Romantic Passages From Literature


I love literature. I am a hopeless romantic. And it is Valentine’s Day. So what better time than today to share some of the most romantic excerpts I have come across in books? Last year I wrote a post on classic love poems. This year I’m sticking to prose passages. Not all of them are cheesy, I assure you. In fact, most of them are sentimental and sweet. 

Love At First Sight

The French have a special word for it. They call it un coup de foudre or a bolt of lightning. I am reminded of that first fateful meeting at the train station between Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky. He is captivated by her beauty and needless to say it’s only a matter of time ( umm a few seconds) before he falls head over heels in love (or lust) with her.

“In that brief glance Vronsky had time to notice the restrained animation that played over her face and fluttered between her shining eyes and the barely noticeable smile that curved her red lips. It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile.” Anna Karenina, Tolstoy 

Love is blind and love blinds. Especially if your gaze is upon a dazzling beauty. Our Count continues to be blinded by Anna’s looks. “He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.” All he wants is for her to belong to him. Never mind that she is married to someone else. And that she has a son. Those are minor impediments in the face of this grand love. I mean what can be more enticing than forbidden love? Even though this love will be the ruin of them and lead to destruction and alas, even death.

The First Kiss

What’s love without some heart- racing lip action? There are kisses and then there are kisses. Here’s a kiss that leaves you breathless and weak in the knees:

“His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.” The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald

Sigh! I think my own heart beat faster and faster and my breathing stopped when I read this passage. And my incarnation is complete. Okay, let me not forget this one little detail. Daisy is a married woman. What’s with these men in novels who seduce married women?  Duh, it’s the thrill of the chase. After all, an inaccessible being is more mysterious and alluring. Just imagine if the fascinating creature were within grasp! Wouldn’t our lovesick hero start taking her for granted and move on to the next conquest? Shh… but today is not the day to be cynical.    

Declaration of Love

I am a sucker for novels like Rebecca and Jane Eyre with the theme of the good, innocent and kind-hearted young woman who has to learn to be brave in a cruel, hostile world. Throw in an evil stepmother- like character, a brooding and distant hero well-versed in the ways of the world and an enchanting socialite who is not an ingénue like our poor heroine and I’m in a romantic literary paradise! Never mind if the brooding man has skeletons in his closet or gasp! ….a wife already stashed away in there. Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels and Mr. Rochester, one of the most romantic literary heroes. So I forgive him his flaws and even his sordid past in exchange for these delicious lines:

“After a youth and manhood passed half in unutterable misery and half in dreary solitude, I have for the first time found what I can truly love — I have found you. You are my sympathy — my better self — my good angel. I am bound to you with a strong attachment. I think you good, gifted, lovely: a fervent, a solemn passion is conceived in my heart; it leans to you, draws you to my centre and spring of life, wraps my existence about you, and, kindling in pure, powerful flame, fuses you and me in one.” Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

Who needs sappy Hallmark cards when you have such a heartfelt outpouring of emotion to express your love?

Marriage Proposal

Charles Dickens is one romantic soul. In fact, the guy is all mush. Of course his novels are Dickensian in the true sense of the word but some of the most romantic lines show up amidst the descriptions of squalid working conditions, abject poverty, and the plight of orphans- one could expand the adjective ‘Dickensian’ to include unabashed sentimentality and romance. When I first read Great Expectations, I was struck by Pip’s one-sided love for the cold-hearted Estella. “I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.” Unrequited love is a thème de prédilection with Dickens. There is this passage in Our Mutual Friend where Bradley Headstone asks for Lizzie’s hand in marriage. Would any girl decline this impassioned proposal?

“You know what I am going to say. I love you. What other men may mean when they use that expression, I cannot tell; what I mean is, that I am under the influence of some tremendous attraction which I have resisted in vain, and which overmasters me. You could draw me to fire, you could draw me to water, you could draw me to the gallows, you could draw me to any death, you could draw me to anything I have most avoided, you could draw me to any exposure and disgrace. This and the confusion of my thoughts, so that I am fit for nothing, is what I mean by your being the ruin of me. But if you would return a favourable answer to my offer of myself in marriage, you could draw me to any good – every good – with equal force.” Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens

Oh no, these words ring hollow to Lizzie and she turns him down. Oh, our poor rejected suitor!

Till Death Do Us Part

But here are two people who had better luck and are looking forward to a happily ever after:

It was Dinah who spoke first.

‘Adam,’ she said, ‘it is the Divine Will. My soul is so knit with yours that it is but a divided life I live without you. And this moment, now you are with me, and I feel that our hearts are filled with the same love, I have a fullness of strength to bear and do our heavenly Father’s will, that I had lost before.’

Adam paused and looked into her sincere loving eyes.

‘Then we’ll never part anymore, Dinah, till death parts us.’

And they kissed each other with a deep joy.

What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life — to strengthen each other in all labour, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?” Adam Bede, George Eliot

With all due respect to ‘Corinthians’, don’t you think this passage is far more suitable for a wedding reading?

