Thursday, June 19, 2014

Book Review - The Last Day of a Condemned Man by Victor Hugo

This is an eloquent and emotional appeal in fictionalized form for the abolition of the death penalty. The contents are grim and stark, yet the argument trenchant and convincing. Hugo's writing not only touches the heart, but also reaches into the depths of our conscience to rattle our complacency about man-made laws.

Given the political upheavals prevailing at the time, it is not difficult to understand the author's particular hatred of political persecution by means of the guillotine.

".... during any social crisis, of all scaffolds the political scaffold is the most monstrous, the most harmful, the most pernicious, the one that most needs eradicating." -  (Preface)

"Poor young man! How repulsive their so-called political necessities are! For the sake of an idea, a daydream, an abstract theory, this terrible reality called the guillotine!" - (Chapter 11)

This single sentence in the Preface to the 1832 edition epitomizes the author's perspective on crime and punishment:-

"(Society) should not punish to take revenge: it should correct in order to improve."

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Book Review - A Midsummer Night's Dream

I've enjoyed this Shakespearean comedy tremendously, which is an awkward statement from someone who has never been a great fan of Shakespeare’s! There are two things about this play that particularly pleased me. One is the comic effect rendered by the lighthearted world of sweet fairies, in particular the bumbling but innocent blunder committed by Puck, which is the pivot of the play; and the other is the sympathetic tendency shown by the author towards the plight of women in the areas of courtship and marriage in a patriarchal society.

When Puck realizes he has made a huge mistake, he just nonchalantly blurts out: "Then fate o'er-rules, that, one man holding troth, a million fail, confounding oath on oath." Then when Oberon has drugged Demetrius in an attempt to remedy Puck's mistake, Puck mischievously looks forward to watching some human drama unfold, saying: "Then will two at once woo one; That must needs be sport alone; And those things do best please me that befal preposterously."

In the happy world of dreamy fairies, nothing is serious and everything is fun. When this is juxtaposed with the sorrowful world of humans, where disobedience to the father in the matter of marriage means death or life confinement to a nunnery for the daughter, the satirical irony becomes intense. Luckily, at the end of the play, the comic world of dreams prevails.

Another important theme is inequality of the sexes which pervades throughout the play. Apart from the unfair patriarchal demand imposed on Hermia, we also see Helena as a victim of her times. The latter's bitterness about her unrequited love is obvious from this line of hers (to Demetrius): "Your wrongs do set a scandal upon my sex: we cannot fight for love, as men may do; we should be woo'd and were not made to woo." The fact that she dares to chase after Demetrius regardless must have seemed quite incredible to readers of yonder times! Nonetheless, her position still seems doomed. By contrast, in the world of fairies, Titania is at least able to hold her ground and refuse Oberon his brutish demand. So Hermia's and Helena's happy endings that are made possible with the fairies' help are particularly heart-warming. Hats off to Shakespeare for inspiring hope in mortals that dreams may come true!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Book Review - The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I’ve enjoyed reading “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, which is a Gothic supernatural kind of tale with a Faustian theme.

Dorian Gray is a young and handsome lad who has bartered his soul for eternal youthfulness and a life of wild pleasures. After experimenting a debauched life, inspired by a poisonous book that his cynical friend Lord Henry has given him (believed to be the French novel “A Rebours” by Joris-Karl Huysmans, which was to become a famous, so called “decadent” novel), he finds that his own enemy is and has always been his conscience, which is represented by the portrait that his artist friend Basil Hallward once painted of him. When Dorian further engages in one wicked deed uncontrollably after another, he is ensnarled in utter despair. Is he ever going to get out of the vicious cycle?

It is amusing to note some of the criticisms that “The Picture of Dorian Gray” received when it was first published in 1890. It was described as “mawkish and nauseous”, “unclean”, “effeminate and contaminating” (from Wikipedia). In hindsight, it is clear that the criticisms were more directed towards the novel’s unconventional moral concepts that Wilde had the audacity to put forward in conservative Victorian times, rather than towards the work as literary art. He was censored for being too avant-garde and too rebellious in his ideas of hedonism, art appreciation, love (with homosexual overtones), marriage and religion, often mixed with a shot of mockery at the lack of sensitivity for art and general hypocrisy in English society.   

The novel doesn’t lack purple prose, which I find not at all cumbersome but actually complementary to the Gothic mysteriousness, as it creates a paradoxical mood for romance and horror, spurring the imagination into curious activity.

My only complaint is that I find the ending a bit too melodramatic!