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Reading “Dracula”

There is still something about the name “Borgo Pass” that causes an involuntary shudder to run down my spine. I gather it is a real place: Wikipedia informs me that it is actually called “Tihuța Pass”, and that it is situated “in the Romanian Bârgău Mountains”, and the pictures I find in Google images show a landscape that is disappointingly pleasant and welcoming. But in my imagination, it is the dark, sinister mountain pass through which Jonathan Harker is driven towards Castle Dracula, the driver of his coach being, as he discovers later, no other than the Count himself.

Stoker had never been anywhere near Transylvania: he had merely picked up the names from an atlas. The picture in most peoples’ minds when these place names are mentioned comes not so much from Stoker’s novel, but from the various film adaptations – especially (for my generation, at least) the films made by Hammer, featuring Christopher Lee. And if you have ever wondered why Transylvania is so flat in those films, it’s because much of the location shooting was done in a place called Black Park, near Slough. But no matter: the substitution of south Buckinghamshire for the Carpathians is a relatively small disbelief to suspend given how much is suspended already.


I have expressed my enthusiasm for those Hammer films elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll leave them to one side for now. It’s the book I am interested in here. It is my current bedtime reading – when all is dark, with only a bedside reading lamp throwing eerie shadows about the room, and with a deathly stillness reigning outside – and I had frankly forgotten just how good it is. It is holding me spellbound, and I find myself looking forward to bedtimes. It is genuinely frightening. The Hammer Dracula films with Christopher Lee, despite being of far more recent vintage than Stoker’s novel, are unlikely to scare too many modern viewers, but it is a testament to the power of Stoker’s writing how well the novel has retained its power to frighten, and, indeed, how much more frightening it is than any of the screen adaptations. The first four chapters especially, where Jonathan Harker travels to castle Dracula, and, once there, finds himself effectively a prisoner, trapped with unimaginable horrors, still terrify. The 1977 BBC dramatization, which featured Louis Jourdan as the Count (and which is still the filmed version that is most faithful to Stoker’s novel) horrified many viewers with a scene in which Dracula brings back in a bag a live baby for his brides to eat: Hammer, for all their alleged luridness, never went anywhere near so far. And yet, this scene was not an addition by the scriptwriters to excite a jaded modern audience: it is there in the novel, dating right back to 1897. All the various Dracula films– from Murnau’s silent Nosferatu to Werner Herzog’s remake from 1979, the Bela Lugosi version from 1931, and the Christopher Lee versions with Hammer, stretching from 1958 to 1973 – all had to tone down rather than otherwise the contents of Stoker’s novel. And even then, many of these films were considered unnecessarily lurid and sensational at time of release.


Stoker’s novel has been interpreted in all sorts of ways. It has been seen as a political statement, as a religious statement, as an encyclopedia of sexual neuroses, and so on. I can’t say I’m very convinced by any of these. Dracula is indeed a foreigner importing a nasty foreign plague into good old Blighty, but, then again, the man who leads the fight against him (van Helsing) is also a foreigner. (Yes, admittedly, van helsing’s homeland, Holland, is closer to Britain than Translvania, but if Stoker really had intended this novel as a broadside against foreigners, he could easily have made Dracula’s protagonist a sturdy Englishman.) And yes, holy water and sacred wafers and the like are used in the fight against Dracula, but that in itself hardly counts as promotion of Catholicism: the Magic of Evil had to be countered by Magic of Good, and it’s the Catholic Church rather than the Protestant that provides these items that magically represent the Power of Good: Stoker (himself an Irish Protestant) didn’t really have much of a choice in the matter.


And then, of course, there’s sex. Dracula is, in admittedly rather perverse ways, a very erotic novel. The similarities between Dracula’s bite and the act of sex are rather obvious, and has certainly not gone unnoticed by the various film adaptations. (After all, when busty ladies in low-cut dresses wear a crucifix to ward off the vampire, it’s not necessarily the crucifix that the camera is focussing on.) But this is hardly a devastating critical insight: the sexual element is so obvious that it’s hard to see how even the most casual reader could miss it. Take, for instance, that famous scene in the third chapter where Jonathan Harker, having fallen asleep, finds himself, in a state of half dreaming, surrounded by three beautiful but terrifying female vampires:

Two were dark, and had high, aquiline noses … The other was fair, as fair as can be, with great wavy masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires. I seemed somehow to know her face, and to know it in connection with some dreamy fear, but I could not recollect at that moment how or where. All three had brilliant white teeth, that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time, some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.

I find this terrifying, and it is surely the erotic element that determines the nature of this fear. Had these vampires been withered old women, the effect might have been equally frightening, but the fear would have been of a different nature: here, much of the sense of terror comes from Harker actually desiring these creatures, and finding them sexually attractive. He seems to know one of the faces, but can’t quite place it: he knows it only in connection with some “dreamy fear”. This fear, it seems to me, is not merely of the vampires around him, but also of the sexual desire within, that desire he has glimpsed only in dreams: it is the “burning desire” that he feels in his own heart that he characterises as “wicked”.

Of course, this can be read as a depiction of an English Victorian gentleman’s inhibitions relating to sexuality; but this is so clearly intended by Stoker, and made so explicit, that it hardly requires any great act of interpretation to tease it out. Of course it’s about sexual inhibitions. But to see this as the principal thrust of this passage (if I may use the word “thrust” in this context) is, it seems to me, to miss the point, which is nothing more, but nothing less either, than to evoke in the reader a sense of terror. And the greatest terror is not so much the terror of what’s out there, but of what lies latent inside us. Stoker, in this passage, mingles together these two fears – the vampires out there, and the sexual desire within – and, in doing so, intensifies the terror. Which, after all, is the whole point of the novel.


Yet, to read the endless piles of criticism, it is easy to get the impression that the novel is about all sorts of things – politics, religion, sexuality – anything, indeed, other than what it clearly is on the surface – a horror story designed to send shivers up the spine. It is almost as if commentators feel that a mere horror story, intended purely to frighten the reader, is beneath their consideration unless they can find deeper meanings in it. And hence all the stuff about the novel’s politics, the novel’s religious subtext, and, most of all, about sexuality: it has been seen variously as an expression of revulsion from sex, about anal sex, about bestiality, and Lord knows what.

Fair enough, I suppose, if that’s what some readers see in it. Personally, I see a damn fine horror story, expertly paced and narrated, and full of all kinds of ghastly terrors. And that’s good enough for me.

It’s six in the evening now as I write, and it’s very dark outside. Soon, I’ll e pouring myself a whisky, settling into my armchair, and reading a few more pages of this shabby little shocker that has already outlasted many a book hailed in its time as unassailable masterpieces.


The pictures illustrating these posts are pictures taken by myself of my copy of “Dracula”, published by the Folio Society 2008, and with  the splendid illustrations by Abigail Rorer.

“Little Eyolf” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you (they needn’t be), it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself.  

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, published by Penguin Classics


In 1958, the London premiere of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof coincided with a revival of Ibsen’s 1894 play Little Eyolf, and critics were quick in comparing the two, much to the disadvantage of Williams’ play. In New Statesman, T. C.  Worsley wrote about Little Eyolf:

Its subject is a marriage and it takes that marriage apart as frankly and twice as truthfully as, say, Tennessee Williams … and it is (written though it was in 1894) just as modern if not more so …

John Barber in Daily Express thought it made Tennessee Williams “look like pap for infants”, while Alan Brien in The Spectator wrote “[Little Eyolf] wipes the smile off your face and puts the fear of God into your heart before you can say Tennessee Williams”.

