Lessons From Mr. Micawber

One of the funniest characters in David Copperfield has got to be Mr. Wilkins Micawber. We first encounter Micawber as a somewhat landlord/roommate of the young Copperfield. We quickly learn that he is perpetually in debt that he has no hopes of paying back. He is constantly on the brink of utter disaster for himself, his wife, and their large, growing family. Micawber remains a primary character throughout the novel. He is a character in which I think we can all stand to learn a lot from while still being someone exaggerated and ridiculous in nature.

Part of what is so humorous about this man is that he seems to drastically jump from one condition to another suddenly. One moment he will be on the verge of suicide, the next, Copperfield will find him skipping along the road, whistling an upbeat tune. He writes these dramatic, superfluously worded letters that at first glance make you quite worried for the man. Then the next day he is the epitome of high hopes and lightheartedness.

Even though I find it exceedingly funny in the book, I actually admire this quality in Micawber. It might make him seem silly, but he is none the less likeable for this trait. He is a heartfelt and honest man. He is true to his feelings even if they oscillate rapidly from one extreme to another. And he is unashamed of expressing himself. This is something I’d like to be brave enough to practice in my own life.

I’ve noticed many times, that if I share a strong negative feeling with someone else through behavior or actual words, I feel very reluctant to let it go even when internally, the feeling has subsided. This is especially true if it’s a mood that has come and gone quickly. I’m almost embarrassed to contradict myself by getting over something that I proclaimed to be so passionate about. Perhaps I’m worried people will think me a hypocrite? Or maybe I fear them not taking my concerns seriously the next time? Or maybe I’m even afraid they’ll chuckle and laugh at me, as I do about Mr. Micawber? I don’t know the exact reason, but something within me resists dropping a grudge that I’ve just vented to someone else about or allowing myself to be happy if the day before I was presenting myself as irrevocably depressed.

Mr. Micawber has shown me that even though it does appear silly to be crying one moment and laughing the next, it is silly in the best way possible. I don’t disregard his sadness even if I highly suspect it won’t last long. And my laughter at his sudden recovery is not done in a mocking way, rather a delighted way, out of wonder and surprise. Micawber is an excellent role model for the slogan: It’s okay to feel your feelings. Even when they might not seem logical to someone else.

It’s truly a shame how often we, myself included, deny ourselves the happiness of the moment under the shadow of some larger problem looming over our lives. We get the thought stuck in our heads that “I’ll never be happy unless…” or “Once this happens or this stops happening, then I’ll finally be able to be happy.” With our eyes set on this imagined future happiness, we overlook or disregard the small opportunities for happiness we encounter every day. Micawber didn’t wait for his problems to go away or for his massive debts to be repaid to enjoy his life. He did so whenever he got the chance. I think we’d all benefit from trying to do the same.

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Rethinking The Age of Innocence

I finally got around to watching the movie representation of the classic novel, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. First I must say that I was very impressed and pleased by how faithful the screenplay was to the original text. Nothing seemed to be overlooked or left out. There was little to no deviation from the text’s plot. There was even a helpful narration from time to time to fill in anything that couldn’t be directly expressed in the scenes. That being said, the movie or perhaps just experiencing the story a second time, allowed me to gain new insight, understanding, and perspective.

When I first wrote about this book and its effect on me many months ago, I feel I was only taking things at face value. I was devastated at the tragedy as it unfolded before me. I saw a man and woman that loved one another, were perfectly suited for one another in fact, being kept apart by life’s trivialities and the judgement of others. I saw a sad husband and wife living a lie in silence while true love withered just beyond reach. Now I’m not so certain in my initial perception.

I think perhaps one of the unspoken messages of this book was that an inner fantasy is always better and more perfect than anything in real life could ever be. I think this is the reason why Archer walked away at the end rather than go meet Madam Olenska when finally, they could have been together. It’s truly bizarre how the span of only a few months could completely change the impression this story left on me. Now instead of being baffled and angered by Archer’s final decision, a part of me understands and feels sympathy for it. It wasn’t merely that he didn’t really love Olenska, nor that he was a coward, unwilling to take that love when it was finally held before him.

Now I see Archer as a young man, believing in that idealized love, that perfect relationship, growing slowly older and wiser throughout the course of his married and family life with May. In the end, it was worth more to him to sacrifice what would most likely be a disappointing manifestation of a youthful ideal in order to keep the perfect memory he already possessed just as it was, pristine yet unobtainable. The love he shared with Olenska, sadly could never have been realized, even if they had run away together. I think Archer, after all his years, finally understood this. Perhaps Madam Olenska, in her wise, worldly way always had. She hoped against all hope, but somehow because of her life experience, was never quite as naive as Archer in believing the life in which they would be happy together could ever truly exist.

