Monthly Archives: February 2011

THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE / Thomas Hardy

THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE / Thomas Hardy. 1895 (335 pgs)

First Ten Pages = 2.99% of total book

First Sentence:  “One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  Distant third-person narrator. Omniscient – per the style of 19th century novels. Past tense, like a tale.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: A man and his wife with their sleeping child approach, from seemingly far away, a place they’ve not been, seeking shelter, on foot. If one hasn’t read a 19th century novel in a while one must reacquaint oneself with longer sentences that wind around a lot of information (like that previous sentence). In these first few paragraphs one learns quite a bit about the man – his dress, manner, swarthy look and hay cutting tools – and very little about the wife and child, as if they are an appendage. As they walk side by side, man and wife are in close proximity, but emotionally far off.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages: Here is where the story takes off. Before the end of the first ten pages, this man – Henchard, the eventual Mayor of Casterbridge – gets drunk and sells his young wife and child to the highest bidder.

Language: The narrator is outside of the emotional of the story and does not add an opinion or judgment on the events of the story. His role is to present. Instead, the omniscient narrator uses other characters and the many village observers to lend bias and perspective to the actions within the story. Where the narrator is neutral, the several narrative voices create a variety of perspectives for the reader to judge character action.

Setting: Hardy creates detailed setting and ties various types of characters to the setting in which they attend. As Henchard and his wife approach the fair in Weydon-Priors they ask a citizen for lodgings. The unnamed citizen informs them that the people of Weydon-Priors would sooner tear down an abandon abode than have the wrong type of persons moving in. The once prosperous town seems to be in decline and the inhabitants are determined to keep it that way.

Character:  In these opening pages the majority of the narrative keeps Henchard in prime focus. The reader cannot foretell that Henchard is about to do something horrible – as Henchard is unaware of what he has done until the morning after. The primary evil is not Henchard. The primary evil is pride, and arrogance, and alcohol. There is much foreshadowing of Henchard as volcano brewing, but it all comes together at the end of the first act when the auction event concludes and he falls asleep with a drink in his hand.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension):  The first chapter is just over ten pages and contains the approach to the fair at Weydon-Priors, food and drink in the tent, and selling his wife to an unnamed sailor. It is deliberately paced and shocking at its conclusion. It feels as though the story has been told. What more can be said? For Henchard to sink further would not be impossible, but would become more than the story could bear. Instead, on the eleventh page, Henchard wakes, realizes his folly, searches for his wife and child and when he cannot find them, swears off alcohol for twenty-one years. (Without giving anything away that you can’t find out online, the story skips ahead many years to a woman walking down the approach to Weydon-Priors with her eighteen-year-old daughter looking for a long lost relation.) It is this drastic time-skip that affects the structure of the entire story without the reader having to take park in all the details of Henchard’s fight for sobriety and his rise in social position to that of Mayor of Casterbridge, a booming, if not distant seat of the corn and wheat trade.

Intention: Thank God the intention of Hardy’s story is NOT to moralize on the ill effects and ill judgments made under the influence of alcohol. Instead, due to Henchard’s absolute realization that his actions have landed him in this predicament, he is able to make some significant changes in his habits and attempt culpability – if not with his wife, at least with himself in the world. (What the reader learns as the story continues is that while one can change their habits, one’s basic character requires more stringent modulation.)

Thematic Preamble: None. This story (like the last couple of others reviewed on this blog) jumps directly into action. THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE jumps headlong with force and unveering calamity to the shocking end of the first chapter.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten: Something’s Gotta Give. The reader (and several of the secondary characters who comment on Henchard and his actions) is clear that Henchard is out of control and the only one who can affect any positive change must be Henchard.

Random Comments: Read this book.

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ABOUT A BOY / Nick Hornby

ABOUT A BOY / Nick Hornby. 1998 (307 pgs)

First Ten Pages = 3.26% of total book

First Sentences: “So have you split up now?”

“Are you being funny?”

People quite often thought Marcus was being funny when he wasn’t.

Prevailing Narrative Voice: Close third person alternating by chapter between two main characters. Both characters closely interact with each other presenting different perspectives on one another. When the chapter is from Marcus’ POV the narrator has access to Marcus’ internal perspective. The same is true when the chapter is from Will’s POV.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: Marcus is an unusual twelve-year-old boy whose mother has just ordered delivery pizza and broken up with her boyfriend.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages: It is 1993. After pizza and talk about the ex boyfriend in the first chapter, we meet Will in the second. He is self-defined as “totally cool” and exactly the type of guy that Marcus’ mother would go out with. Where Marcus is unclear of his preadolescent role in the world and with his “mum” and her boyfriend troubles, Will is thirty-something and the counter opposite of Marcus. It is clear these two will cross paths.

Basic plot from the book jacket or Wikipedia: The novel is about Will Freeman, a 36-year-old bachelor, and Marcus, an eccentric, introverted, bullied twelve-year-old who lives alone with his suicidal mother, Fiona. Will, who has never had to work thanks to the royalties from his father’s Christmas song hit entitled “Santa’s Super Sleigh”, has a lot of spare time. Most of this he spends smoking, watching TV, listening to albums and looking for female temporary companionship.

Language: In general the language is contemporary with a special focus on the hipness of the nineties. Many references to music and popular culture – of which Marcus, Will and the few other prominent characters seem to have wildly divergent tastes – propose a sense of involvement or non involvement in the current world.

Setting: London suburbs. Will has lived here all his life. Marcus is new to the big city and having difficulty adjusting from a slower Cambridge rhythm. Like with the pop culture references, London is used to fill in certain blanks in Will or Marcus’ understanding of life and living among other people.

Character: It seems, at first, that the story is progressing to describe two characters who will eventually become one, particularly because Marcus is a boy and Will acts like one. Because of their individual circumstances, neither has any real responsibilities nor has a mentor to model mature behavior. Marcus and Will move through the world as a twelve year old and a man who has not matured far beyond adolescence. As it turns out, each one develops beyond his initial capacity due to the other’s diligence and commitment.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension): The regular back and forth POV shift between chapters adds an ongoing sense of expectation. The chapters are short and dominated by action over contemplation. As a reader it is interesting to realize that even while receiving Will’s perspective in an even-numbered chapter, the next odd-numbered chapter will counter or redefine Will’s situation from Marcus’ perspective – both of which rarely run on the same track.

Intention: While the story is not exactly a feel-good tale, there are comfortable elements of cause and effect that remind the reader that every one who crosses through our lives makes an effect. We can’t survive alone.

Thematic Preamble: None. The story begins without preamble directly engaging the reader in Marcus’ difficult home situation and Will’s unremarkable life choices.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten: My expectation from reading the first ten pages included wondering how these two males would eventually be thrown together. Their lives are so different and they seem unlikely to meet. The overriding question is HOW will these two protagonists come together as opposed to why.

Random Comments: ABOUT A BOY was made into a successful motion picture starring Hugh Grant in 2002. I have not seen the picture but I couldn’t help hearing Hugh Grant each time Will spoke. It made me wonder.

The title is a reference to the song “About a Girl” by Nirvana, a band that is featured in the book, and Patti Smith‘s tribute to Kurt Cobain, “About a Boy“.

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