Title: Sense and Sensibility
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Jane Austen’s tale of the family Dashwood, and their prospects after husband and father, Henry, dies is a commentary on the class system in England.
Austen really does not like the way in which the society she lives in sets expectations for each other, most especially, the young, unmarried women.
While first published in 1811, Austen’s themes resonate across two centuries. Women are held to impossible standards, and always found wanting. Austen’s main theme is that of sense vs. “sensitivity.”
Is it better to be sensible and logical where emotions, and love, are concerned? Better to not show emotion and to explain hurt by others away by the use of logic? Or is being sensitive to others’ feelings and wearing one’s heart on the sleeve a better approach?
While reading Sense and Sensibility, I kept wondering about “the middle path.” One in which both sisters are allowed to be both logical and show their emotions, rather than this tug of war of trying to measure up to society’s expectations.
Which, of course, is the point. There is no “middle path.” Women must pick a path and stick with it in order to please both those of her class and any potential suitors. Things are better in some ways now, but it’s still difficult for both men and women to live up to the expectations laid upon them by rigid societal mores.
Austen is worth reading, both for her commentary and for her sharp observations into human nature.
Title: Masculinity in Breaking Bad
Author: edited by Bridget R. Cowlishaw
Publisher: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers
Watching Breaking Bad was one of the most entertaining times in my life. Such fantastic story-telling about a wimpy high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with cancer and needs to find a way to support his family after his death.
Walter White goes from chem teacher to badass drug kingpin in the course of the series. There are no truly likable characters in Breaking Bad, but there are sympathetic characters. Characters with which we can identify in some way because of their circumstances. Sympathizing does not mean liking, it’s the simple recognition of, “Yep, been there. Understand what you’re doing bro. My choice was different, but you be you.”
Masculinity in Breaking Bad is what happens when a bunch of liberal arts Ph. D.s, each with a particularly granular specialty, look deeply at the male characters. It can be a dense read.
This is not to say it’s not an interesting read. There are multiple ways of exploring the themes of Breaking Bad, and masculinity is an obvious one since the story is male-driven, and centers on one man who is forced to redefine himself because of his diagnosis.
Eight essays, and two round table discussions, cover the topics from Walt’s fatherhood, manhood, business acumen, and legacy to my favorite, “Men in Control: Panopticism and Performance.” Basically, Jeffrey Reid Pettis uses French Philosopher Michel Foucault‘s theory of panopticism (in Discipline and Punishment) to the use of surveillance, and reactions to surveillance, in Breaking Bad.
Panopticism is a fascinating concept in which a prison is built in such a way that everyone (including staff) can be under surveillance at any time. When there is no way to know when an individual is being watched, he begins to perform as though being watched. Here, Pettis delves into the performance art which comes out of the knowledge each character has that he may be watched.
It is a rich essay, dense and chewy. But the concept of always being watched is one of which none of us is completely unaware. How does Walt react to knowing this? What lengths does he go to show those he imagines watching that he is “the one who knocks?”
While I did find Masculinity in Breaking Bad interesting in many ways, I can only recommend this book to those truly interested in this type of close reading and, who don’t mind working for their read.
Title: Minor Characters
Author: Joyce Johnson
Publisher: Washington Square Books
The women didn’t mind, or, if they did, they never said – not until years later. (p. 218)
To be a woman is difficult in any era, but to be an independent, creative, curious woman is especially difficult. In the 1950’s, after World War II, gender roles were supposed to be fairly well established. But things were starting to rumble a little. Change was stirring.
Really, the story of the Beat Generation begins in the late 1940s, when a confluence of personalities and talents converged at Columbia University in New York City. It was there the big names began to meet and discuss a new way of writing, and of being.
A teenaged girl named Joyce Johnson lived in a “respectable” neighborhood with her “respectable” parents. And, around the age of thirteen, this “respectable” girl rebelled. She went to places young girls shouldn’t go, and met people who opened her mind. These people led to the Beats; Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac among them
Minor Characters is Johnson’ memoir centered around the years 1957-58, when she was Kerouac’s sometime girlfriend. She tells a story many can relate to, being attracted to someone who can’t reciprocate at the same level.
Much has been written about the Beat Generation writers. The men, that is. Not so much has been written about the women. Especially not much about the way women were treated. Johnson’s story about being in the middle of that maelstrom is fascinating.
She relates how women were discounted by the men. The usual story; taken for granted, belittled, not taken seriously, etc. etc. Her story could be the story of so many women, but what makes it stand out is that it happened with a group of men who are revered for their open-minded views about all sorts of things. They were especially interested in changing the rules of writing, and literature. But women were only for amusement, or housekeeping.
And as Joyce Johnson, reiterates, the women stood for it. Because as many generations of women will say, “we thought that’s what we had to do.” To find love, to find a life partner, meant a woman had to put up with the meanness of her beau’s foibles.
Here is a book in which the woman, after two years of evasion and half-truths, said, “No. Go away” to Jack Kerouac. Joyce Johnson told Jack Kerouac, she was tired of his crap and to leave her alone. Brava! and Well Done!
The pain of this decision is clear, as is the need for something healthier, something more equitable, more loving. To be sure, the most famous names were men who were hard to love, under any circumstances. Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassady; all charismatic and difficult. Horrible in their actions, negligent in their search for self-awareness. Of them all, Ginsberg is the one who consistently appears to exert a great deal of effort to become familiar with himself.
While the Beats were changing the way America read and wrote, literature, Joyce Johnson was changing the way women looked at the men with whom they were in relationships. Her story is well-told, and a fascinating look at the minor characters who also played a part in the Beat Generation.