The Things That Matter
The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say about the Stages of Life by Edward Mendelson came out in 2006. Novels, Edward Mendelson writes, should be interpreted and understood from a personal point of view, and not just historically, thematically or analytically. “A reader who identifies with the characters in a novel is not reacting in a naïve way that ought to be outgrown or transcended, but is performing one of the central acts of literary understanding.”
Frankenstein represents Birth. Wuthering Heights represents childhood. Jane Eyre represents growth. Middle March represents Marriage. Mrs. Dalloway represents Love. To the Lighthouse represents Parenthood and Between the Acts represents the Future. Although I’ve read and enjoyed Mrs. Dalloway, To the Light House and Between the Acts, my interest lay mostly in his discussion of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.
Frankenstein, which I’ve also read and enjoyed, deals with a father-son relationship. It is a modern day Prometheus. Mendelson covers the themes of Choosing Beauty, Everything Has a Beginning, Original Virtue, Happiness and Vehemence, The Bonds of Love and The Fatal Wedding Night. Control is the goal of his scientific tinkerings, and to create a life without the communion of sex is to pursue total control. This, of course, leads to its total and disastrous loss.
Wuthering Heights represents the Romantic Childhood. Heathcliff managed with Catherine’s soul. This merger dissolved boundaries and abolished their separate identities. And the tragedy was is not because they couldn’t marry each other. It is because that they grow into adulthood in which sex and marriage are the closest substitutes that anyone can find for the unity that the adults have lost forever.
The God in Emily Bronte’s universe is an inner god, created and worshiped by her own imagination. What cannot be spoken by Bronte or her characters is the idea that “God is within my breast.” God is not cruel. It is nature that is cruel. Heathcliff and Cathy are doomed by being into a childhood so glorious and bright in its vision that they prefer death to the uncertainties of growth.
Jane Eyre shows us that nothing can be learned without suffering. Jane Eyre manages the nearly impossible feat of reconciling romantic nature worship with the ethical world of monotheism. Solitude and loneliness are the way to intimacy. Marriage requires individuals to enter into intimacy. However Jane and Rochester’s fertile love embraces others as well.
“She felt rather inclined just for a moment to stand still after all that chatter, and pick out one particular thing; the thing that mattered . . .”—Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse. Mrs. Dalloway is a portrait of an ideal but almost impossible adult love, and leads us to a fresh and fascinating new understanding of that novel and each of each of the seven novels, reminding us—in the most captivating way—why they matter.