Yeats wrote about “The Fascination of What’s Difficult.” Each of the essays in this volume embraces difficulty with gusto. There is a desire here to think against received readings, and with fascinating results. Each essay taught me something, and for that I am grateful.
I had not known, for instance, that Milton’s Sin could be traced back to medieval folk tales in which she is figured as a ‘founding mother’ of monarchy. Incest is an open theme in Pericles, but to then have it discovered in King Lear is an arresting — as well as a usefully alarming — act of literary detection. We know that Beckett has little time for conventional notions of sanity, but it is surprising to be shown that in his work “wrongness is not a means to be right, but an achievement in itself.” Whoever thought that Virginia Woolf could deploy the figure of the horse in her sly but inexorable campaign against the worship of the culture of “elite men”? Joyce’s “Araby” is a story I have always loved — many would consider it the greatest very short story in English — and yet I am happily unsettled in my memory of it when it is pointed out that the love-struck narrator refuses even to give Mangan’s sister a name.
So — congratulations are due to these five strong readers as well as to their teachers. I only wish I had been one of them.
Department of English, University of Maryland