If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

You, the reader, purchases Italo Calvino’s newest book, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. The Reader soon discovers a problem; the book only has the beginning of the story and then breaks off right at a moment of suspense. The Reader returns to the bookstore to exchange his defective copy. There the reader meets the Other Reader, a girl named Ludmilla, a veracious reader who remembers the details of most of the books she has ever read and who has also come to return a defective copy of Italo Calvino’s new work. The Reader and the Other Reader exchange phone numbers and agree to discuss the book after they both finish. Unfortunately the replacement copy turns out to be a different story, which also ends shortly after the beginning at a moment of great suspense. The Reader calls up the Other Reader to discover she has the same problem. As they try to solve the mystery, they encounter yet more stories that begin, but never end. They journey into the corridors of universities where professors defend their esoteric subjects and obscure books, where feminist study groups rip apart books in discussions while only having read a fraction of the book, where chaotic publishing houses face an onslaught of writers and other shady literary figures, where internationally renowned authors struggle to overcome writer’s block, and even to South America where revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries infiltrate each other’s organizations and falseness pervades everything in society, all while hunting down a mysterious translator named Ermes Marana who wants to fill the world with fake bastardized copies of books and who has some kind of past relationship with Ludmilla. While trying to solve the mystery, the Reader tries to understand his new budding relationship with Ludmilla in the hopes of beginning a romantic relationship with her.

Like other books in the Postmodern tradition such as The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon and Operation Shylock by Philip Roth, there is a conspiracy-type of mystery at the heart of the novel, and the attempt to unravel this mystery not only creates a strong sense of confusion and chaos, but also raises questions about our identity and the character’s identities. As a metafiction, it is a fictional story that directly comments on the nature of reading and authorship. The novel employs the unusual second person perspective in order to address the reader directly and force the actual reader to identify with the Reader-character in the story. This is a metafictional trick to make us aware of the fact that the fictional reader is both like us and not like us at the same time.

The Reader as character is an Everyman figure who stands in for readers in general. This Every Reader represents the general desire of the average reader: to get to the end and solve the mystery underlying the main problem of the story. Traditional reading involves a story beginning with some sort of problem that causes the character to attempt to solve it, reaching an ending in which they either fix the problem, are changed by it, or both. Like the Reader character we, too, experience the frustration of ten separate stories that have beginnings, but no ends. Calvino tempts us to feel disappointed along with the reader since we never get to hear how these stories finish. However, unlike the Reader-Character we can see the real story is the frame narrative around the individual unfinished tales. The problem of the novel that draws the actual reader in is the Reader-character’s attempt to solve the mystery of the unfinished novels and his pursuit of Ludmilla as a love interest. These unfinished stories are themselves a means to an end, a trope that allows us to experience the real story. Instead of thinking of them as unfinished stories, we should instead treat them as clues in a mystery. The real story then is about how the reader character tries to solve the mystery of the unfinished novel and whether he can build a relationship with Ludmilla.

The identification with the Every Reader, emphasized through the second person perspective, is a fictional trick that urges us to consider the boundaries between fiction and reality. The perspective of the novel might encourage us to identify with the reader, but we are also not like this character. It is only a character, not us. The Every Reader captures a generalized version of a reader—in other words, it might capture what we want out of reading—but at the same time it lacks all our individualities as flesh-and-blood people. I have a daughter and I think I’m a pretty good father, I have a wife who I love, and I have a job as a librarian in a school. The Reader Character has none of these specific qualities or background. This reader character is not really me. So it is important to remember then that although the narrative tries to get us to identify with the Every Reader, this figure in the text is still a character at the end of the day; it only captures the real us to a point. By doing this the novel is warning against identifying too closely with a character in any book and forgetting they are products of the imagination. They might seem real, but they are just words on a page. We might see aspects of ourselves in them, but they are still very different from us and often in very different social circumstances. We might see people similar to ones we know, but if you think about it more they almost certainly are differences between the real person and the character on the page that reminds you of them. This point is addressed further in the relationship between the two readers. The reader is constantly trying to figure out Ludmilla. Is she interested in him? Why is she always late for their meetings? When we actually think about it, the reader character barely knows Ludmilla. He struggles to understand her and wonders if she is truly interested in him. Here, the novel is addressing the difficult question about how well we ever know anybody. How much do we truly understand the inner workings of our parents, our spouses, our children, and our friends? How much as readers do we understand what motivates Ludmilla? If the reader doesn’t know much about her and we only see the world through his eyes, how can we know much about her?

The novel offers other views about the purpose of reading. Ludmilla is the ideal reader. Ludmilla wants a pure and organic reading experience. She doesn’t want to know how books are made, revised, cut, changed, etc. She doesn’t desire books to comment on the deeper social world. She wants the final product, the book itself, to read for reading’s sake.

“For this woman . . . reading means stripping herself of every purpose, every foregone conclusion, to be ready to catch a voice that makes itself heard when you least expect it, a voice that comes from an unknown source, from somewhere beyond the book, beyond the author, beyond the conventions of writing: from the unsaid, from what the world has not yet said of itself and does not yet have the words to say (239).”

Reading for Ludmilla is a losing of one’s identity. We temporarily explore other worlds, other people’s experiences, other people who are not necessarily like us, and who have had different experiences from us. Reading for her seems to be about experiencing the world anew through the imagination. If there is deeper meaning to be found in literature it is the way it erases us as individuals and our petty concerns, and lets us experience the lives, worlds, and problems of others. The point for Ludmilla is the experience itself.

Some readers turn to books not to lose their identity and preconceptions, but to confirm and reaffirm their identity and political commitments. This is the case with Ludmilla’s sister, Lotaria, who is presented as a typical left-wing university student. She states at various points in the novel that the purpose of books is not so much to read them as to analyze them for clandestine social impulses and political points. She doesn’t enjoy reading books, but rather the point for her is dissecting and discussing books. She reads books already knowing what she is looking for and then finds it.
Our third model is Ermes Marana, the main antagonist who is behind the forgeries that forms the core problem of the novel. He also has ideas about the nature of books and readers.

“As for him, he wanted, on the contrary, to show her that behind the written page is the void: the world exists only as artifice, pretense, misunderstanding, falsehood (239).”

