Podcast Review: The History of Rome

The History of Rome, by Mike Duncan: I was introduced to this podcast through the “History of England” podcast, because the host of “History of England” (David Crowther) recommended it. There are now many history podcasts, but The History of Rome was one of the first (And it was the inspiration for “The History of England”). It is now complete, and Mike Duncan has gone on to produce another history podcast, “Revolutions”.

The description is “A weekly podcast tracing the history of the Roman Empire, beginning with Aeneas’s arrival in Italy and ending with the exile of Romulus Augustulus, last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire.” I listened all the way through it—179 episodes worth—and thoroughly enjoyed it. I learned a great deal about Roman History, during both the republic and the empire. I enjoy studying the Roman Republic, because it is fascinating to compare it to America. I’m also less familiar with the leaders and wars from this era than that of the empire (the Punic Wars, for instance). The empire can be a bit depressing, with all the bad emperors and political conniving (Though there were certainly politics going on during the Republic too!), but it is still interesting to see human nature at work.

The history of Rome is a complex and dense subject, and it is difficult to keep the places and people in your head—all the generals and cities tend to run together. Mike Duncan does a reasonable job of keeping things straight, introducing the major players so that they are distinguishable from each other, and quickly reminding you of the context when he brings a recurring character back into the story. He primarily covers the political and military history, with an occasional episode on social and economic issues, to paint a broader picture of the time period.

The content is mostly clean, though there are occasional (mild) swear words, and in keeping with the nature of any history, there are some subjects covered that may not be suitable for young children. (I don’t remember there being much graphic violence or other mature topics, but it has been a while since I’ve listened to the podcast, so I can’t vouch for that.) The podcast can be found on iTunes, or if you don’t have iTunes, there is also a website:

The History of Rome Podcast on iTunes

The History of Rome Podcast Website

I would also recommend Mike Duncan’s new podcast, Revolutions:

Revolutions Podcast

On iTunes: Revolutions

So far, he has covered the English Civil War, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, Gran Colombia, and the June Rebellion (in France).

Advertisements

Book Review: The Epic of Gilgamesh

I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh. This was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labour, returning he rested, he engraved on a stone the whole story.

 

The Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the life of Gilgamesh the great king, and his adventures. It is set up as a series of stories, starting with Gilgamesh meeting his friend Enkidu. The two of them are the mightiest of men, and journey through many dangers to kill Humbaba, the guardian of the forest. When they also kill the Bull of Heaven, the gods are angry with them, and cause Enkidu to die.

With his friend dead, Gilgamesh is overcome with grief, and fear of his own mortality, and he sets out to find everlasting life. Eventually he meets Utnapishtim, who tells him the story of the world-wide flood, and then the secret of a plant that brings back youth. Gilgamesh finds the plant, but as he is journeying home a serpent steals it from him while he sleeps. The epic ends with Gilgamesh’s death, and his subjects mourning him and extolling his memory.

Important themes throughout the poem are the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and the search for immortality. There are also parallels to Biblical themes: most notably the flood story, narrated by Utnapishtim, the Babylonian representation of Noah, but I was also struck by a serpent being the one who destroys mankind’s hope of eternal life. The relationships between mortals and the gods are also important. Gilgamesh is partially divine, like many of the heroes in the Greek and Roman myths, and therefore he generally has the favor of the gods.

There are descriptions of relationships between men and women; how explicit these are will probably depend on the translation used, so exercise caution. I would only recommend this book to older high school students or adults who want to broaden their knowledge of literary history. The translation I read was mostly in prose, which I did not prefer. For those who do plan to read it, I would recommend getting a translation that more accurately recreates the poetic structure of the original.

If this book looks interesting you might also enjoy:

Beowulf — For the record, I enjoyed reading Beowulf a lot more than the Epic of Gilgamesh! At some point, I plan to re-read it and review it.

Genesis and Job — Most likely the two earliest books written in the Bible, Job has a similar poetic structure.

Greek Myths — There are many versions and editions available, and these stories have been an important part of our literary heritage.

 

Book Review: Democracy in America

Democracy in America

Have you ever wondered what a French dude in the mid-1800s thought about America’s political system?

“I confess that in America I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress.” —Alexis de Tocqueville

Neither had I. However, I did know the book as a classic of political science and history, and after finishing The Federalist Papers a couple months ago, I thought it would be interesting to get another perspective.

