Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of P——, in Kentucky.

It's been suggested that evaluating old novels by today's standards may not be fair. But if that's the case than how should they be judged? Or should we not have opinions about literature that was written before our time? Personally, I think that a story is a story is a story and that it matters not when it was written. A story is interesting only because of its characters and conflict. Of course there are other necessary things, but in the beginning of a story this is important. Setting is not a hookable device, unless of course one is reading the beginning of Sharknado

So with novels this old I try to focus on the opening only from the point of conflict and character. I ignore the obvious things that sound arcane, like style: sentence structure and word choice. In this case the peculiar habit of censoring out names of places and people.

This opening line offers nothing that might hook someone. It employs the weather cliche and drinking cliche and little else. The only thing it lacks, not making it pure exposition, is the once upon time phrase.

The next line:

There were no servants present, and the gentlemen, with chairs closely approaching, seemed to be discussing some subject with great earnestness.

The word "seem" is not a good word to use if one wishes to be concise. In this case we are told that two men are talking about something that may or may not be worth reading about. Why say this if it is not important and why say this if it is important? Why not begin right away with what they are talking about about?

Then the next paragraph:

For convenience sake, we have said, hitherto, two gentlemen. One of the parties, however, when critically examined, did not seem, strictly speaking, to come under the species. 

Ill-defined preamble does not create suspense. However, this line does indicate a hook in that one of these men is not strictly speaking a gentlemen. Or am I trying too hard to make this opening sound better than it is? What follows is a description of a man:

He was a short, thick-set man, with coarse, commonplace features, and that swaggering air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world. He was much over-dressed, in a gaudy vest of many colors, a blue neckerchief, bedropped gayly with yellow spots, and arranged with a flaunting tie, quite in keeping with the general air of the man. His hands, large and coarse, were plentifully bedecked with rings; and he wore a heavy gold watch-chain, with a bundle of seals of portentous size, and a great variety of colors, attached to it,—which, in the ardor of conversation, he was in the habit of flourishing and jingling with evident satisfaction. His conversation was in free and easy defiance of Murray's Grammar, and was garnished at convenient intervals with various profane expressions, which not even the desire to be graphic in our account shall induce us to transcribe.

Here we have a character who I think would interest most people and nudge them to read on.

First thing said:

"That is the way I should arrange the matter," said Mr. Shelby.

Verdict: Fail

This is part of the series: the top 100 novels from Daniel S. Burt's book called Novel 100, the top 100 novels of all time. There is debate of course as to what should be on that list, but his opinions are as good as any. Uncle Tom's Cabin figures in as the 89th greatest novel of all time.

Theodore Moracht

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