hang onto, plant cures. Roots, herbs, flowers, many of the parts of plants can be used to cure diseases in humans and animals.

Though rue may be employed internally as a remedy for many ailments, among them headache, colic, and women’s lunar pains, and externally for gout, chilblains, and bruises, the water of rue is marvelous for sight and second sight. Writers, engravers, and artists relish the fresh herb with watercress and brown bread. Dabble the water around the eyes to settle murky vision and to summon foreknowledge in all things. The herb of sorrow is thus also the herb of grace, for the future already repents of its errors. Some also claim that rue repels plague, biting chiggers, and curses. The evil eye squints from the scent of rue.

And this is what her father’s ten-year journey was about, as well as her own training: finding a cure for his own mental illness. I’m not qualified to diagnose her father’s trouble, but he eventually lost all sense of his own identity and ended up a raving lunatic locked in a barn in Morocco. If she had known where he was, she could have skipped traveling through northern Europe in the middle of winter and she might have been able to help him before he needed locking up. But there are other things she would have missed, like the conception of her own child with a handsome Scotsman.

It may seem odd that there are no repercussions for conceiving a child out of wedlock, but people were more relaxed about things than they are now. People have become so polarized in their opinions that it’s hard for many to deal with someone whose life looks different than theirs. O’Melveny may be romanticizing or imagining the past differently than it was, but I really don’t have a problem with that. I do it often enough myself.

One of the reasons I was looking forward to going back to school was for the availability of mental health services, but now I have some anxiety about going to set an appointment. But I was meeting with my kids yesterday, and my eldest wanted to show me some of the things he’s learning in a martial arts elective at school, and it threw me off my internal balance like I was going back to PTSD-land, like I was in Texas. Maybe I do need to go looking for a cure to my own madness.

This book isn’t going to set the Thames on fire, but it’s good. There are so many feminist novels these days that it seems another one could get lost in the crowd, and that may be what happened to this one. But the book deserves to be read and loved, and not only by me.

There are few American authors of her time who write about divorce as much as Edith Wharton. I guess she wrote about it so much because she had one; also, it was a major subject of debate in the conversations about women’s rights. So of course I’ve been thinking about mine. It was the most emotionally difficult part of my life, particularly with all of the people assuming I wouldn’t care. It’s a complicated thing, being a gay man who loves his wife, because love is even more complex than sexuality. One more reason for me to have run off to the Middle East.

The stories in this volume are arranged according to length rather than publishing date or theme or any other logical system. All were originally published between 1900 and 1914.

ETHAN FROME

Like me, Ethan Frome is a man who got married in a hurry and ran into trouble because of it. He got a little bit of education and dreamed of living in a city, but then his father got sick and he had to come take care of the family farm, and then after his father died his mother got sick too. His family arranged for a distant cousin Zenobia to come take care of his mother and the house. When you see a woman named Zenobia in a book written in the nineteenth century or the first couple of decades of the twentieth, she’s probably dangerous. It’s like how we don’t trust Victorian Lydias. Zeena cared for Ethan’s mother through her final illness, and then he had this weird emotional spasm where he couldn’t lose anyone else, so he married her.

Fast forward six or seven years. Zeena has become a hypochondriac invalid, and Ethan has realized that he’s never moving to a city while he’s stuck with her. Besides, at thirty-five she’s starting to age badly (rural Massachusetts winters are rough), and he’s still twenty-eight and in his youth and vigor. Zeena has taken on Mattie Silver, another distant cousin with no place to go. Mattie’s young and exciting, and draws Ethan into the life of the town because she enjoys being with people and he has to escort her. Ethan and Mattie are in love, but at a distance in the same house. When he feels affectionate, he shortens her name further to just Matt, so I derived a lot of enjoyment from picturing Matt as a man.

Zeena’s concocted a plot to get rid of Matt, even though she literally has no one to take her in. Her only hope is to get a job in a shop somewhere and earn her own living, which isn’t easy for a twenty-one-year-old girl in Massachusetts in the 18-somethings. Ethan goes through an intense time – he wants to run off with Matt and go live out West somewhere, but he doesn’t have the money to go anywhere. As with me, poverty keeps him from divorcing when and how he wants. He doesn’t have anything worth selling, in the middle of winter, not even his house or farm. No one would buy them.