Love Letter

Sometimes you mess up in life and in love. Lucky are the people who get second chances.  Jane Austen’s Persuasion can seem like a rather dull novel in comparison to the delightful Emma and Pride and Prejudice but to me it portrays a more realistic picture of love. Anne Eliott broke off her engagement with a young man she was in love with on the urging of Lady Russell as he was a man beneath her social class. She made a mistake many years ago and is paying dearly for it. She still pines for Frederick Wentworth and at the ripe old age of 27 her prospects seem bleak to her. The two cross paths again years later ( meanwhile he has become a Captain in the Navy and he is considerably richer..cough, cough..noteworthy developments we can’t ignore.) and they are still in love with each other but won’t admit it. Oh my God.. but can he forgive her for breaking his heart all those years ago? You know it will end well. It’s a Jane Austen novel after all. And he writes one of the most romantic letters ever. Swoon!

“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you.” Jane Austen, Persuasion

Okay, I admit it. Everytime I read this, I get a little teary in the good way…out flow tears of relief and joy. Who wouldn’t like receiving such a romantic love letter and that too from a dashing captain? If only people still sent love letters to each other in this age of texting? 


People complain that such sublime sentiments only exist in books and movies. But it is possible to experience such love in real life if you accept that love is not perfect and never will be. None of the love expressed in the books was perfect or smooth -sailing. These love relationships were far from uncomplicated. Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky’s love was doomed. And so was Gatsby’s. Jane Eyre had to contend with a skeleton in Mr. Rochester’s closet ( literally! ) and a husband who lost his eyesight. Bradley Headstone was unlucky in love. Adam Bede pursued Dinah’s cousin, the extremely pretty Hetty and hoped to marry her before he proposed to Dinah. Anne Eliott and Captain Wentworth had to wait a long time to find each other. Perhaps we need to recognize that there is a difference between love and the illusion of love and that true love is perfectly imperfect. I’ll end with a passage from Corelli’s Mandolin where Dr. Iannis explains what love is to his daughter Pelagia. This passage which is a realistic depiction of love is actually recommended by registry offices for a wedding reading:

True Love

“Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being “in love” which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.”  Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernières


Do you have any favorite romantic passages you like to read again and again? Please share them in your comments. Hope you enjoyed reading my favorite romantic lines. Now go woo your sweetie with these words. They will speak volumes of your love. Happy Valentine’s Day! 






In Memoriam:Ursula K. Le Guin ( The Wife’s Story)

Werewolf- From a German Woodcut, 1722

I was deeply saddened to hear about the demise of Ursula K. Le Guin, the acclaimed science fiction and fantasy writer best known for her Earthsea series. She was much more than a writer of science fiction. She was a poet, a philosopher, a feminist and a visionary. She had penned many poems, short stories, essays and even written children’s books. What is uncanny is that I was in the process of writing this blog post on one of her short stories when I heard the sad news yesterday. What a coincidence! Maybe I have acquired some ESP skills of my own while immersing myself in her fictional world!

I recently happened upon an inventive and cleverly written short story from Le Guin’s 1982 collection, The Compass Rose. The story veers out of the sci-fi genre into the realm of myth and folklore. I have always relished stories about mythical and supernatural beings. After all, dragons, wizards, vampires and other shape-shifting creatures are more enthralling than a world peopled with dull people like us. This fascination that I undoubtedly share with countless other readers goes beyond the curiosity of the unknown. In Jungian terms, myths and mythical creatures convey archetypal truths about human nature and emanate from our ‘collective unconscious’. These myths and legends have existed for millennia across the world among different cultures and are as old as humankind itself.

Please read Le Guin’s interesting story here (it is brief and you can read it in a few minutes.) before you read the rest of my post which contains spoilers:

The story is narrated in first person from the perspective of a wife. At the beginning of the story, she creates the picture of an ideal husband. She describes the gentle and considerate ways of someone devoted to his family. This hardworking man and wonderful father is also gifted with an amazing ability to sing. But his disposition starts to change gradually. He becomes more irritable and starts disappearing from home. His prolonged absences arouse his wife’s suspicions especially as his voice changes when he returns home and he even starts smelling strange. Needless to say, the transformation scares the wife and children. His little daughter becomes afraid of him overnight. We are told that it’s the moon’s fault and that he has got the curse in his blood. Could this man be transforming into a wolf?  The next time the moon changes, the wife sees a fleshy and furious man emerging in place of the handsome wolf. The pack hunts him down and brutally puts him to death.

Wow! I never saw this coming! The reversal of the werewolf story is a clever ploy by the writer. The first person narration is a good device to trick the readers into believing that the story is about human beings. She certainly managed to dupe me. The narrator keeps us guessing throughout the story and the plot is unraveled gradually, a hint at a time. The unexpected twist in the end when you discover that the wolf is the true form makes you go back to re-read the story in light of what you have discovered. Not once does the narrator say that the story is about human beings but the reader makes the assumption about the text. It is interesting how our minds can be tricked into believing what we perceive to be true. The narrator teases us by talking about the close bond she shares with her sister, her parents who have moved south and her life in a community. I thought her perfect husband had gone astray and had infidelity issues when she brings up the smells that linger and describes how he washes himself to get rid of the smells. I even suspected child abuse when the little girl develops a revulsion for her father overnight and is petrified of him.

Yet, the narrator drops many hints throughout the story. She talks of a hunting trip and game, of the husband sleeping during the day and the fact that on one sleepless occasion, he goes out in the glaring sun. He also leads the singing in the full moon with others joining in which should have led us to imagine wolves howling to the moon. At this point I realized the story was about a werewolf. But I still thought it was about a man who changes into a wolf. It was only when the wife trembled with a grief howl and a terror howl that I finally realized she is a wolf.

