Literary Misunderstandings – WIF Bookshelf

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Widely Misunderstood

Pieces of Writing

Literary critics have invented a host of phrases and concepts to separate artists from their art. By far the best known is “death of the author,” which comes from a 1967 essay by Roland Barthes. Essentially, the notion is to imagine that the author cannot be asked for their intent, or how their own life experiences shaped their writing, so the theorist’s interpretation is at least as valid as the author’s intention–provided said interpretation is reasonably derived from the text.  

While that’s a worthwhile literary exercise, there can be a problem that comes from many people knowing pieces of writing through cultural osmosis instead of actually reading the text. Indeed, sometimes there are aspects of the text that simply aren’t as haunting as the passages in stories that become touchstones. So interpretations of stories can be demonstrably incorrect. As is the case with…

10. The Hunchback of Notre Dame

When the 1995 Disney adaption of this movie came out, many critics and audience members were united in decrying the supposed borderline desecration of the original story. They pointed to the 1939 or 1920 versions of the story as proper adaptations, which properly portrayed the unsavory nature of Quasimodo, the tragic fate of the gypsy Esmeralda, clergyman Claude Frollo, and so on… and all in the shadow of one of the most celebrated buildings in French history.

It was a criticism completely undermined by how Victor Hugo wrote the original 1831 version of the story. As Lindsay Ellis explains in her highly recommended video essay, in the original novel, Quasimodo is a mere bit part and certainly not a sympathetic figure. There’s no tragic romance with the gypsy Esmeralda, who it turns out was actually a Caucasian abandoned as a child. In brief, Hugo didn’t write his novel as a tragedy, so much as a tribute to the cathedral itself, which at the time of writing was less a French institution than a wreck that had been vandalized numerous times over the centuries and neglected.

That Hugo’s sympathies were with the building over the people who lived in and around it is much less surprising to anyone who knows that the original title was “Notre-Dame de Paris” and that he did not approve of the English title change. Perhaps that theme would resonate with misanthropic architecture students, but it certainly wouldn’t have been the crowd-pleaser many subsequent adaptations have been

9. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Washington Irving’s 1820 story, set in a Dutch community in 1790s New York (loosely based on real events), as we all know is about a schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane, who gets chased by a headless horseman across a bridge. When the horseman can’t catch him, he throws a pumpkin at Crane. Those who read an abridged version in class might remember that it was heavily implied that Brom Bones was pretending to be the Headless Hessian Horseman to scare off Crane so that he could marry Katrina Van Tassel without any competition from superstitious schoolteachers. Considering Ichabod disappears and Bones gets what he wants through pretty underhanded and aggressive means, it seems like this slice of Americana should be a pretty dark, spooky tale where the villain wins in the end, be he ghost or local tough guy in disguise.

Readers have that impression because many of them lost track of how odious a person Irving wrote Ichabod Crane to be. Like many schoolteachers of the time, Crane is described as having romantic interest purely for financial reasons (Irving explicitly describes him as looking at her father’s fortune with “green eyes”). He’s also explicitly a mooch and a glutton, only getting away with it because he knows a lot of local ghost lore. The story also ends with a postscript noting there was talk in Sleepy Hollow that Crane was seen again later, having moved to another community and becoming a judge. However, the locals rejected that because his supposed disappearance made for a better story. If anything, Irving went overboard in assuring audiences not to worry about ol’ Ichabod.

8. Jabberwocky

Lewis Caroll’s titular monster, which was first introduced to readers in Alice Through the Looking Glass, has been portrayed as a serious beast in such adaptations as the 1985 movie. Even those who know better than to portray such serious versions of the monsters from the poem assume that “slivey toves” and “more raths” from the opening verse mean “unidentifiable beasts,” such as in the version done for The Muppet Show.

Jabberwocky’s origin was in 1855, in a magazine called Misch-Masch, which had a circulation of Lewis Carroll’s immediate family. It was not only meant as a parody of folk poems, but he actually handily explained what all the words meant, so those terms aren’t so much nonsense as coded. For example, “slivy toves” are actually cheese-eating badgers. “Mome Raths” are turtles. Bryllyg is said to be the early afternoon, as it refers to the time of broiling dinner. All things considered, the opening verse is much closer to a slightly offbeat version of Wind in the Willowsthan it is a surreal menagerie of cryptids.