As Ethan is taking Matt to the train station for the last time, they talk about how they never went sledding in town like they had wanted to (‘coasting’ in the vernacular of the time), so they stop for a bit of a sled. There’s a large elm tree that they have to dodge, but Ethan’s good at steering so they miss it. But what if they didn’t? They can get up to speed, charge straight into the tree, and dying together they would foil Zenobia’s plan and solve all their problems. But they don’t, die, they just get severely injured. Being forced into a sedentary life, Mattie becomes every bit as querulous as Zeena, and being forced to take care of someone again cures Zeena’s imaginary ailments. The three of them get along miserably for what seems the rest of their lives.

In many ways I am a lucky person, though I’ve been told that it has more to do with making good decisions than with luck. My decisions have worked out better than I deserve, I think. If I had to marry a woman, then The Ex was the right one; she wouldn’t put up with an Ethan Frome situation. I told her I was gay and she moved out. There was a short time that I wanted her back, but she held firm. She feels shame very acutely, and in her mind there’s less shame in divorcing a gay husband than in living with one. Of course, my being gay means that she had a good excuse, and that she can blame me into perpetuity without ever having to confront her own issues. I’m not saying that she will; I’m just saying that she still hates and distrusts me.

THE TOUCHSTONE

This was the most suspenseful of the stories, so I enjoyed it the most. Glennard is poor and in love, so he needs to find some way to get the money to marry. Years earlier, a famous novelist had fallen in love with him and wrote him some passionate letters from Paris; she died before the story begins, but he still has the letters. He sells them to a publisher to get the money to invest in a good company and make the money requisite to marry his great love.

But those letters were so very personal that his wife would see it as a violation of the soul to have made them public, so he has to try to keep the secret, even after the volume of letters becomes a bestseller. He goes full-on Raskolnikov about it.

The next morning he invented an excuse for leaving the house without seeing her, and when he returned, just before dinner, he found a visitor’s hat and stick in the hall. The visitor was Flamel, who was just taking his leave.

He had risen, but Alexa remained seated; and their attitude gave the impression of a colloquy that had prolonged itself beyond the limits of speech. Both turned a surprised eye on Glennard, and he had the sense of walking into a room grown suddenly empty, as though their thoughts were conspirators dispersed by his approach. He felt the clutch of his old fear. What if his wife had already sorted the papers and had told Flamel of her discovery? Well, it was no news to Flamel that Glennard was in receipt of a royalty on the Aubyn Letters.

A sudden resolve to know the worst made him lift his eyes to his wife as the door closed on Flamel. But Alexa had risen also, and bending over her writing-table, with her back to Glennard, was beginning to speak precipitately.

“I’m dining out tonight – you don’t mind my deserting you? Julia Armiger sent me word just now that she had an extra ticket for the last Ambrose concert. She told me to say how sorry she was that she hadn’t two, but I knew you wouldn’t be sorry!” She ended with a laugh that had the effect of being a strayed echo of Mrs Armiger’s; and before Glennard could speak she had added, with her hand on the door, “Mr Flamel stayed so late that I’ve hardly time to dress. The concert begins ridiculously early, and Julia dines at half-past seven.”

Glennard stood alone in the empty room that seemed somehow full of an ironical consciousness of what was happening. “She hates me,” he murmured. “She hates me . . .”

THE LAST ASSET

Mrs Newell is a resourceful sort of woman. She works her way up in society by dating rich men, having lost sight of her husband long ago. Now that she’s arranged a marriage between her daughter and a French count, she has to produce the husband to prove that she’s not divorced. She hires a reporter to find him, and he turns out to be one of those familiar strangers, people you talk to in a restaurant when you’re both the only Americans but never bother to learn their names. Notice I said ‘you’ – I wouldn’t strike up a conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, no matter how many times we ate breakfast in the same place, no matter how much his accent would remind me of home. No, the only place I enter into conversation with strangers is in an establishment dedicated to serving alcohol to homosexual men.

As with Ethan Frome, there’s a lot of sadness in this story, even though it’s about reunion.