Fiction abounds in examples of the werewolf motif right from classical antiquity to modern literature like the Harry Potter series. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lycaon is transformed into a wolf by Zeus for serving him the flesh of a prisoner and for attempting to murder him while he slept. (the Greek word for wolf is ‘lycos’ and the word lycanthropy or ability to transform into a wolf is derived from the same root). In a Breton lai called Bisclavret, written by Marie de France in the 12th century, a werewolf’s wife on discovering his secret identity becomes disgusted with his physical appearance and doesn’t wish to “lie with him” anymore. She finds a knight who had been pursuing her for a while and schemes with him to steal the wolf’s clothes and prevent him from becoming human. The selfish adulterous wife turns out to be more ‘beastly’ than her noble werewolf husband and in the end is banished out of the kingdom by the King but not before having her nose bitten off by the wolf.

There was a time when people believed seriously in werewolves and thought they were humans under a curse who could change their form into wolves. Any unusually hairy person or someone with a sensitivity to light could have been rumored to be a werewolf centuries ago. Unfortunately they were thought to be in cahoots with witches and just like their alleged partners in crime, they were also put to death in the Middle Ages.

Le Guin has subverted this popular literary trope into something unexpected and has demonstrated how we as readers bring our biases and preconceived notions to the text, which begs the question as to who the real beast is. If it is scary to imagine a man turning into a wolf, doesn’t the transformation from a wolf to a man present an even more frightening prospect?

Adieu, Ursula le Guin! You have departed this world, I hope, only to find newer worlds beyond! I can imagine you in some far away galaxy in the universe spinning even more wondrous tales!


An Unending Winter: Ethan Frome



“ Life is the saddest thing there is, next to death….”- Edith Wharton

In my last blog post I had written about Summer, Edith Wharton’s novella set in New England which along with Ethan Frome marks a departure in her writing from her usual subject matter of New York high society. I consider them as companion books as both stories have a lot of parallels. Wharton herself called Summer “hot Ethan”. And I think Ethan Frome could have been named “Winter” as a counterpart to Summer. The similarities don’t end with the setting and the importance of seasonality in the plot. Both novellas depict ill-fated protagonists caught in the throes of forbidden love and the pull they experience between the heart and adhering to the norms of society. They are both succinct stories that pack a punch!

A visitor to the bleak village of Starkfield, MA is fascinated by a crippled farmer in his fifties and is interested in knowing more about him. He questions the locals and finds out that the man, Ethan Frome, was a victim of a sledding accident many years ago. He strikes up an acquaintance with him and spends the night at his house following a snowstorm. This frame story recounted in the first person by the unnamed narrator takes place more than twenty years after the events of the main story. The story of the eponymous protagonist which the narrator pieces together from the account of other villagers and from his own imagination is revealed through flashbacks in the third person. We go back in time to when Frome was a young man in his twenties. Young Ethan wanted to be an engineer and live in a larger town among educated people. Unfortunately he had to abandon his dreams and return to the farm to take care of his injured father and his ailing mother. After his mother’s death, he decided to marry Zenobia Pierce, his cousin who had helped take care of his sick mother as he was lonely and couldn’t imagine living alone. He was only twenty-one and his wife was around twenty-eight at the time of their marriage.

Zeena turns out to be a cantankerous woman and a hypochondriac who suffers from many ailments, real or imagined. Her orphaned cousin Mattie arrives into their cold home and existence like a ray of sunshine. She is the exact antithesis of Zeena- a young woman with a zest for life and a sweet disposition. Needless to say, Ethan begins to fall in love with her and Mattie seems to reciprocate the feelings. The sexual tension between these two people living under the same roof under the watchful eye of Zeena is unbearable. One night when Zeena is away, Mattie and Ethan have dinner alone and Mattie uses Zeena’s favorite wedding present, a pickle dish for the meals. The family cat whose tacit and ubiquitous presence reminds us of Zeena breaks the dish in a symbolic act representing the disintegration of the Frome marriage. On discovering the broken dish, the perceptive and shrewd Zeena decides to send Mattie away and hire a new housekeeper.

What are Ethan’s choices? Should he forget about the puritanical society and its rules and run away with Mattie or should he be devoted to caring for his wife and continue leading a lonely and miserable life? We know that the story will have a sad ending with all the foreshadowing that lends an air of foreboding. Even the gravestones in a cemetery full of Fromes seem to be mocking Ethan’s desire to escape his fate. This sense of impending doom typical in the Whartonian world keeps the readers’ interest alive. I don’t want to reveal the ending and spoil it for future readers. Suffice it to say that there is an unexpected twist that takes you by surprise or rather shock! No one quite does irony like Wharton!

The winter setting is an integral element of the plot affecting the disposition and actions or lack thereof of the characters. Starkfield , the fictional town in rural MA is cold and stark just like its name implies. Ethan Frome seems to be one with the landscape. His emotions are buried just like the town is buried under a deep layer of snow. He “seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface.” He is reticent and uncommunicative and even has trouble articulating his feelings for Mattie.

