Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sound familiar?

Feminism....Racism....Materialism...The absurdity of war....Government corruption...
Could be today.
Maria Ruiz de Burton's modern way of thinking has me impressed and smiling on almost every page. She's making these sharp, witty observations on many universal, transcendent issues that exist in today's society as well as in the 19th century. For a book written in 1872, the commentary is years ahead of its time, and all expressed with hilarious satirical flair.
It's not just that the issues she discusses still exist today. Her voice expresses opinions that are completely modern.
On women's role in society, Maria brings to our attention the power and strength of women in the family and in the war (Mrs. Norval, Lavinia Sprig), the ability of women to deal with political issues in a thoughtful and rational way, and the regular dismissal and scorn with which they are treated in attempts to express these things (Lavinia Sprig's encounter in Washington and the derision of Mr. Blower). She ridicules the old stuffy men who are against the franchise. All these things are very much a modern reality....and now women can vote, too.
On racism, Maria portrays the "bad" or "roguish" characters as racists, and the good as tolerant. Constant references by Mrs. Norval (the evil stepmother) and Ruth, her vacuous daughter, about "Indians" and "niggers" are contrasted by Lola's fair and kind treatment at the hands of good characters like Julian and the Doctor. The Confederates are the bad guys. Today, we condemn racism as superficial and illogical, as Maria has pointed out more than 100 years ago.
On materialism (a plague of today, in my opinion) Maria shows criticism of the Misses Norval's obsession with a certain lifestyle, especially clothes, and their idolatry of these things above what really matters (Ruth goes so far as to hope her brother Jules doesn't die so she doesn't have to wear black....she really wants to wear her new silks).
The absurdity of war is a timeless choice....we're dealing today with the same false heroes (like the Cackles, like Hackwell, who become heroes for their stupidity), the same creation of "enemies" using fear (Julian ponders the issue of killing his own countrymen), the same use of war policy by the government to achieve innoble aims (Blower's bizarre explanation to Lavinia about starving the enemy and thus their prisoners).
Government corruption is everywhere in the story. Men make their way to government posts through family connection and money. Members of respected institutions (like the Church...yes, this doesn't go under government but I will put it here) are frauds and hypocrites (Hackwell etc.)
Maria's criticism of these is expressed as a modern writer would express it.
This is what literature is about: the transcendent, the universal, the timeless.
I'm loving it.


Emily Hager said...

I think that you make a lot of insightful points and it is obvious that you have done a close reading and have a good understanding of the many layers in the book. I agree with you that what defines good literature is something that conveys meaning that transcends specific time frames to convey something deeper about human nature throughout the ages. I think that the author does a good job at illustrating the backwardness of the status quo while simultaneously portraying characters such as the Doctor, Lola, and Julian in a more positive light. I think you make a good point about the materialism that is portrayed in this novel which is still very problematic in todays society.

Nicole said...

You raise an interesting point about the universal reach of the novel. It is almost as if one could insert a name of a county/ city and the issues raised would still be applicable. Your argument on the men's through family connections is most compelling!