Classic Remarks 3: Is “Romeo and Juliet” a tragic love story or ironic comedy?

Is Romeo and Juliet a tragic love story or an ironic comedy? Should we take the play seriously when its protagonists are so young?

Having not the time to read the play again and do the sort of long, hard analysis I used to struggle over in college, I beg you to accept my quick thoughts on this matter, jotted down in the subjective and haphazard way that memory brings them to me.

I have always taken Romeo and Juliet as a tragic love story, sharpened and livened with both comedy and abundant irony. I do not view it primarily as an ironic comedy. That is, I do believe we are meant to take the story seriously.

The tragedy is certainly very serious, ending as it does in several unnecessary deaths and provoking enough sober reflection as to end a long and bitter feud between two callous and political families. And the love story is deadly serious to the lovers, whatever we may think of their immaturity and age. Indeed, their immaturity and age are what allows them to act so single-mindedly on their passions, for better and for worse. The better leads them to forsake the hateful feud between their families; the worse leads them to have too little thought for the consequences of their actions, leading to the deaths of some of their friends, and eventually of themselves.

Of course they make many foolish decisions! I don’t even like Romeo; I think he’s a wishy-washy fool who’s in love with love itself moreso than Juliet—why, he barely knows anything about her! About who she really is as a person, that is. At the play’s beginning he’s moaning over—who was it?—Rosalind…Rosaline. Again, some girl he hasn’t even met properly, yet has become so infatuated with as to declare:

One fairer than my love! the all-seeing sun
Ne’er saw her match since first the world begun.

As he says this, he agrees to go to a party where, his cousin Benvolio assures him, he will finally meet Rosaline. Instead he meets Juliet, promptly forgets the Rosaline who had so recently been the goddess of “the devout religion of [his] eye,” and acts even more over-the-moon about her. Oh yes, it’s all very ironic, and a bit comedic too. But intemperate and unwise as he is, I believe his emotions are real, powerful, and unfeigned.

For while Shakespeare is aware of the irony and comedy, and at times allows characters to comment on them, he doesn’t really play the story for either of these. He plays the love story straight, I think. The lovers’ gorgeous odes to each other are not interrupted by jokes, or gags, or anything that might rob the sentiments of their power. Their words themselves reach the highest planes of beauty and elegance, so richly filled and precisely crafted that instead of falling into the bog of ridiculous exaggerations they enter the English language as paradigmatic expressions of romantic adoration. I think Shakespeare takes words too seriously that he would waste his best expressions of genuine emotions on characters who aren’t really feeling said emotions.

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!

The next question on the list asks: Which of Toni Morrison’s books is your favorite or affected you the most, and why? But since I have not read any of Morrison’s books, I cannot answer it. Nor can I think of a way to fudge it as I did with Jane Eyre. So forgive me as I skip it and go to the next one, which…oh my. This is a serious one. One that definitely provokes passionate arguments online. Next time on Classic Remarks, I will address:

Susan Pevensie’s fate in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle has been criticized for being sexist. Do you think it’s sexist or is Lewis trying to do or say something else?

Quotations obtained from

Classic Remarks 2: Does Jane Austen belong in the literary canon?

Some argue Jane Austen writes “fluff” and others argue she belongs in the canon because she writes witty social commentary.  Do you think Austen belongs in the canon? Why or why not?

Some people are bozos whose literary ears are clogged with the fluff of snobbishness (as opposed to the stuff of flobbishness, which I thought I made up for this pun but can actually mean something about the nature of spit. Google “to flob.”). Jane Austen isn’t quite a personal favorite yet but she is indisputably a worthy member of the world’s literary canon.

emmatitlepageMy experience is a bit limited, I admit. I read Emma once and have frequently seen bits of Austen films, mostly 2005’s Pride and Prejudice. My mother and sister are major Austen fans, and I’ve discussed the stories with them extensively. A most trusted and literate friend read every one of her novels for a college course and has also discussed them with me. The books themselves made him a committed Austen fan. Thus I feel confident in what I assert.

Austen seems to achieve with near perfection just about everything she sets out to achieve in her stories. The country gentlemen and ladies of her England are not larger than life, they are alive. They are not heroes or heroines, but fallen children of God in which both their sin and His grace are revealed. And these revelations come not through melodrama, nor thrilling adventure, nor the many contrivances which seed most of literature both low and high. They come through men and women interacting as men and women really do, and no less real for living in words rather than flesh. Her characters are fictional, but not false.

