Nora Webster—A Solitary Tower?

Nora Webster

By Colm Toibin

Published 2014

Read Feb 2018

This is a book about nearly nothing.  There is no major drama, no significant reckoning, no birth nor death happens during the course of the story.  It’s about nothing except a 44 year old woman who lost her husband of 20 years through a painful but not wholly revealed disease and who now has to figure out how to preserve her private self in a very small town where everyone knows much (too) about everyone else.  Her two daughters are in college and boarding school, both paid for by their aunt and uncle.  Her two sons, approximately 9 and 12, have returned home after spending several months with their widowed aunt while their mother focused on her dying husband.

Nora resents the smallness of the village.   She looks forward to the time when the residents stop coming by to offer her comfort for her loss.  She really just wants to be left alone.  She even considers leaving but economics don’t favor it  She’s challenged by needing to find employment as the Widow’s Pension is very small and she and her teacher husband had no savings.  She abruptly sells their summer cottage without consulting with or regard for any of her family to create some cash flow, and perhaps to seal off that part of their life, to a neighbor’s relative who now lives abroad but always wanted a coastal cottage.  Nora succumbs to a stern local nun’s urging to seek employment with her former employer, the rich factory owner in the small town.  She dreads returning to work there as her boss will be someone with whom she was a co-worker 20 years ago (whom she offended then and never liked) and because it will be returning to an existence that she had so happily escaped when she married Maurice.  She mourns her husband—his ability to engage in lively conversations while she enjoyed being in the background of those social engagements, and his deep love for being with her.  She also mourns that gone will be the freedom she had as a homemaker to define how she spent her day.

Our current views of parenthood can lead us to think she is not a very good parent.  She decides the boys can manage on their own after school for a few hours before she escapes the office at the factory.  When she had left the boys in the care of her aunt while she tended her sick husband, she never interacted with them at all during these months.  The older boy returned with a stutter and the younger boy started bed wetting but she has little demonstrated concern, expecting that these things will work themselves out.  She realizes she knows little of what they think or feel but makes no real effort to change this. She does however clearly care about them.  She takes them out of school for a day to go to Dublin where they can see their sister among other adventures.  She fights strongly for the younger boy to be returned to the “A” classroom when he’s moved to the “B” classroom.  She allows them to stay up late to watch movies with her—Gaslight and Lost Horizon—although she realizes evenutlaly that they could be disturbing to them.

We start having some sense of the time of the novel when Nora’s Widows Pension is increased and her sister becomes politically involved in what became known as The Troubles.  My quest for understanding more about the context of the novel led me to do a limited amount of research about Irish politics which helped establish the timing of the novel in the late 1960’s.  Knowing the timing helped reset my view of Nora’s world a bit.   I no longer expected Maurice to be treated with potent pain killers.  I no longer expected Nora to be anything close to a “helicopter” mother.  I had more compassion for Nora’s sorrow at having to return to a workplace where women workers were single—either before they married, were unmarriageable for some reason, or like herself, forced back into the workplace due to widowhood.  I developed much more compassion for Nora’s struggles in trying to find some kind of bearable life in the face of being a widow of limited means and while being an intensely private person, not understood well by her family nor understanding of her family members either. The good news for Nora is that she achieves a bit beyond that.  She creates a space to enjoy in her home and she fills it with music she is discovering with the help of others.

Apparently Toibin’s mother was widowed when he was about 12 and he grew up in a home where there was a “great deal of silence”.  Nora Webster may be somewhat modelled upon his mother and the stammering son upon him.  If this is the case I find the novel even more interesting.  He provides an extraordinarily non-judgmental view of Nora Webster.  She is cool but not icy or abusive.  She is appropriately frugal but generous when it matters for her children or herself.  She has strength but she’s only slowly discovering that to be the case.  She is an extremely private person and generally closed off to others, but she’s slowly discovering that she can choose to have connections with people beyond Maurice and it might be worth the effort.  She’s pragmatic about her situation and she is finding a way to make that situation an interesting one for herself.    While Nora Webster is not a character for whom you readily feel any warmth, when the novel ended I continued thinking about her and eventually decided that the feeling I have for her is respect.

Uncle Tom is Actually a Great Model

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

By Harriet Beecher Stowe

Published as a serial 1851-1852

Published in book form 1852

Read April 2018

I had heard the term “Uncle Tom” used in a derogatory way, and like the term “Babbitt” mentioned in an earlier essay, I decided the only way to understand what it meant, or could mean, was to actually read the book.  However, Uncle Tom’s cabin is a book I’ve avoided reading primarily because I find reading dialect difficult.  Fortunately, listening to the book overcame this issue and I discovered what an extraordinary book this is and how inappropriate I find derision of the Uncle Tom character.

Stowe did an amazing service to mankind in writing this book.  Using compelling story-telling, she thoroughly dispels the myth that the black race is less human than the white race and teaches that slavery should not be legal anywhere anytime.

A primary thesis is that all humans feel deep love for their children and their spouses and that forced separation from them is truly heart-breaking. A central character, Eliza, literally risks live and limb to prevent her toddler son from being sold and separated from her. (Stowe personally knew the impact of losing a child, hers to death by disease, so can write extremely convincingly on this topic.) Several slave owner and trader characters insist that their new slaves take up another spouse upon being sold and are astonished by their reaction to this directive.

