Old Literature, New Words

Nothing like a great classic to bring up some words you may know, but weren’t aware had interesting multiple definitions, and a few you may not know.  I’m sure you’ll want to add these to your vocabulary, work them into your writing, and use them to win a round of Jeopardy.

First is beetling.  When I came across it in a sentence, I thought I knew the definition of the word, but its usage didn’t make sense where it had been written.  So, I went in search of the definition that would fit the sentence.

As a verb, beetling can mean:

Make one’s way hurriedly or with short, quick steps.

To use a beetle on; drive, ram, beat, or crush with a beetle.

To project or overhang threateningly.

As a noun:

A heavy hammering or ramming instrument, usually of wood, used to drive wedges, force down paving stones, compress loose earth, etc.

Any of various wooden instruments for beating linen, mashing potatoes, etc.

Any insect of the order Coleoptera, having biting mouthparts and forewings modified to form shell-like protective elytra (two-wing casing of a beetle).

As an adjective:

Projecting, overhanging.

That’s quite a few definitions for a word that sounds rather cute when you say it.  Try it this way:

But just then the moon, sailing through the black clouds, appeared behind the jagged crest of a beetling, pine-clad rock, and by its light I saw around us a ring of wolves, with white teeth, lolling red tongues, with long sinewy limbs and shaggy hair.

Now it doesn’t sound so innocent, does it?  Clearly the adjective of beetle was the one the author had in mind.

Let’s move on to prosecuting.  I don’t know about you, but I instantly think all things legal when I hear the word.  A verb all around, drop the –ing and head straight for prosecute to discover what it means:

Institute legal proceedings against (a person or organization), institute legal proceedings in respect of (a claim or offense), and (of a lawyer) conduct the case against the party being accused or sued in a lawsuit.

See what I mean about the legal thing.  But press on a titch to find:

Continue with (a course of action) with a view to it completion.

And the archaic:

Carry on (a trade or pursuit).

Consider the sentence:

I think had there been any alternative I should have taken it, instead of prosecuting that unknown night journey.

Our character is fearful of his surroundings and the strange goings-on, so no doubt the second definition of prosecute applies here.

The last word is a fun one and needs to be worked into conversation at every opportunity not unlike the word huzzah.  Try faugh on for size.  The exclamation is used to express disgust, and I came across it in the sentence:

I am alone in the castle with those awful women.  Faugh!  Mina is a woman, and there is nought in common.  They are devils of the Pit!

You might believe the author is writing about the Kardashians, but he’s not.  The women in question are vampires, and if you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

I wasn’t going to mention this word, but lest anyone think I’ve misspelled it, nought in the sentence above is not spelled incorrectly; it’s a variation of naught.  But you, brilliant follower, already knew that.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 23

Recently, at my writer’s group, a fellow writer who is beginning her chosen art form told me that she was advised to not write above an eighth-grade level.  I remember several seconds of stunned silence between us before I asked, “Who told you that?”  Based on her troubled countenance, I don’t doubt that the horror of this suggestion came through in my tone.  I’ve also been told that my facial expressions convey exactly what I’m thinking, so I hope I didn’t overwhelm the poor woman with my response.  I wanted her to run screaming, just not from me.  If I didn’t scare her off, I’ll make sure I soften my reactions when discussing such matters in the future.

Still, I am shocked that this type of bad advice is floating around writer’s groups.  The last time I checked, there were still twelve grades a student in America needed to complete.  Somebody please tell me if the progression of education stopped at grade eight.  That would mean my child, currently a senior, has read nothing beyond an eighth-grade level for the past four years.  That’s insane.  Then again, I recall the small heart attack I experienced when I saw Stephenie Meyer’s The Host on the high school reading list.  Which piece of classic literature found itself guillotined at the inclusion of that piece of tripe?

I have suspected for a long time that the art form of writing was under attack.  My fellow writer’s comment confirmed this.  So when did the dumbing down of American literature begin?  I don’t know if I can actually pinpoint the precise moment it occurred, but I can tell you the moment I became aware of it.  (And shame on me for not being more vigilant if it took place sooner.)

Dumbing down is the deliberate oversimplification of intellectual content within education, literature, cinema, news, video games, and culture in order to relate to those unable to assimilate more sophisticated information.

I remember the day I saw a t-shirt printed with the statement “underachiever and proud of it.”  I had another moment, not quite as intense as that with my fellow writer, but one in which I was completely baffled.  I could not fathom a person or society comprised of people who willingly settled for mediocrity in anything and a world in which one did the bare minimum to get by.  There is no hope of success when one functions under such a principle.