The topography plays an important role in the novella and is itself a character in its own right. I have lived in New England for over twenty years and I only know too well how the weather rules our emotions and determines our behavior. The winter chill seeps into your bones and stays there till the spring thaw. When you talk of the mellowness of autumn, the stillness of winter or the vitality of spring, these are not fanciful poetic tropes but actual truths you feel and live. And you learn to adapt to the vagaries of the seasons. In this context it is interesting to note that Ethan thinks that he probably wouldn’t have married Zeena if it had been spring when his mother had died:

“After the funeral, when he saw Zeena preparing to go away, he was seized with an unreasoning dread of being left alone on the farm; and before he knew what he was doing he had asked her to stay there with him. He had often thought since that it would not have happened if his mother had died in spring instead of winter.”

Edith Wharton’s works have profound insights about relationships. Timing is an important factor when you decide whom you are going to marry. Would we choose the same life partner if we had met them under a different set of circumstances, a different year in our lives or even a different season?

We feel sorry for all three characters who are trapped in Starkfield- for Ethan and Mattie who are in love with each other but know they can’t be together. We don’t even judge them for harboring adulterous feelings as we can understand their loneliness and desperation especially as Zeena is portrayed as a querulous woman. Although the writer is a woman , the narrator is male and he seems to be more sympathetic to Ethan. The cold and barren landscape mirrors Zeena’s condition too. The Fromes have no children and there is a scene where Ethan undresses hurriedly and turns off the light so he doesn’t have to see Zeena lying in bed next to him. Their marriage is probably a sexless union. I feel sorry for Zeena too as her ailments are a cry for attention from a neglectful husband. Instead of hypochondria, she may in fact be suffering from factitious disorder or Munchausen Syndrome, a condition in which people feign illness to elicit sympathy.

I enjoyed reading Ethan Frome and Summer and recommend reading the two together as companion books. Both novels portray characters trapped in enclosed spaces with a desire to escape the ennui of provincial life but their attempt to do so goes horribly awry. What wasted and unfulfilled lives! What a wretched existence! If I could add one concluding sentence to these depressing novellas, it would be this: And they lived unhappily ever after.

I have read four books by Wharton and I can’t wait to delve into the rest of her vast oeuvre. The lady is a literary genius.






As Summer Fades To Fall


“I know I am but summer to your heart,
And not the full four seasons of the year.”
~ Edna St. Vincent Millay

Lately I’ve been on an Edith Wharton reading spree. Let me begin by saying that she is now one of my favorite novelists. I’m just discovering her and I’m enthralled! Her stories are rich, complex and thought-provoking and her style of writing is poetic and exquisite. Where was she all these years of my life? Alas! The years I could have spent drowning in her delicious prose are now irretrievably lost. She is most known for The Age of Innocence, her brilliant masterpiece about the upper class milieu of New York city during the Gilded Age. This summer I read two of her novellas, Summer and Ethan Frome, which are quite different in tone. Beautiful and achingly sad, they are both set in New England to the rhythm of its seasons and deal with the middle and working classes and not the usual elite echelons of society depicted in Wharton’s other works.

Summer is the coming of age story of Charity Royall, an 18 year old naïve and uneducated girl, set in North Dormer, a fictitious town in Massachusetts. When still a small child, Charity was brought down from the “mountain” ( a region in the Berkshires) and raised by Mr.Royall the lawyer and his wife who are prominent citizens of the town. The mountain is inhabited by dissolute people living in squalor and depravity and the town residents don’t mingle with them. The prudish and gossipy town people never make Charity forget her dubious roots. Interestingly, the Royalls raise her but do not legally adopt her. Her name Charity reflects the fact that a great favor was bestowed on her by her benefactors. After the death of his wife, Mr. Royall’s feelings become romantic towards his charge and he even proposes to her. You wonder why he decided to raise her. Honestly, I found him to be quite creepy and disgusting. More on that later.

Charity is a feisty and impetuous girl who wants to earn money in order to escape her stifling provincial environment. She manages to wheedle her way into getting a job as a town librarian in spite of having no interest in books. In walks the charming Lucius Harney, in her dull and boring life. He is a young architect who has come from NYC to study old houses in the area. He represents everything Charity lacks in her confined life.- freedom, youth, adventure, breeding and wealth. The two are irresistibly drawn to each other and have a whirlwind romance. At the time of its publication in 1917, Summer created a sensation for its eroticism. By today’s standards there is nothing remotely erotic about this novel. The two youngsters exchange a kiss while the July 4th fireworks are set off in the nearby town of Nettleton. That’s about as far as the action goes. However the theme of the sexual awakening of a young woman was bold for its times. Charity and Lucius succumb to the passion of first love made more ardent by the summer heat so evocatively described by Wharton. There is a sense of foreboding and we know this torrid sexual interlude will be as evanescent as the New England summer. Charity knows that she has no future with Lucius as he belongs to a higher social class but she still carries on with the affair and lives for the moment:

She had given him all that she had-but what was it compared to the other gifts life held for him? She understood now the case of girls like herself to whom this kind of thing happened. They gave all they had, but their all was not enough; it could not buy more than a few moments….

The inevitable happens and Charity is pregnant. In Wharton’s world, people behave according to their station in life and if they step out of their boundaries, their outcome can be very tragic. What choices does Charity have? Lucius is now engaged to Annabel Balch, his social equal and is not aware of the pregnancy. Nor does Charity reveal it to him as she knows it will be to no avail. Does she keep the baby or abort it? Will she return to the mountain and be with her own ilk? Or will she accept the proposal of marriage by the seedy Mr. Royall who once tried to force himself into her room? In many ways the theme of the jilted unwed mother is a timeless one and Charity’s predicament anticipates the issues many modern women face.


