Monday, September 24, 2012

Crime and Punishment Wrap-Up

by Adriana

Note to Myself:
Following The Well-Educated Mind does not mean merely reading through a list of Great Books and underlining the stuff I like! There are questions I must answer! This is "The Great Books Workout," not a stroll in the park!

Crime and Punishment
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Warning! This Post Contains Spoilers!

Law school drop-out, Rodion Raskolnikov, has a theory: Some men are "extraordinary"; others are merely "ordinary". "Extraordinary" men (like Napoleon, for example)  need not follow the same laws as ordinary men because they are above the law. Raskolnikov thinks he is one of these Napoleonic, demi-god types. To test his theory, he commits murder. Yet instead of triggering a rise to greatness, his action causes him to dive into a heinous downward spiral. We follow his internal punishment and witness the weight of his transgression throughout most of the novel. The thing that bothers him most? He's not Napoleon after all.


What is the inciting incident? For Raskolnikov, the point of no return is the scene in which he murders an elderly pawn broker, Alyona Ivanova, and her sister, Lizaveta, with an axe.

Can you identify the climax? Yes. I think everything in this novel hinges on the moment when Raskolnikov, a murderer, confesses to Sonia, a pious prostitute. I anticipated the scene quite anxiously. Every time they were alone together I thought, Now?; all the falling action of this novel occurs after this moment.

Suddenly a strange, unexpected feeling of corrosive hatred for Sonya came over his heart. As if surprised and frightened by this feeling, he suddenly raised his head and looked at her intently, but he met her anxious and painfully caring eyes fixed upon him; here was love; his hatred vanished like a phantom. That was not it; he had mistaken one feeling for another. All it meant was that the moment had come. Part V, Chapter IV

What is the author's argument? If you feel the urge to prove you are a demi-god, kindly leave your axe at home.

Why did the author write this book? I had to do some research to figure this one out. Dostoevsky explained his reason in a letter to  publisher, Mikhail Kathov: 
Dostoyevsky's letter to Katkov reveals his immediate inspiration, to which he remained faithful even after his original plan evolved into a much more ambitious creation: a desire to counteract what he regarded as nefarious consequences arising from the doctrines of Russian nihilism.

Russian what?

The Nihilist movement was a Russian movement in the 1860s which rejected all authorities. It is derived from the Latin word "nihil", which means "nothing". After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, the Nihilists were known throughout Europe as proponents of the use of violence in order to bring about political change. source


Did the author lay out facts to support his purpose? Yes. Raskolnilov did not become the Napoleonic Übermensch he thought he would become when he defied the law and pursued what he had considered a "higher purpose". Killing the pawnbroker and her sister caused him to completely unravel.

Did the author succeed or fail?  Well, I suppose that yes, he made his purpose clear. I'm convinced that murdering someone to prove a point to oneself is delusional, absurd, base, and vile.


What does the writer want me to believe?

The only thing that truly sets individuals apart as extraordinary is self-sacrifice. Our heroine, Sonia Marmeladovaconsistently sacrificed for others in this story. Dostoevsky used her as a type of Christ. I loved her character because of her Christ-like attributes.

Also, there was something else I think Dostoevsky wanted me to believe (which is, in fact, something I do believe). The following is a quote about the protagonist Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky's close friend, Vladimir Solovyov:

Raskolnikov's] boundless self-confidence must disappear in the face of what is greater than himself, and his self-fabricated justification must humble itself before the higher justice of God.
Oh. That's good. Now read it again in the first person:
My self-fabricated justification must humble itself before the higher justice of God.  If I had to distill Crime and Punishment down to one simple moral, this is it.

What does the writer want me to experience? Tragedy and redemption. A graphic, intimate exploration of a murderer's thoughts, insight into his bizarre motive.

Am I convinced? Yes. Though the setting of this of this novel was sad and creepy, I can see how the breaking down of a person's world view can create profound confusion and lead to tragedy. It was a hard read because it was so dark, but the redemptive ending provided hard earned relief. One of the best endings I've read. Ever.