Democracy is divided into two volumes: the first explains how the American system works, why it works, what is good about it and what is bad about it. The second discusses  how democracy influences a society’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.

I read an online version from the 1840 edition, translated by Henry Reeves, who was a contemporary of de Tocqueville, and evidently acquainted with him. It was a fine translation, although there were several typos per chapter (which I expected in a free digital transcription). Overall, I liked de Tocqueville’s writing style, though it did get long-winded at almost 1,000 pages. It was hard to read quickly, since each paragraph was thick with abstract ideas, but it is very quotable:

“I am of opinion that absolute excellence is rarely to be found in any legislation;”

 

“There is no country in the world in which everything can be provided for by the laws, or in which political institutions can prove a substitute for common sense and public morality.”

 

“The nations amongst which this liberty [of the press] exists are as apt to cling to their opinions from pride as from conviction. They cherish them because they hold them to be just, and because they exercised their own free-will in choosing them; and they maintain them not only because they are true, but because they are their own.”

Throughout the book, de Tocqueville makes many good points, and it was interesting to see the historical perspective—some of the things he concludes still make sense today, and some things he got wrong. I was fascinated by his thoughts on the Constitution (a large portion of the first volume), and how he agreed with, or differed from the Federalists. In particular, while the Federalists believed that the Supreme Court was inherently the weakest branch of the government, and strove to protect it as much as possible, de Tocqueville saw it as wielding a dangerous level of power:

“The President, who exercises a limited power, may err without causing great mischief in the State. Congress may decide amiss without destroying the Union, because the electoral body in which Congress originates may cause it to retract its decision by changing its members. But if the Supreme Court is ever composed of imprudent men or bad citizens, the Union may be plunged into anarchy or civil war.”

Another issue de Tocqueville covers in detail is the situation of the Indians and the African slaves in America. He saw the Indians getting pushed farther and farther into the interior of the continent, and correctly predicted their virtual eradication. However, he thought that the most likely end to slavery in America would be a slave revolt, and calls this probable revolt a Civil War between the two “races”.

As a Roman Catholic, de Tocqueville is constantly bringing religion and Christianity into the discussion, and he argues that the American system would not work without the Puritan foundation laid in New England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He considers morality to be an important element of a successful society, since men must believe in and obey an authority higher than their own individual interests if they are going to work together.

I’m not going to recommend a list of similar books, since it would be all the same as the list on my review of The Federalist Papers. I will say, though, this is a tough book. I couldn’t just sit and read it for hours at a stretch, like I could with a fiction book; I got tired, and had to take breaks to read other stuff, and by the time I got to the second volume I was pushing myself to finish. However, I got a lot more out of it than I would have out of most “easy” books, and I’m glad I read it.

Adorned: Living out the Beauty of the Gospel Together

This book was recommended (and loaned to me) by my younger sister. It is based on the passage in Titus 2 talking about older women teaching younger women:

Teach what accords with sound doctrine.

Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness.

Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine.

They are to teach what is good,

and so train the young women

to love their husbands and children,

to be self-controlled,

pure,

working at home,

kind,

and submissive to their own husbands,

that the word of God may not be reviled.

…so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.

Titus 2:1-5, 10

Mentoring is a concept that has largely fallen by the wayside in our culture today, but if we are to live in accordance with Scripture, we must revive it. Nancy begins the book by showing what the life of an older mentor should look like, and exhorting the older women to be willing to mentor others. At the same time, she shows young women how they can pursue a rich mentoring relationship, by asking questions and making time for the older women in their lives, and reminds young women that they must start cultivating the character traits of a godly older woman even while they are still young.

Each chapter discusses one of the commands or character traits mentioned in the passage, and how it relates to both older and younger women. At the end of the chapter, there are specific questions for both older and younger readers to consider. Some of my favorite chapters were those on purity, loving your husband, and submission.

I find the writing style to be engaging—Nancy has a gift for putting things clearly, with a touch of humour where necessary. In addition—and this is important especially in “christian lifestyle” books—she is able to take familiar concepts and consider them in a fresh light, so that the reader is encouraged, enlightened, and convicted.