XINGU

This one was just funny. There’s a snobby literary society up in New England somewhere, and they’ve invited a successful author to come join them. They want to impress her, but she’s not that interested in politics, design, or food, or any of the other subjects they bring up in order to awe her into confirming their sense of their own worth. Then, a member they’ve all been planning to vote out, suddenly asks her about Xingu, and everyone is convinced it’s a new philosophy that they haven’t heard of but are willing to pretend to know in order to put this author in her place. The author goes off with the savior of the group, and then everyone else looks it up – it’s a river in Brazil. She was speaking in double entendres the entire time, and they laugh and are embarrassed by their ignorance.

THE OTHER TWO

This one is frequently anthologized, so I’ve taught it a few times. It’s not as useful as “Roman Fever,” which I have more to say about so I wish academic publishers would use it instead. This story presents divorce not in its spiritual or political aspect but in its social – the awkwardness is more significant than the sin or the women’s rights. Mr Waythorn is Alice’s third husband; because of a child, he runs into the first, and because of his business he runs into the second. Divorce doesn’t necessarily remove the offending partner from one’s life completely, after all. He starts to get used to the ex-husbands, until eventually through one of those coincidental tricks of fate all three of them are in a room together, with her serving them tea.

What I find fascinating about this collection is the perspective Wharton chooses to tell the stories from. Except for “Xingu,” with its entirely female cast, Wharton always chooses the perspective of the man, not the woman. She employs the female perspective in The House of Mirth to great success, so I’m not certain why. I mean, these stories are just as emotionally complex for the women as they are for the men. I guess it gives her a chance to explore the idea that women are mysterious to men while men are completely transparent to women. Or maybe straight men like to imagine the world this way. I have a friend who described his wife as mysterious because he was always finding out new things to love about her (after more than ten years), but I always found her remarkably open, honest, and straightforward. Maybe some men need the exotic, something they don’t understand, so they project that quality onto the women they love. Love itself is often the only mystery – does she love me, and why?

I do enjoy Edith Wharton, even though there’s usually not much to make me happy in her stories. Her syntax demands to be taken slowly; it requires attention; as an author, she insists on her leisure. We must take the story at the pace she gives it to us, and there is something appealing about someone who will not be hurried. I suppose there may also be an appeal to reading a story about New England winters when I’m in the middle of a hot Southern summer, adjusting the emotional temperature to find greater comfort. This was an odd little collection of stories; I don’t know why these were chosen and not others, but I do love something strange.

Book 2 in the Midnight, Texas series. I’m finding that with sequels, I have dramatically less to say than I did with the first one.

First off, Harris’s writing goes extremely quickly for me. More than 350 pages in two days. I get really strongly engaged in the story, and although it’s slower than the television series, it still keeps me riveted. It may be that the books I read before and after use more complex syntax and thus demand a slower pace, but I flew through this book, enjoying every minute.

Next, characters. Manfred Bernardo is still kind of in the middle of the book, but our primary centers of consciousness are Olivia Charity and Joe Strong. Olivia is a hired assassin hiding from her parents – she was abused as a child, and her father is now trying to find her. She keeps hiding. At one point it’s strongly implied that Olivia is not her real name, but we gloss over that. Joe is an angel, trying to hide his true nature from everyone, including himself. Unfortunately, he hurts his ankle on a jog and has to spread his wings to get home, so things are starting to destabilize for him. His partner Chuy may be one as well, but I’m not sure on that yet. The show portrays Chuy as a demon, as much in disgrace for whom he loves as Joe the angel is. Changing Chuy from an angel to a demon could be a commentary on race (Hispanic vs mainstream white) or just on sexuality (the slightly more effeminate gay), though I guess he could be a demon in the books and we just haven’t seen the evidence of it yet.

“That’s what we’re here for,” Chuy said. “To help.”

“And to fix antiques and fingernails,” Joe said, laughing. “I wish I didn’t love old furniture, and you didn’t love decorating women. I wish we were both accountants or bounty hunters. Something less predictable.”

“As long as we’re happy. And we take care of each other,” Chuy said, much more seriously.

“I try to take care of you,” Joe said, turning to take Chuy in his arms. “How’m I doing?”

“Pretty good,” Chuy said, and it was the last time he said anything sensible for a while.

As before, this is as graphic as it gets.

