Close Reading

Teaching at Cornell in the 1950s, Vladimir Nabokov offered a European fiction course whose exam questions could be distressingly broad or pitilessly specific — some examples are given in an appendix to Lectures on Literature:

Bleak House

  • Why did Dickens need to give Esther three suitors (Guppy, Jarndyce, and Woodcourt)?
  • If you compare Lady Dedlock and Skimpole, which of them is the author’s greater success?
  • Discuss the structure and style of Bleak House.
  • Discuss John Jarndyce’s house. (Mangles? Surprised birds?)
  • Discuss the visit to Bell Yard (Neckett’s children; and Mr. Gridley).
  • Give at least four examples of the “child theme” in Bleak House.
  • What kind of place was Bleak House — give at least four descriptive details.
  • Where was Bleak House situated?
  • How is the “bird theme” linked up with Krook?
  • How is the “fog theme” linked up with Krook?
  • Whose style are we reminded of when Dickens raises his voice?
  • The social side (“upper class” versus “lower class” etc.) is the weakest one in Bleak House. Who was Mr. George’s brother? What part did he play? Should a major reader skip those pages, even if they are weak?
  • Follow Mr. Guppy through Bleak House.

Madame Bovary

  • Describe briefly Flaubert’s use of the counterpoint technique in the County Fair scene.
  • There are numerous thematic lines in Madame Bovary, such as “Horse,” “Plaster Priest,” “Voice,” “The Three Doctors.” Describe these four themes briefly.
  • Discuss Flaubert’s use of the word “and.”
  • What character in Madame Bovary behaves in very much the same way as a character in Bleak House does under somewhat similar circumstances? The thematic clue is: “devotion.”
  • Is there a Dickensian atmosphere about Flaubert’s description of Berthe’s infancy and childhood? (Be specific.)
  • The features of Fanny Price and Esther are pleasantly blurred. Not so with Emma. Describe her eyes, hair, hands, skin.
  • Would you say that Emma’s nature was hard and shallow?
  • Would she prefer a landscape peopled with ruins and cows to one that contained no allusions to people?
  • Did she like her mountain lakes with or without a lone skiff?
  • What had Emma read? Name at least four works and their authors.

In his annotated copy of The Metamorphosis, Nabokov, a trained entomologist, observed that “A regular beetle has no eyelids and cannot close its eyes” — and thus Gregor Samsa is “a beetle with human eyes.”

A Story Without Words

Subtitled “A Novel in Woodcuts,” Lynd Ward’s 1929 parable Gods’ Man unfolds in images, making it an important forebear of the modern graphic novel. A young artist makes his way to the big city, where a masked stranger gives him a magic paintbrush. The adventures that follow remark on the roles of love and commerce in an artist’s life; in the end the stranger returns to claim a reward.

Despite its unusual format, Ward’s book sold more than 20,000 copies during the Depression, and he followed it up with five more wordless novels. When he died in 1985, he was at work on an ambitious seventh, which Rutgers published in 2001.


In the 1897 edition of Who’s Who, George Bernard Shaw listed his recreations as “cycling and showing off.”

To H.G. Wells he once wrote, “The longer I live the more I see that I am never wrong about anything, and that all the pains I have so humbly taken to verify my notions have only wasted my time.”


Above: Antonio Cicognara, Saint George and the Princess, tempera on panel, 1475.

Below: Lewis Carroll, Saint George and the Dragon, photograph, 1874.

Of photography Carroll wrote, “It is my one recreation and I think it should be done well.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Recently I was on the northern Queensland coast of Australia, in an Aboriginal reserve. In the most unlikely spot I encountered a beachcomber, who had been living there for several years. He was looking for floats and bottles, building a raft that would take him around the top of Cape York in one of the most dangerous channels in the world for current and wind — the Torres Straits. I asked him if he knew the risks.

‘I’m not bothered,’ he said. ‘You can go anywhere, you can do just about anything, if you’re not in a hurry.’

That is one of the sanest statements I have ever heard in my life.

— Paul Theroux, Fresh Air Fiend: Travel Writings, 2001

Day Tripper

A letter from Lewis Carroll to Nature, March 31, 1887:

Having hit upon the following method of mentally computing the day of the week for any given date, I send it you in the hope that it may interest some of your readers. I am not a rapid computer myself, and as I find my average time for doing any such question is about 20 seconds, I have little doubt that a rapid computer would not need 15.

Take the given date in 4 portions, viz. the number of centuries, the number of years over, the month, the day of the month.

Compute the following 4 items, adding each, when found, to the total of the previous items. When an item or total exceeds 7, divide by 7, and keep the remainder only.

The Century-Item. — For Old Style (which ended September 2, 1752) subtract from 18. For New Style (which began September 14) divide by 4, take overplus from 3, multiply remainder by 2. [The Century-Item is the first two digits of the year, so for 1811 take 18.]

The Year-Item. — Add together the number of dozens, the overplus, and the number of 4’s in the overplus.

