Casual Vacancy 19: Seven Deadly Sins Guest Post

Sarah McDonald shared this idea with me at a recent talk I gave at Full Circle Bookstore in Oklahoma City. I begged her to write it up as a guest post which she has. Yes, I disagree with her conclusion about writers being the only ones who understand the intentions of their work — but I love the unveiling of the novel’s transparencies in light of the seven deadly sins. It almost certainly isn’t what Ms Rowling intended, as such, and it just as certainly opens up the virtues and vices (well, the vices…) of the novel’s players. Without further ado, then —  ‘The Seven Deadly Sins in Joanne Rowling’s Casual Vacancy,’ by Sarah McDonald.

It seems like important things come in sevens. There are seven notes in music, seven colors in a rainbow, seven books in the Harry Potter series, and of course, seven deadly sins. They are the big ones, the origin of other sins.

I’m not particularly proud of this, but until a few days ago the only one I knew was gluttony, mostly because it’s something we Americans seem to indulge in on a regular basis. As I sat curled up with The Casual Vacancy and read J.K. Rowling’s description of Howard Mollison and his massive stomach, I couldn’t help thinking that he exemplified the concept of gluttony perfectly. Then, I got an idea. Clearly, sin was rampant in Pagford. What if I could nail down all seven?

Reading the book became a game, a hunt for the sins, if you will. I managed to track down a character for each of the cardinal sins as follows:

1. Gluttony = Howard Mollison

As I mentioned previously, it wouldn’t take much to nail down Mr. Mollison with gluttony. Gluttony is any type of over-indulgence, though it is applied most often to over-eating, which is what makes Howard a prime candidate.

He is described in the book as having a stomach so grotesquely large that it leads people to thinking some rather uncomfortable thoughts. The fat has gotten to the point that he has developed a rash under his excess skin. Towards the end of the book, he suffers a second heart attack due to his obesity, and the prognosis is grim. When he talks about other people’s addictions as being easily cured at the Parish council meeting, Parminder Jawanda brilliantly rebuttals: [Read more…]

Casual Vacancy 16: Chaya Golan on “What is Real?”

From a letter to me written by Hogwarts’s Adjunct Tutor, Chaya Golan:

I have finally read The Casual Vacancy, motivated in good part by wanting to be able to read and enjoy your posts about it.  And indeed, as I read through the beginning of the book, as many others who responded to your posts have said, I might not have continued reading if it weren’t for that motive.  Mysteries were introduced (“What was Krystal going to be interviewed concerning?” and then “What was the terrible thing Tessa Wall did?”), but the main and most compelling mystery for me was, “Why did J.K. Rowling, who can write so beautifully, write this???? “  You had said before the book came out that as an “adult” book, it was likely to contain foul language and sex scenes – but even thus forewarned, I couldn’t help but say to myself, “but to such a degree???”

However, by the end of what turned out to be, I thought, a beautiful – if very sad – story, I understood why.  And I am moved by what I imagine to be JKR’s story – that of someone who must feel such an awful responsibility for what she writes – knowing that she has the power to reach millions of people all over the world – and choosing how to use it.  I could feel that this was a story that came straight from her heart.

So, a bunch of things went through my mind as I read the book, and I wanted to share some of them with you. [Read more…]

Casual Vacancy 15: A Telling Re-Take on ‘The Good Samaritan’

In response to HogwartsProfessor Casual Vacancy post 4 on Literary Narcissism, Kelly first raised the possibility that Ms. Rowling’s  post Hogwarts Saga debut was a postmodern re-telling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Lavonne Neff at Christianity Today spoke to this possibility as well, while denying a Christian allegory. I urged a reader who wrote me with thoughts along the Good Samaritan lines to write them up as a Guest Post for your consideration.

The Casual Vacancy and the Good Samaritan by B. Waisanen

There are some obvious parallels between Casual Vacancy and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

As you well know, a lawyer asks Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus prompts the lawyer, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer answers with a quote, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself,” and Jesus says, “You have answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.” But the lawyer, “….willing to justify himself,” asks, “…And who is my neighbor?”

This seems to be a fundamental question of The Casual Vacancy, and it comes with a rather obvious answer. However, is Rowling really that obvious? Something has to be going on under the surface. Connecting the dots between the central parable and the book’s title provides a key to the deeper meaning of the book; that the casual vacancy,  of England’s Christian heritage leads to the inevitable tragedy of the ending.

