"Hamartia," my English professor wrote on the board, and, "Hamartia," we students in ENGLISH 400: SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGEDIES dutifully copied down into our notes. Hamartia, as it turns out, is the Greek word for a concept we had known about since grade school: the fatal flaw.
"Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature?" asks Richard Papen, the narrator of Donna Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History (7). Indeed, the idea of a fatal flaw is a huge part of the way stories are told in the west. Whether it’s an inability to act (Hamlet) or a tendency to over-react (Romeo), the fatal flaw is the driving force behind tragedy, the character trait that cannot be overcome, and that usually brings about someone’s untimely death. “I used to think it didn’t [exist],” Richard continues. “Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs” (7).
Richard hails from Plano, California, a place that conjures up “drive-ins, tract homes, waves of heat rising from the blacktop” (7). His was not a glamorous childhood, and as soon as he left home, Richard cast his past aside, “disposable as a paper cup” (7). Instead, he invents for himself a picturesque history “full of swimming pools and orange groves and dissolute, charming show-biz parents” that all but eclipses “the drab original” (7). And when he transfers to Hampden, a small liberal arts college in Vermont populated by privately-educated, trust-funded students, he throws himself fully into the character he has created for himself.
Enabling his fantasy persona is Classics professor Julian Morrow, an enigmatic member of the literati who once rubbed elbows with the likes of Orwell and Eliot. Julian’s students are carefully selected from the pool of Hampdenites, and at the time of Richard’s matriculation there are only five, all from well-monied East-Coast families. When Richard finally manages to break into their ranks thanks to his knowledge of Ancient Greek grammar, he finds himself surrounded by people who lead the kind of life he has always dreamed of living. Even Julian’s office plays to Richard’s appreciation of the picturesque; “It was a beautiful room… airy and white, with a high ceiling and a breeze fluttering in the starched curtains… and there were flowers everywhere… The roses were especially fragrant; their smell hung rich and heavy in the air, mingled with the smell of bergamot and black China tea, and a faint inky scent of camphor. Breathing deep, I felt intoxicated. Everywhere I looked was something beautiful” (26). Julian’s classroom is a curated portrait of the scholarly mind, and Richard is entranced, both by it and its inhabitants.
Indeed, characters’ living spaces are a focal point of the novel, dwelt upon lovingly precisely because they are so unlike Richard’s own home. The twins, Charles and Camilla, live in a furnished apartment with a fireplace; on the mantel “glitte[r] a pair of lead-glass candelabra and a few pieces of tarnished silver plate” (61). Though the silver is tarnished, it glitters. Though the apartment is “cluttered with papers, ashtrays, bottles of whisky, boxes of chocolates,” Richard adores it, adores Charles and especially Camilla, adores them all, once he gets to know them. His life becomes something from a story; the students spend their weeks at school drinking and dining out for lavish meals, and their weekends at Francis’s aunt’s house, where Richard falls more and more in love with the beauty of life. “We took off our shoes and socks,” he remembers of one warm autumn day at the lake near the house. “The water near the bank was a clear, pale green, cool over my ankles, and the pebbles at the bottom were dappled with sunlight… A wind rustled through the birches, blowing up the pale undersides of the leaves and it caught in Camilla’s dress and billowed it out like a white balloon” (91). The scene is almost too beautiful for words, and Richard’s ability to see only its aesthetic value foreshadows the darker reality that lies beneath the group’s interactions.
"Anything is grand if it’s done on a large enough scale," remarks Henry later in the novel (327). His words seem to echo the moral sentiments of the group, whose actions become, if not more grand, then at least much larger as the novel progresses. Stunned by the violence of their actions, the students turn to more and more drastic distractions. As their lives begin to unravel, so too does the picturesque in their existence. On the evening before a funeral, Richard is lying awake, watching the headlights of cars illuminate the room in which he sleeps. The lights would shine over "the armchair in which Henry sat, motionless, a glass in his hand and the cigarette burning low between his fingers. For a moment his face, pale and watchful as a ghost’s, would be caught in the headlights and then, very gradually, it would slide back into the dark" like some mythological monster (383). Where his friends were once heroes, golden-haired and invincible, they have changed into fearsome figures Richard hardly recognizes. One evening, the mirror over the twins’ fireplace is broken, and Richard discovers the cause: a highball glass, rimmed in gold, thrown hard "from across the room" (413). The illusion of perfection is shattered, and now beauty lies not in interacting with reality but in escaping from it.
