Sunday, October 5, 2008

Monte Cristo - Kristi's Response

What struck me most, as I read through this book for the second time, was the transformation of our protagonist, Edmond Dantés.

As our story opens, Edmond is a simple, hardworking man who feels loyalty to his family and friends and expresses his friendship and love in such a way that others sense his genuineness and instinctively like him. His life is not complicated as he lives to secure the happiness of himself, his father and the young woman he loves. Injustly imprisoned, this simple Edmond is convinced this is a mistake. He knows he is innocent and so he trusts that justice will set him at liberty. As time passes and this is not the case, Edmond makes his first change: he loses his confidence, his joy, and his will to live. He is still a simple man, and those simple pleasures he had previously lived for now being denied him, he sees no reason for continuing his existence.

Then enters the Abbé Faria, and through his friendship and tutorship, Edmond’s mind broadens. With new ideas and the true understanding of why he is imprisoned, Edmond’s heart is almost split in two. He still loves his father, his betrothed, and his newfound friend, but he would no longer be satisfied to just seek their happiness, if the opportunity was given to him, but he also lives to destroy those who were the cause of his misery. From this point on, the simple boy Edmond is no more and the masked, plotting Dantés enters the world. He is filled with hate, and is determined to wreak vengeance on his enemies.

When the treasure enables him to become whomever he pleases and do whatever he wishes, Dantés becomes convinced that he is the hand of Providence—that God himself is sending Dantés to punish those who have acted wickedly toward him. This belief soothes his conscience as he lies and steals in order to do “God’s” bidding, and allows him to callously watch the sufferings of those he has pronounced guilty. This almost sadistic Dantés no longer resembles the simple boy Edmond who took pleasure in making those he loved happy.

My favorite part of the book is when Mercedes casts herself at the feet of Dantés (now posing as the Count of Monte Cristo) and begs of him, “Edmond, you will not kill my son?” Mercedes pleads to a man who has not existed for a long time; she pleads for mercy from the man who has loved her. Dantés is struck, but fights his former nature of mercy. He speaks in resurrective terms to her saying “I, betrayed, sacrificed, buried, have risen from my tomb, by the grace of God, to punish that man. He sends me for that purpose, and here I am." He compares his betrayal and suffering to that of a man who suffered 1800 years prior. Mercedes, perhaps recalling the purpose of the first man’s suffering entreats him, “Forgive, Edmond, forgive for my sake, who loveyou still!" Eventually the Edmond who once lived to secure her happiness, yields to Mercedes request.

At this point in the story, the reader hopes the sinister Dantés will fade away and allow Edmond to find joy and contentment again in life. But although he has seen how his vengeance on one enemy has also struck two innocent beings, he still persists in his plans. Since he does not die in his duel with the viscount Morcef, Dantés remains convinced that God is calling him to bring low his remaining enemies. And so he does. In the progress of destroying Villefort, he almost destroys the love of his friend, the son of Morrell. Monte Cristo rectifies this mistake but continues his work until Villefort is utterly ruined. Only after Villefort shows him his dead wife and son does Monte Cristo begin to feel that ”he had passed beyond the bounds of vengeance, and that he could no longer say, ‘God is for and with me.’”

To me, the strangest part of the story is that Dantés does not immediately repent of what he has done. When he is speaking with Mercedes in Marseilles, he still maintains that since God provided him with the means to and allowed him to revenge himself, he had been God’s instrument in doing so. He does not see, however, that God permitting these fiends to betray him could have been a part of a different plan of God—a plan of enrichment, restoration and forgiveness.

I wish that Dumás, our author, would have played out more the remorse of Edmond. Instead all we get is his parting letter to Maximillian and Valentine where he asks them to pray sometimes for a man, who like Satan thought himself for an instant equal to God, but who now acknowledges with Christian humility that God alone possesses supreme power and infinite wisdom. Perhaps those prayers may soften the remorse he feels in his heart.

The tragic transformation of Edmond Dantés is perhaps best summed up in his words to Mercedes: “Good-natured, confiding, and forgiving as I had been, I became revengeful, cunning, and wicked, or rather, immovable as fate. Then I launched out into the paththat was opened to me. I overcame every obstacle, and reached the goal; but woe to those who stood in my pathway!" In the end of the story we see just the beginning of a return of the old Edmond as he begins to once again experience the joy of love

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

September Reading

Our September reading selection will be Alexandre Dumás' novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. Please read it in time for our next book club meeting. We suggest that you write a brief response to each month's reading. Feel free to post it here!