Unlike Ludmilla who views books as an escape into imagination, which may have the potential to change the way we view the world through new experiences different from our own lives and Lotaria who views books as social products to be critiqued and dissected, and thus are reflections of a certain social order that exists in the world, Ermes Marana believes that fiction is artifice. The world is meaningless, but stories give the illusion of meaning. His character who assumes multiple identities, fake credentials, and travels throughout the world on false pretenses embodies this understanding of reality. We never really learn who this man is in any definitive form. In a way, the character Ermes Marana is nothing but a series of artifices and false personas. Reading for him is about creating a variety of false meanings about the world to cover its meaninglessness. Is reading about the experience of exploring ideas, places, people, and worlds different and unknown to us that helps us open our mind to new experiences in the real world? Is reading about the pleasure of getting to the end of the story and feeling the comfort at the resolution of a problem? Is reading about challenging the status quo and an important political tool for change? Or is reading an act in which people fool themselves into creating false meaning and identity for their lives in a meaningless world? One might also see a hidden metaphor for life itself. Life is a series of stories and different people have different readings of other people’s lives. Ideal stories might always have an ending that resolves everything, but real life often doesn’t work that way and different narratives in our life don’t always have conclusions. Life often is a series of bumps and half-finished narratives, which we then replace with different narratives that matter more to us.

A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society, and Culture by Sarah Pomeroy, Stanley Burstein, Walter Donlan, Jennifer Roberts, and David Tandy

Some people loathe textbooks. A textbook tends to be good for gaining a broad overview of a subject and good ones tend to be more accurate than mass market popular histories, but they usually lack depth and vitality. They are best used when one wants to get a grasp of the larger picture of a subject. This textbook delivers in that regard, but like most textbooks wasn’t the most engaging read. The post was tricky to write because I was trying to capture the most important aspects of Ancient Greece history that I learned from the book from an already “brief history” on the topic, condensing hundreds of pages into a post just short of 5000 words.

    Bronze Age Greece

Humans first arrived in Greece over 40,000 years ago. Obsidian found at Francthi Cave reveals that by 10,000 BC these early humans could cross the seas to acquire volcanic materials from the nearby island of Melos. As villages grew in size and complexity, local men obtained leadership roles as chieftains and over time these chieftains consolidated power to become hereditary kings, which led to the two major Bronze Age cultures in Greece.

By 2000 BC, the first of these major civilizations had developed on the island of Crete. Today we call this civilization Minoan after the myths about King Minos. Although we aren’t sure if the Minoans were one single unified society, we do know that they built monumental maze-like royal palaces at many different sites on Crete. The most famous and biggest of these palaces was at Knossos. These palaces all had the same basic design with a central courtyard surrounded by administrative buildings on one side and private chambers on the other. The palaces were decorated with beautiful frescos of plants, animals, and youthful human figures, which indicates a strong aesthetic appreciation of nature. Behind the administrative buildings there was vast rooms to store grains in large jars called pithoi. These palaces served as the administrative, political, economic, and religious centers of the town. They were at the heart of a redistributive economy in which farmers who lived in more modest homes in the area outside the palace and surrounding villages sent their grain and other produce to the palace to be stored and redistributed back to the population as needed. Surplus was traded with other societies across the Mediterranean, while the Minoan upper-class received rare metals and luxury items in return. Archaeological evidence suggests that Minoans worshipped on mountain tops, caves, and house sanctuaries, while the palace also seems to have played an important role in religious rituals. Some writing survives in the form of Linear A, which has remained largely untranslated, and is presumed to deal with mostly economic matters. Unfortunately, this means there is no literary evidence from this time period, making it difficult to interpret important cultural aspects.

The other major Bronze Age culture was the Mycenaens. Around 2100 – 1600 BCE, the Greek mainland may have experienced an invasion by speakers of an Indo-European language that would form the basis of early Greek. Some of the evidence for this is the sudden appearance of pottery work similar in style to the type of pottery found in Anatolia (associated with Indo-European speaker migrations), the sudden appearance of Greek on the mainland in written records with its linguistic links to other Indo-European languages, and the sudden appearance of destruction sites in Southern and Central Greece at thriving towns such as at Lerna in Argolis.

Heinrich Schliemann was the pioneering excavator at Mycenae. During his excavations he found elaborate shaft graves of Mycenaean royalty, one of which contained the so-called Mask of Agamemnon. Subsequent archeological work, however, has shown that the golden mask predates by 300 years the supposed events of the Trojan War. The Mycenaeans would bury their leaders in deep shaft graves surrounded by rich burial offerings such as ceremonial swords, fancy drinking vessels, and other elaborate gold work. Archeologist have found a lot of gold objects at Mycenae, but mainland Greece is not rich in gold, which suggests that it was brought in from elsewhere. This piece of evidence shows that Mycenae was a major power in the larger Mediterranean trading network. Unlike Crete, Mycenae had huge stone walls around their palaces, which Greeks of the classical period thought were built by the cyclops. These vast walls, chariot grave stones, and the ceremonial swords buried with the dead leaders suggest that Mycenaean society was controlled by an elite class of warrior-kings. The palaces functioned much like Minoan palaces, revealing Cretan cultural influence on Mycenae. However, this influence didn’t last forever.

Around 1700 BC, the palaces at Crete were destroyed. A second destruction followed around 1450 BC – 1375 BC. Knossos was burned and looted, which corresponded with the rise of Mycenae on the mainland and the appearance of Linear B tablets, an early form of Ancient Greek. Excavations at many archaeological sites throughout the Mediterranean reveal an abundance of pottery in the Minoan style in the early Bronze Age, but if you excavate many of those sites 200 years later the pottery is Mycenaean in style, suggesting Mycenaean got a stronger control of the Aegean trade and eclipsed Minoan culture. The destruction layers as well as the sudden appearance of Linear B on Crete after these destruction levels suggest that the Mycenaeans conquered the Minoans.

There are many theories about why the Mycenaean culture collapsed. Some believe the volcanic explosion at the island of Thera was the cause, while other theories involve Dorian invasions, speakers of a Greek dialect, and sometimes identified with the sons of the Herakles, returning to take back their land. Modern historians now believe Mycenaean culture experienced a total systems collapse. Shortage of food may have led to lower classes uprising against the warrior class or simply abandoning the town centers. Around this time Egyptians record invasions by sea peoples, which list names that may be Egyptian for the Achaeans (Homer’s name for the Greeks in the Iliad). Likewise, around this time the Philistines settled in Palestine and the earliest Philistine archaeological layers have Mycenaean pottery, and it was also at this time that the Hittite Empire disintegrated from invasions. There is some archaeological evidence that the Trojan War may have happened. However, one shouldn’t confuse The Iliad, a poetic and mythical presentation of a part of these events, which may have an historical kernel, with real history.