One night, sleepless and desperate, Richard counts the stolen sleeping pills secreted away in his desk drawer: “candy-colored pretties, bright on a sheet of typing paper” (459). They are enticing, idealized and romanticized. And yet, Richard is only interacting with death the way the Greeks he adores would have - as a necessary end to the path embarked upon. Reality, however, is not mythology, and people rarely behave the way they should. “I wish I could say that Julian’s face crumbled when he heard what we had done,” Richard relates at the end of the novel. “I wish I could say that he put his head on the table and wept… for the wrong turns and the life wasted: wept for himself, for being so blind, for having over and over again refused to see” (479). Yet here, finally, Richard acknowledges that the picturesque does not satisfy; a beautiful fiction will not sweeten the bitterness of the truth. “And the thing is,” he adds, “I had a strong temptation to say he had done these things anyway, though it wasn’t at all the truth” (480). Here at the end of the novel, Richard overcomes his fatal flaw, but at what cost?
Alas, poor gentleman,
He look’d not like the ruins of his youth,
but of the ruins of those ruins (507).
Hamartia. We nod our heads, as if we understand, as if we too will recognize the fatal flaw in our own lives before it consumes us.
PAGE COUNT: 25,582
BOOK COUNT: 64/100
It does not do to be frightened of things about which you know nothing.Donna Tartt, The Secret History
Thinking back on it now, I realize that this particular point in time, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very different from what I actually did. But of course I didn’t see this crucial moment then for what it was; I suppose we never do.Donna Tartt, The Secret History
I first read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones during my last few weeks of college. I remember buying it one unseasonably wet afternoon, and reading most of it in a squashy armchair in the bookstore. At the time convinced that I would become a writer, I was inspired by Sebold’s unflinching prose, her compassionate yet honest narrative voice, the frank masculine-ness of the subject matter. A heinous crime is committed. The narrator is raped and murdered at the outset of the novel, an event related without euphemism in first-person. It was gritty. It was courageous.I loved every word.
I finished the novel for the second time several weeks ago, and have been unable to write any kind of analysis. At first, I told myself that I needed time to process, to try to figure out why I didn’t love it as much now as I had then. Maybe, I thought, it’s because now I teach 14-year-old girls, and so Susie Salmon’s death hits closer to home with me. Maybe it’s because I’m not a writer, nor do I expect to be one anytime soon, and so I’m not as attuned to the prosaic stylings of other writers. The truth is, the early death of a young girl does hit close to home, but not because of my students.
It’s because of Rachel.
When I describe the relationship between Rachel’s family and mine, I use the words “second parents” and “second siblings.” Her family and mine were very close, the children stepping-stone ages apart, with me at the front of the line and Rachel - the baby, the beloved - at the end. We spent holidays together, the adults sitting civilly at one table and the children - my little sister, Rachel, her sister Anna, our friend Katharine, and me - gleefully clustered at the Kids Table a little ways apart. During the rest of the year, we spent countless hours playing make-believe in our backyards, or dressing up in each other’s clothes and taking what we believed to be editorial, high-fashion photographs.
Later, when we had outgrown the worlds in our imaginations, we lounged on couches flipping through magazines, cutting out images and inspirational phrases, creating collages that would hang in each others’ rooms until we left for college, one at a time. Me at the front of the line, and Rachel at the end.
No matter how much time passed, we would gather for the holidays, the Kids Table now cluttered with wine glasses and iPhones. “What will we do when we have kids?” we wondered. Rachel’s answer was immediate: “Make them sit at the Adults Table.”
To know Rachel was to feel invincible. I remember spending an entire summer working on what I believed would be my first great novel. One day, Rachel asked to read it and I shocked myself by handing her the pages. She read for an hour, her eyes racing over my handwriting, my eyes glued to her face. When she finally looked up, I realized I hadn’t been breathing. “Carling,” she said. “This is so good. There are so many parts, and I love them all.” She shoved the notebook into my sweaty palms. “Write more! I have to know what happens next!”