O.M.M. - Kristi's Response

I just finished reading Of Mice and Men less than five minutes ago. I already knew the general plot: I knew Lennie would kill Curley’s wife, and I knew that George would kill Lennie in the end. Knowing what to expect from the end of the book, I did not expect to feel as emotional about it as I do. If a month ago anyone had told me that in the next book I would read about how a man shot another man in the back of the head, I would have expected to feel disgust. Instead, I thought it was a beautiful act of compassion.

Although I enjoyed this story of an unlikely friendship that depicts the human need to find value through relationships, I found that my secondary response to the story has overshadowed my primary response. My primary response to the book was to feel a sense of respect for the friendship of George and Lennie, and to feel sad over the fact that their relationship could not last in the world in which they lived. My secondary response, however, was to be surprised as I evaluated my own reaction to the final scene of the story.

As long as I can remember, I’ve always had a very strong sense of right and wrong. Wrong things included lying, stealing and killing. Right things, then, were honesty, generosity and preserving the sanctity of life. Being raised in a staunchly pro-life family, I have generally seen value in all human life—infant and adult, regardless of the challenges these individuals may face presently or in the future.

Yet over the years as I have read and heard about many stories of individuals in very tough situations, I have begun to see the world that I once viewed through a black and white lens of morality as a fallen world full of less-than-ideal situations that bring all shades of gray to our lives.

We’ve all heard the story of a young Christian girl, whose family had a hidden compartment under the rug in their dining room for Jews during Hitler’s reign. When the Nazi’s asked here where the Jews were, the truthful girl answered “They’re under the table,” and then began to laugh at the nazi guards as they began to peer below the family’s dining table. The guard ended up leaving, thinking she was playing with him. I have a lot of respect for such a girl, and it’s wonderful that in obeying her conscience, she was still able to save the Jewish families hiding in her house. But what if the Nazi’s had found the hiding place, would her truth-telling still have been the best thing to do? I’m reminded of the midwives in Exodus 1, who disobeyed the Pharaoh’s command and then lied to him about what was happening. In this situation, the women were blessed by GOD for their actions. It appears that untruthful words themselves may not be the issue as much as the heart behind the lie—whether one’s lie is motivated by love or by hate.

I also remember hearing stories about how during times of intense Roman persecution, as Christian families sat in prison cells awaiting their fate of being fed to ravenous lions in the arena the next day, some of these God-fearing parents would lovingly smother their children while they slept in order to spare them the terror and torturous death that the next day would bring. Ten years ago I would have said t these parents were sinning by murdering their children instead of entrusting their fates to God. Now, though, I look upon such acts much differently. The children were already sentenced and their death was imminent, the parents actions were ones of love and compassion. Whether or not God will judge those actions as murderous, I cannot say, but I somehow doubt.

Even as I’m writing this, I’m cringing at the slippery slope that what I’m saying builds. If God can consider some seemingly sinful actions as righteous because of the motive and situation, am I saying that a deluded mass murderer will be seen as right because he thought he was doing what was best? Well….not exactly. I guess what I’m saying is that in a fallen world where our sin and the sin of others has put us in situations that we were never created to be in the first place, sometimes something that seems wrong in other situations just might be the best of several bad choices.

Thus, while in a perfect and sinless world, Lennie’s innocence may not have brought forth such serious consequences, in the world in which he lived he was facing an ugly, hateful fate. While George’s solution makes me sad, the way he went about it was so gentle and loving that I believe Lennie was better off because of them.

How does this transfer to my ethical stance on the topic of euthanasia? I’m not sure. But I do think that in this sinful, fallen world families and individuals may get into very hard situations that we weren’t necessarily created to be in, and that I am going to choose to extend grace to others when they are in those situations, since this world contains all sorts of moral shades of gray.