Have I experienced what writer wants me to experience? I believe so. I experienced the dingy tenements, backstreets and poverty of pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg. I've experienced the psychology of a tortured soul. I've discovered intense purity in an unlikey person (Sonia Marmeladova) and I've witnessed the healing power of self-sacrifice and confession.

Most of these questions originally come from my guidebook for a classical education, The Well-Educated Mind. I copied the questions (not the answers) from my friend Ruth's blog, An Experiment With The Well-Educated Mind (except for the one about the inciting incident, that comes from Donald Miller's book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years) . Visit Ruth's blog to read her answers!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Madame Bovary: What If? (A Guest Post)

A couple months ago I read Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert. Since it was my first example of Realism in fiction, I felt I had entered into a closer relationship with the characters than I had experienced with previous novels from the WEM list.  I watched with angst as Emma Bovary wrecked herself through the folly of her selfish decisions. 

Flaubert painted his controversial novel objectively -- with equal doses of both ethereal landscape descriptions and earthy characterization. He gave no moral judgments; I was left to examine the themes for myself, to strain each tragic scenario through my own sieve. I think it's pretty much impossible to close the book on Madame Bovary and not wonder -- at least for a moment -- "What if?"

Several weeks ago, my friend Sandy Bramhill sent me an email which contained her response to Madame Bovary. She has generously agreed to let me use it as the first guest post on Classical Quest. The images of paintings by Mary Cassatt and Claude Monet can also be found on my new Pinterest boards.

What if….
by Sandy Bramhill

...Emma's mother had lived to raise her? She had a loving father, but what if she had experienced the love of a mama as well? What if she had witnessed a healthy, loving marriage when she was growing up?
Reine Lefebre and Margot before a Window - Mary Cassatt 
...the old woman who came by the convent from time to time had not loaned Emma romance novels? What if Emma had read good literature? What if the heroines of her books had been examples of faithfulness?
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…Emma had been taught the Word of God rather than being raised with only the mystical and emotional aspects of religion? What if she had read the Bible for herself?
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…when Emma tried to share her deep inner struggles with the priest, he had actually listened to what she was saying?  What if he had given her good counsel?
Pinned Image
Rouen Cathedral, by Claude Monet -- depicted in a scene in Madame Bovary.
…Emma had had a group of female friends?  Or even one true, faithful female friend?
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…Emma had had to work? What if she didn’t have the luxury of sitting around fantasizing and wallowing in her discontentment?  Would keeping busy have staved off some of the self-pity?  (The elder Madame Bovary thought so.)
 Woman with needlework Sun - Mary Cassatt
…had had a son?  Would she actually have taken to being a mother? (I certainly don’t think so – boys spit up, too! But Emma may have thought so.)
 Master Robert Kelso Cassatt - Mary Cassatt
…women in her time nursed their own babies instead of sending them away? Would Emma have bonded with Berthe and found meaning in motherhood?
Images Courtesy Wikipaintings

...[Emma] was not happy, and never had been. Why was life so unsatisfying? Why did everything she leaned on instantly crumble into dust? […] nothing was worth seeking – everything was a lie! Each smile hid a yawn of boredom, each joy a curse, each pleasure its own disgust; and the sweetest kisses only left on one’s lips a hopeless longing for a higher ecstasy. (III.6.29-30)

Sandy lives with her husband and two teenage sons in Tucson, AZ.  She loves reading, cycling, and befriending people from other countries.  She discovered Classical Quest through  "The Book That Changed My Life" post.  Soon after, she joined me and the ladies at A Classic Case of Madness on our journey through the classics. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Classical Quest is Now on Facebook!

Hop over to Facebook and "like" Classical Quest to receive frequent updates on my journey through the classics. You can access my Facebook page through the link on my sidebar. Thank you! 

Monday, September 10, 2012

What Makes a Classic? (A Repost From Last Spring)

Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren't very new after all. ~ Abraham Lincoln
Now and then someone will ask me, "What makes a classic?" It's a good question -- not an easy one to answer. What feels classic to one person may not feel classic to another. 