Rachel lived fully; she was strong and she was loud and she was joyful, and that joy was contagious. When she decided to spend her junior semester abroad studying public health in South Africa, no one was surprised. I imagined Rachel chatting with a group of South African mamas, laughing and gossiping and convincing them to bring their children to the clinic so she could pick them up and marvel at how much they’d grown. Rachel was a force to be reckoned with, but she was a force for good, for community, for love. South Africa, I knew, would be a better place because she was there.
I heard what had happened on April 7, but because of the time difference, the news was late in getting to me. She had been camping with three friends in a neighboring country, driving through a kind of national park from one campsite to the next. Rachel was napping in the front seat when the driver, a friend of hers, turned off a paved road onto an unpaved stretch. The driver lost control of the vehicle and the car overturned. The other three girls were injured, but survived. Rachel simply never woke up.
I have been fortunate to have lived a life where death is something that happens in books and movies. It is not a part of my daily existence. It does not wait at my doorstep, licking its chops “like the hungry bear in autumn” in Mary Oliver’s poem. So Rachel’s death has shaken me, woken me up in a way few things have. It still surprises me sometimes. It surprised me by living in the pages of The Lovely Bones, even though Rachel was 21, not 14. Even though she was killed in a car accident, not by a homicidal man. Sebold’s narrator spends a lot of time looking down from heaven on those she loved, especially her parents, and though the thought that Rachel might be watching over her family is comforting, the idea that she might be desperately trying, like Susie, to break through the barrier between heaven and earth makes me want to cry.
And yet, Rachel’s joy will not allow us to despair. We carry on. We go about our lives. We sing. We cook. We draw. We go to work and we come home and we love each other more fiercely, more loudly. After Rachel’s committal service, we gathered in her family’s backyard to eat and watch a slideshow of her life. We sat in silence, sipping occasionally from our cups, as Rachel’s face flashed again and again against the side of the tent that sheltered us from the unseasonably wet evening. Sometimes we laughed, and sometimes we made a knowing little sound in the backs of our throats, and sometimes we tried not to cry because we had done enough of that already, and there would be more to come. But no one spoke, and so it was harder to notice that there was no Kids Table that evening. We all sat mixed together, united by her presence, by “the lovely bones that had grown up around [her] absence: the connections - sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent - that happened after [she] was gone” (363).
PAGE COUNT: 25,058
BOOK COUNT: 63/100
She no longer believed in talk. It never rescued anything… she had come to believe in time alone.Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones
When I was a precocious high-schooler, I picked up a copy of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath at my local Borders. (This was back when Borders was still a thriving corporation and had driven all local booksellers in my hometown out of business. Now the locals are making a comeback, and what was once the Borders is now an empty storefront, gazing out at Lake Street with vacant eyes.) I carried my Steinbeck precociously to the checkout, where a young woman slightly older than me appreciated my precocious choice.
"Oh my God," quoth she, "Steinbeck is, like, the most amazing at describing settings. Like, just the first page of this is, like," she brandished the book at me and cast her eyes to the heavens, "pure genius. You’ll love it." She bagged the book and glanced at the register. "$15.99."
Years later, reading the second Steinbeck novel on the BBC List, I remembered Bookstore Lass and her classification of Steinbeck’s settings as pure genius. The fact is, she’s absolutely right. Steinbeck’s novels often depend on his settings, which act like additional characters, controlling the movements of those who inhabit them and influencing the mood of the work as a whole. Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck’s most famous novella, is no exception. In this work, however, Steinbeck’s idyllic settings only call attention to the violent and tragic actions of those who inhabit them.
The book begins with a description of a riverbank to which protagonists George and Lennie will return at the end of the novel. “A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green,” the description reads. “On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees - willows fresh and green with every spring… and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool” (1). The scene is pristine, perfect, yet even here there is evidence of the destruction of humanity. A path “beaten hard by boys… and beaten hard by tramps” winds its way through the trees (1). Steinbeck’s use of the word “beaten” here (twice) calls attention to violence lurking just out of sight, giving this opening scene a foreboding tint the color of the sky just before a storm.