All this is undoubtedly most unfair on Tennessee Williams – who, after all, did not set out to compete with Ibsen in the first place – but I think I can understand the critics’ reactions. Tennessee Williams, after all, had the reputation of being shocking, of pushing the envelope of what could be expressed on stage; while Ibsen’s image (one which still,  I think, persists) was that of a staid and stolid bourgeois dramatist, writing rather stuffy plays set in middle class drawing rooms. (Brecht had, rather condescendingly, said of Ibsen’s plays  that they were good for his times, and for his class.) And yet here was an Ibsen play – and not even one of his better-known ones – that shocks more deeply than what was reckoned at the time to be cutting edge drama, and which, as Alan Brien put it, “puts the fear of God into your heart”.

I can certainly vouch for the effect it has in performance. I have been to two productions, both performed (as it ideally should be, I think) in a small, intimate space; and both times, even though I knew the content, I was left shaken. My wife said to me on coming out of the first of these performances that she needed a stiff drink: I have never heard her say this before or since. She declined the suggestion that she accompany me to another performance of this play, so emotionally harrowing and draining did she find it, and it was only my own obsession with Ibsen, coupled, I guess, with a strong streak of masochism, that persuaded me to repeat the experience. And I remember taking the train back home afterwards, and thinking: “Did Ibsen really expect people to pay to spend an evening having their souls harrowed in this manner?” But I suppose that, by this stage of his artistic career, Ibsen was writing primarily for himself, and using drama, that most public of literary art forms, to express his most private of thoughts. This is not to say that he was writing autobiography: but it is to say, I think, that he was not prepared to compromise, to sweeten the pill, or to any way dilute the strength of his moral and artistic vision. Little Eyolf is a short play – much shorter than works such as, say, A Doll’s House or An Enemy of the People: but, remarkable though those earlier works were, Ibsen had now developed ways of saying much more with much less: the unyielding and almost ruthless concentration of Little Eyolf is in itself terrifying.

The play actually opens in middle class surroundings – “an elegant, lavishly appointed conservatory”, says the stage direction – with a view of the fjord through the French  windows. In the second act, we are outside, in the open air, by the shores of the fjord, and the dialogue seems to return almost obsessively to the depths of the waters, in which the child Eyolf had drowned, and from which the powerful undercurrents had carried his body out into the open sea. In the third and final act, we climb upwards: we are once again in the open air, and we look down upon the fjord below. This movement from indoors to the open air, and the vertical journeying – first downwards towards the depths, and then upwards towards the peaks – reflect the emotional temperature of the various parts of the play. The bourgeois certainties that seem implied by the “elegant, lavishly appointed conservatory” seem blown away by the end of Act 1, and in the middle act, we are forced to look into the darkest depths of the human soul. But towards the end of this act, an unforgettable image develops – of water-lilies that shoot up from the unfathomed depths of the waters and bloom suddenly and unexpectedly upon the surface. This image refers to all sorts of things. It refers to thoughts and perceptions hidden deep within our unconscious, that suddenly, and without warning, manifest themselves; and it also refers, I think, to the possibility of our rising from the depths. It is this possibility – possibility, nothing more – that the play settles upon in the beautiful but deeply uncertain final act, set high above the fjord. This final act is difficult to bring off, and many have found it disappointing. Viewed superficially, it may even seem that Ibsen is copping out – that, having presented us with the profound agony of the soul, he is merely suggesting a simplistic way out for these characters. Rita Allmers speaks of running an orphanage for homeless children, and her husband, Alfred, asks to join her. It may seem facile, perhaps even sentimental. But it is dangerous to look at anything in this play merely on the surface. When, after the first performance of the play, someone had said to Ibsen that they couldn’t imagine Rita running an orphanage, Ibsen had seemed surprised, and had asked: “Do you really think she would?” Ibsen was not depicting moral redemption in the final act; but he was depicting, I think, the possibility of these people, who, for all their flaws, are not evil, recognising the emptiness within themselves, and, at least, searching for something with which to fill that emptiness. Rita says this quite explicitly:

You’ve created an empty space inside me. And this I have to try to fill with something. Something resembling love of a sort.

Something resembling love of a sort. This is one of the most haunting lines that Ibsen ever wrote. Here are people, aware of the emptiness inside them, and knowing that, to continue to live as humans, they need to fill that emptiness with human love; but also knowing that this is precisely what they cannot do. So they try to fill that space with something – something resembling love. The means to climb higher isn’t there – not yet, anyway – but the aspirations are, and that is what matters. Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo had ended with the magnificent line “We are only at the beginning!” And at the end of Little Eyolf, that is precisely where we are: only at the beginning. As with Raskolnikov at the end of Crime and Punishment, or Levin at the end of Anna Karenina, Rita and Alfred have a long and uncertain journey still to undertake.

This final scene is difficult to bring off in performance, but I know from having experienced it that it can be done, and that when it is, the effect is unlike anything I think I have experienced in the theatre. It doesn’t wipe out the terror and the pity we had experienced earlier: one still leaves the theatre somewhat traumatised. But one does not leave in utter despair either.

But, to get to this point, where Rita and Alfred come to an understanding of the emptiness of their souls, and to an understanding of their need to fill that emptiness at least with “something resembling love”, we, like the characters, have to make a long journey. And it is this journey that forms the action of the play.

It all starts innocuously enough, in a wealthy middle class household. At the start, we see Rita, seemingly delighted that her husband Alfred had arrived home unexpectedly early the previous night from some trip he had undertaken. We see also Asta, Alfred’s half-sister: she and Rita appear to be on good terms. The only fly in the ointment appears to be Rita’s and Alfred’s ten-year son, Eyolf, who, disabled, can only hobble on his crutch. But otherwise, we appear to see a close-knit, loving family.

Eyolf, naturally, would like to be able to play with the other children, but, because of his disability, he cannot. Little Eyolf wants to be a soldier, but the other boys tell him this is impossible. “How this gnaws at my heart,” says Alfred softly to Rita. This “gnawing” becomes a sort of leitmotif in the rest of the play: we hear it often. And, soon after it is first mentioned, we have the emergence of the mysterious “Rat Maid”, a woman who rids houses of rats.  “Would your lordships have anything a-gnawing here in the house?” she asks.

The appearance of the Rat Maid at just this point, repeating the image of “gnawing”, warns us that we are not inhabiting the very strictly realist world Ibsen had presented in the earlier plays of this cycle. In a sense, all plays involve the use of co-incidence: for a satisfying arc of action to play itself out in some two hours on the stage, the various incidents that define the arc, the various comings and goings, have to be carefully co-ordinated, creating co-incidences that novelists writing in the same realist tradition would normally try to avoid. The skill of the dramatist often lies in camouflaging these co-incidences, so the audience doesn’t notice the breaches in the naturalistic surface. But Ibsen, in his late plays, seemed to go out of his way to point them out. So in The Master Builder, say, immediately after Solness had spoken about the younger generation toppling the older, and of how youth will come “knocking at the door”, we hear Hilde’s knocks. Dr Herdal even points this out. Similarly here. Soon after Eyolf hears about the Rat Maid from his aunt Asta, and finds herself fascinated by her;and soon after Alfred speaks of his son’s disability “gnawing” at his heart; the Rat Maid appears in person, and asks if there is anything “a-gnawing” in the house. We do not need to examine the text closely to pick up the reference.

The consequence of pointing out rather than trying to hide the breaches in surface realism is to move the play away from a strictly realist plane, and to focus our minds on matters more abstruse. The Rat Maid has come to rid the house of that which is gnawing: she may mean rats, but we know what is gnawing at Alfred’s heart. The Rat Maid  then proceeds to explain how she gets rid of the gnawing rats: she  walks around the house tree times, and then plays the Jew’s harp; and  when the rats hear her, they come out of the cellars, and they follow her. And she leads them to the water, sets sail in her boat, and the rats, following her, drown.