Charity has a disastrous visit with a mean and mercenary lady abortionist and ultimately decides to keep the baby. She seeks one last escape to the mountain only to see her mother’s dead body and is promptly rescued again by Mr. Royall who brings her down to the village and to reality. He takes advantage of her helplessness when he realizes she’s pregnant with Lucius’ child. She is left with no choice but to accept the proposal of marriage from a man who once accused her of being a whore. Of course the irony is that it is Mr. Royall who has the habit of frequenting prostitutes but that doesn’t smear his reputation in town. She is the whore for enjoying an evening in town with her boyfriend but he is not labeled as a whoremonger. The hypocrisy and double standards of society are still the same in many ways. The story changes quickly from romance to reality and from reality to full-blown horror.

The plot takes a horrific turn when Mr. Royall succeeds in getting what he wants.  We know that he lusted after Charity who tried her best to repel his advances. It’s quite sickening to think that someone who is a father figure and has raised her since the time she was a child would suddenly develop sexual feelings for her. How much more appalling would be the thought that she could even be his biological daughter? We know that Charity was born of an unknown woman from the mountain, a place known for its promiscuity. Royall claims that she had been given to him by her father, a man whom he had convicted of manslaughter after her mother had refused to raise her. He had once accused Charity of being a promiscuous woman like her mother. You wonder if he had had a relationship with her mother as he had a habit of visiting prostitutes. There are hints of incest throughout the story. In spite of the contempt Charity has for Royall, she also feels a strange affinity to him “as if she had his blood in her veins”. Whether he is the adoptive or real father, his incestuous impulses are revolting.

The novel ends with the image of Mr. Royall sleeping on a rocking chair on their wedding night. We have a feeling that this is going to be a marriage devoid of passion.  Some readers have interpreted it as the best outcome for Charity and have made Mr. Royall out to be a hero for saving her name and reputation and providing a future for her and her baby. I found the story to be dark and depressing. Charity is broken, beaten down by life and has lost her spunk. Her romantic illusions are shattered as she settles for a loveless marriage. The wild promiscuous woman has been tamed. Her wings have been clipped. “ For an instant the old impulse of flight swept through her; but it was only the lift of a broken wing.” Charity tried to rebel against a patriarchal society represented by the self-absorbed Lucius and the controlling Mr. Royall but failed miserably. Nothing has changed for the girl who so desperately craved independence. She continues living in the same town with the same residents, in the same house with the same guardian and with the same last name.


I was thinking about Summer long after I finished the last sentence. What is left unsaid by the author can haunt us forever. I spent considerable time thinking about the characters and wondering what my own choices would have been in their situation. Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence making her the first woman to get the recognition. She was also nominated three times for the Nobel Prize. I wish she had received the honor, for in my opinion, if anyone deserved the Nobel Prize, it was Edith Wharton. All I can say is this is simply literature at its best.



All Booked Up!

kindred.jpgI’ve found my kindred spirit and I’ve never even met her. I’m sure many avid readers felt and would feel the same while reading Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, an enchanting collection of essays on the love of books. It is essentially a book about books and a treat for all bookworms. As a voracious reader myself, I could relate intimately to the experiences of Anne Fadiman, the author. A daughter of two well-known writers, she had an upbringing that revolved around reading books in a house spilling with books. She and her brother even used to build a playhouse out of their Dad’s twenty-two volume Trollope collection. Many of these essays were published separately in Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress before being published collectively in this volume. The joy of reading permeates through the essays and I savored each and every one like a rare delicacy, lingering over every tidbit.

For Anne Fadiman books are more than paper and print; they are an integral part of life. The essays tackle topics as varied as the love of long words, proofreading, plagiarizing, the pleasure of reading aloud, shopping for used books, reading books in their actual setting, cherishing writing instruments with the preferred color of ink and the perfect quality of the nib and gastronomic references by famous writers. The essays are heartfelt and humorous. In “Marrying Libraries”, she narrates how she and her husband only considered themselves really married when her books and his books became “our books” occupying the same shelves.

They say that only a bibliophile can understand another bibliophile and Anne Fadiman is a woman after my own heart. I could recognize myself over and over again in her obsession with the written word. How do I relate? Let me count the ways:

She loves words so much that she pores over her roommate’s 1974 Toyota Corolla manual, the only thing in the apartment she has not read at least twice. I could understand the frustration and restlessness of being without any reading material. I am the sort who would read anything and everything. I even read the dictionary to amuse myself just as Anne Fadiman reads mail order catalogues for fun. In a hotel room for want of a book, I have reached out in desperation to the Bible on the night- stand.

In “The Joy of Sesquipedalians”, Fadiman describes her family’s love for long words. The members of “Fadiman University” would spout sesquipedalians at the drop of a hat and watch quiz shows together, each member having his or her own area of expertise and often arriving at the correct response before any of the contestants. She could just as well be talking about my family watching Jeopardy together.

Every library has an odd shelf according to her containing books unrelated to the rest of the library. Her odd shelf houses books on polar exploration and expedition narratives. How odd that my odd shelf at home also has books on exploration, the only difference being that my adventures are about Jim Corbett’s thrilling hunting expeditions in tropical jungles!