7. Harrison Bergeron

In Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story, equality is perverted so that every exceptional person is limited to be no better than the worst performing person, either by restraints that weigh them down or by zapping them if they think too much. This idea has been embraced by right wing publications like National Review. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia cited it in a ruling requiring tournament golfers to walk between shots.

What they don’t seem to notice is the portrayal of the eponymous character. As critics have more recently pointed out, Bergeron is a ridiculously overpowered human being who not only stands 7-feet tall at age 14, he is also literally capable of flying as he dances (once he removes his restraints that weigh hundreds of pounds). More revealingly, he proclaims himself “emperor,” which probably isn’t something Vonnegut would have a “heroic” character do.

He also makes this declaration and displays his powers on live television, which of course means that the Handicapper General Diana Moon Glampers would have no trouble hunting him down and shooting him, as she does seemingly effortlessly in the story. Clearly, Bergeron is a parody of the Howard Roark and John Gault-type supermen that are so perfect and so, so underappreciated in Ayn Rand’s novels. Considering Vonnegut’s left-wing views throughout his writing career, it’s objectivism that’s in his sights at least as much as socialism.

6. The Satanic Verses

When it was published in 1988, author Salman Rushdie struck free publicity gold when his book was interpreted as blasphemous and banned in India while the Ayatollah demanded his head. He surely didn’t celebrate this, as he had to go into hiding from very real threats. Several translators of the book were attacked—one fatally. Considering that the book is a formidable 600 pages long, it’s not so surprising that many people didn’t read the entire story and were content to go off a vague sense of what the novel was about, or a heavily abridged version.

The Satanic Verses tells the intertwined stories of two Southeast Asian Muslims, one born wealthy and the other poor. The pair both survive a plane crash, and the rich one becomes cursed (one way is he smells bad) while the other becomes angelic. Still, the rich one survives the novel while the other commits suicide while wanted for murder (he is unambiguously responsible for several deaths). The offending portions of the book are a secondary narrative of a few dozen pages about the rise of the prophet Mahound, written in an approximation of Koranic verse.

The “Satanic Verses” of the title are an allusion to a claim by the prophet that, for some contradictory statements he made, it must have been Satan pretending to be Allah. In a manner that paralleled a scene that offended many in The Last Temptation of Christ, Rushdie styled his parody of the prophet as a very elaborate dream sequence to give him plausible deniability that he was portraying an in-universe, fictional version. The version many Muslims were given, however, only showed the dream sequence without the larger context, and so inevitably it misled many on the intent of the book.

5. Valley of the Dolls

These days, this 1966 novel is better known for selling forty million copies than it is for its contents. Its story of three women who try to enter show business but run into such pitfalls as creative compromise, sexual exploitation, and drug addiction(the “dolls” of the title are upper/downer pills) was so salacious for its time that it couldn’t help but become one of, literally, the bestselling books of all-time. No wonder it got a couple film adaptations: a much derided smash hit in 1968, and a TV movie in 1981.

An aspect of the literary juggernaut that, for decades, was held up as the impetus for its success was the titillation of guessing which characters were modeled on which specific real people. For example, was the character that had a pill addiction Judy Garland? Was the over-the-hill singer who stands in the protagonist’s way based on Ethel Merman? According to Jacqueline Susann, the answer to all these guesses was “no” and that all of the characters were invented to fit a theme instead of to reveal the truth behind a real entertainer’s persona. She eventually said of the misconception, “Let them think that, it sells more of my books.”

4. Dracula

Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic isn’t just one of the two most influential horror novels of the 19th century (alongside Frankenstein). For many outside Central or Eastern Europe, it was the popularity of Dracula that led them to learn of 15th century Romanian ruler Vladislav III, better known as Vlad the Impaler. Deposed early in life, Vlad fought against both the Ottoman Empire and fellow Romanians and eventually died in battle, but not before leaving behind battlefields laden with impaled prisoners of war as an attempt to demoralize his enemies. Such a person seems tailor-made to inspire a monster in human shape.