The question of reliable or unreliable narrators is irrelevant with her, because you can always rely on her women to describe the world exactly as they see it, and can always be sure that they are missing much. In following these women’s inner journies, the reader in turn learns how much he is likely misunderstanding about the people around him. Journeying together, the reader and protagonist’s eyes are jointly opened to the depth and mysteries that each human being holds within them, no matter how they appear outwardly.

Depth, mysteries, and also foolishness. Delve deeply enough and some amount of foolishness will be found in everyone. I think Austen understands that, as perhaps very few authors do. She also understands that acknowledging this foolishness is a way towards humility, good nature, and wisdom.

Austen is often funny—so much that it has been common for her novels to be called comedies—but she does not write jokes, gags, or any of the exaggeration which is normally associated with funny stories. Rather, we laugh as we truly see ourselves revealed in her characters. Such as when Emma gets so fed up with a busybody woman (whose natterings have also exasperated us the readers) that she finally puts her down wittily—we laugh, and then soon feel guilty as we realize how cruel it was for Emma to do that. We’re grateful that she has as wise and honest a friend as Mr. Knightley to call her out, and become grateful for our own friends who have done the same for us at various times.

There are gentler laughters throughout Austen’s books as well, but all come from careful observations of the follies and foibles of real persons. Every exaggeration a character makes is also one that has been made either by ourselves or people we know. Their every mistake and every triumph are relatable. The art of accurately describing people can claim Jane Austen as one of its finest practitioners.

Austen’s one break from reality is how all major issues are satisfactorily resolved by the book’s end, but that is a concession to fiction that elevates her stories from mere observation of human nature to truth-bearing tales with the power to affect peoples’ lives. I wish more exalted novelists would make such a concession.

In leaving, I encourage you to peruse this collection of what Austen’s peers in the literary canon have said about her. If they believe her one of the most deserving of their ranks, what fool could object?

C.S. Lewis:

These are the concepts by which Jane Austen grasps the world. … All is hard, clear, definable; by some modern standards, even naively so. The hardness is, of course, for oneself, not for one’s neighbors. … Contrasted with the world of modern fiction, Jane Austen’s is at once less soft and less cruel.

Sir Walter Scott:

That young Lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with.

G.K. Chesterton:

I fancy that Jane Austen was stronger, sharper and shrewder than Charlotte Bronte; I am quite sure that she was stronger, sharper and shrewder than George Eliot. She could do one thing neither of them could do: she could coolly and sensibly describe a man.

Next up:

Is Romeo and Juliet a tragic love story or an ironic comedy? Should we take the play seriously when its protagonists are so young?

Add me on Goodreads!


Trivial update here. If you hadn’t noticed, the sidebar now features the Goodreads widget, showcasing the books I’m currently reading. I joined Goodreads quite recently, so if you have your own account, feel welcome to add me as a friend. Here’s a handy link to my profile.

You can read abbreviated versions of my book reviews there, and also see other books I’ve given a quick star rating to. I haven’t explored many of the site’s other features, but it looks like it can be a fun place for bibliophiles to meet and share book recommendations and discussions.

Happy reading!

Classic Remarks 1: Is “Jane Eyre”’s Rochester an attractive brooder or dangerous manipulator?

Is Jane Eyre’s Rochester an attractive and brooding love interest, or dangerously manipulative?

Right. So I’ve never read anything by Charlotte Brontë. Krysta gives her answer here, no doubt intelligent, truthful, eloquent, and informed by the book. My answer will be (mis?)informed by Google Image Search.

rochesterHmm. Dark mane of slightly greasy hair that sometimes falls almost to the collar. Long sideburns, sometimes slicing sinisterly along the jaw, sometimes of a thin cowardly sort that tries to sneak under the squarish chin like a saddle-strap that might at any moment let its rider fall from the horse. Thick brow frequently furrowed. Darting, suspicious eyes. Mouth either scornful or disdainful. Nose very firm in its nosiness (whatever that means).

edward_rochesterDon’t think I like him. It’s the facial hair that disappoints, really. No strength, no honesty to it. Everything else is alright, I suppose. In many of these pictures he could use a good trip to the barber, but in some he’s cleaned up fine. But those sideburns. Man, either wear them boldly like a declarative statement, or don’t wear them at all! These are sideburns that want you to think well of them without actually doing the job of properly framing the face in an attractive, manly way. I call that dangerously manipulative.

d51087dd967e3f83f429223e38334613But wait! Timothy Dalton did away with the sideburns for his turn as Rochester. Here his face declares itself openly and without adornment. That’s honesty for you! His posture is a bit elitist, perhaps, but at least his hair is appropriately groomed, and apparently washed. Mouth not overtly disdainful.

