Book Club, Umag #02

After a number of weeks of delay we had the second meeting of the book club, with two new members: Alessio, and Dubravka, the English teacher from the Italian Elementary school in Umag.

To start, Ivana read a piece from one of her students, a descriptive piece about a witch that was impressive, especially as it was written by a ten year-old in a foreign language, and made Ivana proud to be a teacher.

After this we started the short stories:

Both stories were written by American, female authors from the south; Chopin (1850-1904) is seen as a forerunner to feminist authors of the 20th century, and her work often features themes of gender equality and race, which many writers at the time would not touch, making her writing even more powerful and ahead of its time. O’Connor (1925-1964) was an unconventional writer, with a strong Christian vision but using dark humour, shock tactics and violence to get her message across more strongly.

We started with Désirée’s Baby (1893), about a young, orphaned woman, Désirée, who married into a powerful Louisiana family and has had a baby. To begin with there is a fairy-tale romance between Désirée and her husband, Armand, who “is the proudest father in the parish” after the baby is born, but the story turns when it becomes clear that the baby is not white. Armand blames this on Désirée, she writes to her adoptive mother who advises Désirée to leave Armand and return to her, which Armand agrees with. Désirée doesn’t return to her mother though, as she walks into the bayou, never to be seen again.

We started off discussing the power structure on display, between the sexes. Even though both Désirée and Armand are white, when the baby is discovered not to be white there is no question that Désirée is ‘to blame’, and she has no power to contest this. This is due, firstly, to the fact that she is female, but she has no family name, and her history is unknown because because she was found as a toddler by her adoptive father. Noting that Désirée’s identity is tied up in that of her husband we had hit on a common theme in Chopin’s work, that of the woman, the Other, having her own identity.

The final line reveals a twist [spoiler] as Armand reads part of a letter from his mother to his father, saying that Armand would never find out he was part of “the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery.” We discussed whether we thought that Armand knew this information before the end, I thought he did but Dubravka disagreed, thinking that he had just discovered it as well. This raised the question of whether this information would have changed any of his actions. We concluded it probably wouldn’t have made a difference because of the damage it would do to him and his family if he admitted it.

Initially I had thought that Désirée had returned to her family home at the end until it was pointed out to me that she probably met a much darker end, leaving across the fields to the bayou, never to return.

Good Country People (1955) is about Mrs. Hopewell, a divorcee who lives on with her grown-up daughter, Joy, on a farm that she runs with the help of her tenants Mr. and Mrs. Freeman. It centres on an incident during a picnic date between Joy and a young bible salesman, who had visited and had dinner the night before.

We started our discussion with the difficulties we had in keeping track of who the characters were and how they were related due to the way O’Connor adds new ones without any introduction.

We moved onto talking about Mrs. Hopewell, Mrs. Freeman, and Mrs. Freeman’s two daughters, Carramae and Glynese. Mrs. Hopewell has a number of habits, one of which is using a few stock phrases, the kind that add nothing and are used just to fill an empty space, the other is telling everyone that Mrs. Freeman and her daughters are ladies and fine girls, as well as ‘good country people’, despite evidence to the contrary. We mentioned that this may be because she wants to convince herself that they are, and that she is right in keeping them on, and to persuade other people.

Mrs. Hopewell received a bad reference for Mrs. Freeman, but before hiring her had decided to use Mrs. Freeman’s nosiness, and need to ‘be into everything’ to her advantage, by giving her responsibility for the farm, and possibly to find out the local gossip as she “was never ashamed to take [Mrs. Freeman] anywhere or introduce her to anybody they might meet.”

Having spoken a lot about the minor characters, we moved onto the main part of the story, and the characters of Joy and the bible salesman. Joy is 32, has a PhD in philosophy, a weak heart and prosthetic leg. Despite her age and education, Mrs. Hopewell still sees her as a child, and she often acts like a child. She does many things just to annoy her mother, such as changing her name to Hulga, which Mrs. Hopewell thought was “the ugliest name in any language”, and even gaining her PhD seems an act of rebellion. Joy talks about leaving home, but uses her weak heart as an excuse to stay. In reality it appears that Joy has little desire to take risks and leave the safety of her mother’s home.

The bible salesman, Manly Pointer, seems to be the complete opposite of Joy; young, Christian, uneducated and simple. He manages to get into the house, and then, after finding out he has the same heart condition as Joy, Mrs. Hopewell invites him for dinner. As he leaves Mrs. Hopewell sees him talking to Joy at the gate.

They had organised a picnic date for the next day. We mentioned that on this date both of them are playing games; Joy imagines seducing Manly, and then turning his remorse and shame into something useful. Manly plays the young, naïve and innocent Christian (which makes Joy pity him) until he manages to remove her wooden leg when he reveals his true nihilistic atheist character, and says that he has managed to amass a collection of prosthetics in this way.

The discussion went on to how both characters have changed in the readers view, but they are still opposites, Joy begins as academically intelligent, and older than Manly, but her behaviour is immature and naïve, without common sense or knowledge about the world. Manly starts simple and young, but becomes the ‘intelligent’ one, and is more adult – he hides a whiskey bottle and pack of pornographic playing cards in a hollowed out bible.

We finished out talk by asking whether we should trust our instincts because Joy had told her mother to “get rid of the salt of the earth”, with affirmations, from Maja especially, that if we have a bad feeling about someone to begin with then, even if we change our opinion over time, that instinctive feeling shouldn’t be forgotten. I’m not so sure, even though we only have our instincts at the beginning, those feelings are based on little information, often prejudices or stereotypes.

With that we finished the second meeting of the book club, with hopes for a shorter wait for the next one.


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