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This is an autobiographical novel in which the author relates the emotional life of a childhood and young manhood lived with cerebral palsy. The disease is never named (except on the fly-leaf of the book cover); its impact is revealed through incidents and personal relationships experienced by the protagonist in a narration which reflects by its style, the intellectual maturation from childhood to adulthood.
As a child, Felix spends long periods in a children’s home, to receive therapy and educational training, and to relieve his family of the strain of his care. Felix learns to walk with painstaking effort and surges of determination, but the reactions of others, even of his mother, make clear that he is not normal. His social life is complicated by anti-semitism and by just being from a different religious background. With puberty comes sexual longing and the need for female affection, and eventually the painful recognition that his desire will not be reciprocated. What saves Felix is the life of the mind and a love of literature and writing which a few influential mentors and a clever, similarly disabled friend help him to develop.
The narrator is an alcoholic who has signed himself into a "drying-out facility." He has been there before and tries to reassure his companion, J.P., that their unpleasant withdrawal symptoms will improve. J.P. likes to talk and the narrator encourages him to do so because he would rather listen to J.P.'s stories than think about his own predicament. After hearing about J.P.'s marriage--infatuation, love, children, drinking, fighting ("who knows why we do what we do?")--the narrator is able to tell his own story.
His story includes a wife with whom he was once happy but from whom he is now estranged, and a girlfriend who has received a cancer diagnosis. Each woman had brought him to the drying-out facility, at each separate occasion. "Part of me wanted help. But there was another part." The narrator's ambivalence extends to his relationship with these two women. He can't face his girlfriend's illness or her son, and he knows that if he calls his wife she will ask him "where I'm calling from" and he will have to explain.
A little girl is brought to the rural hospital by her mother, who throws himself at the feet of the young doctor, “Please do something to save my daughter!” It seems that she has been suffering from a sore throat and is now having difficulty breathing. The doctor looks into her throat; diphtheria is evident.
At first he scolds the mother for not having brought the girl earlier. Then he suggests surgery: a tracheotomy. The doctor knows this is the only way he might save the child, but he is consumed by anxiety because he has never performed the procedure. At first the mother objects to surgery, but then relents. The tracheotomy is successful and the child survives.
The narrator is confined to her bedroom in a summer house as part of the rest cure for her "nervousness." A nursemaid takes care of the baby. Her husband John is a physician who insists that she remain completely inactive, not even picking up a pen to write.
The bedroom was formerly a nursery. It has ugly yellow wallpaper with a recurring pattern that begins to obsess the narrator. Given her loneliness and lack of emotional support, she begins to see a woman confined in the pattern of the "repellent, almost revolting" wallpaper. Eventually she decompensates and has a complete emotional breakdown.
First published in 1915, this is the story of Gregor Samsa, a young traveling salesman who lives with and financially supports his parents and younger sister. One morning he wakes up to discover that during the night he has been transformed into a "monstrous vermin" or insect. At first he is preoccupied with practical, everyday concerns: How to get out of bed and walk with his numerous legs? Can he still make it to the office on time?
Soon his abilities, tastes, and interests begin to change. No one can understand his insect-speech. He likes to scurry under the furniture and eat rotten scraps of food. Gregor's family, horrified that Gregor has become an enormous insect, keep him in his bedroom and refuse to interact with him. Only his sister Grete demonstrates concern by bringing his food each day.
When Gregor breaks out one day and scurries into the living room, his father throws apples to chase him away. One becomes embedded in his back. Eventually the apple becomes rotten and infected; Gregor wastes away. When he dies the cleaning woman throws his remains into the garbage.
Bomgard, a young doctor recently transferred from a rural area to a small town hospital, receives an urgent message from Polyakov, the doctor who replaced him. Polyakov has become ill; he needs medical help. Before Bomgard can respond, however, Polyakov arrives at the hospital, dying of a self-inflicted wound. In his last moments, he gives Bomgard a notebook, on which is recorded the story of Polyakov's addiction to morphine.
Polyakov first took morphine to relieve an abdominal pain. He found that it also relieved his despair over the loss of his lover, an opera singer in Moscow. Morphine relieved his loneliness and improved his work. He gradually increased the dose until he became hopelessly dependent on the substance. He failed in his attempts to break the habit at a clinic in Moscow. Eventually there is nothing in life but the drug and Polyakov suicides.
The story begins with Theodore Roosevelt's funeral. The narrator, a reporter with the New York Times, decides to tell a story that happened more than 20 years earlier in 1896 when Roosevelt was Police Commissioner of New York City. A serial killer is murdering young male prostitutes.