A “dark age” followed the fall of the Mycenaean culture. People abandoned society and ran to the hills. Many perhaps becoming itinerant herdsmen. No longer was Greek life centered on kings and palace culture, but chieftains arose again, controlling a single house with few smaller houses of retainers around him. However, historians now think the decay wasn’t uniform. Excavations at Lefkandi on the island of Euboea show evidence of a wealthy town. Archaeologists have discovered an elaborate burial shaft there where they found the body of a warrior and his wife with horses sacrificed to him, weapons, and other items revealing wealth. Towards the end of this period, a Protogeometric style of pottery appears and transforms into the Geometric style around 900 – 700 B. C. This style features new shapes with circles and semicircle patterns being replaced with angular patterns such as the “meander pattern,” zigzags, triangles, and crosshatches. Although there was no written records, this period also saw the rise of oral poets. These poets would travel around Greece, telling stories about heroes and the cycles of myths. These skilled storytellers would incorporate changes every time they told a particular story in order to appeal to the local lords and accommodate local tastes. It was in these oral stories that we have the origin of Homer’s epics that would serve as a cultural document for all the Greeks.

    Classical Greece

Classic Greece and the City-States begin in the 8th century through a process called Synoecism. Households turn into small villages, which turn into towns, and eventually into City-States. Synoecism involved various smaller communities uniting together into a single political entity usually centered on a single major city. The City-States, however, included all the surrounding territory around the city walls and sometimes smaller nearby towns and islands. Initially most City-States were controlled by an elite aristocracy who had also taken control of the best land during the Dark Ages. Unlike in the Dark Ages where the rule of individual towns or villages was usually held by a single aristocratic household, the City-States saw these aristocrats sharing power and administrative roles. Unfortunately this led to endemic class strife and aristocratic feuding between families known as stasis, which became a dominant feature of many City-States throughout the Classical Age.

This period also featured an extensive colonization effort by these new City-States in which members would set out an expedition to found a new City-State on a different piece of land. Each of these colonies was initially sponsored by their parent city-state and received a foundation charter with divine approval from an oracle. If the colony was successful, any members who left the mother city-state for the colony would renounce their citizenship and become citizens of the new colony. One explanation of the extensive colonization that followed the formation of City-States was that founding new colonies served as an outlet for surplus population, food shortages, and aristocratic feuding. Greece is a relatively rocky infertile land and much of the good farming areas were controlled by the aristocracy. The creation of new colonies helped control overpopulation, send away troublesome members of aristocratic families prone to feuds, and giving an opportunity for younger siblings who would inherit only minor property from their parents to acquire new fertile land and potential new wealth.
This period also witnesses the reappearance of written language. It is during this time that the Homeric poems are written down. The epic poems of Homer were the closest equivalent the Greeks had to a sacred text. They formed the basis for their code of moral behavior. It was a code that encouraged excellence in character, which posited that the worst thing that could befall a person was to be seen as inferior. It was a code that celebrated valor in battle. It was the basis of what all Greek men thought they should be and how they ought to act, their ideal. In order to write these epics, the Greeks had adopted Phoenician letters for their writing system, which they likely encountered during colonization. Unlike the heroes in Homer’s epics, the military structure changed from a loose formation of single warrior aristocratic elites to hoplite warfare. These hoplite soldiers would dress in helmets, breastplates, and grieves constructed of bronze and would stand shoulder to shoulder in a formation of multiple ranks that stood one right behind the other. These soldiers were equipped with a long spear for jabbing and a short sword for close combat, while carrying a large shield called a hoplon, which was big enough to protect the man on the left of the holder. The goal was to push forward and break the enemy’s ranks.

The class tensions that pitted the oligarchic-ruled city-states against the middle-class hoplite farmers, and the poor culminated in 670 – 500 BC in the “age of tyrants.” In many city-states, individuals, usually of the aristocratic class, but often marginalized members or those not part of the elite groups within that class, seized power for themselves with the help of the other classes. The tyrants supported the poor by redistributing portions of aristocratic lands and sponsoring laws to curtail aristocratic privileges. The tyrants also spent money on civic projects such as temples, fortifications, and improved infrastructure. They decorated these projects with lavish paintings of mythological scenes, and the sculptors of this period borrowed artistic forms from the Egyptians to carve stone and bronze statues. It was during the reign of Cypselus, the tyrant of Corinth, that the city-state invented the “black figure” technique of pottery, which became one of Corinth’s major exports. As other city-states started copying this innovative style, the Athenians invented the “red figure” style of pottery around 530 BC. When Peisistratus made himself tyrant of Athens in in 560 BC he had silver coins with the image of Athena and owl minted, which later developed into one of the strongest currencies in the Aegean. He also instituted the rebuilding of the temple to Athena on the Acropolis and founded the festival of Dionysia in honor of the deity of the same name, which would be the festival in the 5th century that featured Greek tragedies as part of its celebration. The tyrants also supported the writing of lyric poetry.

The 6th century also featured the first philosophers known as the pre-socratics who speculated about the ultimate nature of the universe. Although the city-states were divided politically, there were panhellenic institutions such as certain sacred sites like the oracle of the Apollo at Delphi and the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia shared by all Greeks. Athletic competitions brought the various Greek city-states together to compete at the Olympics; its popularity spawned similar contests at Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia, along with many other less notable ones. The main events at the Olympics were foot races, pankration (a mix of boxing and wrestling), and the pentathlon (five events that included: a short foot race, javelin, discuss throws, the long jump, and wrestling).