THE RAT MAID: … All those creeping, crawling creatures they follow us and follow us, out into the waters of the deep. Aye because they must, you see.

EYOLF Why must they?

THE RAT MAID: Simply because they don’t want to. Because they’re so mortal afraid of the water – so they must go out into it.

EYOLF: Do they drown then?

THE RAT MAID: Every last one.

We seem very far now from the bourgeois drawing-room realism that the opening of this play may have suggested.  The Rat Wife seems (like the Button Moulder in Peer Gynt) to be a figure out of folklore. Parallels with the Pied Piper of Hamelin seem, and are no doubt intended to seem, obvious. First, the Pied Piper had rid the town of rats; and then, he had rid the town of children. That which gnaws at the heart will soon be got rid of, rats or chikdren: they’ll go because they don’t want to.

So it comes as little surprise when, by the end of this first act, Eyolf really is drowned in the fjord: the Rat Maid had played her Jew’s harp, and Eyolf had followed, presumably because he didn’t want to. And, being disabled, he could not swim. He was doomed by his disability.

But before this happens, Ibsen, perhaps rather unexpectedly given the almost dreamlike scene with  the Rat Maid that had preceded it, plunges us into a scene between Alfred and Rita – a scene of the most utmost and violent passion. Alfred, we learn, had returned the previous night from a trek across the mountains, and he had had some sort of experience there – the true nature of which he does not spell out. But he has returned from the trip with a new resolution. Till now, he had devoted himself to what he felt would be his life’s work – a philosophical treatise, “On Human Responsibility”. But now, he feels, he knows what his own true responsibility is: not his writing, but his son, Eyolf. From now on, he will devote his time, his entire life, to the welfare of his poor, crippled boy.

But Alfred had not thought about Rita. Indeed, despite having been married for so many years, he barely knows her. But Rita knows herself – perhaps too well:

ALFRED [softly, eyeing her steadily]: Many’s the  time when I’m almost afraid of  you, Rita.

RITA [ darkly]: I’m often afraid of myself. Which is exactly why you mustn’t rouse the wickedness in me.

And then, in a scene of quite shocking frankness, it all comes out: Rita cannot keep it in. She desires Alfred – physically. And he is unable to return her passion. The previous night, when he had returned unexpectedly, she had brought out the champagne: but he had not drunk from it. It hardly needs spelling out further. Alfred has either become sexually uninterested in her, or has become impotent: either way, he is unable to respond to her still flaming sexual desire.

RITA: … And there was champagne on the table.

ALFRED: I didn’t drink any.

RITA [eyeing him bitterly]: No, that’s true. [Laughing shrilly] “You had champagne, but you touched it not,” as the poet says.

Rita says openly she wants Alfred for herself, and is not prepared to share him with anyone. She sees Asta, Alfred’s half-sister, as coming between them. And she sees her own child, Eyolf, also as a barrier.

RITA: Oh, you have no idea of all that could rise up in me, if –

ALFRED: If – ?

RITA: If I felt that you no longer cared about me. No longer loved me as you used to.

ALFRED: Oh, but Rita, my dearest – the process of human change over the years – this is bound to take place in our life too. As it does in everyone else’s.

RITA: Not in me! And I won’t hear of any change in you either. I wouldn’t be able to bear it, Alfred. I want to keep you all to myself.

And those who she feels comes between them, with whom she feels she must share her husband, are Asta, and her own son Eyolf.

Alfred is shocked – even more so, when, soon afterwards, Rita refers to “a child’s evil eye”. And it is at this point the tragedy happens – the tragedy that had been so clearly foreshadowed earlier. Ibsen, highlighting the mechanics of the drama rather than attempting to camouflage them, ends the act with a hubbub from the fjord: a boy has drowned. And yes, we know who boy is: Eyolf had slipped out unnoticed, and that which had gnawed at the heart has been taken away by the Rat Maid. Little Eyolf is dead.

The middle act of Little Eyolf is possibly the darkest, most harrowing thing Ibsen ever wrote. We are at the bank of the fjord. Alfred and Rita haven’t spoken to each other since their child’s death, and Alfred is sitting on his own, staring out at the sea, but he knows his son’s body does not lie in the depths: there is a powerful undertow, a hidden current, that has carried Little Eyolf away. Alfred tries to make sense of what has happened, but cannot find any pattern to anything: it all seems to him entirely random, utterly pointless: reason has no part to lay, for there is no reason to anything. It just happens.

Asta appears, and they find themselves reminiscing about their past together. After their father had died, they had lived together, half-brother and half-sister. It had been a hand-to-mouth existence, but it seems, in retrospect, like some prelapsarian paradise: they had been happy. They remember how Asta used to dress up in men’s clothes, and how she used to call herself Eyolf. It is clear how fond they had been of each other, and how fond they remain; it is equally clear that their feelings  for each other had been more than merely that of brother and sister – indeed, in that detail of Asta dressing up as a man, there are more than hints of a certain homo-eroticism. But their relationship, as siblings, had been chaste. And for this reason, they can look back on it as, essentially, innocent.

But suddenly, Alfred pulls up short: while they had been reminiscing, he had forgotten about Little Eyolf.

ALFRED: Here I was living in memories, and he wasn’t part of them.

ASTA: Oh yes, Alfred, Little Eyolf was there behind it all.

ALFRED: He wasn’t. He slipped out of my mind. Out of my thoughts.

Alfred is horrified at himself: how could something such as this, even momentarily, slip out of his mind? And neither is this the first time this has happened. He admits to Asta that as he had been sitting there, staring out at the fjord, he had found himself wondering what they would be having for dinner that night. Alfred vaguely senses that he may not truly have loved his son, and the very possibility horrifies him.

The main section of this act is taken up with Alfred and Rita. They had been avoiding each other, but there’s no avoiding anything now. They must face the truth – about each other, about themselves. Rita tells Alfred how, when Eyolf had first fallen into the clear water, the other boys playing there had seen him lie at the bottom, his eyes open, and Alfred responds

ALFRED [rising slowly, and regarding her with quiet menace]: Were they evil, those eyes, Rita?

RITA [blanching]: Evil – !

ALFRED [going right up to her]: Were they evil eyes, staring upwards? From down there in the depths?

RITA [backing away]: Alfred – !

ALFRED [following her]: Answer me that! Were they evil child’s eyes?

RITA [ screaming] Alfred! Alfred!

Rita seems to crumble under the weight of Alfred’s accusation. She has no answer to this: her grief is compounded by her guilt. Alfred remarks bitterly that it is now as she had wished – that little Eyolf will no longer come between them. But Rita knows better: “From now on more than ever, maybe.”

But Alfred is hardly innocent himself. Rita accuses him of never really having loved Eyolf either. He used to spend all his time writing his book on “human responsibility”, of all things, and had no time for his son. He protests that he gave the book up for little Eyolf’s sake, but she knows her husband well:

RITA: Not out of love for him.

ALFRED: Why then, do you think?

RITA: Because you were consumed by self-doubt. Because you had begun to wonder whether you had any great vocation to live for in the world.

Alfred finds he cannot deny this. It is true, and Rita had noticed. But Alfred has one further accusation to fling at Rita: Eyolf’s disability,  the reason Eyolf couldn’t save himself when he had fallen into the water, was Rita’s fault. When he had been a baby, they had left him sleeping soundly on the table, lying snugly among the pillows.

ALFRED: … But then you came, you, you – and lured me to you.

RITA [eyeing him defiantly]: Oh why don’t you just say you forgot the baby and everything else?

ALFRED [with suppressed fury]: Yes, that’s true. [More softly] I forgot the baby – in your arms!