Which completely misunderstands Stoker’s real writing process. It’s not so much that he didn’t carefully study Vlad Tepisch’s life for inspiration for his iconic character, as there’s no evidence that he even knew the bygone monarch had existed. In 1890 (the year he began working on it) he noted that he read a book on Westphalia and came across the word Dracula, but he misinterpreted it as being the local word for “evil.” While Vlad is from approximately the same area of Europe as Dracula, Vlad was certainly not much associated with Transylvania, which would have been a key connection to invoking the memory of the historical figure. In short, Stoker seemed to have more lucked into the historical echoes than anything else.

3. The Great Gatsby

Nearly 80 years after its initial disappointing release in 1925, F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age triumph sells roughly 500,000 copies a year. It’s resonated with readers enough to make its way to the silver screen in 1926, 1949, 1976, and 2013. Each release was greeted with a critical thrashing and to very mixed results at the box office.

But that’s not to say readers, who generally regard themselves as more astute than movie fans, don’t mistake Fitzgerald’s intention with Gatsby. As explained by Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian, most people misinterpret Gatsby as being a suave charmer. There are a few telling descriptions that undermine this: His pink suits (tacky even in the Roaring ’20s) and his bewilderment in the face of the high society that narrator Nick Carraway takes for granted. That’s why he overcompensates for his parties, doing such things as hire entire orchestras. Gatsby is a dreamer, pining for the fantasy version from his youth of his neighbor Daisy Buchanan, not a man with his feet on the ground in the present. Not that this dissonance is anything new: Fitzgerald wrote back in the day that, “Of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one has the slightest idea what the book was about.”

2. Don Quixote

It’s been just over 400 years since Miguel de Cervantes’s masterpiece was first published in English. Since then, the image of a nobleman putting a washing basin on his head, taking a nag for a noble steed and his trusty assistant Sancho Panza on a number of delusional, pointless quests in an attempt to restore chivalry to the land has only become more poignant. Don Quixote is both absurd and loveable, and many readers have mixed feelings about the ending where he regains his sanity enough to dictate in his will that his niece be disinherited if she marries a man who reads books of chivalry.

As recounted in the New York Times, the title character actually comes across as much less sympathetic when you really look at the text. While Quixote means well, Cervantes does not skimp on the details of the pain he causes. Not just to his assistant Sancho Panza (who gets beat up because Quixote doesn’t pay a hotel bill), but even mules that can’t drink from their water trough because Quixote insists the water is holy. It’s an aspect of the story that is understandably omitted from adaptations such as Man of La Mancha, which contributed to those interpretations being dismissed as “kitsch.”

1. Slaughterhouse Five

Well, when an author writes as many famous satirical, morally complex, and whimsical stories as Kurt Vonnegut did, it’s not surprising that he’d have multiple works end up on lists like this. So it is with his 1969 anti-war classic (that he self-deprecatingly called his “famous Dresden novel”) about a WWII veteran named Billy Pilgrim, whose subjective experience of his life jumps back and forward through time. Within the intro of the book, Vonnegut quotes an associate who asked authors writing anti-war books why they didn’t instead write an “anti-glacier book.” Meaning, of course, that the human tendency towards war is as implacable as glaciers.

A similar sentiment is expressed by the alien race called the Tralfamadorians, who consider their own atrocities and eventual destruction of the universe as utterly inevitable, because they can see the entirety of all the time they live, all at once. Hence many have viewed it as a pro-fatalism book as they wonder whether the events of the book are real or not.

The text makes explicit that the aliens don’t exist. Within the book, the aliens Billy Pilgrim meets, and the environment they place him in (specifically a zoo), are described as something he read in a novel by hack sci-fi author Kilgore Trout. Further, Pilgrim does not express anything to anyone else about the aliens until after a plane crash that leaves him unconscious (i.e., likely with brain damage and trauma). As Michael Carson of points out, when Pilgrim first discusses the lessons he supposedly learned about the inevitability of war and the atrocities that come from it, it’s with a war hawk named Rumfoord, who Vonnegut mocks. Pilgrim merely echoes Rumfoord and then says he learned all of what Rumfoord told him on Tralfamadore.