I sincerely hope that I too will outgrow this naive image of a perfect, fated love in order to more fully enjoy and appreciate the real love in my life. And perhaps even learn to enjoy that pang of regret and curiosity for what could have been when it strikes my heart, knowing that the memories I hold, the future I imagined, will always be more lovely than the reality would have been.

Why I Love 'The Age of Innocence' | by Mel Campbell | The Look | Medium

Great Expectations

I’ve been reading a lot of Charles Dickens recently. I’ve finished A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. Now I am working my way through Oliver Twist. I have David Copperfield and Hard Times lined up after that. Reading these novels has been one of my favorite parts of the day for months now. After dinner, I have been curling up with a cup of tea, my fur children, and one of these books in my hygeekrog for at least an hour if not more each night.

I think that one of the reasons I find this new ritual so enchanting is the contrast between my warm, cozy, little nook and the lives being lived out on the pages in front of me. Even though they are works of fiction, somehow they make me appreciate my good fortune in life in a way I never really have before. There is a beautiful, simple dignity in the way the characters accept their fates and the circumstances they are placed in, no matter how unjust or painful. It makes me contemplate my self-righteous indignation at even the slightest inconveniences I face from day to day. How might I learn to let go and move with the events happening around me instead of against them? Characters being abruptly put in prison with no warrant or explanation make less of a fuss than I do when I’m cut off in traffic.

There are also other ineffable aspects of these novels that fill me with peace and curiosity. I think one thing is that they shine a light on our shared human experience that spans the length of time. No matter where you find yourself in history or in the world, we all must face quite similar hardships and injustices. Life is not about avoiding these things. It’s about how we face them. Dickens’ books are a reminder of the fortitude and resilience of all those that have come before us and survived and fought to improve society even in our species’ darkest moments.

I think one of the greatest lessons I have taken away from my evening reading is summed up perfectly in the title of one of these books: Great Expectations. While not meant in the way it is in the book, I have realized that I have great expectations. Not for wealth or social status, but for other people. I became rather disgusted and disenchanted with the entire human race quite early in life. I saw the incredible things that human beings are capable of and somehow came to seek out only this from my fellow creatures.

As children, we are raised to see only the best of human ability and achievement. We learn about soldiers sacrificing their lives for the freedom of their country. We hear about geniuses that have devoted their lives to advancing and/or healing society through new technology and medicine. We see the bravery, the resilience, the altruism first and foremost. Characters such as Hitler are painted as strange aberrations, rather than reoccurring figures or the other side of the coin of human nature. Therefore I think I absorbed the impression that human beings should all be more perfect, generous, and intelligent than anyone can truly be in reality.

This skewed perception led me to be let down a lot throughout my life. Ultimately it led to the pendulum swinging the other way entirely. I began to believe that human beings are all selfish, monstrous, and grotesque in our greed and disregard for others. It seems that now I only look for that hideous side of human nature in order to confirm what I now believe about our species. I take for granted the good I see in the world, because that’s just how it should be. Yet I still see every false step we take as a society as egregious and worthy of condemnation.

Charles Dickens’ works are a vacation away from that staunch, black and white thinking of mine. While the horrors of society are upfront and evident, Dickens shows that despite this suffering, this injustice, there is also deep love, selflessness, humor, and honor within us. Human beings are not the best creatures to ever live, nor are we the worst. We simply are. It’s okay to have high hopes for ourselves, those around us, and our society in general, but not to the extent that we lament any and everything that falls short of our great expectations. There is peace and contentment in taking what the world offers to you exactly as it is. Our ideals should be what guide us, not something seen as a guarantee. It’s okay to be proud and overjoyed by the small acts of kindness we encounter, precisely because they are not guaranteed. At the same time we cannot be shocked and disheartened by the opposite either. The complexity and mystery of life and those we share it with is what makes it interesting. It’s what makes life worth living.

Charles Dickens: Scourge Of Capitalists & Social Reformer - HistoryExtra

Perspectives on The Age of Innocence

I love to read classic books, especially ones written by female authors. I just recently finished reading The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. This book was, not surprisingly, absolutely heart-wrenching like many other classic novels. It seems like none of the great works of literature ever seem to have a happy ending. Yet somehow that makes them all the more poignant and real. It allows you to empathize and relate to the characters in a powerful, emotional way. When you read a good book, it almost feels like you’re making new friends. Which makes it all the more painful when things don’t turn out as you had hoped for them.