    Sparta and Athens

The two most famous city-states were Sparta and Athens. Prior to the 6th century Sparta was a typical Greek city-state, not much different than its neighbors with sophisticated artwork in pottery and poetry and celebrated female choruses. Somewhere in the 8th to 7th century, they engaged in warfare with their neighbors in Messenia, which forever changed the social and political destiny of Sparta. Unlike most Greek warfare where the combatants fought, one side fled, and usually some sort of agreement was hashed out after the fact, around 650 – 600 B. C., the Spartans enslaved the Messenians and took their land. The Messenians were reduced to the lowly status of helots, a social class somewhere between a slave and a medieval serf, and had to work the land they once owned, but which was now owned and controlled by a Spartan overlord. They were beaten once a year and forced to wear ridiculous clothes to illustrate their inferiority to the Spartans. Unlike a traditional slave in other Greek city-states, they were communal property and couldn’t be sold by individual owners. This event led Sparta to drastically change their society into a rigidly military-oriented one, which legend says was handed down to them by the fabled Lycurgus. The impetus for this change was having a helot population of Messenians who greatly outnumbered the Spartans. In order to maintain control, they had to rearrange society along militaristic lines. Spartans were taken as children at a young age to be educated in the military arts. Up until the age of thirty they lived in mess halls with their comrades away from their wives. They had to provide a certain proportion of food and drink to their mess halls from their property; if they failed to do this, they could lose their status at the top of society. The government was controlled by two hereditary kings who each had equal authority. While one led troops out in the field, the other would stay at home and run domestic affairs. The kings had military authority, performed religious services, and judicial powers. There was also a council of elders composed on twenty-eight men over the age of sixty who served for life. Any societal change to law had to be debated first by the council of elders before it went to the assembly and the council could overrule the assembly’s decisions by dismissing it. It could also judge criminal court cases. Another important office was the five Ephors who had the power to depose the kings, monitor his activities, and two of these Ephors always accompanied a king on military campaigns. As a check to their own power, Ephors only served one year and could not be reelected to the position. They were also in charge of a secret police, which consisted of young men who went out for a year to spy on the helots and could kill any helot with impunity caught fomenting rebellion or not on their assigned land. Unlike the Athenian assembly, the Spartan Assembly didn’t get the opportunity to discuss a new law, but they did vote on them. Through much of Western culture, Sparta was seen in an idealistic light. Plato, for example, adopts many of their ideas of eugenics and communal life for his Republic. The Greeks viewed it as a society of good order and harmony. In reality, it was a coercive and rigidly conservative society. This intense military life came at a cost; the sudden disappearance of pottery and artistic achievements and other important hallmarks of culture disappears shortly after these major societal changes.

Like most city-states, early Athens was governed by aristocrats. A series of legal reformers and important political leaders instituted the democratic reforms moderns associate with the city-state. In 620 BC, Draco (from whom we get the word “Draconian”) published his laws, the most important of which transformed homicide from a personal act that had to be avenged by the victim’s family to a trail run by a state magistrate. This law transferred the authority from the family in making laws and enacting justice to the state. Solon’s laws in the 590s addressed economic equality and the growing problem of debt slavery. No longer could poor sharecroppers be enslaved or have their property confiscated for being unable to pay back a loan. He revised the political representation system so that the middle-class could now hold lower offices in the government and the poorer classes could participate in the assembly, although slaves, resident aliens, and women were still excluded from participation. His most radical reform was that any citizen who believed a crime had been committed could bring forth an indictment against an individual; originally only the victim or the victim’s family could do so. This transformed justice from a personal and private matter to a societal matter.

    The Persian Wars

In the East, the Persian Empire arose in the 7th century and became a major world power. When Cyrus II conquered Lydia and defeated King Croesus he also captured the Greek city-states of Ionia that had begun as colonies. He placed puppet tyrants in charge of these city-states, which the Greeks resented. Eventually one of these tyrants, Aristagoras resigned his tyranny and led a rebellion that freed the city-states. However, six years into the rebellion the Ionian revolt was put down in a naval battle. The city of Miletus (a major cultural center where pre-socratic philosophers like Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes had all lived and thrived) was destroyed, while the Persian King, Darius, desire for revenge for the destruction of Sardis led him to invade the Greek mainland. Many city-states such as Argos and Thebes submitted to Persian rule, believing they stood no chance against such a mighty empire, but the Athenians and Spartans held strong. The Persians had success at Eretria, burning the temples and exiling its people, but at the Battle of Marathon, the Athenians won a major victory against the Persians. Although they were outnumbered, they were more heavily armored than the Persians and they surprised them. The Persian king Xerxes continued his father’s war. In 481, thirty-one Greek states met and formed the Hellenic League. The Athenians abandoned Attica and waited out the war on the island of Salamis. King Leonidas of Sparta brought seven thousand men to Thermopylae, but eventually dismissed the bulk of his forces, keeping only three hundred Spartans and a contingent of Thebans and Thespians to defend the pass. Although the Greeks were eventually defeated at the Battle of Thermopylae, they took an enormous amount of Persian troops with them, including many of the elite “Immortals,” the personal guard of the Persian king. The Battle of Salamis was a major naval victory against the Persians in which the Persians lost over two hundred ships. In 479, the Greeks assembled a massive army that defeated the Persian ground forces at Plataea and the naval ships liberated the Ionian city-states during the Battle of Mycale.

    The Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian War

The aftermath of the Persian Wars led to the founding of the Delian League. In 477 BC Athens and other Greek city-states met at Delos to unite in their fight against the Persians. Originally Sparta led the league, but dissatisfaction with Pausanias who served as commander of the league opened the door for Athenian leadership. The members of the league contributed either ships or monetary payments in which Athens held military command. However, when the island of Naxos attempted to leave the league, the Athenians and allies invaded and confiscated their ships, forcing the Naxians to continue making payments to the league. A similar fate happened to the Thracians when the island of Thasos rebelled against the league in 465 BC. The Athenians refusal to let any members leave and transformation of ships to money as payment for membership signaled the change from a temporarily alliance to the roots of an Athenian Empire based in the city-state’s superior naval power. At home, Athenains disagreed whether they should ally themselves with the Spartans. Cimon wanted to honor the alliance between Athens and Sparta. Cimon led a force of Athenians to Sparta to assist them against some rebelling helots who had taken advantage of the chaos brought on by a massive earthquake that occurred in 460 BC in the region. However, the conservative Spartans dismissed the Athenians, perhaps disturbed by their democratic notion so at odds with the Spartan mentality, which caused a breakdown of this alliance. Athens allied themselves with Argos, and Cimon was ostracized from the city. Cimon’s political rival, Ephialtes instituted democratic politic reforms, especially weakening the traditional Council of the Areopagus.

The early 5th century was a fecund period in art and literature. Simonides and Pindar developed epinician odes (poems about athletic victory). There was a transformation in the visual arts from stylistic archaic art inspired by Egypt to one that featured more action and naturalistic forms. It was this period that saw the birth of tragedy. The three great tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote their plays during this time. Aeschylus created an innovation by adding a second actor with a speaking role that enhanced the dramatic quality of Ancient Greek plays. Greek drama came in sets of four plays per day during the festival of Dionysus in March. Over the course of the festival, the audience would watch a new set of four plays each day and eventually vote on one playwright to win a prize for the best set of work. From Aeschylus we have the only surviving Greek trilogy intact, The Oresteia, which has three plays that are thematically linked.

