Plot Junkie: The Help, David Copperfield & The Bostonians

97. The Help, Kathryn Stockett

Ok, next year one of my goals is to review books as I read them—I fear I’ve forgotten much of what I meant to say about these books. The Help, however, needs very little introduction. Everybody and their Great Aunt Sally is familiar with the plot. It initially got a lot of praise for “illuminating an ignored group” and then a lot of condemnation for failing to properly represent that group.

I’m not exactly sure where I come down on that issue—and since I’m not a part of that group, I doubt if my opinion really matters. As a piece of fiction, it worked: I was interested in each of the several different story lines, the plot progressed logically and smoothly, I was sorry to see the book finish.  As a cultural reclamation project—which I think is where the criticisms come in—I’m not so sure. It obviously raises some rather problematic issues for a white author to be giving a voice to a black servant. But if we are constrained by our race or gender (or any other personal identity categories) as to what we can write, then most of our cultural (ok, “our” cultural—I see the problem there—whose culture are we talking about?) masterpieces wouldn’t have been written.

So here’s what I think: read The Help. But mix it up a little– also read Sula, and The Invisible Man, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, and A Visitation of Spirits

98. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

This realization is some 160 years behind the times… but I’m always surprised by how much I enjoy Dickens. Of course, I’m a sucker for a good triple-decker Victorian anyway, but I kind of expect anything as universally acclaimed as Dickens to be more about fortitude—powering through because it’s good for you– than fun. Ridiculous, eh?

Anyway, after watching the BBC movie version (which was very good) for an assignment in my Victorian literature class last spring, I decided to read this. (And I only chose the movie for the assignment because Gilbert and Gubar ask who was with Dora when she died… and I didn’t know. How embarrassing! But now I do, so all’s well.)

I was most interested (of course) in the women in the story—the relationships all seem to have such negative results on their lives: from Betsey Trotwood’s missing husband, to Clara’s unfortunate marriage to Mr. Murdstone, to poor Dora, even to Mrs. Micawber and poor little Em’ly… the women kind of consistently have a pretty awful time, and it seems to be the fault of their relationships. I guess in a time when a woman’s primary identity has to do with who she is with—not who she is or what she does—those choices are going to occasionally have negative repercussions.

Also, I’m intrigued by the adventures of little Em’ly. You know how Jean Rhys completely reworked a portion of Jane Eyre in The Wide Sargasso Sea to question the assumptions about class and sexuality in Victorian England? I kind of think that needs to be done for Emily and Steerforth, and here’s why: Although Mr. Peggotty is, indeed, the best of men, he and the rest of the clan consistently attempt to keep Emily within the framework of the proper Victorian woman. Seen from another angle, “little” Em’ly’s flight with Steerforth could be read as a flight towards some sort of personal autonomy. Maybe I’m crazy, but I think it could be done. Even the story of the end of the affair (Steerforth’s decampment, Emily’s escape) is told by a completely untrustworthy source—Steerforth’s servant ultimately ends in the same prison as Uriah Heep, and therefore is implicitly positioned as equally corrupt. That’s what I think about it, anyway.

99. The Bostonians, Henry James

I don’t have a ton to say about this book—I think Henry James does a wonderful job of evoking nineteenth-century Boston and New York, I enjoyed the characters, but absolutely hated a good bit of the plot.

Olive Chancellor is a wealthy Bostonian feminist who falls in/falls in love with (?) Verena Tarrant, a young medium and feminist speaker. Basil Ransom, a conservative southerner, is also intrigued by Verena, though he hates her beliefs. Basically, the book follows Olive and Ransom struggling for control of Verena. Verena herself is kind of fascinatingly obscured—it isn’t clear if she’s really as easily led as she is thought to be or if she is subtly manipulating her circumstances to further her own position. All of that is good stuff—but all of the feminists in the book are either completely uninformed and just in it for the acclaim, or honest believers but completely ineffectual. And I find that rather reprehensible.

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