This particular book struck me in a way that a book hasn’t in a long time. I was so moved by this great work of literature that I just had to write about my thoughts. So here is your official spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t read it. While I found this book simply heart-breaking, I understand that not everyone may see it the same way. I found myself swaying back and forth between a couple different perspectives.

To me, this book was a tragedy. I desperately hoped that somehow, against all odds, Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska would be together in the end. At the same time, I found myself feeling sorry for Archer’s wife, May. She was not the wicked woman some books may have written her as. She was a perfectly lovely, respectable woman that certainly didn’t deserve to be abandoned by Archer as I, nevertheless, hoped would happen. And in the end she isn’t. Although it could be argued that his love alone for another woman was a betrayal. Still, he remains faithful to her and their family until the end of May’s life.

Some may think this book did have a happy ending. Instead of cheating or leaving his wife, Archer did the “right” thing. He stayed. He did what society expected of him. He honored his commitments. But at what cost? He really had no good options. Either he abandoned his family and his wife to pursue passionate love, or he sacrificed that love for the sake of others and to live his life as a sham. In the end he chose the latter, and honestly, I’m not sure if that was the right decision or not. I can’t say what I would have chosen, myself. Perhaps his love for Ellen was only so passionate because it was forbidden and out of reach. Maybe if he had thrown everything away for her he would have found only disappointment and resentment rather than true love.

The most upsetting part of the story for me was that I saw my own life within it. It sounds wretched and narcissistic to say it out loud, but I saw myself as Ellen and my ex boyfriend as Archer. (Perhaps in a desperate attempt to console myself for not being the one he chose in the end.) My ex chose to stay with his new girlfriend, as I see it, primarily because they had an accidental child together. Even though he had expressed to me just how much less compatible they are than he and I were. Luckily for me, I’ve found someone else to love and be with. I’m not sure if Ellen ever did. However, my heart broke for Archer as it does now and then for my ex. What a wasted life. What a sad, phony existence, to have sacrificed such a love. I foresee him as an old man some day, filled with regrets and “what ifs.” Then again, who am I to say. Perhaps we are both better off this way.

The Age of Innocence | Book by Edith Wharton, Colm Toibin | Official  Publisher Page | Simon & Schuster

Moral Ambiguity

I have been reading Les Miserables for the last few days. I am incredibly shocked that I never knew it was a book as well as a play until now. I was really missing out. Anyway, I have just finished the chapters detailing Jean Valjean’s (Monsieur Madeleine’s) inner turmoil regarding the right thing to do in the case of his mistaken identity. It is truly a very interesting philosophical question. On the one hand, it seems clearly “right” to clear up the misunderstanding and spare this stranger a fate he does not deserve on your account. However, should Monsieur Madeleine give himself up as Jean Valjean, would not even more people be made to suffer as a result? After all he has practically created his own society. All within that society benefit from his presence and guidance. Not least of which, Fantine, who should surely die without ever seeing her child again if he goes to Arras and interfere with the trial.

This section of Les Miserables really highlights the complexities of morality. The “right” thing to do in life is quite often unclear. I can see why Monsieur Madeleine wrestled with this problem as he did. I still don’t really know what I believe the truly moral decision would be. If it were me (myself being nowhere as upright and honorable as Monsieur Madeleine) I would have allowed the trail to go on. I would have felt terribly guilty, but I would have also felt guilty if I would have decided to leave my community and poor Fantine in order to save a stranger whom by a terrible twist of fate was mistaken for me. In some ways, both decisions are moral. And in other ways both are selfish and unfair.

I am very interested to see how Monsieur’s decision to go to Arras works out in the end. Will his conscious be pacified? Or will he suffer with the consequences wrought on M- sur M- and Fantine? This painful reflection of life’s more difficult moral questions is undoubtably one of the reasons Les Miserables has earned it’s place among the great works of history.

One would hope that merely the resolve to be “good” would be enough. Yet we see that even that does not nullify all of problems laid before us. Sometimes there is no “right” answer. Sometimes no matter what decision you make, someone will be made to suffer because of it. Even the decision not to act can result in grave consequences as in this case.

What a complex, confusing, and often cruel world we live in. There is something truly incredible about seeing that so perfectly reflected in a novel. To be able to hold these heavy problems in your hands. To see the inner struggles of another and know that we are not alone in our own. To have such strong concern and sympathy produced for a fictional character. The written word is an awe-inspiring thing.

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