1984 by George Orwell
'1984' is a 'utopian' novel, meaning that Orwell is describing an ideal world that has never
existed but which he would like to see come about. In the world of the novel everyone is happy and
well provided for. England is ruled by a group known as 'The Party', because everyone has
such a good time. Their leader is so kindly and considerate he is affectionately known as
Big Brother. The police are known as the Thought Police, because they prefer to use logic and reason
to solve disputes. Everyone is watched by cameras 24 hours a day, so that everyone can be a TV
star and no-one feels left out. The English language is being simplified to help those with
The villain of the novel is a man called Winston Smith, who doesn't like sharing and joining in. As a child he stole a piece of chocolate from his baby sister and has since gone from bad to worse. He teams up with a nymphomaniac named Julia and they embark on an orgy of antisocial behaviour. Fortunately, he falls into the hands of the Thought Police, who psychoanalyze him to work out what is wrong with him. They realize that all his problems stem from his childhood traumas, in particular his phobia about rats. They cure him of this by putting him in a cage full of rats to show him rats aren't so bad once you get to know them. They also free him of Julia's bad influence. The novel ends happily with Winston fully cured and grateful to Big Brother.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Jane, a poor girl without relations or fortune, is forced to take a position as governess
with the brooding but attractive Mr. Rochester. ('I am sure most people would have thought
him an ugly man; yet there was so much unconscious pride in his port.')
Despite the difference in their stations Jane comes to find herself drawn to him and he to her. But at night a mysterious figure
flits around the house cackling insanely and attacking her and Rochester. This person seems
to be kept hidden and closely guarded in the attic. Eventually Jane explores the secret apartments
and finds, to her horror, that the prisoner is Mr. Rochester's first wife, a hideous mutant
with tentacles for arms and mandibles instead of a mouth.
In the 19th Century the Uranium mines of the West Indies were a source of great wealth, but contaminated those who owned them. Thus there arose the phenomenon of the mutant heiress, girls with a vast dowry but warped chromosomes. In his youth Mr. Rochester was married to one of these. According to his lights Rochester does his best for his first wife, hiding her from superstitious villagers and providing a steady supply of cats for her to eat. Jane decides to forgive him, but his first wife escapes and burns the house down with her fiery breath. Fortunately Jane spent time in the marines and is able to kill the mutant with a naval cannon she kept as a souvenir. ("Heads up, you gothic bitch.") She and Rochester settle down to live happily ever after. But in the fight Jane was stung by the mutant, and on their honeymoon a monster larvae bursts out of her stomach and kills them both.
The Poems of Emily Dickinson
Born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830, Emily Dickinson lived a solitary existence, spending her days in quiet domesticity in her parents' house and her nights cruising bars to pick up men for anonymous sexual encounters. Unpublished during her lifetime for fear of scandal, her poetry celebrates passion and unbridled female sexuality, e.g. this still shocking couplet from Rouge Gagne:
I got nipples on my titties as big as your thumb
I got a thing between my legs could make a dead man come
Although for much of her life Dickinson toyed with a sort of female supremacism, envisaging a world ruled by carefree Amazons where men were reduced to the level of sexual toys (as expressed in her essay 'The Avenging Vagina'), she could occasionally be moved to rhapsody by really athletic male partners, e.g. her sonnet 'To A Well-Built Bricklayer':
And this I know, his teeth are white as snow
What a big black mess! What a hunk of love!