Generally speaking, there are culturally excepted specimens most people seem to agree on. Some books, which may not suit my particular taste or personal standards, have deeply impacted the thrust of civilization. These books deserve close analysis -- whether they cause me to shudder in disgust or swoon with rapturous delight! It is a humbling thing to enter into the Great Conversation which has been going on for centuries before I was born.

I posted the following excerpts last spring. These definitions offer as good an explanation as any I've been able to find! Enjoy. (And feel free to add your thoughts in the comment box!)

Excerpts from 
by Italo Calvino

Let us begin by putting forth some definitions...

1.  The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: 'I'm re-reading...', never 'I'm reading'.
2. The classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.
3. The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual's or the collective unconsciousness.
4. A classic is a book that with each re-reading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.
5. A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of re-reading something we have read before.
6. A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.
7. The classics are those books who come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) though which they have passed.
8.  A classic is a work that constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off.
9. Classics are books which, the more we think we know them by hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.
10. A classic is a book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on par with ancient talismans.
11. 'Your' classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.

12. A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognize its place in the genealogy of classic works.
13. A classic is a work which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot live without.
14. A classic is a work which persists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.

Do any of these definitions describe what a classic means to you? 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Secret to Mastery (Why I Blog)

by Adriana
Twenty years ago I attended a writer's conference in South Carolina. Though I took several workshops that weekend, I only remember one thing:

If you want to be a writer, you have to write.

A published author told me this. (I wish I could remember her name.) Profound, huh? Though it sounds obvious, there is an underlying shard of truth. I have had a strong tendency to dream about being a writer and read about being a writer, but when it comes to hauling my carcass out of bed at 5:00 a.m. so that I can actually get down to the grueling business of actually writing -- that has only been happening consistently for a short time.

Starting this blog last year was a good decision. It has provided me with accountability and communication. I have a plastic storage container in my basement full of partially used journals that no one but me has ever read. That kind of writing is a dead end for me. Perhaps I lack the self discipline to be my own critic for years on end; I must communicate! Blogging offers that crucial feedback so necessary to fuel my fledgling writer-self.

It takes a lot of fuel, faith and feedback to become truly great at anything. Yes, anything! Maybe you have no desire to be a writer or read through the Great Books, maybe you want to be a superb violinist, or architect or a lion tamer. May I share a secret with you? (I just learned this -- it's SO exciting!) The following is a quote from neurologist Daniel Levitin -- this comes from Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling book, Outliers:
Ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert -- in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again.

This is true if your name is Bill Gates, or if you play in a band called "The Beatles" or even if your name is Mozart! 10,000 hours. I happened to be reading Outliers around the time I was studying Harriet Beecher Stowe and I calculated that she put in over 10,000 hours of writing time in before she wrote her magnum opus, Uncle Tom's Cabin, which as we know, changed the world! (And she wrote that book so fast it makes my head spin to think about it.)

Daniel Levitin goes on to say,
Of course, this doesn't address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.

This information is empowering. I can master my craft even though I wasn't in the gifted program in gradeschool! Mastery is attainable, though it comes at the end of a long quest. As Gladwell put it,
...the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.

What skill do you dream of mastering? Are you willing to restructure you life for the next ten years or so to make this happen?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Happenings: Why I'm Not Homeschooling My Kids

My classical quest has truly come to feel like a physical quest to me --  you know the storybook kind with lots of hills, valleys and dark forests. This summer, I've struggled to stay on the path. There have been more than a few obstacles to overcome. 
At this moment I feel as though I'm standing on a pinnacle looking back over the last several months. 

Last winter, two weeks before my fifth baby was born, we put our oldest two kids in public school. Before this event, public school was never an option. I really thought we would homeschool until all our chicks left the nest. Long after it stopped working for us, I kept chanting, "I will work HARDER!" over and over. (Have you ever read Animal Farm, by George Orwell? There was an old work horse who always said, "I will work HARDER!" whenever things went awry. Eventually he was sent to the glue factory. I've always related to this character for some disconcerting reason.)