The Peloponnesian War was a series of three separate wars stretching from 460 to 404. The famous leader, Pericles convinced the countryside farmers to take refuge in the city with the hopes that the enemy’s ground forces would tire of attacking unoccupied villages and ask for peace, which is a good strategy for a short-term war. Unfortunately a devastating plague broke out in the city in 430 BC, which took Pericles’ life. This left a political hole that allowed the rise of demagogues like Cleon, a tanner, whose success in business and anti-aristocratic attitudes brought him to power. As the fighting ensued, Sparta sent soldiers to the Island of Sphacteria in response to a fortress the Athenians were building at Pylos. An Athenian naval victory left these Spartan soldiers stranded and captive to Athens. Not wishing to lose any men, the Spartans sought an armistice that would have ended the war, but Athenian overconfidence and advantage prevented them from accepting. In 424, the Spartans had renewed success in the war with the rise of Brasidas, charismatic military leader. He persuaded Acanthus, Stagirus, and Argilus to revolt, but his most important achievement was bringing over Amphipolis, which was an important Athenian territory that protected their grain shipments. Cleon and Brasidas died in the Battle of Amphipolis. Shortly after, the Spartans and Athenians signed the Peace of Nicias (named after the Athenian negotiator of same name) and Aristophanes, a major comic playwright, wrote his play Peace. The terms of the treaty not only brought a temporary end to the fighting, but mostly maintained the status quo. Although Sparta wanted to sign it, most of its major allies—Corinth, Megara, and Boeotia—refused to sign.

The Athenians had their own members of society who wanted a return to war. Alcibiades, a student of Socrates and a flamboyant handsome aristocrat, wanted to rekindle the war in order to make a name for himself. He convinced the Athenians to invade Sicily in 415. The Athenians sent a huge navy and military force. On the way there, Alcibiades changed sides to Sparta in order to avoid trial at Athens for a sacrilegious prank that many Athenians blamed on him, although he may not have been responsible, involving the dismembering of herms outside Athenian homes (statues in front that bore Hermes face and phallus). Alcibiades convinced the Spartans that Athens was planning to conquer Sicily and Italy. Sparta reentered the war, and after underestimating Sicilian forces, Athens lost a bulk of their military forces, while gaining nothing for their troubles. Sparta defeated Athens eight years later. Although a huge loss, the war oscillated over the next few years with Athens looking like it would achieve victory only for Sparta to come back, then Athens, then Sparta. Finally the war ended at the Battle at Aegospotami, which was won by Lysander of Sparta who cut off Athens from their major source of grain and captured many ships. Thebans, Corinthians, and Spartan allies wanted to punish Athens by destroying the city, killing all the males, and selling the women and children into slavery (like the Athenians did the Melos earlier in the war), but Sparta spared Athens out of respect for their service to Greece’s earlier wars with Persia.
The Peloponnesian war drained city-states of resources and dwindled trade. This deadly war caused Greeks to rethink some of their treasured values and unsurprisingly this was the time of Socrates and the sophists who questioned traditional values, including at times, the system of democracy itself. Statis (class warfare) continued to plague most of the city-states and oligarchic forces vied with democratic forces for control, while Sparta often interfered in many city-states affairs and propped up pro-Spartan aristocrats.


    The Macedonians: Philip II and Alexander the Great

Persistent warfare and the city-states inability to unite left an opening for Philip II and the Macedonians. Although the Macedonians spoke a dialect of Greek, the Greeks considered them barbarians. Macedonian kings practiced polygamy, drank unmixed wine, and had tumulus burial rather than cremation and internment. Macedonian culture was not focused on city-states, but rural lands beholden to nobility. Born in 382 BC, Philip II stabilized Macedon by defeating neighboring enemies and dynastic rivals by introducing new military tactics. These tactics followed the principles of hoplite phalanx formation, but armed troops with long pikes that they could use to strike down enemies from a distance. When opposing armies would try to adjust to these tactics, Philip employed a reserve cavalry force to attack the confused forces. Philip not only united Macedon and his neighbors, but extended his influence over Greece. It was the Battle of Chaeronea in Boetia that established his dominance over Greece. Despite his military success, Philip was assassinated at Aegae in 336 by a member of his bodyguard who had grievances over his treatment at the hands of Philip’s 7th wife Cleopatra and her family. The marriage to Cleopatra also threatened Alexander’s position as heir.

Nevertheless, Alexander did ascend to the throne and became a great military leader who defeated the Persian Empire in a series of campaigns. The Battle of Granicus (334 BC) won him Anatolia from Persia, while the Battle of Issus (333 BC) destroyed the main forces of Persia and forced Darius III to flee. Alexander’s success and pursuit of Darius III led Darius’ own generals to assassinate him. Alexander in his victory over Persia also destroyed Persepolis, the spiritual heart of the Persian Empire. Alexander’s legendary military prowess could easily be described as recklessness and in many battles he was only seconds away from being killed. At various points of his campaign his own soldiers mutinied, resenting their extensive time away from Macedon and the growing importance of former Persian citizens in Alexander’s army. Alexander died 323 BC likely from a disease contracted from wounds gained on the battlefield.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson

Most of what causes our unhappiness is the attention we give to unimportant problems. The mistake of a lot of self-help books is that it tries to convince us we can overcome or avoid problems completely. Manson retells the story of the Buddha’s revelation that both riches and poverty can be sources of unhappiness and one’s problems. One of the most important points of the book is that in order to even be happy sometimes we have to be sad or angry or miserable and face rejection. In other words, happiness comes from solving our problems, not avoiding them. Since having some problems in our life is inevitable we should give our attention to better problems.

We need to decide what problems are worth our time and effort. Rejection and failure are a necessary component of solving problems. Suppose your problem is you want to develop confidence to ask out more women or men. Well, why do most people find this to be a problem? They may say they’re shy or don’t know where to begin. The real issue is that they’re afraid of rejection and failure. But why are they afraid of rejection? Many of these people will take it as a message that they aren’t good enough as people.

People have different ideas of what constitutes a problem and success in the first place based on their metrics and values. Our values form our metrics: how we judge our success and failures. Some people might feel successful if they achieve a good family life at home, while others might feel successful only if they’ve made millions of dollars and own a yacht. These two different definitions of success reflect different values and thus different metrics of valuing what is successful. In order to select better problems and come to realize what really matters we have to recognize what we really value and if it turns out our values are bad and harmful, we should try to realign them with new values that are better. Only then can we choose better problems for ourselves.

Short Stories by Jesus by Amy Jill-Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is a New Testament and Jewish Studies Professor. However, she is not your typical New Testament Professor; she is an Orthodox feminist Jew who studies and writes scholarly articles on the New Testament. In this book, she attempts to place the parables of Jesus in their original 1st century Jewish context and offer new interpretations of some of the most important parables with this context in mind. She tries to explain what these stories would have meant to a 1st century Jewish audience hearing them for the first time.