So, absences from last time: Bobo and Lem are almost nonexistent, and Fiji’s role is dramatically reduced. This story isn’t about them. Additions: the hotel people. The old hotel in Midnight is renovated and reopened, but it seems to have some shady ulterior purpose that hasn’t been revealed yet. I’m expecting to learn more in Book 3. The hotel has some long-term guests, retirees who don’t quite need assisted living yet. One of them keeps wandering off, so his grandson comes to help take care of him. You might remember Barry the Bellboy from True Blood Season 2 – here he is, briefly reminiscing with Manfred over their mutual acquaintance Sookie Stackhouse. The suspiciousness of the hotel seems to extend to Madonna and Teacher, the chef and the handyman. In the first book they seemed to fit right in, but over time it’s become clear that they don’t really belong with the other Midnighters. Something else to explore in the next book. The other new addition is Diederik. His father drops him with the Rev, even though the Rev hardly seems like the person to raise a child. Silent and brooding, constantly tending the pet cemetery and the church that no one seems to attend. Diederik isn’t the average kid, though – he grows fifteen years in as many days. And then, at the full moon, it’s revealed that he and the Rev are both weretigers. I do not understand why Harris wants to populate Louisiana and Texas with tigers. They are not a native species in this part of North America. But they’re here, creating the potential for trouble if people aren’t smart enough to stay indoors at night.

And, the murder mystery. In an early chapter, Manfred is helping a woman contact her dead husband when the husband reaches through him and takes her off to the next life. Manfred is accused of murder and of stealing her jewels, so the trick is not to discover the murderer but to see if they can prove he didn’t do it. It’s all revealed in the end, of course, but there are so many distractions from the jewel thief plot that I nearly forgot about it. This book is less carefully plotted than the first, and like the second book in most trilogies, it opens loops that don’t get closed. There are things still to learn.

So I’ve moved into an old house, one that has room for New Guy to live in when he finds a job down here. Getting a job does need to happen first – I don’t make enough money to support him. He’s always had a higher income than I have, but I find that the greater the income, the greater the expenses incurred. There are very few Americans who are really comfortable with having any money left over at the end of the month. I grew up in an old house and I’ve lived in a few before this, but I didn’t expect the lack of upstairs water pressure. There’s only one bathing facility, and it’s upstairs. I tried taking showers for the first week, but the pressure isn’t strong enough to get my hair feeling clean. I’ve switched to tub baths, and in reading this book I realized that it takes a good four or five chapters to get the tub full. If I were in a rush, I’d find this very irritating.

0816181604

The house hasn’t been lived in for a year or so, and a while back the owner decided to paint the windows. The neighbors didn’t like the newspaper taped up to keep the glass clean, so he’s kept it up to spite them. It makes the house look abandoned, or haunted, or maybe both. I haven’t seen evidence of haunting yet, so I’ll assume if there are any ghosts that they like me. There are nut trees in the yard, and they keep dropping the nuts onto the house, and the driveway, and my car, and every other hard surface in the area. If I keep hearing random bangs after the nuts have all fallen, then I’ll think about haunting. In general, I feel good here, when I’m not having anxiety attacks about school. Transitioning back into studenthood is not as comfortable as one might imagine. I’ve lost my study skills; I have to access the self-knowledge that studying requires, which is different from the types of knowledge I’ve needed as a teacher. And I have to admit that information about me is different than it was; I don’t have the same brain I did thirteen years ago when I started grad school the first time, or twenty years ago when I started undergrad. Well, technically I do have the same brain, because neurons don’t die off and get replaced periodically the way other cells do, but it’s not operating at those levels of efficiency.

Enfin, I do enjoy Charlaine Harris’s books. They’re comfortable and familiar, as modern Southern mystery novels are to me. Hers are more engrossing than others, though, so I think her popularity is well deserved. I’m looking forward to finding the third book of the series.

I hope I don’t have to tell you how much I love this book. Love is so hard to quantify, and a look through my posting history ought to tell you that this is precisely the sort of book that I value highly. I know that some people see it primarily as a book about adultery, but that’s hardly the point. There’s an incident before the book begins, but there are no sexual acts performed by the characters during the course of the book. This is a book about justice and rehabilitation, not crime.

