Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Classics: Familiar...or Not?

I was an English major in college. (Apparently I wanted to make getting a real job impossible for myself.) What ends up happening as an English major is that you read all those books that everyone's heard about but nobody's actually ever read (or finished. Ulysses, I'm looking at you. And also at you, Moby Dick.)

There were (and still are) a lot of books/plays/poems that I had heard about, and already had preconceived notions about, but hadn't actually read. So much literature is referenced in pop culture, made into movies and Broadways plays and re-interpreted as episodes of TV shows that it's easy to forget you haven't actually read the original. Seriously, how many people think that Hamlet was holding a skull when he gave his "to be or not to be" soliloquy? Yeah, those two things do not happen at the same time.

What's more interesting, though, is how different the originals actually are from what we imagine them to be.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
I loved reading this one. I didn't expect it to be so interesting, because surely everyone knows this story already, and who wants to read a novella written in 19th century language? (The Victorians sure did love their run-ons.) The dude who takes a potion and turns into a total psycho, right?

Mr. Hyde is not actually a monster. He's much smaller in stature than Dr. Jekyll, and there isn't anything specific about his appearance that marks him as unnatural. Only that when people look at him, they get an odd sense of wrongness. What really makes it creepy, though, is not the surface story of a Doctor's experiment gone wrong, but Jekyll's inner dialogue. He's frightened of himself--not only of Hyde, but of himself. It's a deep and fantastic look into human nature, and who might be hiding beneath what one thinks is one's personality.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I won't start off talking about Frankenstein by mentioning the obvious mistake in name people make when referencing the doctor and his monster. What I will say is this: Frankenstein's monster is not green, slow, or stupid. There is never any bride of Frankenstein's monster, either (the doctor flatly refuses to make a bride, even though the monster does demand it.) Doctor Frankenstein isn't an evil genius cackling while he pulls a lever. He's a weak-willed man who has too much imagination for his own good. He makes his creation by sewing together corpses, and then he leaves after he animates it because he's terrified of it. He runs away from his monster. Talk about responsibility.

The monster is calculating, intelligent, and surprisingly feeling, if in a very distorted way. He turns cold and murderous because he's literally the only one of his kind, and he frightens everyone who sees him. He's also not at all a shambling zombiecorpse thing, either. He's fast and he's strong and he hides well. And there are no bolts coming out of his neck.

It's a good story full of sad, sometimes pathetic characters. Mary Shelley wields them well. You're not sure who to feel sorry for and who to hate.

Paradise Lost by John Milton
All I knew about Paradise Lost was that Satan was, apparently, the protagonist. And that it was a hilariously long poem. And don't we all know the story of Adam and Eve already?

Not even close. Satan vacillates from sympathetic to completely despicable in one round of dialogue--I felt sorry for him and I thought he deserved what he got. I found him amazingly clever and absolutely loathsome. He has the most gorgeous lines in the whole poem, especially while he's doing the most awful things. Or is he? It's a brilliant piece of work that can take a story so many people see as absolutely black and white and turn it into a question mark. Eve was tempted by Satan. Adam stood there and ate the fruit with her. But in Milton's hands it becomes a story about bad communication, boredom, and dreaming. Adam gives Eve perfunctory, unsatisfactory answers after she wakes up with stars in her eyes because Satan gave her a beautiful dream, and I was never quite sure if Eve believed anything Adam said because though Adam loved to talk, he barely said anything.

Satan lies to his followers about preferring to reign in Hell over serving in Heaven when in reality, he carries Hell with him, and when he's alone he's miserable.
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I could do this all day, but I'll stop with these three. (I could also do a different post about the biggest letdowns--when the originals don't live up to their pop culture images.) Was there ever a book, play, movie, poem, piece of art, etc. that you thought you knew well enough through pop culture until you actually experienced the original? What did you think?


Eliza Tilton said...

I just added Paradise Lost to my kindle. I tried reading it in HS and couldn't get through it. Reading Othello now. I have the kindle touch and a ton of words don't pop up with definiftions. Still good though.

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