In order to do this, she posits that Jesus was a real historical figure and that many of the parables in the Bible represent mostly accurate versions of the stories he told to the crowds. While the parables found in the New Testament may be the original stories of a teacher named Jesus, the authors of each Gospel frame the parables in their narratives for their own unique purposes. The narrative frame changes the meaning and purpose of the parable. For example, the Parable of the Lost Sheep is framed by Luke as a response to a hostile group of Pharisees complaining about Jesus welcoming sinners among them.

“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2)

Jesus answers the criticism with a series of parables in which the Parable of the Lost Sheep is one of them. Luke then ends this particular parable:

“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7)

Luke transforms the parable into an allegory in which the sheep are Christians returning to the church and God’s grace. For him and many Christians, the parable is about God’s stewardship over his church and his desire to recover sinners and bring them back into the fold. Jesus is pointing out to the Pharisees that his main audience should be sinners because they are who need him the most. By framing the story in this way, the author of Luke is interpreting the story for us and doing so with a Christian lens.

Matthew also offers a version of this parable (Matthew 18), but with a different narrative frame. In Matthew’s version, Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples, not Pharisees. His ending frame is also a little different.

“In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:14).

There is some overlap in the messages: God wants to redeem the lost. However, there are also differences between the two versions. Luke’s Jesus is responding to the criticisms of the Pharisees about consorting with sinners, while Matthew’s Jesus is answering his disciples’ question about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Although these parables do retain similar messages the general point still stands; by framing parables differently, the same parables potentially take on different meanings. The fact that we have so many of the same parables across different Gospel narratives suggests to Amy Jill-Levine that many of these parables originated with an historical Jesus, but were reinterpreted by later Christian writers in specific ways once Christianity’s belief systems began to develop in ways distinct from Judaism. This is why she believes we should try to understand the parables in the context of 1st century Judaism, separate from the narrative frames that later Christian writers added to them. How would the original non-Christian Jewish audience have understood these stories?

Although Levine cannot cover every single parable, she does cover the most important ones: The Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son, The Good Samaritan, The Kingdom of Heaven is Like Yeast, The Pearl of Great Price, The Mustard Seed, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Laborers in the Vineyard, The Widow and the Judge, and the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Parables are supposed to be provocative, they’re supposed to challenge our views of the world, and call us to action, but often traditional interpretations by the church, church fathers, and even modern scholarly commentators transforms these parables into allegories and domesticates them into palatable forms. It softens the message into some symbolic gesture that is easily digestible. Worse, many of the traditional readings are fundamentally anti-Jewish. For example, many traditional readings of the Parable of Prodigal Son see the elder son who complains to the father about the prodigal son returning as a symbol of Judaism complaining about the inclusion of gentiles in a New Covenant. In this reading, the father symbolizes God the father or Jesus, the elder son represents Judaism, and the younger son represents the originally wayward gentile who is being brought back into the fold by divine grace. Notice the allegorical nature of such a reading. Levine shows with evidence from Josephus, the Talmud, the Mishnah, and the Old Testament that these interpretations are misguided and are misrepresentations of Jewish ideas and beliefs. Likewise, using these sources she shows they do not make much sense in the context of 1st century Judaism.

Levine views the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and Lost son as representing a pair of three parables with similar messages. She has this to say about the Parable of the Lost Son. “Without Luke’s allegory of a repentance and forgiveness and without the easy equating of the elder son with those grumbling Jews, the parable has no easy or comfortable interpretation (68).” She argues that the message of the three parables is not about the recovery of lost sinners, but rather the joy we feel at recovering a precious object lost to us and an exhortation that we shouldn’t stand on ceremony waiting for them to apologize or for them to come back to us. We should go out and find them! The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not a tale about how Jews are bad and gentiles good, but rather it is a parable that emphasizes the importance of taking action when someone is in need of our help. It’s not an argument for mercy, but an argument for compassion. It addresses the question: who is my neighbor? The answer to this question is that everyone is our neighbor, even our enemies, and the parable challenges us to help anyone in need. The Pearl of Great Price is not an allegorical tale about selling all one has (or devaluing one’s material possessions and the material world) in order to achieve the kingdom of heaven in the afterlife, but rather it is a tale about self-discovery and the importance of identifying what truly matters to us. Once we realize what truly matters to us, we should get rid of everything superfluous and meaningless in our lives. This parable is presented as an analogy to the kingdom of heaven. What is the kingdom like? Figure out what is truly important in your life, find your “pearl,” and you will discover what the kingdom of heaven is like. All her interpretations have this in common: the parables are a call to action, if we want the kingdom of heaven on earth, we have to work towards it here and now.

The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got that Way by Amanda Ripley

Many in the United States of America would claim that it is a truism that there are a lot of problems in the American education system. In truth, the American education system is neither bad or good. It is best described as average. Many kids are leaving schools with an education, but not the highest possible education they could have. One of the major problems afflicting our schools is variability. There is too much of it. There is variability in quality of education between each state, variability in quality between districts within the same state, variability in quality between schools within the same district, and variability in quality between teachers in the same school. Amanda Ripley tries to address why we are lagging behind many other developed nations as evidenced by the PISA test (an international critical-thinking test with Reading, Math, and Science sections). It is this test that various critics of our education system turn to highlight the mediocrity of our system. According to the 2015 results, the United States is 40th in math, 25th in science, and 24th in reading (out of 72 nations participating). Is it the massive amounts of inequality causing it? Racial disparities?


After looking at the data, Ripley takes an anecdotal approach in which she follows three kids who enter a high school exchange program: one from Oklahoma who travels to Finland, one from Minnesota who travels to South Korea, and one from Pennsylvania who travels to Poland. She also interviews a handful of Europeans from high-performing PISA countries who spend time in the US education system. This allows Ripley to get a student’s eye view of Finland and South Korea, two of the highest performing education systems, as well Poland, which has some of the highest growth in performance on the PISA. She supplements this with interviews of principals, teachers, and government education officials in many of these countries as well. So what do all these countries have in common?

1) Many foreign countries cover less topics in math, science, reading, but in more depth.

2) Most of them have standardized curriculums that is the same place to place, but leave the methods of teaching these curriculums up to the local schools.

3) These countries have better teacher training programs that have more stringent requirements in order to enter an education program in college. Instead of taking a large portion of the weakest college-capable students like programs in the US, take only the strongest students and only a few elite universities offer teacher education programs rather than the thousands that offer them here in the US.

4) They had less standardized tests overall than the US, but the ones they had mattered more for the student’s future.

5) They delay tracking until after the kids are sixteen.

In Ripley’s view all of this comes down to education systems dedicated to rigor.