We begin with Hester Prynne. Back in early seventeenth-century England, she grew up in the country and was married to an old scholar. He decided to relocate to Boston, so he sent her on ahead. After two years without seeing or hearing from him, she started to give him up for dead. And then she becomes pregnant, and her troubles really begin. She has some jail time, and some public shaming on the scaffold where the stocks are kept. Then, for the rest of her life, she has to wear a red A on her chest as a constant reminder of her sin and shame. Well. We call it a red A, and Hawthorne calls it the scarlet letter, but the background fabric is red and the letter itself is in gold thread. It’s so beautiful that strangers sometimes mistake it for a badge of honor, and Hester’s artistic skill with the needle is so intense that no one can recreate what she’s done, not even by backing the thread out and tracing backwards. She takes her daughter to live in an abandoned house on the edge of town, and unleashes her artistic revolutionary soul in solitude. Hester has an acute awareness of the injustices of society against women, and dreams of being a prophet of the new age, proclaiming the equality and rights of women. Which leads to what I find to be one of the creepiest lines in the book:

The scarlet letter had not done its office.

From our position in the twenty-first century, it’s expected that we’ll admire Hester’s rebellious spirit – because she’s right. But Hawthorne is writing in the nineteenth century, when women were valued for their inactivity and endurance, and his story is set farther back still, two hundred years before his own time, when according to Virginia Woolf women were beaten and flung about the room with impunity. Besides, Hester’s rebellion drove her to break the law, and sending the attitude underground is no guarantee that she won’t break the law again. Outwardly she is a model citizen while inwardly she longs to burn the world down and start over. The town elders even begin to discuss allowing her to remove the scarlet letter, but she won’t let them take it from her. I don’t blame her – if I had a free pass out of social obligations, I would hang on to it too. The scarlet letter holds her outside of society, which helps her to have such a different perspective. She doesn’t want to be just like everybody else.

The letter represents human justice and all its inadequacies. The idea behind it is that forced suffering will teach criminals to value society and its laws, a sort of Stockholm syndrome hope. Divine justice, based on the idea that love heals and unites us, gives Hester a daughter, Pearl. Pearl is a weird kid, in a city full of weird kids. She’s light and graceful and dances all over the place, imaginative and artistic like her mother. Seeing these qualities in children often upsets adults because society trains us to pour our imagination into prescribed channels, but kids don’t know the prescribed channels, so it’s more like a flood that pours over everything. Nothing is off limits, no thought too strange, no subject too holy. She has a natural irreverence that seems to come with youth and intelligence. Hester traces all her iconoclasm to the crime that conceived her, but that’s Puritan values. Does anyone really want Pearl to be like other kids, who say things like:

Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!

Kids are jerks. But the town leaders worry about this one, and discuss taking Pearl away from Hester for the sake of her soul. They think Pearl will grow up better without being raised by the town harlot. But Hester argues passionately for her right to keep her child, and they relent. As the book progresses, Pearl drifts closer and closer to revealing her father’s secret, which is after all a major part of the real justice Hawthorne is portraying. And through the love of Pearl, Hester really does calm down and rehabilitate. She still sees the injustice, but she gives up the idea of changing things by herself. For Hawthorne, criminals have no place in the revolution. Women’s rights have to be won by blameless women. I understand his point, that in order for changes to happen at the top of society they need to be championed by people that society’s leaders will listen to, and it’s hard to get people to listen to a single mom with a criminal record. But if no one breaks laws, no one will realize the laws are unfair. If no one breaks taboos, society doesn’t change.

Roger Chillingworth is Hester’s husband. He didn’t die on the crossing from Amsterdam; he had been living among the Native Americans, learning their systems of healing. At the time we meet him, he’s skilled in four-humors medicine, alchemy, and homeopathy, which is the highest we could say for a doctor in the seventeenth century. He sees Hester’s public shame and convinces her to conceal his identity so he can search for the man who cuckolded him and drive him to confession. When he finds his target, he psychologically tortures him while tending to his illnesses – Chillingworth’s alchemy leads the man’s body to produce a scarlet letter on his chest, red on pale skin, the visible sign pushed out from the adulterous heart. Chillingworth frames this to himself as a quest for justice, but he’s really only interested in punishment and revenge. It reminds me a bit of the television program Lucifer, where the title character is constantly pointing out that the devil doesn’t take pleasure in sin – it’s his job to punish it, that’s all. TV Lucifer likes joy and tries to convince people to have a good time, so long as it remains innocent and consensual. I don’t mean devoid of alcohol, drugs, and sex; by innocent, I mean there is no malice. But as Chillingworth dives deeper into his vengeance, he takes joy in his victim’s suffering. For Hawthorne, this is worse than the adultery. Chillingworth learns to love malice; it becomes the only important feature of his character. By focusing exclusively on one goal, and that goal being to cause pain, Chillingworth becomes an evil caricature of his former self, twisted psychologically as much as he has scoliosis physically.