Another thesis is that all humans desire the ability to read and write to enable them to read important books (most notably for her the Bible) and communicate with loved ones.  Uncle Tom learned some reading skills that enabled him to do some reading of the Bible on his own although he relied substantially on others (Master George Shelby and Eva in particular) to read to him.  George Harris obtains an education as quickly as he can once he reaches freedom in Canada.

A critically important thesis is that it was NOT true that the black race preferred to be enslaved and held by a kind and just master than to be free.  Even ever-faithful Uncle Tom surprised his kind master Augustine St. Clare with his response to being told he would be freed:  “The sudden light of joy that shone in Tom’s face as he raised his hands to heaven, his empathic “Bless the Lord!” rather discomposed St. Clare; he did not like it that Tom should be so ready to leave him.”  St. Clare did learn that Tom did appreciate his treatment from St Clare “Mas’r’s been too good; but Mas’r, I’d rather have poor clothes, poor house, poor everything, and have ‘em mine, than have the best, and have ‘em any man’s else,-I had so, Mas’r; I think it’s natur, Mas’r.” In fact, Tom was willing to stay with St. Clare while he was “in trouble”—St. Clare’s trouble would be over when he became a Christian.

Stowe is quite relentless in her promotion of Christianity throughout this book.  However, I was not in any way disturbed by this this aspect of the book.   Tom’s faith in his vision of Jesus and heaven is what enables him to bear the separation from his family and the tremendously bad treatment by his final owner.  Whether you share these beliefs, it is very likely you will appreciate the “bright line” that Tom draws regarding what work he will and won’t do for his master.  While Tom demonstrated multiple times he was a faithful and valuable servant, willing to do most any work that required of him in an honest and trust-worthy way, he was unwilling to whip other slaves or do them any harm on his master’s behalf.  He demonstrated his faithfulness to “do as Jesus would do” in this regard.

In addition to the character of Tom, on whom Stowe bestows nearly Christ-like willingness to suffer on behalf of others, Stowe gives us the character of Eva.  So compelling is this character to be loved by readers for her freely given love to all servants in the house and to her flawed parents, that Eva became a very popular name given by readers in the 1850’s to their own children.  Eva goes to church with her mother weekly, but, unlike her mother, clearly truly absorbs the message to love others and to love her Lord.  She is sad that she will leave her father before he becomes a Christian but is convinced he is good and will eventually turn to her Lord as well.

Stowe shows us Christian action by the Quakers who help Eliza, George, and their son escape from the clutches of slave-hunters.  When one of the slave-hunters is hurt, but fortunately not killed by George, the Quakers do not leave him to die but rather take him to a home of one in their community who tends to him while he heals, despite his initial protests.

However, Stowe is quick to chasten Christians who do hold prejudice in their hearts or unjust actions towards slaves in her story (consider St. Clare’s aunt’s reaction to Topsy and Senator Bird’s need to change his mind and go against the Ohio version of the Fugitive Slave Act which he supported).  In her final chapter, which, interestingly is a small sermon to her readers, Stowe both provides facts supporting theses discussed above and damns Southern views of slavery.  She equally blasts Northern tolerance and promotion of slavery to appease unity across the states.  She calls to task the unstated prejudice of Northerns which they harbored against blacks then and which will surprise those migrating from the Jim Crowe laws of the south when they reach the north during the Great Migration.  Her book continues to raise an unflattering mirror to us even in 2018.

Stowe’s book was hugely popular when released in serial form and after its publication in book form.  It was originally published in a time when the general population was not a reading one, yet it sold over 300,000 copies in the year of its publication.  The popularity is not surprising.  I myself raptly listened to the sorrowful death scenes and the exciting scenes of flee from relentless slave-hunters.  I cheered when several characters are reunited after years of separation.  I dearly hoped for Tom’s return to his wife and family.  I understood the arguments for sale of Tom and Eliza’s George by Mr. Shelby and rejoiced when Mrs. Shelby deters the slave-hunters long enough to give Eliza a head start.

Stowe’s story-telling is riveting.   Stowe’s messages are clear and strong.  The strong appeal of her serial gave her license, of which she fully took advantage, to write a final chapter that is a clear and unflinching sermon to her readers then and her readers today.

I wish this book would be taught more frequently in schools but its length is likely a deterrent. It needs to be read to dispel the inaccurate views we have of the book from such sources as the play put on for the King in “The King and I”.  Misunderstanding of the novel was promoted through the numerous dramatizations of the book in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s which eventually twisted some of its characters and themes. During my lifetime, term “Uncle Tom” is considered a derogatory one, likely developed because Tom doesn’t fight his oppression the way George Harris does.  I personally found Uncle Tom to be a very noble person and one who provides a welcome model of living according to a strong moral compass—be honest, be respectful, be devoted to your family, love others, help others, do no harm to others and be willing to lay down your life rather than cross a moral “bright line”.   This is a book that needs to be read to be understood.  Just as we learned that listening is a practical way to read by Master George and Eva reading to Tom, listening is a practical way to read this powerful book.