Sorry for the delay on this one, everybody. There’s a lot going on and I didn’t have time to continue our book club last weekend like I was hoping to. But holy cow these last four chapters were awesome. I did such a good job with accidentally splitting up these chapters in a way that made sense.
If you haven’t read our discussion about the first four chapters yet, you can still totally do so. But now let’s talk about how l complained last time that the bad guys didn’t feel threatening enough and then BAM URSULA MONKTON.
This was a fantastic, short and sweet chapter, except if “sweet” meant “goddamned disgusting”. This part with him pulling the worm out of his foot was so gross, but also just awesome. It was supernatural enough where it didn’t feel like a real disease, but definitely like some sort of malevolent force. I still have no idea why there’s a malevolent force after this kid, which actually makes the next few chapters really interesting when the worm comes back as Ursula Monkton, especially in the context of the childhood vs adulthood theme. Where the powerlessness of childhood is almost more so the enemy than the actual enemies are.
Anyway, this was like a four page chapter and I’m struggling to come up with anything more to say about it, so…
One of my favorite things about the childhood theme in this novel is the way children read books. There’s a lot going on in here and I’m gonna struggle to talk about it succinctly, so here’s a small list:
- I’m a sucker for when characters in stories read stories, because there’s almost always some metaphorical thing going on where it plays into the book in a larger sense. Like at the beginning of this chapter when he’s reading the Egyptian mythology and he wonders why Ra didn’t kill Hathor “when they had the chance”, and we’re just like “uh, like how at the end of the last chapter you literally said you couldn’t bring yourself to actually kill the worm?”. There’s a few other books that he reads in these chapters, but the connections aren’t quite as obvious. I’d love to speculate on these with you guys.
- Warning – This point is super English major-y, so skip it if you don’t like this stuff: Ariel and I took our senior seminar for the English major last year in a class called Victorian Others. We were expecting it to be about Others in the sense that “Other” is traditionally used in the humanities, where people who deviate from a “norm” sort of get typecast as exotics (like women, non-European characters, queer characters, etc) and the evolution of their depiction through literature reflects on the sociopolitical context the literature was written in. Anyway, it wasn’t about that, but this other thing where the Victorian Era was one of the first where ideas of the unconscious and the theory of evolution really started to take hold in the social consciousness. So suddenly people were more aware of these ideas that there’s stuff hidden away in humanity driving humanity. The evolution stuff is extra interesting here, because suddenly the line between the human and the animal isn’t as rigid as it once was, and the literature from this time on reflects a certain semi-permeability here and brings in a certain “animal within”. One way this became really interesting was through the idea of the child as an other, like as a time in human life where a person is inherently closer to nature due to – to oversimplify this – childlike imagination. And with that really long-winded explanation of why Ariel and I have bachelor’s degrees, it’s super interesting for me to think of what Neil Gaiman is doing here with his themes of childhood in this context. The main character here is so much closer to all this supernatural stuff in ways that adults aren’t – the main character is telling this story as an adult who literally could not remember any of it until now. It kind of reminds me of J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, where Peter is eternally a child and linked to all this fantasy and supernatural wonder, and when the children he brings into this world with his leave and grow up, they completely lose any connection they had with it. There’s a fantastic quote in this chapter that sums it all up:
“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, the creep beneath the rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.”
Which is kind of the entire theory behind books like Peter and Wendy and Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, that children are allowed a less civilized, less “human” sense of adventure and excitement, but it’s always unclear whether that’s actually a good thing. So, yeah, if anybody wants to talk about this, uh, hit me up!
Anyway, that long aside out of the way, I love the slow build with Ursula. She just starts out as irritating, telling the narrator not to go exploring on his own, and then telling him to go take a nap, but then she gets spooky when she’s the voice on the telephone. She reminds me of Harry Potter‘s Dolores Umbridge, where at first you just hate her, but then you realize that she’s actually seriously threatening and you hate her more.
LIKE THIS. WHERE THE DAD TRIES TO DROWN THE KID. HOLY SHIT. Once again, the childhood theme really makes this work perfectly – because the adult reader sees Ursula’s sexual manipulation of the dad, but in the child context it’s just more of how she’s possessing and hijacking the narrator’s entire life. I like how the narrator straight up says, “I was a child and didn’t think anything of this”. The implications of the one perspective on the other are great here.
Also, this chapter is just terrifying, so that’s cool!
Two of my absolute favorite things that have happened in the book so far happen in this chapter where the narrator tries to make his great escape from the house to the Hempstocks. First, there’s this bit where the narrator reminds us the context in which this story is taking place:
(I am staring at a pond, remembering things that are hard to believe. Why do I find the hardest thing for me to believe, looking back, is that a girl of five and a boy of seven had a gas fire in their bedroom?)
I love this, because it’s reminding us that 1) the adult narrator doesn’t remember any of this until he returned to the Hempstock farm, and we have no idea why, which is a cool mystery, and 2) introduces doubt – the narrator isn’t sure about the accuracy of his account of his story. He’s already admitted that he didn’t remember it until now, and we have no idea why. Should we be concerned about an unreliable narrator? Should we be questioning what’s going on? I DON’T KNOW. ISN’T THIS FUN?
His sliding down the drainpipe (again, because he read about it in books, bringing me back to that point I made earlier that I love) and then running away is fantastic. It’s so frightening when Ursula returns in her supernatural glory (with her blouse undone and her bra showing, having just come from being with the father, once again merging that adult-sexuality/child-supernatural thing I was talking about earlier, which I still think is really clever framing). And then, when all hope is lost, LETTIE MOTHERFUCKING HEMPSTOCK.
The girl who was walking toward us, across the field, wore a shiny red raincoat, with a hood, and a pair of black Wellington boots that seemed to big for her. She walked out of the darkness, unafraid. She looked up at Ursula Monkton.
“Get off my land,” said Lettie Hempstock.
You guys loved Lettie Hempstock – I’m pretty sure most of the comments people wrote last time were about how much people liked this character. And it’s so great to see her return, doing the same “instantly solving problems” thing, but in a context that’s actually threatening. And it’s fantastic when she says “You were lucky… Fifteen feet further back, and the field belongs to Colin Anders.” Like, as deus ex machina as Lettie is, we understand clearly the limitations she does have.
So For Next Time
I think planning for next weekend (August 10th) might be a good plan since this one went up late and it doesn’t make sense to do this again for this weekend. So, once again, next four chapters for then! And do leave comments here! Talk about what I brought up, bring up what you want to talk about. Whatever, man! This is our book club!