The fourth principal character is Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister who fucked Hester, both literally because he loves her and figuratively because he’s too afraid of losing his position to stand with her. Because of his fear, she has to go through all of this alone. While Hester is on the path of healing and Chillingworth is on the path of vengeance, Dimmesdale shows us the effect of hidden sin, crimes unconfessed. This theme gets a much more careful representation in Crime and Punishment, where Dostoevsky demonstrates the extreme stress of feeling guilty and holding it inside. Dimmesdale’s poor mental health affects his physical health as well, and he wastes away from the constant stress of seeming the opposite of what he feels himself to be. In many ways he’s like a closeted gay man – being gay isn’t sinful, but staying in the closet involves the same type of duplicity and vigilance. He has a secret that no one must infer; he must hide the core of who he is from everyone he meets. There is no relaxation, only self-hatred and lies. Even when alone, he just punishes himself. It’s no wonder he goes crazy and dies. The relief of confessing the reality of his soul is so intense, and the required change in his lifestyle is so extreme, that he collapses on the spot. But his confession is necessary for the closure in all the other stories as well – Chillingworth’s vengeance, Hester’s rehabilitation, and Pearl’s socialization all require it. Dimmesdale’s refusal to confess doesn’t just hurt him; it retards everyone’s progress. Secrets are poisonous, and there are very few that I find myself willing or able to keep. Those few are related to situations that I didn’t create and are none of my business, and the people I keep them for are very special to me indeed.

It is hard to calculate the impact of this book. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela has been called the first British novel because it was the first piece of extended prose fiction that delved heavily into the psychology of its protagonist; The Scarlet Letter holds a similar position in American literary history. I don’t mean to imply a bad opinion of Irving or Cooper; it’s just that Hawthorne popularized the inward look in a way that they didn’t. Charlotte Temple and Hope Leslie aren’t quite as meditative either, but the critics who defined The First Great American Novel would never have ascribed that title to one written by a woman, even though Charlotte Temple was the first American bestseller and Hope Leslie has an exploding pirate ship.

It’s fairly well-known that The Scarlet Letter changed the course of Melville’s career – he seems to have had a bit of a crush on Hawthorne, from the extreme praise he printed of Mosses from an Old Manse and Hawthorne’s discomfort on meeting him in person. People hear that he read The Scarlet Letter while writing Moby-Dick and then blame Hawthorne for all the cetology, but have you ever looked at White-Jacket? It’s the book before Moby-Dick, and it’s all about describing the mundanities of life on a man-of-war and drawing parallels to life in general. Hawthorne didn’t teach Melville to do allegory; he showed him that it’s possible to combine allegory with a good story. There doesn’t have to be a separation between the two. And, of course, critics at the time hated Moby-Dick, so The Scarlet Letter led to the bitterness that flowers so uncomfortably in Pierre and the later works.

It also had a strong effect on George Eliot. Her first full-length novel, Adam Bede, is a retelling of The Scarlet Letter in a Hardy-esque Wessex. Arthur Dimmesdale becomes Arthur Donnithorne, Hester Prynne becomes Hester Sorrel, and Roger Chillingworth becomes Adam Bede. Eliot focuses on the suffering rather than the justice, because she’s writing a tragedy rather than a journey. When I think of Adam Bede, though, I tend to focus on Dinah Morris’s story, the young woman preacher who marries Adam in the end. She reminds us that Eliot’s previous fiction is the Scenes from Clerical Life. Dinah shows us graphically that a woman can be a prophet, though she is the type of ‘pure’ woman that Hawthorne imagines central to gaining respect for women’s issues. In her own life as mistress to an unhappily married man, Eliot must have had a lot of sympathy for Hester Prynne, more than I could muster for Hettie Sorrel back when I read Adam Bede for the first time. Hester is intelligent and artistic, two qualities I value, but Hettie’s just a pretty face masking a pile of discontent. I never understood what Adam Bede saw in her.