RITA [shocked] Alfred! Alfred – that’s despicable of you!

Alfred accepts his part in his guilt too. So there may have been a pattern to it after all, he reflects grimly: Eyolf’s death may have been “retribution”. But this is merely posturing. As the scene progresses, and the two torture each other and themselves, and they strip away from each other all the lies they had surrounded themselves with, until they face their naked unadorned souls. They had, neither of them, truly loved Eyolf: he had been a stranger to them both. Alfred asks Rita if she could leave behind all that is earthly, if she could make the leap to that other world and be united with Eyolf again, would she do so? After hesitating a while, she finds that she has no option now but to be honest with herself: no, she would not. Alfred too has to be honest with himself: he would not either. They are both creatures of this earth – this world, not any other world.

And Alfred has one final terrible truth he has to acknowledge. He had married Rita not for love of her, for security – security for himself, and, more importantly, security for his beloved Asta. It is for her sake that he had married Rita, and had come into possession of her “green and gold forests”. Between him and Rita, there had been sexual attraction, yes, but not love, not really love.

Throughout this remarkable scene, Ibsen weaves various motifs and images, that all appear to mean far, far more than what they ostensibly signify: the powerful undercurrent that sweeps all away; the open eyes of the drowning child; the floating crutch; the insistent and implacable “gnawing” at their hearts; the green and gold forests; and, finally, the beautiful and mysterious image of the lilies that shoot up from  the dark and mysterious depths of the water and bloom upon the surface. For all the harrowing nature of the content, this act is also very deeply poetic, and, in a certain sense, beautiful.

There is one further revelation before the act ends. This is something Asta had been trying to tell Alfred before, but couldn’t. However, when Alfred, convinced that he and Rita could no longer carry on living with each other, proposes to Asta that the two of them depart and live together as they used to, she has to tell him: they cannot live together as they used to: Asta has recently discovered that her birth was the consequence of an affair her mother had had, and that, hence, there is no blood tie between her and Alfred. Their past days of seeming innocence had not really been so innocent after all, and those days can no longer be recaptured.

Having reached the very bottom, there is nowhere further  for Alfred and Rita to go. The last act remains for many problematic, but I find myself agreeing with translator and biographer Michael Meyer that, in this act, Ibsen achieved precisely what he had wanted.

Alfred and Rita, now frightened of being left alone together, beg Asta to stay, but she too is frightened. She had previously rejected the proposal of Borghejm, a gentle and pleasant man who is clearly besotted with her. Borghejm is an engineer, a road-builder, and, for him, life is simple: when you have obstacles in road building, you get rid of the obstacles. It’s straightforward. And so in life. Not for him the tortured doubts and mental lacerations. Now, faced with the possibility of staying on with Alfred and Rita, Asta changes her mind about Borghejm, and accepts his proposal. And she leaves behind Alfred and Rita, alone with each other, and both aware of their incapacity to love, and of the essential emptiness within themselves; and aware also of the need to fill that emptiness with something.


I find Little Eyolf the most terrible, and yet, in some ways, the most beautiful and poetic of Ibsen’s plays. He examines once again human lives lived on lies, on self-deceptions; he examines once again the cold emptiness within us – those “ice-churches”, as he had characterised it in Brand. He takes us through the most harrowing and traumatic of journeys. When Alfred Allmers had been trekking through the mountains, he had strayed from the path, and had become lost in the wilderness. Death, he says later, seemed to him, as it were, to be a travelling companion. He had, eventually, found the path again, but his brush with death had compelled him to re-examine himself: he would now discard his precious writing, and spend all his time with Little Eyolf. But this too was yet another lie, yet another self-deception: after Little Eyolf’s death he is forced to admit that he had been motivated not by love for the child, as he had tried to persuade himself, but by doubts about his own ability. But now, with no more illusions, he has to try to understand what his experience in the mountains had really meant. And he sees within himself the same emptiness that Rita sees within herself: in this, at least, the two are united. And he, too, sees the need, as Rita puts it, of filling that emptiness with something resembling love.

“The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” by M. R. James

Although dreams can terrify even the most rational and down-to-earth people, they haven’t really featured in ghost stories as much as might have been expected; and when they do feature, the effect, to my mind at least, is often less than satisfactory. This is perhaps because we feel reassured if the author tells us beforehand that what we are reading is but a dream; and if the author only reveals that fact to us afterwards, we feel cheated. The trick, of course, is to blur the distinction between dream and reality, but this is a difficult trick to pull off. And I cannot think of a better instance of an author “pulling it off” than one of M. R. James’ lesser-known stories, the rather prosaically, and, indeed, some may argue, clumsily titled “A Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance”.

James made a virtue of the prosaic. The narrative voice is solid and low key, matter-of-fact, eschewing any sense of fantasy or flight of fancy, linguistic or otherwise. A voice belonging to a man whose feet are so firmly planted on the ground that it is inconceivable that he could be taken in by that which is not. Such a narrator may not inspire much affection, but he inspires trust. And he presents a world that is solid, that is very recognisable – perhaps drearily recognisable – as the world that we, the readers, inhabit. Edgar Allan Poe famously started one of his stories with “For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief”. But James promises us no wildness, and certainly both expects and solicits belief. For some readers, this makes James’ stories somewhat dry; but for aficionados (such as myself), it lures us into a world so solid that when the cracks in reality do appear, they shock. Our sense of equilibrium is all the more disturbed because James has gone to such lengths to establish that sense of equilibrium in the first place.

Take, for instance, the opening paragraph of this particular story:

The letters which I now publish were sent to me recently by a person who knows me to be interested in ghost stories. There is no doubt about their authenticity. The paper on which they are written, the ink, and the whole external aspect put their date beyond the reach of question.

The only point which they do not make clear is the identity of the writer. He signs with initials only, and as none of the envelopes of the letters are preserved, the surname of his correspondent—obviously a married brother—is as obscure as his own. No further preliminary explanation is needed, I think. Luckily the first letter supplies all that could be expected.

Yes, a ghost story is promised, but that’s a minor concession since readers are expecting one anyway. As for the rest, it reads like a professional note that might have been written by an accountant or a solicitor.

But if James does not promise us wildness, he promises no homeliness either. Of course, that is in part due to expectations: we all come to an M. R. James story expecting the supernatural, and one can’t unexpect that. Indeed, much of the pleasure lies in noting how insidiously the supernatural makes its presence felt, first glimpsed, in James’ own words, in “the corner of the retina”, but then, increasingly more insistently to the fore. True, he never quite takes us all the way, but then again, he doesn’t need to. For instance, at the climactic point of this story (without giving too much away), a corpse is discovered, and James gives us the following:

[The] body was found, with a sack over the head, the throat horribly mangled. It was a peaked corner of the sack sticking out of the soil that attracted attention. I cannot bring myself to write in greater detail.

I can, of course, speak only for myself, but I cannot imagine even the most explicit description being more unsettling than James’ finely judged reticence.

In any case, it is the journey, not the end, that most menaces the mind. And, to make its full effect, this journey needs to be immaculately paced. And it is in the pacing that James, for me, was in a class of his own. Others may have equalled or even surpassed him in ingenuity of plotting, or intensity of imagination; others have certainly written more memorable prose. But when it comes to pacing out the material for maximum effect, for knowing when precisely to drop hints and when, as it were, to open the gates, James seems to me unsurpassed.

This story, after its terse introductory paragraphs, consists of four letters written by an unnamed writer, and dated from December 22nd to December 26th, 1837. The first letter is almost as terse and as matter-of-fact as the opening paragraphs: it lays out the expository facts as clearly and as succinctly as possible. The writer, unnamed, has come to an unnamed town or village, after his uncle, the rector of the local church, has mysteriously disappeared. The second letter is somewhat longer, and, as well as giving us a bit more expository information, unobtrusively conveys the atmosphere of the grey winter countryside, and of the provincial inn in which the narrator stays, deserted (we assume, since no other guest is mentioned) over Christmas.