My favorite thing about the book, though, is the fact that it is written to both older and younger women. Age segregation is deeply engrained in our society, and as a young person I see with sadness how much many young believers are missing out on. We can draw on the life experiences of older believers to strengthen and encourage our own faith, but it does require talking to them, getting to know them, and being willing to listen. This book is helpful for both age groups to see where the other is coming from, and it is all relevant to both groups. Godly young women should be training themselves into mentors, and godly older women should still be learning and growing in their faith. I would recommend this book to any woman, young or old, who desires to live a life pleasing to God.

Other books by this author:

Lies Women Believe: And the Truth that Sets them Free (I have not read this yet, but I plan on it! I’ve heard a lot of good things about it.)

Revive our Hearts Trilogy:

Brokenness: The Heart God Revives

Surrender: The Heart God Controls

Holiness: The Heart God Purifies (I enjoyed this one the most of the three)

 

 

Podcast Review: 5 Minutes in Church History

Of all the podcasts I listen to, 5 Minutes in Church History, hosted by Dr. Stephen Nichols, is the only one where I do follow-up research after many of the episodes. This is partially because of the length: at just five minutes each, he does not have time to go into his topic in depth, leaving much more to be discovered. Also, though, I’m a huge Church history nerd, so I love finding out more on my own! I’ll just give a few examples of what has been covered recently:

  • Apollinarianism, explaining a heresy that the church encountered in the 300s AD.
  • The Ghent Altarpiece, an awesome piece of art from medieval times, covered in Biblical scenes.
  • 17th Century Poets, introducing me to Edward Taylor, among others.
  • Thesis #37, an episode devoted to discussing one of Luther’s ninety-five theses.

Dr. Nichols also has guests on the show. Some of my favorite episodes are “Deserted Island” episodes, where he asks a well-known Christian leader which five books he would want to have on a deserted island. I find this a very relevant question; it is one I often ask myself, coming up with a different answer each time.

As far as theological background is concerned, Dr. Nichols is connected with Ligonier Ministries and R. C. Sproul, so there is definitely a Reformed bent to the subjects and people covered, (Augustine, Luther, and Calvin are often discussed) and most of his guests are Reformed. However, though I do not agree with some Reformed theology, I greatly admire their history and continuing legacy—entwined as it is with church history as a whole. Of course, Reformed theologians are by no means the only ones considered, and I especially enjoy the episodes devoted to more obscure figures of church history, whether they be Catholic, Protestant, or heretical.

Each episode is so short, you can listen to one even in the midst of the busiest schedule—on your way to work, or while folding laundry. It is also a great podcast for the whole family; I can’t recall a single objectionable word or topic, and I’ve had my younger siblings listen to some of the episodes I particularly enjoyed. I think it is engaging enough to keep kids interested. For those who enjoy church history, or feel they want to know more about it, I could not recommend a better podcast.

Augustus Toplady, Debtor to Mercy Alone

Who is Augustus Montague Toplady? The name may look familiar. You may even know him as the author of the well-beloved hymn “Rock of Ages.” However, there was much more to the man than just that one poem, and this biography by Douglas Bond does an excellent job showing the life that led to the familiar words.

Toplady was born on November 4, 1740, and educated at Westminster School, followed by Trinity College. He began preaching at just 12 years old, though he was not truly converted until he was 15 or 16. A preacher and a pastor, Toplady loved to study, and as his understanding of the Bible deepened, he became a strong defender of Calvinist theology, engaging in heated exchanges with John Wesley, his older contemporary. He died in 1778, just 37 years old. His legacy today consists of a few stanzas of verse, which perfectly encapsulate his theology and his faith:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyes shall close in death,
When I rise to worlds unknown,
And behold Thee on Thy throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.

Now, there were a few things I liked about this particular biography:

  1. It is short. At just 124 pages, I read it in one day easily. I am not opposed to long books by any means, but because there is not a lot of information about Toplady’s life to draw from, the book was the right length for the subject.
  2. It is humourous. The author obviously enjoys his subject, and therefore the reader does as well.
  3. There are many primary source quotations. This is something I really look for in history and biography. I like to hear the actual words spoken or written at the time, not just some historian’s interpretation of them. The research was solid, there was not too much speculation, but some filling in of gaps to present a coherent picture.