Fadiman recounts the excitement of diving into the stash of adult books from our parents’  libraries! My uncle, a compulsive collector of books, had the habit of hoarding them everywhere in his apartment- pell-mell with no method to the madness ( although I’m sure that he knew exactly where each one was located.). His apartment was overflowing with books- on bookshelves, on the window sills, on tables and even on the floor. Books propositioned me from every corner and as a teenager I remember the thrill of furtively stumbling upon Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita in much the same way Fadiman came upon her father’s copy of Fanny Hill and learned about sex from it.

One of my favorite essays is “Inset a Carrot” in which she describes how her family members are compulsive proofreaders and check for spelling and grammatical errors on a restaurant menu. Her mother has an envelope of hundreds of clippings from the local newspaper containing errors. Anne Fadiman once made corrections to an edition of Speak, Memory and mailed it to Nabokov himself. I understand her pain and share her affliction. I remember being shocked to discover that Emily Dickinson confused “it’s” and “its” in many of her poems and wrote to the editor about it. The editors, I later discovered, were aware of the errors but wanted to leave her work untouched. I was equally disturbed to see a literary celebrity like Hemingway write ” I feel badly” in one of his major works. It was probably a case of hyper-correction not knowing that linking verbs are modified with adjectives and not adverbs. I can imagine some readers rolling their eyes. As Fadiman puts it “ I know what you may be thinking: What an obnoxious family! What a bunch of captious, carping, pettifogging little busybodies!” I agree with her but I think for a true grammar nerd such errors are sacrilegious and you just can’t help the urge to fix them. And unfortunately, as Fadiman quips, there is no twelve-step program for this affliction.

Some readers may think she is pretentious and anything but a common reader. The title of the collection of essays is a reference to Virginia Woolf’s collection of essays entitled The Common Reader, who in turn, borrowed the phrase from Samuel Johnson’s Life of Gray where he writes about the common reader who is different from the scholar and the critic and reads purely for pleasure. Anne Fadiman comes from a privileged background that was undoubtedly pivotal in fostering a deep love of books in her. To me she comes across as an intellectually curious and erudite person who loves learning for learning’s sake.

In “Never do that to a Book”, she recounts how her brother Kim left a book facedown on the bedside table in a hotel in Copenhagen and found a note from the chambermaid: “Sir you must never do that to a book.” Fadiman makes a distinction between the courtly and the carnal reader. A carnal book lover will scribble notes in the margins, dog- ear the corners, fold and crease the papers and even break the spines. In this aspect I differ from Fadiman and belong to the courtly lover category as in India we were taught never to deface a book. If you accidentally stepped on one, you would touch it and put your fingers over your eyes as an apologetic gesture.

Along with the bliss of reading, the essays are suffused with a zest for life and the warmth of a loving family. In the essay, “Scorn Not the Sonnet”, she narrates how her father on losing a considerable amount of his vision, laments the fact that he will no longer be able to read or write as before. She gently reminds him that Milton wrote Paradise Lost after he became blind and the father-daughter duo reconstruct, in a heartwarming moment, as much as they can, the sonnet “On his Blindness” from memory in the hospital and she reads the rest to him later over the phone. She and her husband who, needless to say, is a bibliophile too, read Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey to each other as a bedtime ritual. The essays also have interesting snippets about other authors and famous people and their relationship with books.

It’s always reassuring to know that there are many other crazy book addicts in the world and that you are not alone. I enjoyed reading these charming essays and the icing on the cake was a final section with a recommended reading list of books about books. As if my list were not long enough already! One lifetime will not be enough for all the books I want to read. I really hope that there is an afterlife and that there is a library in heaven or hell or even better that the theory of re-incarnation is true and that we will be able to enjoy many reading avatars.

P.S. What is your relationship with books? Are you a courtly or a carnal reader? Do share your experiences in the comments. 



The Turn of the Screw: A Ghastly Ghost Story

The first page of The Turn of the Screw originally published in 1898 as a 12 part serialization in Collier’s Weekly.

Who doesn’t enjoy a good ghost story? Whether it’s for the adrenaline rush we experience while reading or listening to scary stories or the curiosity to delve into an unknown and less orderly universe from our own, the human mind has always been intrigued by the otherworldly. And there’s something fascinating about this fascination itself with the world of apparitions. While browsing through the bookshelves at home, I came across The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’ gothic novella belonging to my daughter who had read it for her high school English class. It’s a sinister and chilling ghost story if you could call it one at all. For some critics have even questioned if it really is a ghost story. You won’t find bloodshed or gore or dismembered limbs but it is still gruesome and a spine-tingling horror of a different kind.

Before you rush to get hold of the book, I have to warn you that the writing style is ornate to the point of being ponderous. I am an avid reader familiar with different styles of writing and have read many classics including books written in old English. I love flowery writing (when each word is a flower and all the words are strung together neatly like a garland- you get the picture…) but when the writing is in a rococo style with run-on sentences as long as paragraphs, it makes for a very frustrating read. With all due respect, the author of The Turn of the Screw could have had a better turn of phrase. The maze-like prose made me feel distanced from the characters and robbed me of the fun of reading as I spent too much time trying to make sense of the sentence structure. Besides, it’s a story embedded within a story within another story. An unnamed narrator is narrating a story someone called Douglas read from a manuscript written by someone else. The mise en abyme technique adds to the complexity. But I persisted in spite of the labyrinthine prose and I am glad I did as this story with its ambiguity and potential for layers of interpretation offers a lot of fodder for psychological analysis.

