One of the joys of being a Mature Student at University is my A-Levels are long behind me. While this could seem like a downside to many people reentering education some sixteen years after the last time you passed an Academic test, I take the opposite view. Unlike my peers, I’m not bogged down by ‘but at A-Level’ and find joy in the reading lists for my Literature Modules.
Until I got a reading list (over two modules) that contained the following books –
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
I despaired and wrinkled up my face in horror. I hadn’t read any of these books, but I’d heard about them. For various reasons, students and lecturers waxed lyrical about these books. They were upstanding examples of the British Literary Canon. The best of the best.
Each one I opened with a sense of trepidation.
Wuthering Heights tends to need little introduction. It is also apparently true that you can’t study Victorian Literature without reading it. Often billed as one of the great romances of our time, Wuthering Heights follows the story of Heathcliff and Catherine through their seeming unbreakable love. Or as I found, not. I suppose it said much when my reaction to this piece was to use it in an essay to demonstrate Victorian concepts of madness. However, I didn’t find it romantic, but more an expression of family and domestic violence. By modern standards, if someone said told me or anyone that their partner behaved the way these two act towards one another, we’d all be suggesting they leave a toxic relationship.
In many ways, it’s this odd demonstration of what a closeted young woman thought could be seen as acceptable in a relationship that makes the book so compelling. Reading as an academic, notably someone looking at madness, I repeatedly found myself asking how the young Miss Brontë thought this was love. It left me pondering about a possible failed relationship and all manner of things – we do remain in the dark when it comes Emily Brontë’s life.
It left me thinking that if this was still considered a great romantic piece, then by that virtue it becomes a particularly dangerous book. By the time I was done with it, I certainly understood why we have a generation of women fawning over the abusive tactics of Christian Grey in the 50 Shades of Grey franchise.
Overall, yes, it’s a compelling read, but no, it’s not a romance. It’s dark and twisty.
It’s been said of Dorian Grey, in a book contained deep within the bowls of my University’s Library, that everyone knows what Dorian Grey is about but very few people have ever actually read the novel. I confess myself to be within that number – until recently.
Modern adaptations have somewhat deadened the original impact of the story, with Dorian Grey often cast as a tragic hero rather than the raging nut case he is. It’s a captivating novel, and much darker than adaptations would have you believe. From the first expressions of naive vanity to the murderous behaviour Grey ends up engaging in, the tale still shocks the audience. Of course, the shock element is a very different kettle of fish in the current era – we aren’t bothered by the hints of homosexuality littered in the pages but more the realisation that Grey will never redeem himself.
The tragically cut modern portrayals of Grey always seem to give him the redemption arc. Wilde never afforded Grey the luxury. Indeed Grey’s attempt at redemption, being just another selfish endeavour, leads him to his demise.
The most tragic element of the whole tale is how the novel was used to ‘prove’ Wilde was gay.
Like my other two choices, George Orwell’s seminal piece really needs no introduction – if you are happy to believe it is just a piece of anti-Socialist, Capitalist propaganda for the Cold War era. The novel is actually much more complex than this. It’s a critical attack on both Socialism and Capitalism for starters.
But it is also something else. It’s an exploration of the notion of utopia and dystopia. It explores the dangerous political notion of ‘cult of personality’ in both the positive and negative forms while touching on the continual idea that the government isn’t just always watching, but it’s constantly changing the narrative. In this case, Orwell’s IngSoc is gaslighting the population on a daily basis via the media output.
Airstrip One and IngSoc should have more in common with North Korea’s regime, but the novel often highlights issues that are prevalent in Western Governments to – misinformation, redirection of attention and anti-Semitism to name a few, as well as the casual misogyny demonstrated by Winston when he freely admits he would rape a women, Julie, to cause her harm. It all neatly comes together as a huge criticism of society.
A criticism that remains hugely relevant now, despite the book being published seventy years ago.
All links go to amazon.co.uk – I don’t make any money from linking to the site.