He'd walk her every day into a shady place
Hey Paul, hey Paul, hey Paul, let's have a ball
Hey Paul, hey Paul, hey Paul, let's have a ball
Gigantic! Gigantic! Gigantic! A big big love
Towards the end of her life Dickinson went mad and her later poems are experimental in the extreme, e.g. 'To A Duck':
o ducky ducky ducky duck
o ducky ducky doo
o ducky ducky ducky duck
aroo, aroo, aroo
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy March are four feisty young sisters growing up in 19th century America. Jo dreams of being a writer, Meg yearns for a life of luxury and ease, Beth is musical and Amy is artistic. The twist, though, is that they are all only five inches high. Their adventures as they try to make their way in the world of the normal-sized people are a touching fable of female emancipation.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck's subject was the plight of the rootless and dispossessed in the heart of America. Lenny and George are penniless drifters moving from one dead-end job to the next in Depression-era California. Lenny is a simple-minded giant who is too stupid to survive without George. Every night George tells Lenny stories of the idyllic life they will one day lead when they are finally able to buy a farm of their own. Lenny has a weakness for soft, small creatures and has a pet mouse he likes to stroke. One day he meets a beautiful, teasing young woman who is also soft and small. He cannot resist stroking her. As soon as he touches her, however, she turns back into his pet mouse. It turns out she is a magical Mouse Princess, half woman and half rodent. She tells them that they too, in effect, have always been mice in the rafters of society. Eventually she leads Lenny and George to the Kingdom of the Mice, where everything is made of cheese. Lenny marries the Mouse Princess and settles down to eat everything in sight. George is lonely at first and yearns for their farm, but then he falls in love with a nice little vole-girl. This is a top book actually.
The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Santiago is an old Cuban fisherman who has not made a catch for three months. Indeed, he has come
to be regarded as a jinx by the other fisherman. One day, though, he hooks a really stupendous
marlin. It drags his boat out to sea, but he fights it with all his strength, eventually coming
to feel a deep respect for his adversary. Finally he defeats the fish, but as he is dragging it
back to shore a shark comes to eat it. After a titanic struggle he kills the shark. But other
sharks come, too many to fight off, and by the time he gets back to shore the giant fish is
nothing more than a skeleton. Santiago sells his fishing boat and goes and signs on the dole.
The moral of the story is that no matter how hard you try you can never win, so you might as
well not bother doing anything.
'Ernest Hemingway' was the pen name of Emmeline Whittier, a spinster librarian. Among her other works is 'For Whom The Bell Tolls', a comic novel about school life. Stylistically she is noted for the lush ornateness of her prose and her long flowing sentences.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist is an illegitimate child raised in an orphanage. He is a vicious little ingrate and,
no matter how much people try to do for him, he always wants more. He runs away from the
orphanage because the food isn't good enough for him. He ends up sleeping rough in London
until he is taken in by a kindly old Jewish man, Fagin, who runs a philanthropic organization
for homeless boys and tries to teach him a trade. Oliver is too lazy to learn, however, and ends up
betraying him. He wheedles his way into the affections of another kindly old man, Mr. Brownlow,
who decides to raise him as if he was his own grandson. But Oliver's bad breeding comes out and
he bites Mr. Brownlow's ear off.
Dickens's novels are famous for urging social reform in 19th Century England. They constantly promote the message that poor people have to be kept down.
The Shape of Things to Come by H.G. Wells
Case is a data-rustler or hacker in The Sprawl, a vast conurbation covering the entire East
Coast of 22nd-Century America, who steals information by projecting his consciousness into
Cyberspace. When he steals from his employers, though, they maim his nervous system with
a wartime Russian mycotoxin, and he washes up in the black clinics of Chiba City.
There he is hired by a bionically-enhanced street-samurai named Molly and a burned-out
special forces colonel named Armitage to work for the sinister Artificial
Intelligence known as Neuromancer.
For a writer in Edwardian England Wells foresaw many aspect of the modern world with uncanny accuracy. As well as writing many comic and social novels he is a pioneering figure in science-fiction. Together with Jules Verne he started the Cyberpunk movement.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Dmitri, Ivan, Alyosha, Benjamin, Caleb, Ephraim and Gideon are seven brothers in 19th Century Russia. Their household is thrown into disarray when Dmitri goes out to find himself a bride ("Bless your beautiful hide, wherever you may be!"). Encouraged by the godless nihilism Ivan has learned at university, the others go into the local town and kidnap brides for themselves. They come home to find their father has been bludgeoned to death and make plans for a multiple wedding. ("Oh, they say when you marry in June you're a bride all your life, and the bride groom who marries in June gets a sweetheart for a wife.") The winter snows trap them in the house together and the brides all die of tuberculosis and melancholy.
Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre
Roquentin is a Frenchman who suffers from car-sickness a lot. The mere sight of a car makes him queasy and irritable and consequently he misses out on a lot of picnics and stuff. This makes him sad.
26th Oct 2001