The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say about the Stages of Life

Article excerpt

The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life. By Edward Mendelson. New York: Pantheon Books, 2006. 288 pp. $23.00 (cloth), $14.00 (paper).

The late philosopher Richard Rorty used to complain that, in a time when philosophers were turning to hterature, literary critics were trying to become "B-minus philosophers." For Rorty, those who worked with texts professionally surrendered their strengths when they turned away from texts and toward theory and cultural studies. Obviously, the same could be said for theologians and biblical critics.

Edward Mendelson, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia and literary executor of W. H. Auden's estate, is on familiar ground when it comes to the intersection of rehgious and textual questions. The seven English novels he examines in The Things That Matter, while not conventionally "rehgious," necessarily pose the large questions that humans ask and that religions have always attempted to answer. "This book is about life as it is interpreted by books," says Mendelson at the very start. His premise is that anyone who reads a novel takes "an interest both in the closed fictional world of that novel and the ways in which the book provides models or examples of the kinds of life that a reader might or might not choose to live." Thus, "A reader who identifies with the characters in a novel is not reacting in a naïve way that ought to be outgrown or transcended, but is performing one of the central acts of literary understanding" (pp. xi, xii). Happily for all of us interested in what it means to be a human being, Edward Mendelson is giving us permission to restore literature to the fullness of its role in the reflective enterprise.

Mendelson takes the tittle of The Things That Matter from two Virginia Woolf quotations, and three of the seven novels he examines are hers: Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Between the Acts. The other four are Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Bronte's fane Eyre, and George Eliot's Middlemarch. Mendelson's argument is that each of these seven novels presents models for the hves we might choose to live in each of life's successive stages. …