It’s Christmastide and as per the tradition ghost stories are being recounted around a fire to a rapt audience. Someone has finished narrating a ghost story about a child and a man named Douglas says he can top that story with another turn of the screw by narrating a horrific story involving not just one child but two children. He reads out a letter penned by a young governess who was once his sister’s caretaker and whom he liked immensely and who, he claims, liked him too. The story shifts to the point of view of the governess.

The unnamed governess is hired in a remote country estate in Bly to take care of two recently orphaned children who after the death of their parents are under the guardianship of their uncle. The uncle who lives in London is happy to wash his hands of his nephew and niece and explicitly tells the governess not to contact him under any circumstance. She is smitten by the man and agrees to his strange request. Both Miles and Flora are extremely beautiful, angelic and well -mannered children and the

“He did stand there! -But high up, beyond the lawn and at the very top of the tower.”

governess is enamored by them. They are so exceedingly good and gifted that you can sense something uncanny in the perfection. We eventually learn that the boy has been expelled from his boarding school for “wicked behavior” although it’s not clear what the behavior entailed. The governess starts seeing phantoms prowling on the property. Through the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, she learns that her predecessor, Miss Jessel, drowned herself when she became pregnant by the valet, Peter Quint. The governess gradually believes that the ghosts of these two former employees are attempting to claim her charges. She starts sensing their presence everywhere and she even believes they are communicating with the children. She thinks that these ghosts of the depraved servants are out to harm the children and that she needs to protect them. Later she starts imagining that the children are complicit with the ghosts and not as innocent as she believed them to be as they don’t appear to be the least bit terrified of them. She gets increasingly obsessed and paranoid and the story ends on a shocking note.

The rest of the article contains SPOILERS.

Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse

It is through the governess’ perspective that we see everything. Many questions arise in the mind of the reader.

Are the ghosts real? Is she really perturbed by what’s happening to the children? Is she a victim of the ghosts along with the children?

Why is she the only one to see ghosts? Are they figments of her imagination? Is her mind playing tricks with her?

If they are no ghosts, is she hallucinating? Is she becoming insane? Does she suffer, in her isolation and loneliness, from a deep neurosis or sexual hysteria brought on by a desire for her employer? Are Quint and Jesel projections of the repressed aspects of her own psyche that she finds loathsome? ( A Freudian interpretation of the tale was first posited by Edmund Wilson in his 1938 essay,  The Ambiguity of Henry James “ a neurotic case of sex repression”).

Why was Miles expelled from school? Was it for homosexual talk or behavior? Is he precocious because he was abused at home by Peter Quint?

Were one or both the children sexually molested by one or both the servants?

Are they sexually abused by the governess?

What role does the housekeeper Mrs. Grose play in the plot? Is she genuinely sympathetic to the plight of the governess or is she manipulating her?

Did the governess commit a crime and get away with it? We know that she subsequently is gainfully employed based on what Douglas tells us in the prelude to the story.

I read the story before reading any of the critical theories put forth (and there are many- Freudian, Jungian, Marxist, Feminist, Modernist, Queer, the list could go on) to come to my own conclusions. I am inclined to believe that the story is an indictment of, or at the least, a commentary on the moralistic and sexually repressed Victorian society of the time. I picked up on many insinuations of sexually inappropriate talk or behavior while I read the story. The theory that the governess may be unconsciously projecting her

“Holding my candle high, till I came within sight of the tall window.”

own undesirable thoughts upon these ghosts could seem a little far-fetched but we can’t deny that she seems to identify with them. One night she sees the ghost of Miss Jesel sitting on the bottom of the staircase with her head hidden in her hands. Later she is startled when she catches herself sitting in the same place and position. You wonder if she is falling in love with a boy much younger than she is. Miles seems to be seducing the governess at times and she is not immune to his charms. She does not want him to return to school or leave Bly. She may even harbor unsavory feelings towards him as suggested by some passages in the story:

We continued silent while the maid was with us-as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter. He turned round only when the waiter had left us. “Well- so we’re alone!”

But since nothing is stated explicitly it is left to the readers to make what they will of the narrative. Moreover the governess is an unreliable narrator and you have to wonder how neutral Douglas himself is in reading out her story when he once was besotted with her.

The beauty of the text lies in the ambiguity. There are a lot of loose ends and Henry James has deliberately left lacunae for the readers to fill. In the preface to the story, he says that the reader’s “own imagination, his own sympathy and horror will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.” This disquieting story with its understated horror leaves a shudder down the spine as much as or even more than any blood-curdling ghost story as it involves innocent children. Our governess and her intentions have been dissected so much that she herself has become a ghost who continues to haunt the readers through the ages. And if there’s one sobering lesson I have learned from this disturbing story, it is this: NEVER leave children alone with anyone.




April is the month dedicated to poetry here in the United States. On the last day of this month long celebration of verse, I am sharing my thoughts on a poem penned by Judith Ortiz Cofer that caught my attention.