The biggest effect, though, is in the way Hawthorne taught us to think about the Puritans. By all accounts they were never as ugly, joyless, and strict as he represents them. But The Scarlet Letter is more often and less critically read than historical documents, so people assume Hawthorne knew what he was talking about. He was closer to us in time than to his subject. It’s like the whole Jonathan Edwards thing. In school, we read “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” and assume that he and all the other Puritans were obsessed with hell and believed in a God of hate, disappointed in our goodness because he longs to throw us into the fire like unwanted spiders. But if you read Edwards’s journals, you find that he was a mostly happy guy who loved nature, God, and the people around him. He was a lot closer to modern evangelicals than people think when they only read the one revival sermon. In fact, we’re so similar that a few years ago someone made a movie of Emma Stone as Hester Prynne in a modern California high school.

Of course, with me being who I am, I see it as a story of two people who fall in love in a society that tells them that they can’t. And despite all of the bullshit, Hester and Arthur really do love each other.

And, as if the gloom of the earth and sky had been but the effluence of these two mortal hearts, it vanished with their sorrow. All at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest, gladdening each green leaf, transmuting the yellow fallen ones to gold, and gleaming adown the gray trunks of the solemn trees. The objects that had made a shadow hitherto, embodied the brightness now. The course of the little brook might be traced by its merry gleam afar into the wood’s heart of mystery, which had become a mystery of joy.

Such was the sympathy of Nature – that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth – with the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a death-like slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s!

Love is love. Hester’s marriage to Chillingworth, which even he admits was a mistake, creates some legal troubles, but her love with Arthur is as real and intense as anyone else’s. Hidden, but real. It draws my attention back to my own situation, of being in an affair with a man who is still legally married to his wife. I’ll admit that I don’t completely understand why he lives as he does, especially when I see how little happiness it brings him. I guess Norman Bates is right, that some people get stuck in traps and can’t get out of them. I’m doing my best to motivate him, but he has to get out of this on his own. I can’t do it for him.

I read this book during my transition to a new house in a new town. I’ve been having to take a lot of self-care time these last few weeks, but hopefully I’ll be able to put more time and attention into being a student and less into being a ball of anxiety. Getting my financial aid check will help – food insecurity makes everything else seem unimportant.

Speaking of perceived unimportance, I want to put in a good word for “The Custom House.” A lot of people skip it, but I find it a delight. Hawthorne describes his time working for the government as a customs agent and a few of the incredibly aged people who work there with him. He stresses the importance of paying attention to daily life, which is a skill I don’t always have.

The fault was mine. The page of life that was spread out before me seemed dull and commonplace, only because I had not fathomed its deeper import. A better book than I shall ever write was there; leaf after leaf presenting itself to me, just as it was written out by the reality of the flitting hour, and vanishing as fast as written, only because my brain wanted the insight and my hand the cunning to transcribe it. At some future day, it may be, I shall remember a few scattered fragments and broken paragraphs, and write them down, and find the letters turn to gold upon the page.

It’s hard to understand what’s important as we’re going through the daily round. When do changes take place inside us? How do our desires and needs change? Why is literature so interested in moments of change rather than moments of stasis? When it comes to life, I’m better at the big picture, the broad strokes. Other people are good at the diurnal continuity. I think that a life well lived needs both; I value the part that I’m good at because I value myself, and people who are good at the everyday stuff should do the same.

I hesitate to make sweeping generalizations, like Everyone should read this book, but everyone should really read this book. It’s about justice, forgiveness, and living openly and honestly without fear. We all make mistakes, so it’s important to learn how to restore our sense of ourselves when we’ve violated our internal laws. None of us lives up to our own standards all the time, so we have to forgive ourselves and press forward. It’s a book about how to go on living when you start to hate yourself, as well as how to stop hating yourself once you start. It also stresses the importance of gender equality, and we’re still working on that nearly two hundred years later. The long sentences and advanced vocabulary can be a challenge, but I think it’s worth it.