Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Classics: Reaching Across Time

Recently I finished reading North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. I picked it up because I love the BBC miniseries, which I discovered last year thanks to Netflix. (If you like period pieces, watch it. If you're not sure whether or not you'd like it, Google image search "Richard Armitage as John Thornton." You're welcome.)

What happens to me almost every time I read a really good classic is this: I'm amazed at how much of what the characters say and feel still rings true, even hundreds of years later. There were multiple times Gaskell seemed to reach out from 1855 and give solidarity to thoughts I've been having as a 20-something in 2013. No matter how circumstances change, technology changes, world powers and social customs change, what it means to be human, to feel things like happiness, loneliness, love, anger, sadness...those things are a deep part of what it is to be human.

This is my favorite example from North and South. (Sorry, it's in dialect.)

"There are days wi' you, as wi' other folk, I suppose, when yo' get up and go through th' hours, just longing for a bit of a change [...] I sickened at the thought of going on for ever wi' the same sight in my eyes, and the same sound in my ears, and the same taste i' my mouth, and the same thought (or no thought, for that matter) in my head, day after day, for ever." (Page 136, from the 2003 reprint Penguin Classics edition.)

Just longing for a bit of a change. How many times have I felt that? How many times has anyone felt that? When you take a moment and look a little too closely at the routine of life, and you can't stand eating the same thing for dinner or watching the same crap tv or taking the same drive home from work every day. And even though the character who says it is an ill factory worker from 1855 who (if a time machine ever did exist) would have little or no common ground with me, a member of today's American middle class (technology and social movements being only the first in a long list of reasons), Elizabeth Gaskell gives me something in common with her. I care about her because I know exactly how she feels.

That's why writing with honesty is so important. I think the reason we keep reading classics is because they surprise us by making us feel, maybe even more deeply than the literature of our own time. We're looking for that connection with someone who lived ages ago, the parts of the human condition that translate across time, and that interpret periods and customs that otherwise might seem alien after the passing of centuries.

So while it may not be "a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,"* given the number of reality shows based on dating and weddings, we're all still pretty obsessed with finding that significant other. And maybe we've never decided to undo restlessness and depression by getting a job on a whaling ship, but I bet there are times when "methodically knocking people’s hats off"** would make everyone's useless frustration feel a little better.

*From the first line of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
**From the first page of Moby Dick by Herman Melville


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