Quinceañera is a poem about the coming of age ceremony of a girl who turns 15. It’s one of the most important rites of passage in a young girl’s life in Latin communities and has its roots in both indigenous and European Christian traditions. It’s supposed to be a special ceremony to mark the transition from girlhood to womanhood and to present the fifteen year old to the community and thereby increase her prospects for marriage. Quinceañera literally means a fifteen year old girl in Spanish. In recent times the celebration has become as ostentatious and ornate as a wedding featuring long guest lists, photo shoots, lavish decorations and sometimes even a mariachi band. Although it’s a momentous occasion looked forward to by many girls, the tone of Cofer’s poem is dark and depressing accentuating the fact that it’s also a time fraught with anxieties and awkwardness for the growing girl.

Judith Ortiz Cofer was a Latina writer who in her poems and essays wrote about the Puerto Rican immigrant experience in the US mainland. She herself straddled two worlds: that of Puerto Rico where she was born and returned frequently to spend extended time at her grandmother’s house and the states of New Jersey and Georgia where she lived in the US. The movement to and fro between two cultural spaces shapes her work. In her memoir, The Cruel Country, she describes how her mother hated becoming a quinceañera “… which in those days meant announcing your status as a potential wife-nothing like the social extravaganzas of today’s young Latinas, but a serious passage into adulthood. My mother said that when she turned fifteen, she began her training in domestic functions such as childcare and cooking, which didn’t interest her, and she was not allowed to play ball again.” In another of her memoirs, Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood , in which this poem is featured, Cofer writes that to her grandmother, she was as a quinceañera ,”a fifteen year old trainee for the demands of marriage”.


My dolls have been put away like dead
children in a chest I will carry
with me when I marry.
I reach under my skirt to feel
a satin slip bought for this day. It is soft
as the inside of my thighs. My hair
has been nailed back with my mother’s
black hairpins to my skull. Her hands
stretched my eyes open as she twisted
braids into a tight circle at the nape
of my neck. I am to wash my own clothes
and sheets from this day on, as if
the fluids of my body were poison, as if
the little trickle of blood I believe
travels from my heart to the world were
shameful. Is not the blood of saints and
men in battle beautiful? Do Christ’s hands
not bleed into your eyes from His cross?
At night I hear myself growing and wake
to find my hands drifting of their own will
to soothe skin stretched tight
over my bones,
I am wound like the guts of a clock,
waiting for each hour to release me.

The poem is written in free verse in the first person and starts with the image of death, a jarring contrast to the picture of dolls that represent early life. We know that the poem is about a fifteen year old thanks to the title. The speaker/narrator is probably going to take her dolls with her to her marital home in the future and pass them down one day to her own children. The Last Doll or La Ultima Muneca is one of the symbolic traditions of the quinceañera ceremony. The quinceañera gives her last doll to a younger sister or cousin or saves it to pass down to her own children. In some cultures, the doll is tossed over the girl’s shoulder to young girls who have not yet turned fifteen, much like a bride flings her bouquet to young maidens. The ceremony then represents the death of her childhood.

There are many other images of death evoked in the poem with the words “skull”, “poison”, “blood” and “battle”. The satin slip shows that she will be wearing a fancy dress for the rich celebration over the slip or that she will now start needing a slip and will have to dress modestly. The poet resorts to poetic devices like simile and alliteration in spite of the choppy construction. The breaks in lines and stanzas may be a device to show the confusion and frenzy in the mind of the girl.

We have more harsh images of death with the words “skull “and “nails”. Her mother seems to handle her with firmness and hurts her while braiding her hair. The words “twisted” and” tight” suggest constriction. Maybe she is oblivious to the girl’s needs or she wants to send her the message that life will be hard.

Her black hairpins could be a sign of mourning . Ironically the ceremony is supposedly a joyous occasion but she is also lamenting the loss of childhood and dreading the arrival of womanhood with responsibilities.

She has to start doing her own laundry and other chores. The blood symbolizes the onset of menstruation, a sudden and dramatic moment in a girl’s life. She has to start washing her stained clothes furtively as this natural biological process is viewed with shame. Menstrual taboos exist in many cultures around the world with a notion of impurity attached to menstruation. Her world shrinks but it also expands at the same time as the rite of passage of menarche places new expectations on her from her family and from society at large.

Why is the blood of dying men and Christ considered sacred but not the life giving blood of women? There is so much hypocrisy in our patriarchal culture surrounding menstrual blood. The rhetorical questions and the repetition of the words ”as if” reinforce her anguish.

She is growing rapidly and is aware of the changes in her body which bring about a sexual awakening too, reinforced by the alliteration “soothe stretched skin”. The simile “wound like the guts of a clock” shows that she is anxious and needs a release, both a physical and an emotional one.

The poem suggests that being on the threshold of adulthood is not necessarily the best time in a woman’s life. Traditionally the fifteen year old was presented to society as eligible for marriage and trained for the duties and demands of family life. Needless to say, the custom is outdated and losing its relevance and being celebrated instead as a lavish birthday bash.

Have you participated in a memorable rite of passage ceremony in your life? How meaningful was it to you and how did you feel about the transition and being the center of attention? Interestingly, rituals marking the initiation of menstruation have existed in many cultures since time immemorial. My grandmother like Cofer’s “Mama” was a traditional woman who religiously followed all customs. I had a similar ceremony when I was a teenager. I was dressed as a bride and almost died of embarrassment when relatives came up to me and congratulated me on becoming a woman. Maybe that’s why this poem struck a chord. Or rather a nerve.