It is in the third and fourth letters that the elements of supernatural terror, only hinted at earlier, start making their presence felt ever more insistently. The third letter is mostly taken up with the description of a nightmare the narrator has on Christmas Eve, and I can think of nothing I have read, wither within or without genre literature, that more vividly captures the unreal and disembodied ambience of a dream. The narrator finds himself watching a traditional Punch and Judy Show, but the setting isn’t described – not because the narrator hasn’t noticed it, but because it isn’t there: there is no setting.

It began with what I can only describe as a pulling aside of curtains: and I found myself seated in a place—I don’t know whether in doors or out. There were people—only a few—on either side of me, but I did not recognize them, or indeed think much about them. They never spoke, but, so far as I remember, were all grave and pale-faced and looked fixedly before them. Facing me there was a Punch and Judy Show, perhaps rather larger than the ordinary ones, painted with black figures on a reddish-yellow ground. Behind it and on each side was only darkness…

As the puppet show proceeds, it becomes increasingly violent. Of course, Punch and Judy Shows were (as far as I am aware) violent anyway, but the violence here, far from being slapstick, or in the mode of black comedy, begins to seem all too real:

The crack of the stick on their skulls, which in the ordinary way delights me, had here a crushing sound as if the bone was giving way, and the victims quivered and kicked as they lay. The baby—it sounds more ridiculous as I go on—the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak which it gave were not real, I know nothing of reality.

Once again, I can speak only for myself, but I find these lines as unsettling as anything I have read in supernatural literature. That detail of the victims “quivering and kicking” seems all the more horrible given the narrator’s matter-of-fact tone. Whatever else this may be, this is no mere puppet show, and nor is this merely a dream.

Soon, we seem not to be in a dream at all, but in real life. The partition between the oneiric and the real, never too solid to begin with, seems all of a sudden to disappear. Once again, I cannot claim to speak for any other reader: all I can say is that I, as a reader, find this whole passage uniquely disturbing.

If the dream sequence in the third letter tells of a dream that seems to slip into the real, in the fourth and final letter, the narrator witnesses a real puppet show that seems to slip into the regions of dream. Or, more accurately, into nightmare. But it would be unfair to reveal more: I fear I have revealed too much as it is.

There is much in this story that, in terms of plot, isn’t clear. But it doesn’t need to be. The interest is not in the mechanics of plot: James was little concerned with that. It is not a story that yields much to the reasoning mind: it is, quite deliberately, enigmatic to a degree that is unusual even in James’ output. But what I think it does convey is a sense of creeping dread, a sense of the presence of something too hideous to be apprehended, too horrific to be articulated, that is just beyond our field of vision.

This is not one of James’ better-known stories, but it is one that perhaps haunts my mind more than most others. While others convey what James himself termed a “pleasing terror” – and I am not averse to pleasing terrors at all: far from it – this one, in particular, seems to convey something else, something that I find genuinely unsettling.

Or maybe it’s just me.

“The Catcher in the Rye”

  • So you write a blog?

I couldn’t deny it. Yes, I replied. What kind of blog? Oh, I write about whatever comes to mind, really, but it’s mainly about books.

  • So you read a lot?

Not a lot, I explain. Compared to many other book bloggers, I actually read very little. But yes, I do read, and I like thinking about what I read, and putting down my thoughts – such as they are – on paper. Or on a laptop screen, at least.

  • So what do you think of The Catcher in the Rye?

Now, that question came out of the blue, and I wasn’t quite prepared for it. But I said, truthfully, that it has been many decades since I read it, and I remember I rather enjoyed it at the time.

A pause. And then:

  • I hated it. I don’t know why it’s regarded as a classic. It was just this whiny kid going on and on. Irritated the hell out of me. I felt like slapping him.

Oh, I said. Well, never mind. Fancy another drink?

Now, to be frank, I don’t really understand why it’s considered a classic either. Oh, not that it’s a bad novel – it clearly isn’t: but if I were to compile one of those tiresome list of The Greatest Novels I Have Read, I don’t think I’d include The Catcher in the Rye. But I suppose it depends on where exactly you draw the line separating the Great from Nearly-Great-But-Not-Quite, or where exactly you separate that from Very-Good-But-Certainly-Nowhere-Near-Great, and so on. But whatever category you put it in, I don’t think it can be denied that the book is a cultural phenomenon. It’s one of those books that is read even by those who don’t normally read books. The impact it has made is more than literary, and that in itself demands attention.

When it was first published in the early 1950s, it was, perhaps rather quaintly from our contemporary perspective, deemed controversial. Many schools banned it from their reading lists. That in itself gave it the frisson of forbidden goods. It was, seemingly, anti-establishment, a handbook of teenage rebellion. However, nowadays, it is actually required reading in many schools, and that kills off whatever street-cred it might have had. And anyone looking in it for a frisson of that rebellious anti-establishment vibe is likely to come away thinking “Huh?”

For, looking around various comments on the net, I do not get the impression that The Catcher in the Rye is much liked these days – certainly not as much liked as it used to be in my own teenage years, back in the 1970s, when it was considered essential reading. The comments I see now mostly seem to agree that Holden Caulfield really is simply a “whiny kid”, and deeply irritating. Whether I should take these comments as in any way representative of contemporary tastes, and whether the tide really has turned so spectacularly since my teenage years, I do not know. But it seemed intriguing.

Now, even if we were to concede that Holden really is just a “whiny kid”, disliking a character, even the principal character, is, in general, a poor reason for disliking a novel. But I do concede that in this particular novel, we need, if not actually to see the world through Holden’s eyes, to be at least in sympathy with his perspective: otherwise the novel would make little if any emotional impact. In the course of the novel’s action, Holden has what we may describe as a mental breakdown: merely to stand in detached and unsympathetic judgement over this is unlikely to bring us very close to the heart of what the novel is about.

But what is the novel about? The general consensus appears to be that it is about teenage angst, and teenage rebellion. But even when I read it as a teenager I could see that it wasn’t that. Or, rather, the angst it depicts is not something that can reasonably be described as teenage angst.  Something described as “teenage angst” must, by definition, be widespread amongst teenagers: but no other teenager in this novel feels anything like the mental agonies that Holden goes though; and Holden himself is as powerfully alienated from people of his own age group as he is from adults. What we are asked to observe is not, I think, a general condition, but rather, an affliction affecting one particular individual.

And Holden is not really rebellious. His “rebellion” really amounts to no more than walking out of the residential school he attends (he is obviously from a privileged background), and spending a few days by himself in New York. And even in those few days, he doesn’t actually do anything bad, as such: even when he has the opportunity to sleep with a prostitute, he finds he cannot go through with it. Of course, he dislikes all that he sees around him, but, beyond expressing his dislike, he does little to rebel against them.

In many ways, he is very much a product of the society he finds himself disliking. His attitude to homosexuality, for instance: while not openly hostile or malicious, homosexuality is nonetheless something he finds disturbing, and, by modern standards at least, we would certainly deem him “homophobic”. But given the background he has grown up in, it really would have taken a very fearless and independent thinker to hold what we may nowadays consider tolerant and enlightened views on the matter; and Holden as a thinker is neither fearless nor independent. Indeed, he is not much of a thinker at all: his dissatisfaction with life is purely an instinctive, emotional response to what is around him, not an intellectual stance.