And yet, this is exactly where we, as a society, have fallen twenty-five years later.  It’s as if those who bullied the smart kids for hanging out at the library weren’t content to just harass their fellow students.  They wouldn’t stop until the smart kids not only condoned but encouraged this stagnation of the intellect.  If you don’t get on board—don’t hold yourself back from seeking knowledge or temper your drive and ambitions—you’ll be labeled  a snob in the least and intolerant at the worst.

So again I ask:  why this attack on art?  Because art is dangerous.  Art tells the truth.  Artists are freethinkers who challenge the status quo.  It was a novelist and playwright who said, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”  A gold star to anyone who can tell me who said this.  Here’s where the problem of proud underachiever comes in.  The generation in which this concept became acceptable doesn’t care enough to find out who said the above-mentioned quote or what the quote even means.  They are too lazy to want this information for themselves and are disdainful toward anyone who does.  If it isn’t required of them in school, and based on the poor quality of curriculum in American schools I doubt that it is, they won’t reach out and grasp the knowledge.

That’s pathetic when you consider that we live in an era where knowledge is readily accessible.  No more searching through the card catalog or plowing through large volumes of encyclopedias.  You don’t even have to go to the library.  Just ask Alexa, Cortana, or Google what you need to know from the comfort of your couch.  Be sure to wait until the commercial or you’ll miss the best part of your favorite recorded TV show.

What troubles me about his indolent attitude is that it’s creeping backward and contaminating older generations.  Hopefully it won’t pollute the writing of those already established and feeling pressured to churn out more or older writers just beginning to pursue their passion.  As for me, I am personally committed to fighting this process of dumbing down by writing the best literature I can and by seeking to improve myself in every way.  I am not afraid to compete, to go for the gold.  After all, why run the race if I don’t intend to win?

I’ll most likely be among the first to die if America ever succumbs to an oppressive regime because we all know how much tyrants fear artists.  But If I can leave behind a written work that the next generation, possibly the survivors, smuggle from home to home and hold up as an example of what they should strive for, then my art—my writing—will not have been in vain.

No Persuasion Necessary

No one will ever have to persuade me to read Jane Austen as I will always do it willingly.  The fact that my classic literature book group chose Persuasion as our July novel pretty much sent me over the moon.  Now here’s the big reveal for this blog post:  I’ve never read Persuasion.  My only experience with this particular novel is the 1995 Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root movie by the same name.

Still, having viewed the movie and possessing a basic understanding of the premise of the story, I found the romantic tension Jane Austen managed to write into her slim volume to be unexpectedly amazing and toe-curlingly satisfying.  Without smut or foul language, Persuasion is every bit as intense as the feelings one endures when watching the love of his or her life walk into a room and believing he or she completely out of his or her reach.  Because, after all, this is exactly what our heroine, Anne Elliot, believes of the dashing Captain Wentworth.

Another point I found quite remarkable is that for a small novel it had quite a cast of characters all with diverse and interesting lives intricately woven into the tale.  Jane Austen does this exceedingly well, and I never lost track of a single character.  I’m not sure if Charlotte Bronte’s comment of “very incomplete and rather insensible” is toward all of Austen’s works or Persuasion in particular, but I have to disagree with her.

Of course there are always the villains at whom we boo and hiss and wish upon them more of a comeuppance than they receive, but the character of Anne Elliot with all her selflessness and caring far outshines any of the unpleasant people in the book.  And, if we’re willing to admit, we should all be a little more like Anne and not wish these people ill.

While I’m usually the first to give up on a character for being a simpering doormat, Anne Elliot never comes across this way.  Her heart, although broken, is made roomier to care for the people in her life whether or not they love her in return.  She isn’t an unbelievable do-gooder, but rather an example of the quality of character to strive for.

The romantic in me believes Anne and Captain Wentworth live happily ever after despite any threat of war that would take him away from her or the notion that they had to wait for him to be rich enough to be worthy of a baronet’s daughter.  Regardless of the mindset of the society in which they were born, raised, and lived, I believe the fundamental strength of who they are at heart is the true source of their happiness and love for each other.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

mary-shelleys-frankensteinI recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a requirement for my classic literature book club. It was my first time reading the book, and I looked forward to it. As I approached the story, I knew better than to compare it to the Boris Karloff version of the movie by the same title. I’ve only viewed portions of the movie, and from what I’ve seen, I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss anything.