Further Reading:

Augustus Toplady and His Ministry, by J. C. Ryle

Diary and Selection of Hymns of Augustus Toplady

Hymns and Sacred Poems by Augustus Toplady

A Caveat Against Unsound Doctrines, Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England by Augustus Toplady

Other biographies by Douglas Bond:

The Mighty Weakness of John Knox

The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts (I also recommend this one, as I thoroughly enjoyed it!)

Girolamo Savonarola

 

SaveSave

Alan Jacobs: Musings On The Reading Life

9859899

In the past six months I have read three books by Alan Jacobs. [1] In an age dominated by blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and endless books I find this to be rather unusual. I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s observation nearly a century ago that “In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.” And Jacobs is eminently a man of letters. He makes me think and stretches my intellectual and literary horizons far beyond what my inner cartographer had ever dreamed possible. But perhaps more than this, my affinity for Jacobs is largely due to our mutual nerdish admiration for C.S. Lewis. In fact it was his biography of Lewis—or more precisely of Lewis’ mind and imagination— that was my first serendipitous encounter with Jacobs. Having loved Lewis from the earliest memories of my father reading Narnia to my sisters and I while still young children and reading Mere Christianity—not for the last time—during my formative theological education to my more recent forays into his older classics The Great Divorce, The Abolition of Man and, an odd book even for Lewis, Till We Have Faces.
Jacobs—along with literary critic Larry Woiwode and historian Carl Trueman—is one the very few Protestant essayists that I have read who are able to weave a witty cultural sophistication with a razor sharp eye to our modern idiosyncrasies. My interest in Jacobs was further piqued when I found that he had been interviewed about the disappearance of Christian intellectuals by Albert Mohler—one of my favorite theologians—on his thinky podcast “Thinking In Public”. Reading Jacobs, at least given my limited literary repertoire, is like finding a goldmine. Anyone who has quoted Samuel Johnson and Soren Kierkegaard before chapter one must be worth reading. If anything, reading him seems to lend credibility to all of the reading in the classics that I did through college and seminary. There is a definite pleasure when he quotes from Augustine’s Confessions thinking back on the nights when I too savored my intimate conversations with the aged bishop of Hippo. But so many other writers that he quotes I do not know. It is depressing to think how much there is yet to read: a whole world of cultural icons and intellectual elites who I will probably never know. And now I am reminded of Luther’s firm belief that it is better to read a few good books over and over rather than skimming hundreds of new books each year. He is echoed by C.S. Lewis who commented, “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” I find that tend to follow this injunction most closely in fiction (so far this year I have only read Les Miserables, The Princess Bride, and some short stories by P.G. Wodehouse all of which are re-reads). Perhaps this is due to a inherent suspicion toward fiction which I have not had strongly recommended by reliable sources—so much modern literature is utter trash both aesthetically and morally. It is in poetry and history and theology that I am more willing to forage further afield. There is a certain stolid confidence grounded in several years of research (in theology at least) that questionable accuracy or certain bias may be balanced by other reading. Balance is everything, even in ones reading. This is why I enjoy reading theologians with whom I profoundly disagree—such as post-conservative “evangelicals” Donald Bloesch and Roger Olson—since it forces me to consider the very grounding of my own biblical worldview.
War and Peace is probably the longest and most tedious novel I have ever read. But there is one scene where one of the protagonists, Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, notes that the constant social conversations in St. Petersburg were insipid and redundant and claims that it was only in the country that he had time to think for himself: “He did nothing, did not even think or find time to think, but only talked, and talked successfully, of what he had thought while in the country. He sometimes noticed with dissatisfaction that he repeated the same remark on the same day in different circles. But he was so busy for whole days together that he had no time to notice that he was thinking of nothing.” [2] And this comment caused me to pause and consider: do we of the 21st century live forever in the city. Rather than balls and fetes we are surrounded by our iTunes playlists and iPhone newsfeed always telling us what to think and crowding out any time for thoughtful reflection or prayer. So as I consider the numerous tidbits of knowledge which Jacobs sets before his reader—more like a hors d’oeuvre platter than a full meal—it is how he makes me pause to the think that is the most satisfying result of reading his books. In the cacophony of noise in which we of the 21st century live we rarely have time to think for ourselves and it is an incredible boon to simply stop and think about our lives and ask the hard why questions: why do I read what I read? Why does anything in the culture in which I live or the culture of past generations matter? And, narcissistically but necessarily, why does my own life matter? And this a good gift for which I will return again and again to Jacobs’ books.