So why is he so dissatisfied? Holden himself cannot explain this, for, firstly, he does not analyse himself, and is possibly incapable of doing so; and secondly, neither is he very articulate. His general sense of dissatisfaction is something he feels, but which he cannot understand, or express in words even if he could. So it is up to us, as readers, to try to look beyond his natural inarticulacy. One word he uses frequently is “phoney”. He doesn’t explain what he mans by this, but we can see that he tends to apply this word to describe what he regards (although he would possibly be unable to articulate it thus) as emotional shallowness, or insincerity. And this he sees all around him. People say things, do things, not because they feel it, but simply because that is the form, as it were, simply because this is what everyone does. What appears to dissatisfy him is a lack of feeling, a lack of emotional depth in peoples’ day-to-day lives. But why seems it so particular with him? However, as with Prince Hamlet (in this if little else), he knows not “seems”: for Holden, it is. It is the seeming in others that he deplores.

And the reason for this, though not immediately apparent, emerges slowly over the course of the novel, and takes centre stage in the climactic passage towards the end, where he meets with his sister Phoebe: Holden is still in grieving for the death of his brother Allie, and he cannot understand why the rest of the world isn’t also in grieving with him. How can people – even his own parents – carry on with their lives as before after something so momentous as this? How can they all go inside to take shelter from the rain immediately after his funeral?

This, I think, is at the heart of the matter. The novel is not about teenage angst, or rebellion, or about the difficulties of coming to age: it’s about a sensitive young lad who cannot articulate his grief, nor understand how the rest of the world, his own parents included, could fail to grieve as he does, could carry on living when his own life seems to have come to a halt. And considered as such, it strikes me as a very poignant novel, and not deserving the opprobrium so frequently heaped upon it these days.

I honestly can’t remember how many years it has been since I last read it. And, unlike many other books I have read, it is not one that has been a prominent presence in my mind in those years. But when, prompted by the conversation I reported at the start of this post, I started to think back on it, I was surprised by how vivid it had remained in my mind, by how well I remembered it – even above many other novels that are arguably of a higher literary quality.

A great novel? No, probably not. It probably doesn’t have the artistic scope that one might expect from something labelled “great”. But I think it’s a minor masterpiece, all the same.

“The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter opens dramatically with a scene of startling vividness, but Hawthorne makes us wait for it. For he had added a very long chapter titled “The Custom-House”, and subtitled “Introductory to The Scarlet Letter”. I suppose it is up to the individual reader whether or not to treat this “introductory” as an integral part of the novel: looking through various online comments, many readers seem to find this boring, and skip it. I, however, am something of a completist in these matters, and it did not seem to me boring at all: quite the contrary. Written in a most eloquent and musical prose style, it consists, for the most part, of a delightfully diverting account, leisurely narrated, of the custom house in which Hawthorne had worked, with pictures of various colourful characters associated with the place. Hawthorne presents himself as friendly, open, and companionable, and, reading this chapter, I could not imagine to myself a more convivial presence by the fireside. But it wasn’t entirely clear in what way this “introductory” is related to the rest of the novel: for all his apparent openness, Hawthorne leaves this something of a mystery.

In this introductory chapter, which Hawthorne tells us right away will be autobiographical, he tells of his own dreary travails at the custom-house, in order, seemingly, to placate the stern ghosts of his Puritan forefathers with remunerative toil; and he tells also of the apparent drying-up of his literary imagination during his three years spent here. And, towards the end of this chapter, he moves seamlessly from what he had till that point presented as fact, to what, we may surmise, is fiction, by telling us of his discovery of the Scarlet Letter itself – a small piece of cloth with the capital letter A embroidered in scarlet – and of the manuscripts he had found with it, telling the story of Hester Prynne. What follows, he tells us, is his re-writing of the story, “imagining the motive and modes of passion that influenced the characters who figure in it”. “I have allowed myself,” Hawthorne continues, “nearly or altogether as much licence as if the facts had been entirely of my own invention. What I contend for is the authenticity of the outline.”

Of course, there are many other examples of fictions that claim to be derived from authentic documents, with the claim itself implicitly understood to be part of the fiction. What is more puzzling is why Hawthorne should pen so long an introductory chapter merely to make this not very remarkable point, when a mere paragraph or two would have done just as well.

Hawthorne goes further:

While thus perplexed,—and cogitating, among other hypotheses, whether the letter might not have been one of those decorations which the white men used to contrive, in order to take the eyes of Indians,—I happened to place it on my breast. It seemed to me,—the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word,—it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.

Here, Hawthorne explicitly identifies himself with Hester Prynne, the wearer of the Scarlet Letter, and more than intimates some mysterious connection between himself and the Letter, and, indeed, with Hester Prynne herself.

And only now do we come to the first chapter. The opening is rightly famous. The setting is the prison house in Boston, in the Puritan society of the late 17th century.

The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.

Symbols abound. There is the heavily timbered prison door, studded with iron spikes; the prison itself, “the black flower of civilised society”; and, next to the prison door, Nature’s counterpart to this “black flower”, a wild rose bush. And there’s the scaffold, upon which the adulteress Hester Prynne stands to public gaze and scorn, holding to her breast her illegitimate child; and, of course, the embroidered Scarlet Letter upon her breast. These are very explicitly symbols, and are often referred to as such throughout the narrative. But what precisely they are symbols of is not always clear. Indeed, they are often as vaguely glimpsed and as obscure as that most famous literary symbol of all, the white whale dreamt up by Hawthorne’s friend Melville.

The embroidered letter A is clearly the symbol, to begin with, of Hester Prynne’s sinfulness, of her transgression. But as we progress, it acquires various other layers of meaning that are not always obvious. The daughter Pearl is explicitly referred to at one point as a “symbol”: there is about her an element that Hawthorne describes as “pagan”: at one point, she is referred to as an “elf-child”. She is a child of Nature, seemingly unaffected by the stultifying moral codes that bind together this Puritan society. When out in the forest outside the reaches of the town – another symbol – Hester momentarily takes off her Scarlet Letter, but Pearl immediately protests, and Hester puts it back on again. What are we to make of this? And, in the epilogue, we are told that Hester, as an old woman, and no longer under any obligation to wear the Scarlet Letter, insists on keeping it on. We can, should we choose, invent all kinds of correspondences: the letter represents sin, humiliation, expiation, defiance, inner strength – whatever we want; but as with the white whale, the symbol, though resonating powerfully throughout, remains beyond the reach of any such facile explanation.

But whatever the symbolic underpinnings of the story, Hawthorne does not bind himself to them. Hawthorne promises us at the end of the first chapter “a tale of human frailty and sorrow”: not an allegory in which the humans embody abstract concepts, but a drama, played out in human terms. The various symbols certainly resonate, but our understanding of the drama does not depend upon correct interpretation of the symbols – even assuming that these symbols are capable of being interpreted “correctly”: rather, the nature of these symbols help us penetrate the minds of the three protagonists.

The first protagonist is, of course, Hester, publicly humiliated, living the rest of her life in poverty with her daughter Pearl, and shunned by the rest of society. The next is the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, Pearl’s father, tormented by his awareness of his own sinfulness, which is known only to himself and to Hester. The third is a desiccated old man, Roger Chillingworth, who makes his first appearance in town on the very day of Hester’s public humiliation: he is, unknown to all except Hester herself, Hester’s husband, though long separated from her by circumstance. He soon discovers for himself the identity of his wife’s lover, and, his identity still secret, delights in tormenting him.

