John Steinbeck & Jack London vs. Charles Dickens & Charlotte Brontë

a kate west reflection

The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas ( above.

I know that everyone is crazy about Jane Austen these days, as well they should be. She's a classic and an astute, if sometimes strict, observer of human nature. Yet, while my mind absolutely accepts this, my heart belongs elsewhere. The romantic part of me wants the sweeping drama of the mating ritual and that whole dramatic dance. Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre" provides this for me. Not that Austen isn't romantic. Of course she is. But her novels can be more intellectual and passionate, while at the same time giving us social messages. She's not everyone's cup of tea; Mark Twain disparaged her, but he was a cantankerous old man. Brilliant writers often are.

Personally, sometimes I just want to escape (not that Brontë can't be deep, relax). Mr. Rochester seems more mysterious than Mr. Darcy and seemingly unattainable, making him all the more desirable. And I'm a sucker for happy endings. Then there's Charles Dickens. "Oliver Twist" is definitely a real depiction of the harshness of old English orphanages, but it does end well for the main character. Many people make fun of me for this, but "A Tale of Two Cities" is one of my favorite novels. I know it's a soap opera, with one ridiculous coincidence after another, but it speaks to me. Sydney Carton's heroic sacrifice gets me every time. The background of the French Revolution's Reign of Terror helps this story considerably, along with such rich characters like the brooding Madame Defarge, who keeps knitting aristocratic destruction while the streets run red with blood. Great stuff.

More realistic are the novels by Jack London and John Steinbeck, taken from both authors' real life experiences of Alaskan sled dogging in London's case and from the migrant workers Steinbeck grew up around in California. These novels are considered romantic because they depict small lives on a grand scale. The common man made poetic. London painted a vivid picture of man surviving in nature by befriending loyal dogs and understanding wolves. Men in such harsh winter climates needed to make these alliances; the resulting relationships satisfied both. Steinbeck made more of a social statement by showing us the inner lives of men who worked with their hands. He even wrote about his own journey traveling across America with his ferocious poodle Charley. Everyone reads these novels in school, but re-reading them as an adult causes you to appreciate their nuances even more. At least I think that's why I continue to be drawn to them.

The point is, literature (and film and art) is subjective. We like what we like. And we find romance where we can, since real life won't always give us what we want. And sometimes, even real life in fiction, even tragedy in books, seems more appealing than what we see at home. Or is it that these authors give us a clearer sense of life around us, which is really the most romantic thing of all.

Fun Reads:
Travels with Charley in Search of America: (Centennial Edition)

The Call of the Wild (Aladdin Classics)

Jane Eyre (Dover Thrift Editions)

A Tale of Two Cities (Penguin Classics)

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