On the other hand, Vonnegut also makes it explicit that the Tralfamadorians believe they will eventually destroy the universe. Vonnegut’s message isn’t that war and atrocities are inevitable, but that to follow this fatalist philosophy (that could come from absurd aliens that are the result of head trauma) makes its adherents into puppets, and leads to disaster for everyone.

Literary Misunderstandings –

WIF Bookshelf

World Wide Words Issue 885 – WIF Style

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Issue 885

Issue 885




World Wide Words Newsletter 885


Issue 885: Saturday 5 July 2014


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Bat an eyelid.

3. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Return of writer I am revitalised by my holiday. Thank you all for your forbearance during my month away.

Closets and cupboards My discussion of skeleton in the cupboard / closet last time led, as I expected, to numerous messages about the scope and meaning of these words in American and British English.

British English doesn’t much use closet as a noun, though the verb has currency. Water closet for toilet, lavatory or loo is archaic (though John Neave recalled that “My grandmother was a Londoner born and bred. To her, a cupboard was a cupboard, but The Closet was the lavatory”). Our closets are figurative. We have borrowed the American phrase to come out of the closet, though we couldn’t imagine being in one to start with (come out of the cupboard doesn’t have the same portentous connotations.) We also have closet racists and other closeted types with skeletons in their cupboards.

My understanding is that American cupboards always hang on walls, as British ones can also do. As Richard Bos argued, “cupboard implies shelves, and therefore not much room for a skeleton, while a closet implies standing, or at least hanging room”. Paul Witheridge noted in similar vein, “To fit in a North American cupboard, the skeleton would have to be the remains of a small animal”. We Brits prefer cabinet for these, as in kitchen cabinet or bathroom cabinet (though the former is less used than it once was, perhaps because it reminds older Brits of the punning kitchen cabinet for the private and informal group of advisors around the British PM Harold Wilson, though that’s originally American, from the early nineteenth century). British cupboards are often also tall floor-standing storage spaces. Sometimes they’re built in, but they’re still cupboards.

Bill Wallace wrote pithily, “You keep your clothes in a cupboard?” To which I replied equally briefly, “No. Mine are in a wardrobe”, a large free-standing cupboard with specialist fittings, a feature and a word that’s less common in the US, I believe. But that led me to think about the room off our bedroom, just large enough to insert one’s body into, which the architect no doubt intended for clothes but which we use for miscellaneous storage because we already have two wardrobes. Though uncommon in Britain such little rooms are, I’m told, standard in American bedrooms and are always called closets. We call ours a cupboard. Even if we used it for clothes, I still wouldn’t call it a closet, because that word isn’t in my idiolect. How would I describe it in that case? I’m not sure. The architect probably labelled it built-in wardrobe though that would surely be a pretentious title for a space of its paltry dimensions.

Gordon Rich emailed: “I am reminded of the comment from the Irish lady who was confronted with a skeleton in her cupboard; she said ‘There he is; all-Ireland hide-and-seek champion.’” Marty Ryerson, a reader from the US, commented: “When I was a young lad, my mother explained that a cupboard was for cups, a closet was for clothes, a pantry was for pans, and a larder was for lard. We had a closet where we kept canned goods. So, being the youngest in a family of smart-alecks, I asked if this was known as a cantry. This term ever afterward became the family’s name for that storage space.”

Jabberwocky Readers pointed out the many translations of Carroll’s famous poem into other languages.

My favourite is the German version that I came across in Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice. It’s by Robert Scott (one half of Liddell and Scott, authors of the famous Greek-English Lexicon, Henry Liddell being the father of the famous Alice; his surname, by the way, is pronounced “liddle”, as is shown by a rhyme of the time: “I am the Dean and this is Mrs Liddell, / She plays the first, and I the second fiddle”). The German version was published in 1872 in an article in Macmillan’s Magazine whose title was The Jabberwock Traced to Its True Source. It claimed to demonstrate that the poem was actually an English translation of an old German ballad. Scott published it under the pseudonym Thomas Chatterton, a nod to the knowledgeable because Chatterton had been the famous forger of mock-medieval ballads the previous century. It begins:

Es brillig war. Die schlichte Toven
Wirrten und wimmelten in Waben;
Und aller-mümsige Burggoven
Die mohmen Räth’ ausgraben.