But the story is not really about “sin”, as such: it is, as Hawthorne clearly says, about “human frailty and sorrow”. The “sin” for which Hester – though not her lover, whose identity she refuses to divulge – is punished is adultery: in that society, it was considered a grievous transgression, and we are told that even the death penalty had been considered for Hester. In Hawthorne’s own times, this transgression would not have been so harshly judged, but nonetheless, it still bore a stigma: Hester would most certainly have been ostracised. In our own times, we would barely consider it a transgression at all, given especially that Hester had never really been close to her much older husband, had not heard from him for years, and that he was, in all probability, dead. Hester herself does not appear at any time to consider herself guilty: she stays on in the town, earning a meagre living as a seamstress, but at no point does she express remorse or penitence: on the contrary, she fights fiercely when it is suggested that Pearl be taken away from her; and, despite much pressure put upon her, she refuses to disclose Dimmesdale’s name, either to the authorities or to her husband. The letter A, embroidered upon her breast, and intended to be a humiliating mark of sinfulness, she wears almost as an act of defiance.

Dimmesdale, on the other hand, is torn with remorse and with guilt. But his guilt is not because he has let Hester alone bear that punishment and the public humiliation that he himself fears so much: it is for the act of adultery itself. And the Scarlet Letter that Hester wears so openly, Dimmesdale wears secretly in his heart. He has, indeed, every reason to feel guilty: but like all weak-willed men, the pain he feels is solely for his own self: at no point does he stop to consider what Hester Prynne may be going through. Nonetheless, the pain he feels is real enough, and what he thinks is sorrow for his sin of illicit sex may well be a displaced sorrow for a greater guilt – the lack of human empathy. But Hawthorne is not censorious: human frailty and sorrow are common to us all, after all.

The conceit that this story is Hathorne’s own retelling of an old tale he had found in his manuscript allows his both to be realistic, as he is in the psychological depictions of courage and of guilt, and also unrealistic, as he can bring into his narrative elements of folklore and of the supernatural, claiming that these elements were in the manuscript he had found, but, as a modern man, expressing scepticism about them. At one point, Hester is met by Mistress Hibbins, an actual historical character who had been hanged for witchcraft, but who, at the time of this drama, had been very much alive; and Mistress Hibbins tempts Hester to join her in the woods at night to meet with the Devil. Hester turns down the invitation: despite the Scarlet Letter upon her breast, she is no sinner. But the supernatural is introduced here quite unobtrusively, without ruffling the realistic surface of the story.

The drama plays itself out to its superb climactic scene set during a public holiday, and here, the Scarlet Letter that had burned secretly within the Reverend Dimmesdale’s breast is finally revealed. Once again, Hawthorne gives us the option either of accepting the supernatural, or preferring, in line with what we perhaps unthinkingly expect from nineteenth century novels, a more realistic interpretation. Neither diminishes the extraordinary dramatic culmination of this “tale of human frailty and sorrow”.

All of which still leaves open the enigma of that introductory chapter. Why does Hawthorne align himself so unmistakably with Hester Prynne? Normally, I try to consider a work independently of the author’s biography, but since the author has introduced autobiographical elements so explicitly into the work, that becomes impossible here. Hawthorne had, he tells us, worked at the custom-house because he felt that he owed it to his ancestors to be more than a mere storyteller, but that, during his time there, his imaginative faculties had dried up; and only after he had stopped working there could he return to the art of storytelling. Could it be that he saw his return to his literary vocation as a defiance of his Puritan forebears, much as Hester’s proud display of her Scarlet Letter was similarly a defiance of the Puritan ethos? I honestly do not know. It’s the only explanation I can think of, but it seems to me frankly far-fetched. But leaving aside that introductory chapter – which, though wonderfully diverting, remains for me something of a mystery – what Hawthorne has given us is a wonderfully moving tale, narrated in the most exquisite prose, and drawn with clear precise lines that belie the complexity of its underlying symbols, of human frailty, of human sorrow, and also, I think, of human courage, and resilience, and love.

Jekyll & Hyde

When Nabokov gave a series of lectures on European literature in Cornell University (which he later published under the title Lectures on Literature), he raised many eyebrows by choosing, alongside the likes of Austen and Flaubert and Proust and Kafka, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The choice continues to raise literary eyebrows, and is generally regarded as one of the great man’s eccentricities. Stevenson is still widely regarded as not quite a hack as such, but nonetheless, as Edmund Wilson described him, as a “second-rater” – a purveyor of adventure stories who had, it is true, penned a few children’s classics, but who was hardly a writer to be taken too seriously.

To argue against this contention would involve engaging with the vexed question of what constitutes literary quality – a question to which it is impossible to provide a definitive answer. In the end, we have little alternative but to fall back on Nabokov’s own criterion of literary greatness – the tingle in the spine. Which is, of course, entirely subjective, in a way that literary criticism ideally should not be. But clearly, Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde gave the normally fastidious Nabokov such a tingle. As it does me. I realise that a mere assertion hardly qualifies as an argument, but, going by that tingle I most certainly feel, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one of the great myths of modern times, among the most resonant of fables, and fully worthy of inclusion in Nabokov’s list. However, making the case for this may be more than slightly tricky.

Before trying to describe what Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is, let us briefly consider what it isn’t. It is not a depiction of a “split personality” struggling between Good and Evil. This may seem a somewhat odd thing to say, as a split personality, and the Manichean dichotomy within a single human breast of Good impulses and Evil, are, in the popular imagination, the very themes conveyed by the names “Jekyll and Hyde”.  But whatever we may derive from the countless adaptations of Stevenson’s story (many of them, incidentally, very fine works in their own right), this is not what Stevenson had written. For at the centre of Stevenson’s story is the issue not so much of a split personality, but of a suppressed personality.

Dr Jekyll himself, in his testament (which forms the final chapter of his narrative), describes himself thus:

And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life. Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame.

There is a certain coyness in this: “impatient gaiety of disposition” seems rather mild and innocuous, and it is hard to see how something so apparently innocent, mere “irregularities”, could lead to “an almost morbid sense of shame”. The word “shame” occurs again a few lines later:

Though so profound a double-dealer, I was in no sense a hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I laboured, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering.

This “plung[ing] in shame” does seem to imply something more than mere “impatient gaiety of disposition”, and it is hard to not get the impression that Dr Jekyll is not telling us the entire truth about himself.

I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.

But what are these two natures? Are they merely the duality of Good and Evil? Perhaps. But how should we understand these terms in such a context? Jekyll had, he said, “plunged in shame” when he had “laid aside restraint”. So if we insist on seeing this duality in terms of Good and Evil (and Jekyll himself does not use those terms), then Evil is what Jekyll had euphemistically called “a certain impatient gaiety of disposition”, and Good is merely that which impels us to restrain it. In short, Evil is the seeking of pleasure, impatient of other considerations; and Good merely the restraint we apply to this. In such terms, Good is not so much a quality that exists independently, but, rather, merely a means of restraint. Far from Good and Evil striving for supremacy in the human breast, humanity is engaged in no more than suppressing as best he can the Evil within.

Since we tend to think of Evil as something more than mere impatient seeking of pleasure, and Good as something more than merely a restraint on pleasure-seeking, these terms are perhaps, in this context, somewhat misleading. But the existence of both within a single human breast certainly creates a duality.

 I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both…

Jekyll tells us that he dreamt of separating these two elements:

 If each, I told myself, could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence …

But which of the two does Jekyll aspire towards? The “just”, who finds pleasure in doing good things rather than things that would plunge him into shame? Or the “unjust”, who could be delivered from “aspiration and remorse”? Rather tantalisingly, Jekyll does not tell us. But his potion turns him towards the “unjust” rather than towards the “just”, and the unmistakable pleasure he takes in this – so much so that, even when back in the form of Dr Jekyll, he is keen to repeat the experience – inclines me think that it is the latter, the “unjust”, towards which Dr Jekyll had aspired; and that, far from the experiment being a calamitous failure, it had succeeded even better than Dr Jekyll may have hoped for: he could now enjoy his pleasures without any shame to accompany it. What Dr Jekyll had perhaps under-estimated were the sheer depths of depravity of which we are capable once moral restraints are lifted. And for these depths of depravity, the term “Evil” is not misapplied.

