Monday, June 17, 2013

Coincidence?. . . I think not.

". . . and a novel called Middlemarch, as to which there had lately been interesting things said in the reviews."

Chapter 15
  My heart leapt with joy when I read this phrase. I read Middlemarch in college and was completely floored.
Surprisingly, others weren't.
I still remember the first day we had a discussion in class about it. I was completely in love with the main character, thinking her valiant, brave, idealistic, though a bit of a masochist. I felt like we could have been kindred spirits.
Everyone else hated her.
As I sat in class, stunned, my peers stripped Dorothea down and labeled her as an unhealthy idealist who sought suffering instead of joy and was determined that life should be holy instead of happy.
I just wondered if we had been reading the same book.
As I kept reading though, my eyes were opened. . . and so were Dorothea's.  I ended up writing my senior paper on the danger of ideals. Dorothea was a semi-saint who had painted a picture of happiness in her mind and fastidiously climbed towards it, even when it didn't actually make her happy.
Raise your hand if you've done that.
My hand is up.
Perhaps Newland's is as well. That is why I don't think it a coincidence that Edith Wharton dropped Middlemarch in at this moment.  Newland is wrestling with desire right now. He has not fully admitted his feelings for Countess Olenska, but he is painfully aware that the worshipful glow for May Welland is dimming.  His ideals have gone fuzzy.
Ideals do that.
First, Newland was blissfully in love with a flawless May. Then the dark Ellen entered, first to his embarrassment, and then as a beautifully honest refreshment, who "doesn't care a hang about where she lives---or about any of our little social sign-posts." He is torn.
One is all he thought he wanted for his entire life. The other is now what he thinks he might want for the rest of his life.
Decisions, decisions.
How do we face decisions like this? I think too often we make decisions based on what we are sure should make us happy, and not what actually does.
We all did this in middle school, right? (I pretended to like the band Poison and wrestling. . top that.) But I don't think it ended there. We hesitate to admit what we really like and perhaps play along with what we think we should love to do/watch/eat/enjoy.
Toss the ideals and go for the honesty.
Edith Wharton and George Eliot were really on to something.
And I think Newland is going to catch on.  Eventually.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Past the Point of No Return

"And all the while, I suppose," he thought, "real people were living somewhere, and real things happening to them. . ."

Chapter 19

After a painfully honest and tender episode with Ellen, Newland realizes that by pushing her to release her wishes for divorce, he has destroyed any chance of them being happy together. He is engaged and She is married. They dance back and forth between temptation and reality.

Neither of them have an answer for this situation, and Ellen's self control is admirable. Before they part, Newland reads a telegram May had sent to her cousin Ellen, announcing that her parents had acquiesed.

They were getting married in a month.

The next chapter opens with Newland in the rehearsed trance, playing the part of the anxious bridegroom, checking the ring, pondering the presents, and waiting for his blushing bride to stand by his side.

In these moments, the dance of of his life unfolds before him. His wedding felt like a night at the opera, not a joyful joining of hearts. It felt vacant and surreal.  And yet, somewhere, Newland believed that there were real people who were living a real life. 

Does this give him hope or despair?

Sometimes knowing that there is something real and better out there can be a two edged sword. Having something to look forward to is magical, but can also make slogging through the present more of a challenge.

Or maybe that's just me.

Do you think at this moment Newland wishes that the Countess Olenska had stayed in Europe? Is it truly better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all? That trite saying is easy to whisper to a teenager weeping on her bed over her first "broken" heart. But, how about for our grown up troubles? 

Newland faces a scripted life after he had just tasted the beautiful possibility of writing his own exciting improvisation. We will see how it unfolds. Though he might think otherwise, the life he is living is real.

And so is ours.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Innocence or Knowledge?

"Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!"
Chapter 16

Newland is crumbling, and so is his illusion of May.
In a tizzy of denial, Newland has fled to Florida in a mad attempt to convince May to bump up the wedding. She is curious as to why and wonders about Newland's loyalty. Her line of questioning is misdirected in its detail, but she is astute in observing that Newland's heart is wandering away.
But, those rare moments where May seems to see through the fog for just a moment are brief and Newland realizes how closed she truly is.
Who should we pity more, May or Welland?
May sees the world as she wants to, as she's been told to see it. That is a pitiable state, albeit it blissfully ignorant. Newland's eyes have been opened and will most likely stay that way for the duration. This is painful, but at least it is real. 
Which is worse?
Since this question has been in play since Adam and Eve, I don't expect an easy answer. . . and I doubt Ms. Wharton does either.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Rip the Band-Aid?

"Better keep on the surface, in the prudent old new York way, than risk uncovering a wound he could not heal."

  Newland has come to talk to Ellen about a divorce. His family and future in-law clan have begged him to convince her not to pursue one. And why? Wharton skillfully dances around the actual reality, but there are suspicions that, in her misery, Countess Olenska found some joy on the side during her marriage. Newland doesn't necessarily fault her for that, but the double standards of New York certainly do. Her European husband is warning that he'll make public all the rumors should she push for a divorce. 

Nobody wants that.

Least of all New York.

And so though Ellen is willing to brave the wound, noone else is and Newland is there to encourage prudence.  And it is during this scene that a new wound is born. What draws Newland to Ellen, do you think? Is it the elusive nature of her heart? Is it her mysterious past? Is it pure physical attraction? 

Or is there more?

There is a willingness to see things in Ellen Olenska. She is willing to look through the mist, uncover the wound, and face the truth. This is painfully refreshing to Newland Archer, and his world will never be the same for it.  

And now for us. Are we more like May or Ellen? Do we wrestle the kid to the ground to dig out the splinter, or do we just hope it will work itself out because it isn't worth the trouble. I've done both---in reality and metaphorically.

I hate difficult conversations, confrontation, and bad news in general. My least favorite part about teaching is calling the parents when their kid is in danger of failing. I put it off like a coward.

We all dance around our own wounds. How different might Ellen and Newland's life been in they had just ripped off the band-aid, exposed the wound, and taken the heat. It would have faded. But, instead, we have an aching novel unfolding in front of us as they peek under the edges, slowly grabbing and pulling and prying away at something that they actually will never be able to see.

(I would like to note that I do realize these people are not real. I promise)

Fiction has its lessons. We can rip the band-aid, pull the splinter, have the conversation, make the change.

And I believe we'll be better for it.  

After all, wounds do heal.