#6 degrees from Vanity to Courage and Determination

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, begins with Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, a satirical novel published in 19 monthly instalments in the mid 1840s.

Thackeray’s novel follows the life of Rebecca Sharp (“Becky”), a strong-willed, cunning, moneyless, young woman who is determined to make her way in society. She comes to a sticky end, unlike the protagonist of another work which deals with the issue of upward mobility and what it means to be a lady.

In Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, (adapted for screen as My Fair Lady) the flower-seller Eliza Dolittle  is taught how to adopt the mannerisms and speech of a lady. She’s so successful she can pass herself off as a Duchess.

Someone who doesn’t need to be taught the right way to behave is Isabel Archer, the central character in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. This tale of a free-spirited young American woman who travels from New York to England to confront her destiny but finds it overwhelming. The novel has an ambiguous ending where we’re uncertain whether she returns to an unhappy marriage with her snobbish husband Osmond or opts for freedom.

Freedom is what Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, desires. Being a wife and a mother are not enough but in the Louisiana community where she lives, there are few other choices she can make. The path she takes is one which has stimulated much debate since the novella was published in 1899 – the first reviewers castigated Chopin but feminist critics since have celebrated The Awakening as a landmark in feminist literature.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah also revolves around a woman’s desire for freedom. Like many of Nigeria’s educated middle class young people, Ifemelu cannot wait to get away from the country and its stultifying atmosphere. But the brighter future she anticipates as a student in America proves problematic as she contends with racism and racial distinctions. She feels truly free only when she stops trying to hide behind an assumed American accent and refuses to artificially straighten her hair.

For strength of character, there is no finer example than Maya Angelou. I Know How the Caged Bird Sings, is the first part of an autobiography in which she describes the challenges of  her early years and the racial abuse and sexual abuse she experienced while growing up in the Southern States of America. She also shows how her love of literature helped her deal with her trauma and develop into a self possessed young woman capable of dealing with prejudice.

Sexual abuse figures large in my last book in this chain: Emma Donaghue’s The Room. This is a tale, told by five year old Jack whose entire life has been spent shut inside a 12-foot-square room he occupies with his “Ma”. She is the victim of an abduction and Jack the product of her rape. Despite her confinement “Ma” proves to be a stellar mother but she knows that they can survive only by one supreme act of courage and determination.

And with that this chain comes to an end. I didn’t plan it this way but somehow ended up with a theme about courage and tenacity in many forms.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on November 17, 2018, in Six Degrees of Separation and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. A good strong chain with great books. I’ve read most of these too, though #blush not (yet) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
    LOL I have been wracking my brains to find a matching pair for Non Fiction November, and it just occurs to me that I could pair Germaine Greer’s On Rape with Room. But that seems unbelievably icky to me, so I won’t do it!

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  2. Excellent chain and I have read them all except for Vanity Fair (saw the movie) and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Planning to read the Maya Angelou before the end of the year.

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    • The Maya Angelou is a very powerful story and even though we know it ends well (in the sense she became such a respected poet etc) it doesn’t take away the feeling of sadness and anger when learning about her early difficulties

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  3. Love your choices and your links – particularly between Caged Bird and Room!

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