Very well, I think I’ve reached my conclusion.

Jane Eyre’s Rochester is dangerously manipulative. Except when played by Timothy Dalton, when we can assume he’s probably a fine chap who can safely be considered an attractive and brooding love interest by the ladies, if they so choose.

So, my attractive and brooding readers, what do you think of Jane Eyre‘s Rochester, either his character or his lack of strong facial hair?

Next up:

Some argue Jane Austen writes “fluff” and others argue she belongs in the canon because she writes witty social commentary.  Do you think Austen belongs in the canon? Why or why not?

Classic Remarks: I arrive fashionably late to Pages Unbound’s party

Greetings, greetings, hello and hope all’s well! I’ve arrived at last. So kind of you to wait! Got turned ‘round on the way over, but found my way at last. It has been awhile, hasn’t it?

Hope there’s still room for me in the literary blogosphere! I do miss this place. Rather…rather terribly, in fact. Some wonderful people used to knock on my metaphorical door every-so-often to see what I had to say, to converse a bit on topics we loved. Books, mostly, and sometimes movies, and other things. Always about stories, though, and their importance in our lives. I still do that quite a bit outside of blogging, but I’d like to tap into this community again. Many of you excellent hobb—I mean, many of you excellent people have continued blogging, and grown at it, and become even more wonderful and accomplished than you were when I first met you. Congratulations! Keep at it!

We’ll see what happens with The Warden’s Walk going forward. You might notice I have an actual, real book review up! And of a book that’s only a decade old! Well to be frank, I don’t know what my next review will be of, or when it will be, but I’m going to try to find ways to post more regularly. And that’s why I’ve arrived late (fashionably, I hope) to Pages Unbound’s party.

Since July, my prolific long-time blogfriends at Pages Unbound have been hosting a weekly meme of their own creation called Classic Remarks. Every Friday they ask a question about the “canon” of classic literature and invite other bloggers to join them in discussing it. Fantastic idea, if I do say so (You do.).

I’m joining in, late as I am. But with a few tweaks to the rules, because it’s my blog and I can post how I want! Right. That’ll silence the critics. (Voice inside head: You’re not popular enough to have critics.) Shh! Right. Where was I? Oh yes. See, I simply haven’t read many of the books their topics address.

So where I know the book, I will answer intelligently, truthfully, and hopefully eloquently. Where I don’t know the book, I’ll fudge it. Neither of the three qualities I strive for in the former case should be expected in the latter. If they do appear, cry “Hallelujah!” for the mercy of God and take a swig of your favorite beverage.

First up: Is Jane Eyre‘s Rochester an attractive and brooding love interest, or dangerously manipulative?

I’ve never read Jane Eyre or seen an adaptation. Huzzah!



Book Review: Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson

High entertainment for lovers of fantasy. Especially if you’re the kind who likes to play as a rogue or mage-thief in RPGs.

a.k.a. Mistborn: The Final Empire
Series: Functions as a standalone, but is followed by The Well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages. This Mistborn Original Trilogy is itself followed by another series in the same universe, called the Wax and Wayne Series.
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Pages: 643
Published: 2006, Tor Books
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Teenaged thief Vin falls in with a crew of rogues, and learns that she, like their dashing leader Kelsier, is a Mistborn, a person born with a rare ability to magically manipulate metals (Say that 5x fast!). Using a variety of magical and criminal skills, the crew plans a rebellion against the Lord Ruler, a tyrant of immense and mysterious power who has ruled for a thousand years and just might be immortal.
Reason for Beginning: Accolades online gave the impression that it was a fresh, creative twist on high fantasy. Plus, I liked the title and cover art.
Reason for Finishing: Excellent, page-turning writing. Plot and characters both kept me invested, while the pacing kept me up late reading many nights.
Story Re-readability: Moderate. I’m more immediately interested in pursuing the next book in the series, and perhaps other titles by Sanderson. It has enough depth to reward at least a second reread, and the Thrilling Adventure and Intrique quotients should be high enough to counteract any restlessness from knowing the story’s conclusion in advance.
Prose Style: Sanderson’s style is approachable and direct, keeping the story focused and the characters lively. He successfully engages with some fairly serious themes without getting ponderous or preachy. In prose, there is a definite preference for directness, sometimes at the expense of beauty of phrase, but that seems the right side to err on for this story.