Friday, August 1, 2008

August Reading

Our August reading selection will be John Steinbeck's short novel, Of Mice and Men. Please read it in time for our next book club meeting. We suggest that you write a brief response to each month's reading. Feel free to post it here!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Les Mis - Kristi's Response

Redemptive transformation. The movement from darkness to light, from falsehood to truth, from self to God and from destruction to life. This is the self-described plot of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables. (p. 1074) The story details the transformation of Jean Valjean, who entered the story as a man who would steal for his physical need and left the story as a man who was willing to sacrifice even his greatest emotional needs in order to do what he deemed best for others. What were the means of his transformation? There were three: sacrifice, love and suffering. Hugo indicates that the sacrifice Bishop Bienvenue incarnated to Valjean the sacrifice of Jesus—that one so revered would give what he had to bring a convict to a better life. Although Hugo doesn’t explicitly speak of Valjean’s turn to Jesus, from then on in the story, shows tenderness and veneration before crucifixes, and refers to Jesus as “the great martyr”.(p.174,1256) First he develops kindness as Monsieur Madeleine, and then he learns to love as Monsieur Fauchelevent while he cares for and protects the child Cosette. But what completes his transformation, is when he yields to suffering by sacrificing what is most precious to him—Cosette’s reliance upon him—in order to secure her her happiness. At the end of his transformation, Valjean looks more like the Bishop than the man he had been.

Other characters experience similar transformations on a smaller scale. Marius a spoiled boy, raised by his rich grandfather, and taught to despise his father. His transformation begins on the day that he discovers the sacrifice his father had made for him—giving up the right to see his son in order that his son might be well cared for. Marius leaves the comforts of his grandfather’s home and braves the hardship of poverty. Soon he falls in love with a young woman, with whom he quickly loses all means of contact. At the loss of this love, he suffers greatly. At the end of the story, his love having been restored, as well has his relationship with his grandfather, we see him as a young man with strong and unfaltering convictions, who tries to do what is right and is quick to apologize when his judgment is proven wrong. Fantine also, is a character who begins a naïve girl, and after suffering and sacrificing the daughter she loves, is portrayed in a good light.

In contrast to the transforming characters are two who seem unable to change. One is Thenardier, a thieving ingrate who, even when shown kindness, cannot give it. He is a dark man with a dark soul, and one assumes he will experience a dark afterlife. The second non-transforming character is Javert. Javert, while a just and honest man, cannot fathom the ideas of kindness and love, sacrifice, or undeserved suffering. He sees the world and people in black and white and cannot accept that a person who used to deserve suffering could now merit kindness. When Valjean treats him with kindness, his ideology is torn. Rather than suffer through the painful reflection and humility it would take to alter his world view, he chooses to end his struggle by killing himself. The fate of these inflexible characters is sad, and stands in contrast to the joy and redemption experienced by those who experience transformation by means of sacrifice, suffering and love.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

July Reading

Our July reading selection will be Victor Hugo's novel, Les Miserables. You may choose to read a full translation or an abridged version. Please read it in time for our next book club meeting. We suggest that you write a brief response to each month's reading. Feel free to post it here!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

T.I.B.E. - Kristi's Response

The Importance of Being Earnest was a humorous play full of the sort of quick-witted conversation that makes me smile. However, there was also an aspect of the play that made me a bit sad. I think that perhaps I’ve become hypersensitive to low views of women because of my recent church experiences, and as I read Wilde’s play, I was struck by how flat the female characters were. It’s not as if the men themselves were terribly deep, but the young women were portrayed as silly, irrational dreamers who cared little for the fact that they were ill-treated and lied to by the men that they fell in love with simply for their name. They seemed fickle and childish. The older two women were not portrayed much better. Lady Bracknell is portrayed as an unfeeling woman whose highest values are money and the favorable opinion of high society. Miss Prism, the governess, appears to be so flighty as to be able to mix up a baby and a novel (as well as a handbag and a bassinet) and then irresponsibly leave the baby and run away rather than correcting her mistake. As I read, I found myself irritated first by the women themselves, and then by the author who created such flat, irrational characters. In the end though, I figure that if I were to remove my hypersensitivity I would be able to acknowledge that the play was light, witty and entertaining.

Favorite Passages*
  • p. 192-193 – Lady Bracknell’s tirade against the invalid Bunbury
  • p. 198-199 – Jack explains his adoption to Lady Bracknell
  • p. 221-226 – Gwendolyn and Cecily meet
  • p. 227 (1st half) – Gwendolyn and Cecily become friends.
*Pages according to my copy in “The Modern Library Classics” collection.