Though it sounds wonderfully Teutonic read aloud, it is, of course, thoroughly bad German and quite unintelligible to native speakers.

Gyre Steve Price was one of several readers who reminded me of a famous example of gyre in its sense of a spiral: “Yeats’s The Second Coming begins ‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.’ And gyronny is the term for a heraldic device of eight gyrons that looks as though it’s turning like a gyrfalcon in the sky.”

Scott Underwood pointed out that I was mistaken to imply that gyre in the poem was pronounced as in standard English, with a soft g. Lewis Carroll wrote in an introduction to Through the Looking-Glass dated Christmas 1896: “The new words, in the poem Jabberwocky, have given rise to some differences of opinion as to their pronunciation: so it may be well to give instructions on that point also. Pronounce ‘slithy’ as if it were the two words ‘sly, the’: make the ‘g’ hard in ‘gyre’ and ‘gimble’: and pronounce ‘rath’ to rhyme with ‘bath’.”

2. Bat an eyelid

Q From Brian Fleming: How did batting an eyelid arise? Fluttering makes sense, but in my view bats flap.

A The bat in the expression turns out to have nothing do to with nocturnal flying mammals. And likewise it’s unconnected with table-tennis, cricket, baseball or any other game in which a bat is an essential requirement.

Three idioms are associated with batting eyes or eyelids, by which we mean a pronounced rapid blink or series of blinks.

One — very old-fashioned — is I didn’t bat an eyelid all night, equivalent to I didn’t sleep a wink. If a woman bats her eyelids (more commonly her eyelashes) she’s fluttering them flirtatiously:

It was amusing to watch the woman — who must have been at least sixty — dissolve into girlish simpering in the wave of my brother’s considerable charm. When she began coyly batting her eyelashes at him, I’d had about all I could stand of this stomach-turning display.
The Cliff House Strangler, by Shirley Tallman, 2007.

The third, not to bat an eye (or eyelid) is to avoid blinking or showing any other emotion when something awkward occurs, a mark of self-control and equanimity.

For the answer, we must look to the long defunct verb, bate, which is connected to our abate, debate and bated breath. It came into English from French battre, to beat, and meant, among other things, the beating or fluttering of a falcon’s wings. Over time, bate became shortened to bat in some English dialects and came to mean “blink” or “wink”. Dialect researchers in the nineteenth century noted this sense of bat in a swathe of England from south Yorkshire down to Nottinghamshire and across to Shropshire.

The sense of flirtatiousness is originally American. It starts to appear in the record around 1880.

You hol’ your head high; don’t you bat your eyes to please none of ’em.
At Teague Poteet’s, by Joel Chandler Harris, in the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, May 1883. This story of Georgia backwoodsmen and moonshiners was published the following year in Mingo and Other Sketches in Black and White.

3. Sic!

Knowing teaser line or accident? Alex Baumans spotted on 5 June that the Huffington Post promoted an article with “Only Chrissy Teigen Could Pull Off Underwear On The Red Carpet.”

• Betsy Adams sent a copy of an article from a newsletter that the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Carolina circulated to potential donors. She was disquieted by its headline: “Student embraces one-on-one with top-level researcher”.

• Someone noted Graham Thomas’s interest in ornithology and suggested he download an app that included 268 bird guides, an A to Z list of birds and many other features. The last of these really caught his imagination: “Ability to Tweet from the app”.

• A Daily Mail website photo caption on 16 June noted the unhappiness of some older fans of Southampton FC to the appointment of a new football manager and added, “But it doesn’t mean they are casting dispersions”. Barry Prince said he always thought it was nasturtiums that one cast … or an equivalent malapropism such as cast asparagus.



World Wide Words Issue 885 – WIF Style