The Month-Item. — If it begins or ends with a vowel, subtract the number, denoting its place in the year, from 10. This, plus its number of days, gives the item for the following month. The item for January is ‘0’; for February or March (the 3rd month), ‘3’; for December (the 12th month), ’12.’ [So, for clarity, the required final numbers after division by 7 are January, 0; February, 3; March, 3; April, 6; May, 1; June, 4; July, 6; August 2; September, 5; October, 0; November, 3; and December, 5.]

The Day-Item is the day of the month.

The total, thus reached, must be corrected, by deducting ‘1’ (first adding 7, if the total be ‘0’), if the date be January or February in a Leap Year: remembering that every year, divisible by 4, is a Leap Year, excepting only the century-years, in New Style, when the number of centuries is not so divisible (e.g. 1800).

The final result gives the day of the week, ‘0’ meaning Sunday, ‘1’ Monday, and so on.


1783, September 18

17, divided by 4, leaves ‘1’ over; 1 from 3 gives ‘2’; twice 2 is ‘4.’

83 is 6 dozen and 11, giving 17; plus 2 gives 19, i.e. (dividing by 7) ‘5.’ Total 9, i.e. ‘2.’

The item for August is ‘8 from 10,’ i.e. ‘2’; so, for September, it is ‘2 plus 3,’ i.e. ‘5.’ Total 7, i.e. ‘0,’ which goes out.

18 gives ‘4.’ Answer, ‘Thursday.’

1676, February 23

16 from 18 gives ‘2.’

76 is 6 dozen and 4, giving 10; plus 1 gives 11, i.e. ‘4.’ Total ‘6.’

The item for February is ‘3.’ Total 9, i.e. ‘2.’

23 gives ‘2.’ Total ‘4.’

Correction for Leap Year gives ‘3.’ Answer, ‘Wednesday.’

(Via Edward Wakeling, Rediscovered Lewis Carroll Puzzles, 1995.)

Line of Thought

At Mr Currie’s table I met several ingenious persons, who entertained me with curious and interesting reminiscences. Dr Adam Smith, author of ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ was a native of Kirkcaldy, and in the place composed his great work. While engaged in composition he frequently fell into a condition of reverie, so as to be entirely unconscious of his relations with the external world. Early on a Sunday morning he walked into his garden, his mind occupied with a train of ideas; he unconsciously travelled into the turnpike road, along which he proceeded in a state of abstraction, till he reached Dunfermline, at a distance of fifteen miles. The people were going to church, and the sound of the bells awakened the philosopher from his dream. Arrayed in an old dressing-gown, he was regarded as an oddity.

— Charles Rogers, Leaves From My Autobiography, 1876


Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire includes a character named John Shade, a poet who writes the lines

Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time,
A singing in the ears.

In the first edition of his 1964 book The Ambidextrous Universe, Martin Gardner quoted these lines and, as a joke, credited them to Shade rather than Nabokov, listing Shade in the index.

Nabokov, in turn, in his 1969 novel Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle had a character quote Gardner’s book and the same two lines of verse:

‘Space is a swarming in the eyes, and Time a singing in the ears,” says John Shade, a modern poet, as quoted by an invented philosopher (‘Martin Gardiner’) in The Ambidextrous Universe, page 165.

Gardner’s book concerns symmetry, and Ada is a palindrome; further, the action in that novel takes place on Anti-Terra, a sort of mirror image of Earth. Nabokov’s 1974 novel Look at the Harlequins!, also influenced by Gardner’s book, concerns a man who can’t distinguish left from right.

(Thanks, Jeff.)

Fair Play

In writing novels as well as plays the cardinal rule is to treat the various characters as if they were chessmen, and not try to win the game by altering the rules; for instance, not move the knight as if it were a pawn, and so on. Again the characters ought to be strictly defined, and not put out of action in order to help the author to accomplish his purpose; for, on the contrary, it is through their activity alone he should try to win. Not to do this is to appeal to the miraculous, which is always unnatural.

The Reflections of [Georg Christoph] Lichtenberg, 1908

Fancy That
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2005 Yale psychologists Deena Skolnick and Paul Bloom asked children and adults about the beliefs of fictional characters regarding other characters — both those that exist in the same world, such as Batman and Robin, and those that inhabit different worlds, such as Batman and SpongeBob SquarePants.

They found that while both adults and young children distinguish these two types of relationships, young children “often claim that Batman thinks that Robin is make-believe.”

“This is a surprising result; it seems unlikely that children really believe that Batman thinks Robin is not real,” they wrote. “If they did, they should find stories with these characters incomprehensible.”

One possible explanation is that young children can find it hard to take a character’s perspective, and so might have been answering from their own point of view rather than Batman’s. In a second study, kids acknowledged that characters from the same world can act on each other.

But this is a complex topic even for grownups. “James Bond inhabits a world quite similar to our own, and so his beliefs should resemble those of a real person. Like us, he should think Cinderella is make-believe. On the other hand, Cinderella inhabits a world that is sufficiently dissimilar to our own that its inhabitants should not share many of our beliefs. Our intuition, then, is that Cinderella should not believe that James Bond is make-believe; she should have no views about him at all.”

(Deena Skolnick and Paul Bloom, “What Does Batman Think About Spongebob? Children’s Understanding of the Fantasy/Fantasy Distinction,” Cognition 101:1 [2006], B9-B18. See Author!, Truth and Fiction, and Split Decision.)