The theatrical nature and content of Sologub’s The Little Demon had me envisioning a play on the stage for the first third of the novel. Hilarious dialogue, telling imagery, and one of the most paranoid and depraved characters in fiction made visualizing this text taking place physically before me easy. For much of this novel, I thought that Sologub would surely continue to circuitously loop Peredenov’s mad antics into infinity. He “loved nothing and no one, and as a result the real world could only have a depressing effect on him.” Depression surmounts as his extreme paranoia builds and he believes that his friends intend to poison him, his lover wants to shoot him, colleagues are jealous of his success, and children want to have sex with him.
When I picked up a novel with a stunning title like Noli Me Tangere (Touch me Not) (Filipino, 1887), I expected to encounter a work dredged in corporeal, visceral experience and language. I wanted a novel centered on the function of touch: human interaction, physicality, phenomenology, flesh. I didn’t get this in Jose Rizal’s incredible text, but I didn’t really feel disappointed in not getting what I wanted — because in some ways I received a more meaningful gift.
Sanshiro by Natsume Soseki is a novel about Japanese masculinity in which Sanshiro, our hero, comes to terms with his role as a college-educated man from the country. Sanshiro is a Modern(ist) hero who develops a heightened sense of self-consciousness as a result of the industrialized and urbane environment of higher education in the city, a confusing confrontation with “unintelligible” Western literary artifacts that seem important in Japanese education, and from his indomitable fear of women. In the city, Sanshiro finds himself among flowers with “no fragrance to speak of.” The lectures that he initially painstakingly transcribes come to “neither cheer nor depress him,” and he is “quite unable to determine whether they were boring or not.” In fact, he comes to find it “strangely pleasant that he could not understand the lecture.” This period of Japanese history is referred to as a time in which “a freedom of the mind” is necessary and desirable through education. For this reason, Sanshiro reads his literature closely but “when he asked himself what he read, there was nothing. There was so much nothing, it was funny.” His journey to become an academic becomes meaningful due to its meaninglessness. Sanshiro “could not say he felt satisfied, but neither was he totally unsatisfied.” He is positioned in the lukewarm existence of a Modern hero who straddles — often confusedly — disparate states of being.
The motif of arctic exploration is not unique during the Romantic period in which many authors, such as Mary Shelley and Coleridge, utilize the setting of a sub-zero climate and its dangers to highlight the macabre and mysterious nature of their plots and characters. In Wilkie Collins’s short story “The Devil’s Spectacles” the artic setting is reminiscent of such Romantic literary locations where characters are confronted with what they fear most — in this case, the devil and the dark nature of humanity. Septimus Notman propels the tale by admitting on his deathbed to being a cannibal through eating his dead friend during an arctic adventure to save himself from starvation. Upon his contemplation appears the devil with a pair of spectacles for Notman, which will give him the extra push needed to turn him from borderline sinful to full-fledged brute. These spectacles allow their wearer to “read everything in [one’s] mind, plain as print” and must be passed on to a different man before Notman can die.
Timelessness is the cure for a 10 year drought in Ballard’s novel The Drought (British, 1964), in which Dr. Charles Ransom learns how to navigate the desolate new landscape that surrounds him. Around him people change into picaresque, circus-like versions of their previous selves: they morph into who they truly are. For some characters, such as the “grotesque Caliban” Quilter and the wealthy, wayward Lomax siblings, the metamorphosis between presenting a façade and allowing their true natures to appear is like blinking an eye. For other characters, such as zoologist Catherine Austin, the change takes some extreme close-reading to identify. The world ravaged by a lack of rainfall has pressed humanity to expose itself for what it is. If humans seemed to exist in a world “like a disaster area” before, then they are pressed to tap into their survival reserves here. In the case of the main character Ransom, being human means that he needs to surrender to the inevitable realization that “time” — especially time past — holds no truth worth remembering. He must learn to let go of who he believed he was and adapt into what the world demands that he become.
Victorians were skeptical, to say the least, of forgiveness. The process seemed destabilizing at best, insincere at its worst. Forgiveness never really leaves the map of the Victorian literary landscape and yet authors attempt to push it to the margin. Dismissing forgiveness as impossible or undesirable appears to be an unrealistic a goal in many of the texts of major and minor writers of the period. An obvious reason for this quandary is that forgiveness is deeply engrained in gender issues that seem difficult to resolve. In Tess, Thomas Hardy manifests the nature of gender and forgiveness when he writes of Angel’s response to his abused wife’s confession of past errors. Tess, ravaged by Angel, forgives him and admits to her own sexual transgressions, seeking a kind of equal ground. Angel cries that such absolution is outlandish: “O Tess! Forgiveness does not apply to the case!” Numerous instances like this in Victorian literature manifest that gender and forgiveness are intertwined. What is forgivable for a man is often at odds with pardonable actions from a woman.
One overlooked end-of-the-world text is Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man (British, 1826) in which a plague invades Europe and, eventually, the world. This repetitive, cyclical text feels even longer than Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and yet less events occur to move the plot forward. Shelley’s vision of the end of times is vastly different from any other apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic text I have read as the doom takes years (nearly forever) to come to fruition. Humanity’s demise is not immediate here. It involves prolonged suffering and gives characters almost an eternity to reflect and take action. Taking action is precisely what characters in this novel do not do…unless, of course, running for office and trying to fight the plague with soap-box preaching and parliamentary antics can save the world.