“One thing was clear: To give our kids the kind of education they deserved, we had to first agree that rigor mattered most of all; that school existed to help kids learn to think, to work hard, and yes, to fail. That was the core consensus that made everything else possible (193).”

As she interviewed foreign students coming to the US one common theme that emerged was how easy the material studied was in comparison to the material they had to study at home. It wasn’t only the content that was easier. Too much of the assigned work was busy work with the teacher doing the “hard” part for them. One foreign exchange student reflecting on her experience in American schools was shocked how often the teacher assigned a poster project in history class. It wasn’t serious work in her mind; it was arts and crafts. Even worse, the teacher gave them all the actual historical information, the actual work. All the students really had to do was cut and paste the information onto the poster.  Another foreign exchange student was shocked when she received an A on a US history exam, while many of her American classmates barely managed to get a C. When one asked how she did it, she wondered how they failed to do it. The teacher had given them a study guide earlier in the week that gave them the answers to every question.

If the students aren’t made to work hard then they don’t take school seriously. Now this can go overboard. There are plenty of criticisms of South Korean education system, which has students studying over twelve hours a day due to a Senior test that decides what college and by extension what future they will have. After normal school, where many of the kids sleep from overexhaustion, most South Korean kids then attend hagwons (private study companies) where their “real” studying happens. Although the South Koreans do well on International Tests, everyone from the kids to the parents to the head of education in the country to some of the private teachers profiting in these hagwons loathe “the pressure cooker” system of education. Everyone seems to agree that Finland is the model to emulate.

Selected Poems by Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope was the great poet and satirist of the Augustan period of literature, which roughly covers the first half of the 18th century during the reigns of Queen Anne, King George I, and King George II. He was a member of the Scriblerus Club along with the prose writer and other great satirist of the age, Johnathan Swift. He made his fortune and fame through his celebrated translations of Homeric epic into English.

One of his first major poems was “The Essay on Criticism.” This poem is a poetic essay poking fun at the pretensions of the literary critics of his day who developed all sorts of erroneous rules about art. In the poem, Pope suggests the best art finds inspiration in nature and looks to the great works of the classical age as its model.

“The Rape of Lock” was a poem influenced by a real event. Robert Petyre, a lord, belonging to a Catholic family cut off the lock of a famed beauty, Miss Arabella Fermor, who came from another prominent Catholic family. Pope wrote the poem as a humorous take in order to diffuse the situation. In the poem a baron who is enamored with a young fashionable lady attempts to steal a beautiful lock of hair from her head. The girl is protected by invisible fairy-like spirits called slyphs. At the opening of the poem, they even give her a premonition of the impending disaster. Towards the end of the poem, the baron’s action precipitates a verbal battle between lords and ladies who accuse each other of all sorts of vices, which ends when the young woman shoots snuff up the baron’s nose.

“The Dunciad” is a mock epic in which the goddess dullness claims her dominion over Britain, especially its contemporary literary scene. It is complete with a history of dullness and a competition between the worshippers of dullness who are various literati (publishers, literary critics, booksellers, and writers) of the age whom Pope disliked. The work seems like an excuse to get revenge on those Pope felt wronged him. Many of the figures Pope lampoons are obscure in our own day. So to truly appreciate the work one should probably get a footnoted edition that explains who each person is.

The Best Short Stories by Guy de Maupassant

“And the two began placidly discussing political problems with the sound common sense of peaceful, matter-of-fact citizens — agreeing on one point: that they would never be free. And Mont-Valerien thundered ceaselessly, demolishing the house of the French with its cannon balls, grinding lives of men to powder, destroying many a dream, many a cherished hope, many a prospective happiness, ruthlessly causing endless woe and suffering in the hearts of wives, of daughters, of mothers, in other regions.” – from “Two Friends.”

I suppose one should expect a best of collection to be good–leaving the possibility that some duds from Maupassant larger oeuvre might be absent–but since this is my first experience with Maupassant, the consistent quality of these stories proves to me that Guy De Maupassant is a master of the form. I liked every story in this collection. Maupassant likes to write about the Franco-Prussian war (especially what it is like to live under Prussian occupation), the noble-nature of prostitutes and respectable society’s hypocrisy towards them, the french countryside (particularly the Normandy region), and impossible love affairs. Not only does Maupassant exhibit a talent for quality story-telling, but he also displays a mastery of descriptions, particularly of nature, employing an elegant prose style overflowing with beauty. I didn’t know whether to be more impressed with his skill at telling a fulfilling and entertaining story or the overwhelming beauty of his prose.

“Boule de Suif” (translated: Ball of Fat) is a story about an unlikely group of travel companions who gain permission after the Prussians occupy their town during the war to leave in the hopes of getting to an unoccupied town still controlled by the French. The travel companions include a nobleman and his wife, a rich wine merchant and his wife, a rich cotton merchant and his wife, two nuns, an alcoholic democrat, and a chunky prostitute (known as the Boule de Suif). At first, all the rich men and women feel scandalized having to share a coach with a prostitute. However, as the journey to their next stop takes longer than expected due to weather, their hunger gets the better of them and they all curse themselves for forgetting to pack provisions. Boule de Suif did remember to pack food, so she begins to eat in front of all her hungry companions. Eventually out of the kindness of her heart she shares her food with the others, which seems to change their opinions about her, declaring her a noble and kind-hearted person. They finally get to their first stop in another occupied town. The commanding officer in the town tries to proposition Boule de Suif, but she refuses to sleep with any Prussians due to her patriotic feelings. When they try to leave the next morning the commanding officer refuses to let them depart, wanting to sleep with Boule de Suif. Day after day this occurs, but Boule de Suif refuses on grounds of patriotism to sleep with the man. Her companions grow restless and accuse Boule de Suif of being selfish (after all, she’s slept with hundreds of men). They convince her to sleep with the Prussian officer using arguments that it will be a noble act of self-sacrifice that they will forever appreciate. She finally caves in and sleeps with the officer. The next day they leave, but once in the coach together everyone’s attitude is changed towards her, treating her likes she’s lower than dirt for having slept with the officer. This time she forgot to pack provisions. When dinner time rolls around, everyone eats their food, but nobody offers her any being a lowly prostitute and she begins to weep. This is without a doubt one of the best stories in this collection of Maupassant’s best stories. The obvious theme of this tale is hypocrisy. The rich treat her well when Boule de Suif has something to offer them. Her patriotism forms a stark contrast to their selfishness. They treat her as low as dirt for sleeping with the officer and plying her trade, despite being the ones to convince her to do so in the first place. They wouldn’t think of sharing their food with her, even though she shared all her food with them earlier.