While I’m sure Good Samaritans abound in the book, Barry Fairbrother is the obvious first choice candidate, dealing out help and healing all round. Not only is he the main tether keeping Krystal on track, Barry supports Gavin, Cubby, Parminder, and the Fields in general.

Later on, as Miles and Samantha arrive for dinner, Rowling slides in another reference, “Here they are, the good Samaritans,” boomed Howard.” Unfortunately, he seems to be making an over the top double entendre towards Samantha.

The real acting out of the parable happens at the end of the story.

A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho….

The journey took Krystal back to her childhood. She had made this trip daily to St. Thomas’s all on her own, on the bus.

It is not a man, but a girl and her brother. I think it is not accidental, that Krystal and Robbie journey up from the Fields to Pagford. She makes a journey, but it is in reverse direction.  The man in the parable journeys from Jerusalem, the city of God, to Jericho. If it Rowling meant this to be a direct parallel, she would have had the journey reversed, from Pagford down to the Fields. [Read more…]

Casual Vacancy 14: Notable Reviews, High and Low

It’s been more than a month since our first look at Casual Vacancy and we’re overdue for a second reading and discussion. Let’s begin with two reviews of the book, one enthusiastic and the other appalled, and an invitation for you to share links to your favorite, challenging, or most despised thoughts on Ms. Rowling’s latest.

First, the enthusiast — public atheist and Rowling fellow author and magical world cum literary novelist Lev Grossman, TIME magazine: “I’m a believer”

It’s rare to see a writer whom you think you know well unfold a new dimension like this, a dimension you didn’t even suspect existed. The Casual Vacancy is, in a funny way, not so much an extension of the Harry Potter books as their negative image: it’s a painfully arbitrary and fallen world, a world that, bereft as it is of the magic that animates and ennobles Hogwarts, sags and cracks under its own weight. After his furtive coupling with Krystal, a melancholy, postcoital Fats “wished he could simply be transported, this instant, to his attic bedroom.” Harry would have apparated there. But Fats, like the rest of us, must take the long way home.

Next, the Tory convert to Catholicism and champion of British culture, Charles Moore, Telegraph (UK): JK Rowling rejects the culture that made her great — “The Harry Potter author made a fortune from the provincial life that she now so clearly despises”:

I dwell on these points because, taken together, they show that JK Rowling, though very po-faced, is not artistically serious. Her plot is not well-grounded. Her morality tale has all the improbability of magic, but none of its allure.

This is sad, because it is in our provincial life that our great culture has flourished. And it is partly because of the decline of our provincial life that it has degenerated. The huge preponderance of London in the 21st century has certainly made our capital city one of the liveliest places in the world, but it has also drained the life and variety out of the rest of the country. In literature, as in politics, London runs everything, and doesn’t care much about anywhere else.

JK Rowling’s success in the Harry Potter stories was, in fact, the product of a provincial life. Her magical imagination grew strong in the confined spaces of her background. She made a huge fortune. It is an unattractive feature of our celebrity culture that she now despises all those people – virtually the entire human race – who are less of a global phenomenon than herself. Left-wing she may be, but what JK Rowling is really saying to the poor old provincial England that made her is, like Harry Enfield’s famous creation, “I am considerably richer than yow!

More links to reviews after the jump. Please share your favorites and finds in the comment boxes below! [Read more…]

CV13 — Christianity Today: “Profoundly Biblical Worldview”

Christianity Today has published a challenging and thoughtful review of Casual Vacancy by Lavonne Neff at its website. An excerpt:

Everyone agreed that Pagford has nothing to do with Hogwarts: “The only obvious parallel with the Potter books is that, like them, it is animated by a strong dislike of mean, unsympathetic, small-minded folk,” says Tait. But everyone may have read too quickly. The Casual Vacancy and the Harry Potter series are alike in one important respect. Both are based on a profoundly biblical worldview.

Look at how Rowling uses religious themes.

Chapter 1 introduces us to “the pretty little town of Pagford,” dominated by “the dark skeleton of the ruined abbey.” The expensive houses are located in Church Row. The church itself is “mock-Gothic.” The townspeople, we will learn in later chapters, use the building for school plays and council meetings and parties. Another former church, Bellchapel, has been turned into an addiction treatment center. The Old Vicarage is now owned by a Sikh family. Rowling seems to want us to know that the world of The Casual Vacancy is decidedly post-Christian. It is what Quaker theologian D. Elton Trueblood once termed a “cut flower civilization”: pretty now, but rootless and doomed.

Do read the whole thing!