[1] The Narnian; The Pleasures of Reading In An Age of Distraction; A Visit To Vanity Fair
[2] Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, p. 797

Book Review: The Federalist Papers

“It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

– Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 1

The Constitution of the United States is one of the most important documents in American History, and it caused its share of controversy when it was first proposed. The Federalist Papers were written to defend it, and to convince the American people of its merits. Consisting of 85 essays, the Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, and covered six basic arguments:

  1. Why and how America would be more prosperous politically and economically as a union than as independent states, or a loose coalition.
  2. That the Confederacy was not strong enough to keep the states together.
  3. The need for a stronger government to preserve the union (resulting in prosperity).
  4. That the proposed constitution is in line with the principles of republican government.
  5. How the Constitution is similar to existing state constitutions.
  6. Adopting the Constitution will secure republican liberties, not infringe on them.

Keep in mind that the Federalist is only one side of the debate. There were many prominent figures on the opposite side, and the reader must decide for himself whether the arguments with which the authors back up these bold assertions are sufficient. Whether or not you agree with them will most likely depend on your own political philosophy, rather than the authors’ persuasive powers.

I could not possibly cover all the essays in one post, and some of them are now outdated and irrelevant, due to changes in our political system, but I will link to a few of my favorites, and summarize them.

The Federalist 10: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection

Madison argues that one of the main dangers of a “popular government” is its propensity to divide people into factions, (by which Madison specifically means a group motivated by a common cause or belief that is antagonistic to the beliefs of other citizens, not just a difference of opinion), and the chaos caused by these factions clashing. To avoid this danger, one can:

  1. Remove the cause or
  2. Control the effects

Within option one, there are two ways to remove the cause: by taking away liberty, or by brainwashing everyone into having identical beliefs and goals. Neither of these is an acceptable solution (and the second one is impossible), so Madison moves on to option two: controlling the effects.

This is most difficult if the troublesome factor makes up a majority of the population, since a popular government is supposed to carry out the will of the majority, and this is one reason that America is a republic, not a democracy. Governing by representation rather than a direct democracy helps to control factions, because issues are decided by men at one remove from the concern, and thus able to look at the matter with more fairness, and the bigger the republic the better, since the sheer number of people makes it less likely that a majority will agree on something that hurts the public welfare. It does happen occasionally, but less often.

Some of these arguments are countered by the two party system we have set up now, but it is still a fine piece of reasoning.

The Federalist 37,  38, and 39

In No. 37, Madison explains how difficult was the task of the constitutional convention, and how impossible to get everything exactly right. The founding fathers never expected a perfect government, but they were striving for balance. They intentionally set people’s personal interests against one another. No. 38 continues this theme, going back into the history of Greece to further illustrate how difficult a task the convention has undertaken. Madison also attacks the arguments of the anti-federalists, showing that their objections are incoherent and they do not even agree with each other—there is no unity in their dissent. In addition, many of the things they dislike about the Constitution are even worse in the Articles of Confederation. No. 39 argues that the Constitution conforms to republican principles, and explains the difference between the terms “federal” and “national”.

The Federalist 78

Hamilton describes the role of the judicial branch in this essay (the subject is continued in No. 79), how the judges will be appointed, the length of their tenure, and why it is essential that the judicial branch be independent from the legislative.


Closing thoughts:

Overall, I prefer Madison’s style of writing to Hamilton’s. He lays out his arguments very logically, and is more even-handed as he deals with the questions raised by the opposition.

The Federalist is excellent to read in small doses; if too much is attempted in one sitting the topics tend to run together.

When I was about three quarters of the way through the essays, it occurred to me that perhaps I should have re-read the constitution before starting them. I’ve read it a few times, for different courses in high school and college, but it has been a while. For others embarking on The Federalist Papers, I would recommend you begin by re-familiarizing yourself with the constitution, as it will help you follow the arguments.

If The Federalist Papers looks interesting to you, you might also enjoy:

Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville

The Constitution of the United States

The Articles of Confederation

The Anti-Federalist Papers (I read a few of these as I was going through Federalist, and it was interesting to see the other side of the argument.)

