Books 25 Jun 2008 07:39 am
I’m teaching Advanced Placement English next school year, so part of my summer reading is a collection of classics, some that I haven’t read in years and some that I haven’t read at all. It’s a little heavier literature than I’m accustomed to in warmer weather, but enjoyable nonetheless.
First up were the three Theban plays by Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. Oedipus is the unfortunate ruler who killed his father and married his mother, thus supplying a convenient name for Freud’s psychoanalytical theory of the Oedipus complex – a child who wishes to kill Dad and sleep with Mom. (These ancient Greeks were intense.) Sophocles pulled a George Lucas by writing the dramas out of order, beginning with the last part and ending with the middle drama. Of the three, Oedipus the King is the best. The audience can really feel for poor Oedipus, trapped by fate in a situation he can’t control or escape, and bringing about his own doom by refusing to give up his search for his father’s killer, even when he begins to suspect himself.
(The painting above, Oedipus at Colonus — showing the blind ex-king and his daughter Antigone — is housed at the Cleveland Museum of Art.)
Following my run of Oedipus, I turned to satirist Voltaire and his Candide, a title I’d never read before. Candide is an overly optimistic fellow who finds his mentor’s view of life — we are living in the best of all possible worlds — constantly put to the test. He is kicked out of his home, lives in abject poverty, finds that his beautiful bride-to-be has been ravished by countless Dick Dastardlies, and gains impossible wealth in the mythical El Dorado only to lose it, sheep by sheep (”ewe” read that right — sheep).
Next, I read Shakespeare’s Henry V, an enthusiastic piece of English propaganda tempered somewhat with the Bard’s darker and more cynical view of war and the reasons for waging it. The character of Henry is somewhat dull — he’s gone through all his scandalous, more interesting development in earlier plays — but Shakespeare gives him some rousing speeches before battles, and his wooing of a French princess in the closing act should give hope to dumb jocks the world over.
Most recently, I re-read Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener.” I like the story and believe that Bartleby is one of literature’s most unique creations, a man who politely refuses to do anything associated with his job and, by his very civility, proves impossible to remove from the position by his exasperated but kind-hearted employer. I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What would I do with an employee like Bartleby?” I’m afraid my response wouldn’t be as charitable as the narrator’s. For those who have been intimidated by Melville and his white-whale of a novel, Moby Dick, “Bartleby” is a much more accessible peek into the author’s style.
Ahead of me, I have Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, George Orwell’s 1984, Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain and Orwell I have read many times, but I still look forward to a return visit. With the exception of 1984, which is still in copyright, all of the works mentioned here are in the public domain and are freely available online. The hyperlinks I’ve provided connect with one version; doubtless, many other sites with better translations (where needed) and more readable typefaces exist.