To be perfectly honest, when my kids were home they weren't always being schooled. My long, rough bout with morning sickness caused everyone to fall far behind. At eight months pregnant, I  often fell asleep during their lessons. My pre-school aged kids watched too much Netflix. I felt guilty for taking any rest during the day. It seemed the whole future of civilization depended on whether or not I could hold things together! (Indeed, a lot of homeschool moms feel this way; I've known some to crack under the pressure.) My husband came home to a frazzled wife every day. On days when we got a good bit of school work done, the house was a wreck and dinner was frozen pizza. On days when there was a nice home-cooked meal and a reasonably clean house, school didn't happen.
Homeschooling was a hard thing for me to give up. You could say I was "beating a dead horse" and I didn't stop beating it until after the horse had been dead so long it was beginning to stink. That's when my husband sat down with me. He gently grasped both my hands, looked me straight in the eyes and said, "We are going to put the kids in public school and they are going to be fine."

I'm very grateful to the homeschool movement for bringing classical self-education back into vogue.  I wonder if I would be on this quest now if it were not for my homeschool connections. Part of me will always be a homeschool mom at heart. My husband and I talk frequently about the possibility of bringing our older children home in the future -- but for now we are simply taking it a year at at time.

One thing is for certain, my children's public school teachers rescued us last year. I have immense appreciation for them now. When (and if) we homeschool again, I will not do it out of fear. ("I must protect my kids from the system.") And hopefully I won't do it in a spirit of pride. ("I can do a better job than my local school teachers can.") I feel sorry for the judgmental feelings I used to have about anything public school related and I feel sad that I have been guilty of showing disappointment toward families who "gave up" and put their kids into the system in the past.

Some have expressed surprise and even consternation over our schooling decision. I don't really owe anyone an explanation, but as a blog author with a loyal following, I feel as though it is time to communicate some reasoning and clear up the misconception that I put my kids into a brick & mortar school so I could have more time for myself -- for reading through the classics and self-education. We didn't put them in for that reason, but now that they are in, yes, obviously I have more time for writing and reading! Also, I have more time to prepare meals for seven people, keep up on housework and have precious one-on-one time with my two little ones who are still at home!
What has this leg of the journey taught me? Humility, empathy and perseverance -- in that order.

What is your life-quest teaching you?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Road-trip to Ripley: Wrap Up

I haven't taken much time to post on my beloved Classical Quest this summer. As fall is approaching, I'm ready to get back into my groove and wrap up this three part series about my exciting trip to Ripley, Ohio!

A few months ago, I read Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I became intrigued by the novel's world-wide influence and fascinated by the person Abraham Lincoln referred to as "the little woman who wrote the book that started this great [Civil] war." I learned quite a bit about what it takes to become an influential writer from studying her life and asking myself this question: "How Did She Do It?"

While digging up stuff about the Beecher family, I learned about the town of Ripley, Ohio, which was a key location for the Underground Railroad. Many brave citizens of Ripley aided runaway slaves in their pursuit of freedom during the 1800s, the most famous of which was the Reverend John Rankin who lived in a small house on a hill overlooking town. Harriet Beecher Stowe was known to have made visits to the Rankin House. She based one of her characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin on the account she heard from Rev. Rankin of a real woman who sought shelter in his home. 

Of course, once I realized that a trip to Ripley would be feasible, I started making plans! My friend Christine from The Good, The Pure and The Lovely joined me along with her mother and three sons.

Upon arrival in Ripley, we set out to explore Front Street.

Then we drove up the rather steep hill to the Rankin House. In my last post, I described the first floor of the home as well as my favorite artifact on display -- Reverend Rankin's Bible.

We left off peering up the stairs, pondering the many weary souls who may have hidden themselves in the eaves of the small house to avoid capture.

Let us ascend the stairs together.
"Eliza's Settee" was designed for display at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933-34.
View of the Ohio River
"One Hundred Steps to Freedom"

Related posts:

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Inspiration: A Visit to the Rankin House