Of course, there was the Kenneth Branagh version of Frankenstein that I watched years ago. I recall the movie seemed classier, and it had Mary Shelley’s name in the title, so perhaps it was more closely linked to her original tale. Prior to reading the novel, my only other experience with Frankenstein was during my senior English class in high school. The teacher mentioned that Mary Shelley wrote the story as part of a competition with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and friend, Lord Byron, to write a ghost story. From Mary Shelley’s efforts, the novel was born.

With all this build up, I launched expectantly into Shelley’s biography at the beginning of the book. She had an unfortunate life full of tragedy and was a husband stealing adulteress. I kept in mind that the last fact should have no bearing on her writing. I did, however, tuck away her comment that people often asked her how a young woman could have written such a tale. I didn’t find it difficult to believe that a young woman wrote the book; the novel gushed on and on with a relentless amount of filler. In tone and passion, it matched the sappiest of poorly written romance novels. Truly, Mary Shelley had written a horror novel.

I suspect Mary Shelley’s overinflated belief in her ability to write was influenced by her sphere of acquaintances. Her parents were prominent writers and philosophers (her mother died shortly after Mary’s birth but left behind quite a legacy), her husband and friend (Lord Byron) were well-known writers, so why not give it a whirl herself? I must admit that Frankenstein is the only work by Mary Shelley I’ve read, but based on what I encountered, I am not motivated in the least to seek out her other writings. Feminists everywhere are probably damning me right now.

Led around by the nose is the phrase that kept coming to mind as I read the book. Mary Shelley obviously had a point she wanted to make, but she didn’t allow her readers to arrive at this point on his or her own. Victor Frankenstein was meant to be disliked and the monster pitied. I believe her intent was to make us wonder who the real monster was.

I kept hoping that Mary Shelley would raise the Creator vs. Creation issue because I would have enjoyed arguing that subject as I read. After all, Victor Frankenstein as the imperfect Creator would have made for a wonderful debate. Instead, we’re given a pathetic, weak man who repeatedly saves his own life over those he claims to love. I still don’t know why he suddenly rejected his own creation. We’re expected to suspend belief and simply accept that he did.

As for the suspension of belief, prepare to do so over and over and over again. The most unforgiveable place I found this to be true was in the mary-shelleys-frankenstein-2creation of the monster. Mary Shelley didn’t do her research as far as I’m concerned. She didn’t provide any method of preservation or refrigeration for the body parts and briefly mentions decay. Still, we’re expected to believe that Frankenstein built a human in a rented room in the middle of town. She glosses over the part where the creature is brought to life by having Frankenstein refuse to tell Captain Walton how he did it to prevent the sailor from making the same mistake. As a writer, I know that’s a major faux pas. Perhaps it was more acceptable when Mary Shelley wrote.

It’s a toss-up who fluctuated more in character: Victor Frankenstein or The Monster. Frankenstein’s resolve wavered every time he decided he was going to deal with his creation, and right on cue someone he loved would die by the monster’s hands because Victor’s spinelessness reasserted itself yet again. It was dangerous to be loved by this man, and I do not buy into the belief that he was helpless to stop the monster’s rampage.

The monster was intelligent enough to grab clothes upon fleeing Frankenstein’s rooms, learn language and reading in about a year, quote Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” but couldn’t discern his own feelings or come up with better plans for inserting himself into society. From the last two incidents, we’re supposed to believe the monster was a victim.

And when, exactly, did Frankenstein’s creation become a monster? In my opinion, it was when he refused to extend the grace he sought from humanity. In his unjustifiable rage, he lashed out not only toward those whose company he sought, but he hurt innocent bystanders as well (ex: burning the cottage punished the owner when the creature was rejected by De Lacy, Felix, Agatha, and Safie.) I could not find him pitiable, and it was not his right to act accordingly.

I could continue with issues such as why the monster possessed supernatural strength, how the scenes were predictable, the presence of too many coincidences, and how the character arcs read more like character cliffs. Since I haven’t read what the feminists believe Mary Shelley’s intent was for her novel, I’ll not enter that debate.

Instead, I’ll sum it up with the question of what makes a classic. If shock value for the era in which a novel was written qualifies, then a certain book in fifty shades is destined to become a classic in about one hundred years. Or does a book become a classic by the fact that it was written by an anonymous author who turns out to be the opposite sex from what we expected? All this did for me was present Mary Shelley starring in the role of Victor Frankenstein. (If you’re going to write an opposite sex character, try to make them masculine or feminine as is required of said character.) Don’t forget popularity and sales; they lend high regard for a book in the opinion of many people these days.

I’m not sorry that I read Frankenstein because now I can say I know for myself, but I cannot recommend the book as either well-written or worthy of being called a classic.

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