“Two Friends” is a story about two friends living in Paris who haven’t seen each other since the Prussians invaded their country. One day they accidentally run into each other on the streets. They decide to go on one of their fishing trips by the lake. A French officer gives them a password to get in and out of Paris. While fishing they discuss the futility of war. They catch a lot of fish, but when they return to shore there are Prussian soldiers waiting for them. They bring them to an officer who accuses them of being spies. He threatens to kill them, unless they give him the password that will enable him to sneak troops into Paris. They refuse. He has them shot. The ending is actually extremely violent. This a story that notes how the innocent who only wish to mind their own business and do a little fishing with a friend get caught up in the war. Their discussion about war’s futility is paralleled by their ultimate fates; the Prussian General doesn’t get the password he wants and two innocent men are murdered. Nothing is gained, except death.

“Madame Tellier’s Establishment” is another story about prostitutes. In this tale, the men of the town are disappointed when they go to find the well-established brothel closed for a short time as Madame Tellier takes her employees to a neighboring village to visit her brother and celebrate her niece’s first communion. Maupassant explores similar themes as “Boule de Suif” but from a different angle. Maupassant is once again depicting the hypocrisy of society. Maupassant shows the prostitutes as having deep and genuine spirituality, suggesting even “lowly” prostitute who sell their bodies can have noble, virtuous and deeply religious sentiments. All the women in the church who aren’t aware that they’re prostitutes break down in tears before the deep spirituality and piousness of Madame Tellier and her girls. Meanwhile, if they knew they were prostitutes the women probably would’ve been scandalized. The upper class respectable citizens back home in town that society automatically assumes are more virtuous and respectable than prostitutes never exhibit pious feelings or noble emotions like the prostitutes, but instead worry about not being able to have their fun.

“Mademoiselle Fifi” is a fantasy revenge story in the similar vein as the recent Quentin Tarantino film, Inglourious Basterds (i.e. A lowly person in society takes revenge on her foreign occupiers during a war.) Four Prussian officers living in an occupied chateau amuse themselves by blowing up the expensive art. Being cooped up too long after an extended stretch of bad weather, they decide to amuse themselves by inviting four prostitutes to entertain them. At dinner, Mademoiselle Fifi, a particularly cruel and sadistic officer, starts hurting his prostitute named Rachel by pinching her and blowing smoke from his tobacco into her face. Eventually as the men get drunker they grow bolder and start bragging about their victories over France. This enrages the women, especially Rachel, who murders Mademoiselle Fifi and then manages to escape from the officers. They search the countryside, but are unable to find her. Besides being a fantasy revenge story, Maupassant relies strongly on symbolic stereotypes. Once again we have the noble prostitute demonstrating their superior character to the rest of society. Rachel is not only a prostitute, but a Jewess. The obvious symbolism is that even the lowest of the low in French society (a prostitute and a Jew) are more virtuous, brave, and noble than these German officers. Mademoiselle Fifi and the other officers embody stereotypes about German; when they blow up the art, Maupassant is suggesting that they have no appreciation of art or culture, and they’re nothing more than uncivilized brutes given to violence, too much drink, and prostitutes (the bodily pleasures rather than the intellectual ones).

“Miss Harriet” is a story that begins with a frame. Some bored ladies on a coach ride asks an old painter known for having many love affairs to tell them a story about one of his affairs. He tells them a tale of an old spinster from England passionate about nature and her peculiar version of religion. This woman who has never loved any man accidentally falls in love with the painter, while admiring the beauty of his paintings and realizing he shares her passion for the beauties of nature. Just as her feelings are developing she catches him engaging in a clandestine affair with a younger servant girl, which drives her to commit suicide. It ends with a memorable scene in which the painter kisses the corpse, telling us, “I imprinted upon those lips a kiss, a long kiss–the first they had ever received.” Maupassant’s descriptions of the natural surroundings and his deft hand with language in this story outdo the lushness and sensualness of any painting.

“The Necklace” is one of the author’s most famous stories. A pretty young girl wishing for a more opulent life after marrying a lower middle-class clerk convinces her husband to attend a ball being held by the Minister of Public Instruction so she can live her Cinderella fantasy of being someone important and rich. She borrows a diamond-studded necklace from her rich friend. She enjoys herself at the ball, experiencing for a brief moment what it would be like to be a member of the rich upper-class, but on her way home she discovers she has lost her friend’s necklace. They do everything in their power to recover the lost item, but cannot locate it. Eventually they purchase a new one just like it in a jewelry store that costs an astronomical amount of money, requiring them to take loans. She and her husband take extra jobs. After ten years of doing grueling work, they manage to pay off their debts for the necklace. The life of toil has spoiled the pretty young girl’s beauty. She meets out in public her rich friend years later who doesn’t recognize her anymore because her appearance is so changed from her difficult life. She confesses to her friend that they replaced her necklace and speaks about her hard life, only for the friend to tell her that the necklace she lost was fake costume jewelry, not real diamonds, making the whole story one big ironic punch line. This woman suffers a difficult life of hardship and grueling work on the brink of poverty and financial ruin because she isn’t content to live a sparing, but comfortable lower middle-class life and must put on appearances to pretend to other for one night that she is rich. Whereas she is spoiled and ungrateful for the life she has, the husband sacrifices his desires (such as money for a hunting gun and later taking on all those loans) for the sake of his wife’s desires.

“The piece of String” is a story about a thrifty man who picks up a piece of string on the road only to be caught doing so by his rival. When it is discovered that another merchant has lost his purse full of money, the rival claims to have seen the thrifty man picking up the purse of money rather than the string. The thrifty man tells everybody that will listen that he only picked up a piece of string and it is all a misunderstanding, but everybody mocks him believing he is guilty. Eventually a different man returns the purse to the original owner. The thrifty man believes this will exonerate him and goes around once again to try and convince everybody of his innocence, only for people to mock him further and believe he conspired to return the purse after stealing it. He becomes obsessed with telling the real story about the string and trying to convince people of his innocence, until it drives him mad. It is a story that tells us reputation and hearsay matters more than truth; once you develop a bad reputation in the eyes of society, it is impossible to clear your name, and any evidence that might be brought forth to exonerate a person will only be twisted to implicate them further.

Other stories that appeared in the collection include “Claire de Lune,” “Mademoiselle Pearl,” “Madame Husson’s Rosier,” “That Pig of a Morin,” “Useless Beauty,” “The Olive Orchard,” “A Sale,” “Love,” “Two Little Soldiers” and “Happiness.” Although I’m not planning to write about all of them, all of these stories were very good. I liked every story in this collection and I can’t say that about too many writers.