This seems to indicate a rather bleak vision on Stevenson’s part: mankind is essentially depraved, and that which we term “Good” no more than restraints on our depravity. And once the restraint is off, what remains is pure Evil. Of course, we need not see this is a universal condition: there is no reason to see Dr Jekyll as Everyman. But the vision is nonetheless of a darkness at the heart of our beings.

The narration itself takes the form of a detective story. And here, the impact this novel must have made on Stevenson’s contemporary is inevitably diminished, for only in the final two chapters of the novel are Jekyll and Hyde revealed to be a single person – a revelation that should, nowadays, come as a surprise to no-one. That the novel can be enjoyed even when this twist is known is testament, I think, to its literary qualities. For the fictional world it presents, in prose of often startling vividness, is an uneasy, unsettling world. It is also a very male world: the only female characters are the maid who witnesses the murder of Danvers Carew from her window, and the little girl in Mr Enfield’s story in the opening chapter. Mr Utterson the lawyer, Mr Enfield his cousin, Dr Lanyon, and Dr Jekyll himself, all appear to be bachelors. The feminine aspects of humanity seem conspicuous by their absence.

In the opening pages, Mr Enfield tells Mr Utterson of a recent experience of his: at three o’clock of a “black winter morning”, he had seen a hideous-looking small man, who answered to the name of Mr Hyde, quite deliberately trample upon a little girl he had accidentally bumped into and knocked over. The story rather raises the question of what the little girl was doing out at that time of the night. Of course, she might have been one of the many homeless out on the streets, but the question is something Mr Enfield does not dwell upon. Neither does he tell us what he himself was doing out at that time of the night: “I was coming home from some place at the end of the world,” he says rather airily to Mr Utterson, who does not ask him to expand. The fog and the murk of the city are straight out of Dickens, and they seem more than merely physical; and the various questions implicitly posed but left unanswered, and, for that matter, unenquired into, may not be entirely unrelated to the “impatient gaiety of disposition” that Dr Jekyll refers to – those “irregularities” that lead to “an almost morbid sense of shame”.

Mr Utterson decides to seek out Mr Hyde, who, he is convinced, is blackmailing Dr Jekyll. Once again, he does not care to enquire into what precisely he thinks Jekyll is being blackmailed for: as he says himself, he lets his “brother go to the devil in his own way”. Private vices – “irregularities” – are best left private.

Sir Danvers Carew, a pillar of the establishment, is beaten to death on the streets late at night. The scene is witnessed by a maidservant, but she witnesses it not from her employer’s house, but from her own. And a maidservant’s house is unlikely to have been in the more desirable localities of the city. So what was Sir Danvers Carew doing wandering the streets late at night in such localities? Once again, the question is not addressed.

All these tantalisingly unaddressed questions leave behind a sense of incompleteness, of matters not divulged because, perhaps, they are best left as they are: one’s brothers may go to the devil, each their own way. A world is created in which surfaces hide much that is best not looked into. And it is in the context of this world, a world in which that which lies under the surface is best left alone, that Stevenson looks at the strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Here, we look under the surface, and we see what is released once the flimsy restraints we place upon ourselves are removed. And the vision we see of a moral chaos dwelling beneath the veneer of civilised refinement seems to me as vivid and as terrifying as in anything I think I’ve come across.

I do not wonder that Nabokov rated this novella so highly. To me, it ranks with James’ The Turn of the Screw and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – novellas written only a few years after Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – as the most unsettling depictions of the moral chaos that lies immediately under the surface of our human lives.

O poor Robinson Crusoe, how could you possibly do so?

In Daniel Defoe’s novel, the eponymous hero, Robinson Crusoe, during the 28 years he spends on his desert island, sometimes asks himself whether his fate was God’s punishment for having committed the primal sin of disobeying his father. And it struck me, even on my first reading as a child, that, given that Crusoe had been the owner of a plantation that was worked by slaves, and that, further, given that Crusoe had himself been a slave trader, there were somewhat greater transgressions than merely filial disobedience that the Almighty could have punished him for. Crusoe’s failure to see something so obvious as this struck me then, and strikes me still, as a chilling piece of irony that underpins the entire novel. And to the question “Did Defoe intend this irony?” I’d answer “Does it matter?”

Not that I’m one of those readers who divorces the text from the writer, seeing the former as merely a product of its times, and hence, no more than a reflection of the various power structures of those times. Far from it. The terrible irony I see underpinning Robinson Crusoe strikes me as very much a  literary quality: it shifts the focus of the novel from that of human resourcefulness and self-sufficiency (which are usually taken to be the novel’s principal themes) to the more interesting themes – from my perspective, at least – of the human capacity of self-delusion, and humanity’s failure to recognise its own moral culpability, repining as we do at the thought of imagined sins when far greater crimes are staring us in the face.

Now, all the available evidence concerning Defoe indicates that this irony was not intentional on the author’s part, but I really don’t see what that should make a difference to the way I perceive this novel. Especially when this irony enhances both its literary and its moral qualities.

This year is the three hundredth anniversary of this very famous novel, and it is perhaps only natural that we should be disturbed by its content. I will not list the various reasons why modern readers may find the content disturbing: they are well described in this article that recently appeared in The Guardian. However, the headline-writer appears not to have read the article: “Robinson Crusoe at 300: why it’s time to let go of this colonial fairytale” says the headline, although Charles Boyle, the author, says quite explicitly:

The argument here is not with Defoe, who was a clever and contrary man. His acceptance of slavery as necessary for profitable business is one thing; his belief that Britain is a nation of immigrants and his championing of education for women are others. Nor is the argument with the novel itself … My quarrel is with the way the novel has been used, and continues to be used …

His quarrel, in short, is with interpretation. And Defoe’s novels, in general, are open to various interpretative stances. This is primarily because each of his major novels (at least, the ones that I have read: Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Journal of the Plague Year, and Roxana) is a first person narration, and can, and, to my mind, should, be taken as a dramatic monologue. Thus, we find ourselves compelled to evaluate what is being said in the context of our understanding of the person who is saying it. In Moll Flanders, for instance, we notice the irony of Moll expressing, near the end of her narrative, penitence for her criminal life, while, at the same time, being content to live on the proceeds of that same criminality. That Moll is not aware of this irony is no reason why we shouldn’t take a different view. In Robinson Crusoe, we go a step further: not only is the fictional narrator not aware of the irony underpinning his narrative, it appears, from evidence external to the novel itself, that Defoe himself was possibly not aware either. But the irony nonetheless exists, and, to my mind, makes it a greater novel.

Charles Boyle’s other criticism – that of the pedestrian nature of the prose – may be possible harder to counter. Defoe was primarily a journalist, and only took up novel-writing comparatively late in his career; and he made a point of writing his novels in clear, precise, journalistic prose. It was, it seems to me, a conscious artistic decision. I must admit I do not find the prose “pedestrian” at all: indeed, the nature of the prose seems to me to serve its purpose well – to provide the utmost clarity and transparency even while concealing subtleties and ironies hidden even from the narrator. This conflict between transparency of the narrative style and the secrets hidden within the narrative itself seems to me to reach its apogee in Roxana (the work I take to be Defoe’s masterpiece), where, by the end, despite the absolute clarity of the prose, we cannot even be sure of what precisely happens, let alone how we are to interpret it.

It would be very wrong to “throw away” Robinson Crusoe as the Guardian headline-writer seems to suggest: but perhaps we should look again at this novel and, indeed, at Defoe’s other novels too, all of which seem to me to contain far more than is immediately apparent.