If you’re feeling especially ambitious you could even look into:

Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes

Two Treatises on Government, by John Locke

The Rights of Man, by Thomas Paine

The Spirit of Laws, by Charles de Montesquieu

Book Review: Don Quixote (In Which I find Cause to use the word “Inconsequentialness”)

Historic Background:

Don Quixote was written by Miguel de Cervantes, and first published in 1605 (the sequel/second part was published 10 years later). As one of the very earliest novels, it has influenced Western literature and culture right down to the present day. It is also one of the best known Spanish literary works of all time.

Setting:

Don Quixote is set in the Spanish countryside, in the region of La Mancha. The time period of the story is supposedly many years before Cervantes is writing (he claims to have found old “records” of Quixote’s adventures, which he is now publishing).

Plot:

Don Quixote is a romantic gentleman, who rides about on his horse seeking adventures in an attempt to revive the practice of chivalry. He does find adventures, but they are mostly of the humorous sort, at least from the reader’s perspective. Quixote himself considers them to be serious matters of honor and valor. He meets many people in the course of his wanderings, and they often laugh at him, or encourage him in his delusions.

Characters:

Don Quixote, knight errant—is he insane? Most people seem to think so, and he is certainly delusional when it comes to such things as mistaking a windmill for a giant, or a herd of animals for a great army. On other matters, however, he is quite sensible, and he has a strong sense of justice, which he tries to enforce on others. The reader usually feels rather sorry for him.

Sancho Panza—the sidekick, Quixote’s squire. He is somewhat of a “skeptic”, wavering between believing Quixote—he is following the knight because he promised to make Sancho a governor—and trying to convince him of what is going on in the real world. Like others in the book, he often deceives Quixote, only pretending to fulfill the quests that Quixote sets him.

Style:

This is a book written more than four hundred years ago, and it definitely shows. I read a lot of older literature, and I struggled to get through some of the dialogue and drawn out descriptions. It was sometimes hard to keep track of what was going on, because of the archaic language. There may be more modern translations that would be easier for a twenty-first century reader, however. Scattered throughout the story are many poems and songs, as well as short stories related by one character to another, or to a group of characters. Cervantes seems to enjoy layering stories within stories.

There is a second part to this book, which I have not read, and given my experience with this first part, I doubt I will take the time to do so. I enjoyed the book, but there was too much rambling and inconsequentialness for my taste, without enough plot or character development to make up for it.

Themes:

Reality vs. Illusion. Quixote has a very different view of reality from all the other characters, and anything that fails to match up to his version of reality is explained away as being the result of magic or enchantment. In our world as well, it is impossible to convince people with evidence that their view of reality is incorrect—they will always have an explanation that makes sense to themselves, however nonsensical it may seem from another point of view.

Deception and lying. By the end of the book, everyone is lying to Quixote in one way or another, whether for their own amusement, or in an attempt to get him back home without him realizing where they are going. Whether their motives are good or not, the result is to make Quixote look ridiculous. Is it right to lie to someone for their own good? Cervantes does not answer the question, but leaves it for the reader to consider.

Comedy. For the most part, this book is just a rollicking adventure, replete with jokes and laughter. There are some serious themes to be found, but the book as a whole is quite lighthearted.

Book Review: Great Expectations

Historic Background:

Great Expectations is one of Dickens’s later novels, published as a serial between 1860 and 1861. At this time Dickens was a famous public figure, but he still wrote, edited, and published for newspapers.

Setting:

The novel is set earlier in the 1800s, roughly between 1810 and 1835 (except for the last chapter). It begins in the country—a rather damp and dreary country, from Pip’s description—where Pip divides his time between the forge, a warm, welcoming place, and Miss Havisham’s grand house, which is very gloomy and dark. In contrast with this setting is London, where Pip goes later in the book. While London is more exciting than Pip’s village, it is dirty and lonely, especially when he first arrives.

Plot: This is a coming-of-age book, centered on Pip, using his narrating voice. The tale starts when Pip is just a village lad, who is scared out of his wits by finding a convict on the marshes one Christmas eve. Pip’s life begins to change shortly after that event, when he is sent to Miss Havisham’s house to “play”. Though he is scared of the eccentric lady, he meets Estella and gets a taste for gentility there, and begins to be discontented with his station. He initially tries to better himself with education, but his life takes a sudden turn when he is informed that he has “expectations” from a mysterious benefactor, and is to go live in London. Pip is so happy to become a gentleman, and so anxious about his social standing, that he cuts himself off from the village entirely, even being rude to Joe when he comes to visit.

