Yale lectures on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner by Wai Chee Dimock: lectures 17-25; conclusions

(See my first two reviews: lectures 1-7 and lectures 8-16.)

First I’d like to share another example of something that I wished to debate with this professor. The discussion below contains spoilers regarding For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is probably my very favorite book ever ever (possibly competing with The Odyssey and The Jungle), so if you haven’t read it, you might skip this part of my review.


Spoiler begins

At about 32 minutes into lecture 19 (“For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Part IV), regarding the scene late in the novel when Robert Jordan’s leg is broken and Pablo is going to lead his small band onward without him:

The symmetry here is between Robert having a broken leg and Pablo having much head. He is the brainy one. This is the ultimate rewriting of the power dynamics in For Whom the Bell Tolls. We’ve been going along with the assumption that it’s the person with the knowledge and the technology, the person with the knowledge of the world, the person that speaks several languages, we’ve been going under the assumption that that person is going to be on top, that the future belongs to him. The ultimate irony of this novel is that in fact this is the person who’s going to lose out, who’s going to have no future at all.

While I see her point about the disruption of power between the educated, foreign-empowered Robert and the rather much maligned and dissipated Pablo, I couldn’t disagree more about the disruption of the reader’s expectations. I realize I can only speak for myself, but I think I can find some Hemingway to back up my impressions.

When I read this book for the first time (in a beach camp in the little town of Sayulita, Nayarit, Mexico), I had a strong sense of foreboding about Robert’s fate, and indeed, the fate of Pablo, Pilar, and the rest. Robert’s daydreaming of his life together with Maria in other times and places – in Paris, in the United States, as the wife of a professor entertaining undergraduate students – has a tone of wistfulness, as if Robert suspects this will not come to pass. He likewise daydreams about suicide – his father’s, and the avoidance of his own – and is increasingly pessimistic about the fate of this band of guerrillas. The end of El Sordo has an air of doom about it, which reflects further than those who die on the hilltop; the odds are admittedly against a little guerrilla group in these mountains. When I read this book without knowledge of the ending, I felt sure that Robert and Maria wouldn’t make it out of these hills together and alive; I suspected Robert’s demise specifically, and worried for the rest of them as well. And while I know this is just one person’s reading, I think there’s evidence that Hemingway directed me toward these suspicions. So I’m not sure Dimock has grasped it when she says she’s turned all our expectations on their head. Hemingway has disrupted the power dynamic, yes, but intentionally and with foreshadowing; I’d argue that one of the messages of this novel lies in his statement on war and the value of military technologies, in the way that Dimock shows, but he didn’t surprise us with it so much as build us steadily towards this ending.


Spoiler ends

I am arguing with Dimock here not because I think she’s unintelligent or anything, but because I enjoy debating literature I love. I just wish I could be there and ask my questions and make my points, engage the prof and my classmates. In other words, I would like to be back in school again. What else is new.

I both enjoyed very much, and was very frustrated (see above) by Dimock’s study of For Whom the Bell Tolls. I think this is natural. Next we studied Tender is the Night, which I reacted to similarly but less strongly; that’s a book I’ve read, though not recently, and I feel less strongly about it than I do FWTBT; it might be my least favorite Fitzgerald (I thought The Last Tycoon, for example, was better), but ho hum. And then there was Light in August, the only Faulkner I’ve read, and if you read my two reviews of that, you know I’m settling in as not a Faulkner fan. So, the final question of this semester of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner: for me personally, did this class help me understand and enjoy Faulkner, or make me want to read more of him? And to that, a resounding “no.” I am discouraged by Dimock’s repeated confession that he is difficult, makes little or no sense, that she often does not understand what he’s up to. I was turned off by the other two works discussed in this course, and the final four lectures on Light in August shed precious little (wait for it…) light.

I now want to go back to school and study more literature; and I want to avoid William Faulkner from here on out. Those of you who enjoy him are welcome to your enjoyment and I’m happy for you. I’ll be over here.

As for Wai Chee Dimock’s course: I think she fails to articulate her thoughts sometimes; also, I disagree with some of them, but respectfully. I would certainly be happy to take courses from her if I were going back to school. As for this course via iTunes U, however, I give the combination of Dimock’s speaking style and the poor audio recording quality a C-, at best. However, I listened to all 25 lectures at ~50 minutes apiece. If you’re interested, they’re out there, and for that I’m grateful. We’ll see if I have any success with iTunes U in the future.

4 Responses

  1. It’s been a loooong time since I read For Whom the Bell Tolls, but I certainly don’t remember having any expectations about how it would end or who would wind up “on top.”

    I’m not into absolutes about “genre” vs. “literary” distinctions in writing, but it is objective that in a Sherlock Holmes story Holmes will end up alive and, in some way, triumphant. No sophisticated reader makes those assumptions when reading “literary” writing.

    Plus, of course, as with Les Miserables, you go into the book knowing which side won the war. 🙂

    • Hi Anthony. You make a fine point about knowing who wins the war! (wink) And I’m sensitive to your hesitation to make genre-vs-literature arguments, but I think this is a decent example: certainly, romance and mystery, as genres, have expected outcomes. (Get the girl, solve the plot.) This is only one of several example where I found her arguments puzzling; they sometimes felt poorly conceived, but maybe I was missing something in the smaller class sections or in written material. Makes me want to dig further in!

  2. […] been on quite a kick lately! Between the Hemingway-Fitzgerald-and-Faulkner class (final wrap-up here); The Other Typist; and The Great Gatsby movie (review to come), I am all wrapped up in the […]

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