Recommendation: High entertainment for lovers of fantasy. Especially if you’re the kind who likes to play as a rogue or mage-thief in RPGs.

Key Thoughts

Billowing cloaks. Misty streets. Shadowy figures watching from rooftop perches, working to protect an intimidated populace from evil, corrupt forces. Whispered plans in secret hideouts. Unraveling conspiracies rooted in ancient legends. Warm banter between comrades who have mischief in their eyes, noble intentions in their hearts. A bit of magic. Romance, dancing and more magic.

I’ve always loved these imaginative elements, especially running together in the same story. This very blog is named for one of my earliest characters, the elusive, noble Twilight’s Warden, whose stories have had all of them in some form or another. Reading Mistborn is almost like experiencing my childhood daydreams sifted through someone else’s mind. The base elements of my own daydreams are here, but the forms they take are new and exciting to me. I think you’ll enjoy them too.

The hook of Mistborn is the new magic system Sanderson developed, called Allomancy. Characters who are born with this power can manipulate metals in specific ways. They ingest metals in powder form and use their power to “burn” the metal reserves in their stomach. For example, burning iron and focusing on a metal object Pulls it towards you, while burning steel Pushes it away. But Push against something heavier than your own body, say a metal door, and you will be the one Pushed back! It’s a tight, exciting system, with clear rules to define the powers and their limitations, while still allowing room for creative results and surprising, but logical, discoveries.

If Allomancy is the hook to set the book apart, the beating heart is still the characters and their fun, heartfelt interactions. The world they live in, the Final Empire, may be a depressing place, full of ash and haze, and drained of vivid colors, but Kelsier and his crew of rogues laugh, banter, and dream big in spite of it all. One of Sanderson’s themes is that of friendship and trust, a lesson that our heroine Vin struggles to learn. As an orphan of the slave class, raised on the streets as a thief, she’s been taught her whole life not to trust anyone, not even the criminals who take her in and work with her. It’s a shock when she realizes that Kelsier is actually friends with his “Merry Men”; they genuinely like and trust each other, and want to include her in what passes for a family. To Sanderson’s credit, he doesn’t gloss over this by making it an easy transition for Vin. A teenager who has only known betrayal, disappointment, and selfishness from those supposed to be close to her isn’t easily going to learn how to trust. She struggles with it the entire book. It’s an affecting, compassionate portrayal, and I was glad that as she began to put these new virtues into practice, she also was able to teach Kelsier and his friends a thing or two. Nobody’s perfect, everyone can learn something from each other.

Mistborn manages the deft trick of being an action-packed, character-focused epic. It takes great joy in some classic fantasy tropes, while carefully overturning others. The magic is integral to the setting and story, and provides avenues for the characters to learn more about themselves. While it doesn’t strive for the sort of high poetry or mythopoeia that much other high fantasy does, it presents a compelling story in an entertaining, substantial package, without any real flaws to speak of. It also has a number of twists and secrets that I haven’t even hinted at here, but that worked very well for me. I enjoyed it a lot, and I think most readers will too.

Beren and Lúthien, a centenary publication — John Garth

In a wood filled with a cloud of white flowers, a soldier walked in the spring of 1917 with his wife, and she sang and danced for him. To that battle-worn lieutenant, J R R Tolkien, Edith’s dance was an unforgettable glimpse of unearthly joy in the midst of sorrow and horror. It inspired the story he saw […]

via Beren and Lúthien, a centenary publication — John Garth

A new Tolkien book is always exciting! Granted, this sounds like it might not have any new material that isn’t already published in other books. But still, the story of Beren and Luthien is one of my absolute favorites, and I welcome the chance to read even many variations of it in its own book, accompanied by the lovely art of Alan Lee.

Also, as a little heads-up for you guys, I’m preparing another book review of a more recent (well, no more than 10 years old…) fantasy novel, so look out for that in the next week or so. Happy reading!