In London, Pip is extravagant, spending money foolishly because of his “great expectations”. He gets into debt, and drags his friend in with him. Sure that his benefactor must be Miss Havisham, Pip believes that he will marry Estella, who is now also in London, in the same circles as he is. When he comes of age, Pip decides to find out who his patron is, but is interrupted by a tramp called Magwitch suddenly showing up. Confused at first, Pip eventually understands that this Magwitch is the convict whom he helped when he was a boy, by bringing him food secretly when he was in hiding. Pip is stunned to learn that the man has made his fortune in Australia, and all this time it is he who has been his benefactor, not Miss Havisham at all. By coming back to England, Magwitch is in danger of being arrested, and Pip tries to help him get out of the country. Compeyson is working against them, however, and Magwitch is arrested, all his property is confiscated by the crown, and that is the end of Pip’s expectations.

Of course, it’s all really much more complicated than that, being Dickens. I had to ruthlessly leave out many subplots which are integral to the story to condense it even this much.

Characters:

Phillip Perrip: (Pip) An orphan, but being brought up by his older sister and her husband.

He starts out as a nice boy, but as soon as he starts wanting to be a gentleman he becomes rather annoying. For most of the novel Pip is selfish and extravagant, but when he learns who actually left him his “great expectations” he does begin to change, and to see more clearly what is valuable in life.

The Gargerys: Are bringing up Pip by hand. Mrs. Joe Gargery is Pip’s sister, who goes on rampages at the slightest provocation. Pip is afraid of her, especially when she has Tickler. Joe, a blacksmith, treats Pip as a son, and is his best friend. He is not educated, but is kind to everyone, honest, and innately polite.

Miss Havisham: A creepy lady always dressed in a wedding gown.

Pip has to go to her house as a companion, to walk with her, or play cards. She is very rich, but unhappy because she was abandoned by her fiancé right before their wedding. Appears to enjoy making everyone around her uncomfortable.

Estella: A spoilt beauty, the adopted daughter of Miss Havisham.

Miss Havisham is training Estella to take revenge on the male sex, by making all men fall in love with her, but never being in love herself. This certainly works on Pip.

Magwitch: Also called The Convict, terrifies Pip when he is a small boy, but is later his benefactor.

Pip, under threat of being eaten alive, brings him food when he has escaped from the convict ship and is hiding on the marshes, and Magwitch is grateful to him, even though he is soon recaptured and sent off to Australia.

Wemmick: Lives in a castle with his Aged Parent, works for a lawyer named Jaggers in London. Wemmick has two sides to his character, his “Walworth sentiments” at home and his “official sentiments” at the office in London. He gives Pip advice and guidance while he is in London.

Compeyson: Another convict, Magwitch’s mortal enemy.

The reader does not even hear of this fellow until near the end of the book, but he is responsible for Miss Havisham’s blighted life, Magwitch’s life of crime, and Pip losing his great expectations. In a way he is the villain, although I always think of Pip himself as the “villain”, because it is his weaknesses of character that are the main source of conflict.

Themes:

Valuing Friendship

Throughout the book, Pip is careless of his friends, often ignoring them until he needs them, yet they still stand by him and help him through every scrape he gets into—Joe cares for him when he is sick and pays his debts, Herbert gets him a job after he loses his expectations, and Wemmick gives him advice and helps him with Magwitch even against his own better judgment. By the end of the story Pip realizes that his friends are more important than social standing and money.

Wealth

Wealth is portrayed as at least dangerous, if not altogether bad. It makes those who have it either suspicious of everyone, like Miss Havisham, because she thinks everyone must be trying to get money out of her, or corrupt, like the lawyer Jaggers who squeezes all the money he can out of others, or lazy and self-indulgent like Pip, relying on his money rather than on his own talent and work.

The Treatment of Convicts

If there is a social issue expressed in Great Expectations, it is the treatment of convicts, and the prison system as a whole. Magwitch, for a minor crime, has his whole life ruined, while Compeyson, who has done much worse things, gets off easily. Dickens is quick to spot and decry this injustice.