Sure enough, George and Lennie emerge mere moments later. Out of work and down on their luck, the pair is on their way to a new job after Lennie’s indiscretions at their last location got them run out of town. After looking around, George declares their location a kind of safe house, a place to which they can return if anything should happen. In their own private heaven, George and Lennie are safe, yet even here, violence threatens to intrude.
If Steinbeck’s settings are great, his foreshadowing is even better. Violence follows Lennie to his new job and he finds his dreams of owning a small parcel of land with George out of reach again. As he flees to the riverbank, desperate to follow George’s instructions even as he has disobeyed the most important one, Crooks’s taunting words almost echo in the reader’s ears. “Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head” (70). At the end of the novel, Lennie dies dreaming of the heaven he has imagined, that heaven somewhere. “Look down there acrost the river, like you can almost see the place,” George suggests as he places his gun to the back of Lennie’s head (101). Just like the violence lurking at the corners of George and Lennie’s riverbank, the violence in Lennie’s past will make earthly heaven an impossibility for him.
PAGE COUNT: 24,730
BOOK COUNT: 62/100 (I am starting to think I actually might finish this project.)
It’s a lot nicer to go around with a guy you know.John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
"So, what are you reading these days?" a friend will ask me, because my friends know that I’m always reading something - and usually two or three things.
“Lolita,” I have replied and then I brace myself for one of two responses:
Among my Lolita-survivor friends, finishing Nabokov’s novel is something of a rite of passage, a test - not entirely welcome - of one’s mettle and grit. Not only is the story itself disturbing in a fascinating sort of way, but the reactions of people who see you reading Lolita in some public space, brazenly and without shame, surrounded by God-fearing people no less, inevitably make you doubt your choice of literature. Even after I decided to leave Lolita at home and only read her there, I could not escape scrutiny. My friend Walter, stopping by on his way out one evening, lifted the damning little novel from the couch with eyebrow raised.
“Lolita,” he mused, then, softer, taunting me, “Lo-lee-taaahhh.”
No matter how accustomed to 50 Shades of Gray our culture becomes, there will always be something taboo about Lolita. First published in the United States in 1958, it has sparked a morbid fascination among readers since that time. Part of the appeal of Lolita, aside from its status as an intellectual’s risqué read, lies in the narrator, Humbert Humbert (an alias, we learn at the end of the novel, that “expresses the nastiness best” ). By having the villain of the story narrate the events, Nabokov establishes empathy between Hubert and the reader. Even though the audience might find his actions repulsive, we must acknowledge the logic behind them. My playwriting instructor used to tell us never to write a character who knew they were crazy. “Crazy people don’t think they’re crazy. Their actions make sense to them,” she said. “In order to write an effective character with an abnormal mind, you have to understand why they’re behaving the way they are, and if you understand it, the audience will, too.” Nabokov creates in Humbert a disordered character whose motivations are completely clear to the reader, creating a sense of complicity between Humbert and his audience.
This complicity is, in fact, crucial to the success of Humbert’s story, and of Nabokov’s novel. Humbert addresses his story to the “ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” placing the audience in the role of impartial judges (9). By labeling his readers as jurors, Nabokov instills in us a sense of responsibility; we are not only morally obligated to hear Humbert’s story, but also to try to understand his motivations before passing judgment. Luckily, Humbert establishes motivation at the very beginning of the novel in the person of Annabel, a girl with whom the young Humbert had a summertime fling while on vacation. They “had had the same dreams… found strange affinities” (14). Humbert feels a deep connection with Annabel. Their relationship is both a sexual and an emotional awakening unlike anything they had ever experienced before. “My darling would draw away with a nervous toss of her hair, and then again come darkly near and let me feed on her open mouth, while with a generosity that was ready to offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails, I have her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion,” Humbert recalls (15). In this passage, he conflates the surrendering of his physical self with an emotional vulnerability that is never quite sure of itself. Drawing away and coming near again, Annabel’s own nervousness sets the tone for the uncertainty in their relationship, so that Humbert feels the need to devour whatever part of her he can for as long as he can. Love for Humbert becomes a thing to be scarfed quickly down before it has the opportunity to flee. When Annabel dies suddenly of typhus, this view of love is only solidified in Humbert’s mind, and Lolita’s uncanny resemblance to his childhood sweetheart suggests to him that he has been given a second chance at claiming the love that eluded him all those years ago.