Roosevelt invites the infamous Dr. Laszlo Kreizler to form a special unit to track down the killer. The unit also includes the narrator and three members of the police department. Kreizler's qualification is that he is an alienist who champions the radical new concept of forensic psychiatry: the belief that one can predict a criminal's behavior by reconstructing his personality based on evidence in the crimes themselves. This concept smacks of determinism. Thus, Kreizler was violently opposed by many, including the religious establishment, who believed Kreizler was denying that people were morally responsible for their crimes.
Because of the sensitivity of their mission, the small investigative unit operates secretly, but runs into powerful opposition. Over several months Kreizler and his colleagues perform the seemingly impossible job of identifying and tracking down the killer, using Kreizler's psychological methods.
The country doctor, Monsieur Benassis, practices in a village called Voreppe at the base of the Grande Chartreuse Mountains. He is a seedy and unkempt, but very kind-hearted, bachelor of 50 who lives with his authoritarian housekeeper. Benassis was brought up in the country, but had lived for many years in Paris where he enjoyed a dissipated life and loved two women. He left the first, only to learn later that she bore him a son and died of heart disease. Later his illegitimate son died.
His second love, Evelina, broke off their engagement when her parents objected to the suitor’s sordid past. Benassis became very depressed and considered suicide. After visiting a monastery in the Grand Chartreuse region, he decided to move to Voreppe and devote his life to serving the poor rural people. He not only practices medicine, but over the years has also initiated a number of economic and community development projects in the area.
Above the village is a hamlet that contains a dozen cretins among the thirty families who live there. Cretinism is common in the region. Dr. Benassis decides that it would be good for the public health to have all the cretins sent to an asylum in Aiguebelle, some distance away. When Benassis becomes mayor, he arranges to have the cretins transported to Aiguebelle, despite opposition from the local people. One cretin remains "to be fed and cared for as the adopted child of the commune."
Benassis later moves the other inhabitants of the hamlet to a new, more fertile, site in the valley and installs an irrigation system for them. At the end of the novel, Benassis has a stroke and dies. He is the first to be buried in the new cemetery.
After five unproductive meandering sessions, Mr. Trexler, the patient, turns the tables on his psychiatrist, batting back to him the question he has just been pitched: "What do you want?" The doctor's pathetically shallow and concise answer, "I want a wing on the small house I own in Westport. I want more money and leisure to do the things I want to do"(101), propel Mr. Trexler towards compassion for the doctor, and a feeling that he himself had regained his own quirky hold on the world.
After leaving the "poor, scared, overworked" doctor, Trexler thought again about what he wanted: "'I want the second tree from the corner, just as it stands,' he said, answering an imaginary question from an imaginary physician. And he felt a slow pride in realizing that what he wanted none could bestow, and that what he had none could take away. He felt content to be sick, unembarrassed at being afraid; and in the jungle of his fear he glimpsed (as he had so often glimpsed them before)the flashy tail feathers of the bird courage"(102-3).
In this novel, with the help of some friends, Gregor Samsa has survived his seeming death at the end of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and joined a freak show in Vienna. A little man named Amadeus Hoffnung, who suffers from Werner’s syndrome (premature aging), runs this Chamber of Wonders. The human sized cockroach proves to be a big hit with the public and a good friend for his assorted colleagues, who come to admire his optimism, compassion, and sense of social responsibility. Gregor thrives, except for the festering wound in his carapace (back) that will not heal--the wound made when his father threw an apple at him during his traumatic early life in "Metamorphosis" as a human-turned-insect.
In 1923, as a result of an life-changing encounter with Ludwig Wittgenstein, and in the context of growing anti-Semitism in Central Europe, Gregor flies (literally) to New York, where he takes up residence and soon runs into Mr. Charles Ives, the composer and insurance executive, who gives him a job as an actuary. The novel describes Gregor’s subsequent adventures over the next 20 years--as a surprise witness at the Scopes trial, as the subject of Ives’s famous "Insect" Piano Sonata, and finally as the confidant of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and member of his "brain trust." Along the way, Gregor contributes greatly to the science of risk analysis and management.
In 1943, at the president’s request, Gregor joins the atomic bomb project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he serves as risk analyst and all-around moral questioner during the bomb’s development. Finally, Gregor Samsa, having survived 30 years as an insect, becomes physically ill as the old apple-infection turns to septicemia; and he becomes existentially ill, as he confronts the implications of nuclear warfare. He decides to commit suicide by placing himself among the instruments at Ground Zero of Trinity site, vaporizing in the explosion of the first atomic bomb; indeed, "Gregor’s was the most expensive assisted suicide in history." (p. 458)