So Humbert creates for himself another Annabel, secretly nicknaming the child Dolores Haze “Lolita.” By giving her a new name, Humbert can divorce her from her true self, re-imagining her as a character whom he can manipulate. At first, Dolores is willing to play along. Obsessed with the grown-up antics of film characters and actresses in movie magazines, Dolores imitates their behavior. She flirts. She is coy. She advances and retreats - if Humbert is to be believed - with the skill of a grown woman used to men’s attentions. Together, Humbert and Dolores shape the child into Lolita, “another, fanciful Lolita - perhaps more real than Lolita; overlapping, encasing her; floating between [the two of them] and having no will, no consciousness - indeed, no life of her own” (62). This duplicitousness echoes Annabel’s earlier reluctance to engage fully with Humbert, strengthening the comparison between her and Lolita.
As long as the fantasy seems like a game, Dolores is willing to play along. But when Humbert’s ultimate goal is revealed, she realizes that this game has become her life, and that she has lost in the most profound way possible. After the trauma of her rape, Dolores’s development is halted and she is shuttled across the country in Humbert’s endless race to escape the consequences of his crime. During their trip, it becomes clear that Dolores is not a willing participant in what Humbert views as a love affair. “I should have understood,” Humbert muses, “that Lolita had already proved to be something quiet different from innocent Annabel, and that the nymphean evil breathing through every pore of the fey child that I had prepared for my secret delectation, would make the secrecy impossible, and the delectation lethal” (124-125). Moreover, Humbert whines, “I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl” (148). Despite his reservations, Humbert’s lust will not allow him to let her go, and his crime will not release him either. As “Annabel Haze, alias Dolores Lee, alias Loleeta” struggles desperately to free herself from the prison of Humbert’s assaults, Humbert himself entwines her with the memory of his sweetheart, and thus her history with his own.
Time, however, presses forward, no matter how fast or far the pair drives. Blinded by unnatural passion, Humbert finds every move thwarted by Dolores’s growing abhorrence of him, as well as her simple growing up. By the time Dolores is enrolled in school, Humbert has ceased to fixate on her resemblance to Annabel, seeing her instead as she is. “The fog of all lust had been swept away,” he recalls during an argument, “leaving nothing but this dreadful lucidity. Oh, she had changed! Her complexion was now that of any vulgar untidy high school girl… its smooth tender bloom had been so lovely in former days, so bright with tears… A course flush had now replaced that innocent fluorescence” (204). For the first time, Humbert has caught Lolita in a lie, and it taints the way he sees her. He calls her “Dolores” (205). The illusion is shattered.
Humbert then begins his descent into violent madness. Spurred by Dolores’s repeated betrayals, Humbert purchases a gun, carries it around with him, calls it “chum.” When he finally fixes on the victim of his revenge - the playwright Clare Quilty whose exploitation of Dolores rivals Humbert’s own - he begins to obsess over Quilty’s death with the same sexual energy he previously devoted to Dolores. This sensuality comes to the forefront as Humbert loads his gun: “Push the magazine into the butt. Press home until you hear or feel the magazine engage. Delightfully snug. Capacity: eight cartridges. Full Blued. Aching to be discharged” (292). This description, so obviously erotic, marks Humbert’s transition from physical lust to a lust for violence. Now violence, too, is a thing to be consumed quickly, before the impulse or opportunity is taken away.
As the Rolling Stones sing, “Rape, murder: it’s just a shot away.” The most terrifying thing about Nabokov’s novel, however, is that the reader not only understands that shot, but also understands the planning that went into it, and the motivations behind the planning. By positioning us in the mind of the narrator, Nabokov ensures that we are too close to look away, almost complicit in the action. We, too, are just a shot away.
PAGE COUNT: 24,627
BOOK COUNT: 61/100
Here’s some advice: never read Lolita in the summertime. Especially at the beach or the pool. You start to see Humbert Humbert everywhere.
Guys, this was a thoroughly disturbing book. Thank goodness it’s over. Essay to follow, just as soon as I recover my sanity.
…a destiny in the making is, believe me, not one of those honest mystery stories where all you have to do is keep an eye on the clues.Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita