One of the tags I use here on GoodBooksforCatholicKids.com is Turkish Delight. This tag, and indeed the book review portion of the blog, was inspired by a particular chapter in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe titled “Turkish Delight.” I’ve read The Chronicles of Narnia at least a dozen times, and over these many re-reads I began to see an analogy between Turkish Delight and certain books.
In the chapter “Turkish Delight,” Edmund enters Narnia for the first time and almost immediately meets the White Witch. She offers him food and he asks for Turkish Delight, which she magically produces. Lewis describes the confection in mouth-watering fashion: “Each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious.” But really, of course, the candy was quite dangerous, even deadly: it confused the eater’s mind and eventually leads to death.
“While he was eating the Queen kept asking him questions. At first Edmund tried to remember that it is rude to speak with one’s mouth full, but soon he forgot about this and thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat, and he never asked himself why the Queen should be so inquisitive. . . .
[T]his was enchanted Turkish Delight and anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.”
~ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis
Of course, the reader can easily extrapolate the symbol of Turkish Delight to apply to many categories of temptations and vices. For me, though, Turkish Delight always symbolized a certain type of book: easily inhaled, pleasant, addictive, and with poisonous content that killed the soul.
Weakening and Addictive
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Witch offers rooms full of Turkish Delight- unlimited light, easy pleasure- in exchange for Edmund bringing her his siblings. At first, it’s hard to imagine how Edmund can be willing to trade his siblings and soul for more candy. But if you consider that Lewis is using Turkish Delight as an allegory for temptation and sin, the puzzle of Edmund’s actions becomes clearer. A temptation succumbed to is a sin, and sin weakens the soul. So Turkish Delight weakens Edmund’s ability to clearly discern the good and withstand future temptations. Lewis describes that after eating the enchanted food, Edmund starts “becoming a nastier person by the minute.”
Turkish Delight and Books
On my blog, books tagged Turkish Delight are examples of unwholesome literature that results in weakening of the soul. Good literature has great power to inspire positive changes in mindset. On the flip side, unwholesome literature results in bad attitudes and negative behavior changes. As a case in point, after my popular Review of Diary of a Wimpy Kid came out, I had several parents reach out and tell me how they knew their must be something wrong with the book from their children’s worsening behavior after reading it.
Ruining Appreciation of the Good
Later in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund can’t enjoy a delicious, wholesome meal when he returns to Narnia. At the Beaver’s House, he can’t appreciate the simple but delicious food he was served:
“He had eaten his share of the dinner, but he hadn’t really enjoyed it because he was thinking all the time about Turkish Delight- and there’s nothing that spoils the taste of good ordinary food half so much as the memory of bad magic food.”
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
How many kids can’t seem to enjoy classics like Tom Sawyer, The Melendys, Swallows and Amazons, Treasure Island, or Little Britches anymore? In many cases, I think this is the result of exposure to Turkish Delight style literature.
How to avoid Turkish Delight books?
Inevitably, your children will eventually stumble upon books that are of the Turkish Delight category. The best way to help your children develop the ability to recognize and avoid books which are unwholesome is to help them develop an appetite for good books. How? Buy great books. Borrow them from the library or a friend if you can’t buy them. Read them aloud to your little children, and have them available for your older children. Need ideas of great books? Check out my Books Lists for thousands of ideas!
Have a child who loves Narnia? Look at this list of great fantasy series for Catholic kids and teens:
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is one of those oft-recommended young adult series. It’s promoted as a modern classic by many libraries. Even some reputable review sites like commonsensemedia.org recommends it for 12+. The series premise is that four close friends share a special pair of jeans which help them stay close even when apart. The depiction of strong, healthy female friendship is moving and imitable, but there are definitely concerning aspects of this series Catholic parents need to be tracking.
Great premise, poor writing
Bridget, Lena, Tibby, and Carmen share a robust, close friendship. Always there for each other, always ready to sacrifice for one another, the parts of this series that focus on their friendship are in fact quite inspiring. The writing style, however, is shallow. The plot is not well-planned, and the character growth is uneven or inconsistent with some of the characters. I might have forgiven some of this though if I wasn’t so concerned with the amount of sexual content in a tween/teen series.
Too much focus on sex
There are really two themes in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. One is female friendship, the other is discovering your sexuality and losing your virginity. This series is written for a secular audience, so perhaps this is the norm in public schools, but Catholic parents may be startled to learn that this series describes events such as 15 year old Bridget seducing her 19 year old soccer coach. In a later book, 18 year old Bridget begins a similar seduction of her married archaeology professor, but at least stops at passionate making out, for what that’s worth. Tibby, at 18, fornicates with her boyfriend and then has a pregnancy scare. Lena, at 18, engages in nude modeling in art school and eventually loses her virginity to a guy she admits to not really loving or seeing marrying. Throughout the series, a lot of the plot is concerning who will sleep with who and when? Interesting content for a series that is supposed to be promoting positive teen behavior.
Lessons: too vague, too incoherent
Are the consequences of all this sexual misconduct negatively portrayed? Sometimes. Bridget falls into a year long depression after seducing her soccer coach and being rejected. The message is that it was a mistake because she was “too young.” But then, two years later, when she meets the soccer coach again and they fall in love, apparently she is now “old enough” and having sexual relations is acceptable. According to The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, having sex with your boyfriend is just fine as long as you’re “old enough” and “feel” right about it.
After Tibby fornicates with her boyfriend, she is terrified she’s pregnant, which causes her major anxiety and leads to breaking up with the boyfriend. But again, the message is not that sex outside of marriage is wrong, but rather that the timing was wrong. Even as Tibby regrets that she might be pregnant, the author makes sure to clarify that she didn’t actually regret having sex, because “she was ready.”
So The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants delivers a typical secular message that sex outside of marriage is okay overall, as long as you’re “ready” and not “too young.”
Great Premise, but unfit for Christian consumption
I would love to see a similar series with themes about strong female friendships, loyalty, and growing up, but done in a way that is appropriate for Catholic teens. Sadly, none of the teens in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants have any sort of moral compass regarding sexuality and relationships. Lacking guidance from wise adults or any philosophical or religious formation, they make decisions based strictly on what feels right to them. Consequently, the characters in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants are poor role models. I cannot recommend this series for Catholic teens under any circumstances.
The Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney is extremely popular with the 8-12 year old crowd. I see librarians and book clubs frequently recommending it as the perfect book to interest reluctant readers. I read it for the first time the other day in a little over an hour; it is more comic book than novel so it’s a very quick read. And, I hated it.
The basic problem is that the protagonist, Greg Heffley, is a lying video game addict who manipulates his friends, disrespects his parents, and doesn’t show personal growth to speak of in the story. I’ll break that down with details for you.
Greg is a liar. He lies to his parents, his teachers, his friends, and his peers. He’s not just any liar: he’s a skilled, sneaky one. For example, when his dad tells him to go play outside, Greg goes to a friend’s house and plays video games. Then he soaks himself in a sprinkler so it looks like he’s been running around working up a sweat, thereby deceiving his dad. On another occasion, Greg deceives his friend’s parents by sneaking in a forbidden violent video game in the case of an educational one.
Let’s talk about the video games. Greg lives for his video games, and he prefers violent ones. He describes car-racing as too babyish, and resents his friend’s contentment with such boring games. The more violent the game, the cooler for Greg. When Christmas comes, he sulks about not getting the particularly violent video game he wants and is ungrateful for all his other presents.
Greg has a rather sweet, slightly immature best friend, Rowley, whom he manipulates and bullies. He beats up Rowley using all the same moves his own brother used to beat him up. He makes fun of Rowley’s simpler tastes in video games and humor. On one occasion, he convinces Rowley to ride a big wheel down a hill repeatedly while Greg throws a football at his head to try to knock him off. This is the great friendship in the book, and I actually found it truly sad to read.
Greg has a abysmal view of adults in general. He considers them dumb and easily tricked. Unfortunately, in this story the adults are rather dumb and easily tricked. He repeatedly gets around video game grounding by sneaking off to game at his friend Rowley’s house. He tricks Rowley’s parents by sneaking in video games they have expressly forbidden in their home. Greg’s teachers are also sometimes taken in by his lies.
The ending of the book is supposed to provide a shade of redemption in one area of Greg’s life at least: he finally does something kind for Rowley. But here’s the problem: the kind act is telling a lie to get Rowley out of an embarrassing predicament. At this point, I was asking, really, Jeff Kinney? That’s the best redemptive moment you can come up with?
There are miscellaneous other problematic areas of the book. One that really bothered me was a scenario where Greg’s older brother left a bikini pictures magazine laying out and Greg’s littler brother took it to show and tell. This is supposed to be hilarious; it’s most certainly not what I want my 8-12 year old laughing about.
There is also extensive potty humor, lots of bullying at the school, a scene where the angry dad throws objects at Greg, and really resentful sibling relationships. All things considered, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is one of the last books I’d ever give my child to read. Don’t fall into the trap of believing junk food books like this are all is out there for your reluctant reader! There are so, so many better books out there! Check out my lists for 8 to 9 year olds , 10 to 11 year olds, and Graphic Novels and Comic Books for some awesome alternative options!
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is a very popular novel about circus life in the Great Depression. Jacob, 93 years old, retells his adventures one life-changing summer when he happens upon a job as a veterinarian for a traveling circus. The story bounces between Jacob’s frustrations with life in an assisted living facility, and his circus memories of meeting his future wife and the animals he learned to love. A depression-era traveling circus is an intriguing and colorful setting for a book, and one that held a lot of promise. But on several levels I found this book unsatisfactory.
First of all, an integral part of the plot is Jacob falling in love with his future wife, Marlena, who just happens to be married. At first, Jacob expresses guilt over his feelings for a married woman. But once it emerges her husband is abusive and schizophrenic, the implication is he is free to succumb to his feelings for her. Which he rapidly does.
Enter problem two with this book: a truly ridiculous amount of sexual content. Jacob spends way too much time talking about his desire to be rid of “the burden” of his virginity. I would even describe it as a minor conflict point: when and to whom will Jacob lose his virginity? There are also descriptions of masturbation, fornication, adultery, strippers, pornography, and more. It’s bad on a moral level, and also unnecessary on a storytelling level. Honestly, even if I hadn’t been repulsed by the blatant sexual content, the amount it interrupted the flow of the plot ruined the book.
A relatively minor quibble is I found what I call the “unforgiving, judgmental Catholic parent” theme, which I see often in popular modern books. A Catholic character (in this case Marlena) makes a blunder by the so-called Catholic standards of her parents. These supposedly Catholic standards are often not even in line with Catholic teaching; in this case Marlena is disowned for marrying a Jew. The parents then utterly disown and refuse to help the character ever again period. This drives the character out of the Catholic Church and also justifies all his or her future morally questionable actions. I really dislike this portrayal of Catholics as irrational, unforgiving people.
I was so disappointed with this book overall. The focus on the sexual content resulted in the circus itself really got short-changed. The enjoyable parts of the book were about the animal performers and the friendships Jacob forms with the other crew members. I wanted to read more about the elephant, Rosie. And the liberty horses act. And the other performers and crew members. If this book had focused more on the circus and less on an adulterous relationship, it might have been worth reading. But it didn’t. So my advice is don’t bother reading it, and given the graphic sexual content definitely do not allow your children to read it.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson was an international bestseller, garnering awards in Sweden and Britain and a coveted spot at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. It was published in 2005, but libraries are still promoting it as a must-read book. I read it out of curiosity, pure and simple, not even intending to write a review. This book is part thriller, part mystery, part social commentary. With a cast of memorable characters, an intriguing “locked room” style scenario, and a cold case, it is easy to see why this book gained popularity.
The plot is complex, but to try to summarize in a paragraph: a journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, is asked by wealthy businessman Henrik Vanger to investigate his granddaughter’s probable murder many years previously. Blomkvist ends up enlisting the help of computer-hacker Lisbeth Salander, a strange young adult with a troubled past and serious personal problems, to solve the mystery. Together, they uncover the dark family secrets at the root of the Vanger girl’s disappearance.
WHAT’S TO LIKE
As Catholics, there are a few themes in this book with which we can easily agree. Yes, of course abuse of women is indeed terrible. It’s terrible that rape is under-reported and there is such a stigma of shame for survivors. Abuse of the disabled by persons in positions of authority is a terrible injustice. The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo does indeed draw attention to these evils.
For lovers of children’s literature, there are a lot of fun references to Astrid Lindgren, best known in America as the author of the Pippi Longstocking books. She wrote many other children’s books which are popular in her native Sweden, and I loved Larsson’s obvious appreciation of her skill.
And, I ran out of positive things to say. So, the negative.
GLORIFICATION OF VICES
I certainly do not require protagonists which are models of virtue, but I do hope that their flaws are acknowledged as such, and that there is some growth or redemption. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson fails in both these areas. Both protagonists are deeply flawed, yet portrayed as admirable, and there is no positive character development.
Lisbeth is on the one hand drawn as a girl with a dark, troubled past and some anti-social tendencies, yet at the same time Larsson clearly admires her. He praises her promiscuity as freedom from inhibition. Her anti-social tendencies are explained as due to greater than average rationality and self-reliance. Her eye-for-an-eye ethics is portrayed as fair.
Mikael Blomkvist is clearly supposed to be the “good” guy. Larsson repeatedly harps on his reputed honesty and thirst for justice. It’s easy when you’re reading to park a character described like this in a box labeled “good.” But when you examine Mickael’s actions, you wonder whether he really is a very good person. He ascribes to the philosophy that the ends justifies the means. To him, lying is okay if it saves a life, or even if it is just more convenient for him at the moment. His adulterous relationships and affairs are another major problem in this purportedly “good” character.
In both Lisbeth and Mikael’s cases, the problem is not their character flaws and vices, but the fact that these very vices are often presented in a positive light. For example, take a look at how Mikael’s affairs are portrayed.
AFFAIRS AND ADULTERY
I think Larsson intentionally makes the most “stable” relationship in the book a completely unconventional and amoral one. Mikael has a long-running affair with his married co-worker Erika Berger, an affair which her husband is aware of and allows. Larsson paints a very positive picture of this bizarre arrangement where Erika chooses on a nightly basis whether to sleep with her husband or Mikael. Supposedly this is liberating for Erika, and loving and enlightened on her husbands part. Of course Erika is also completely understanding and enlightened about Mikael having affairs with two or three other women over the course of the book. And Mikael? Well of course he’s a good guy because he only sleeps with one woman at a time.
I found it notable that the traditionally married couples in the book fared poorly in contrast. The twisted, horrible family situation with the Vangers involves incest, rape, and torture. Horrible, but it is raised to a new level of dreadful by the fact that the mother knew what the father was doing and ignored it.
GRAPHIC SEXUAL VIOLENCE
On the subject of rape, there is a truly brutal rape scene that no one needs to read. This description of the graphic violence her guardian inflicts on Lisbeth is unnecessary and voyeuristic. Then there is another brutal rape scene, less thoroughly described, where Lisbeth takes revenge on her guardian. The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is really inappropriate reading for Catholics simply taking into account these graphic descriptions of sexual violence.
DISHONORABLE MENTION TO CHRISTIANITY
Larsson gives Christianity just enough recognition for a dishonorable mention. Religion and God are by and large are ignored. The only mention comes in when Mikael and Lisbeth discover the rapist murderer justifies his actions as Biblical. The villain uses twisted interpretations of Old Testament passages to rationalize raping and killing women. Mikael shakes his head over this, and worries that his teenage daughter will get involved in “religion.” The “gods” worshiped in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are “freedom” (read the ability to do whatever one feels like), not hurting others, and a vague sense of justice.
NOD TO NIETZSCHE
I believe Larsson’s worldview must have been strongly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche. Lisbeth is remarkably like the Ubermensch ideal found in Nietzsche. Larsson holds up certain qualities as admirable in Lisbeth: her extraordinarily strong will, complete reliance on reason, disregard for the common good, lack of herd mentality, independence and so on. These happen to be the qualities that perfectly coincide with Nietzsche’s Ubermensch ideal. Nietzsche’s philosophy is inherently irreconcilable with Christianity, beginning as it does with the assumption that there is no God or objective morality. Perhaps it is purely coincidental that Lisbeth appears to fit the Ubermensch model so well, but perhaps Larsson was intentionally promoting Nietzsche’s ideal.
A DARKENED WORLD
Overall, Larsson has a dark, disillusioned worldview. Governments, businesses, and individuals are nearly all manipulate, deceptive, and basically self centered. I felt like I was reading an dystopia. And realized that without a belief in God, without hope, this is indeed a dark, depressing world we live in. Larsson seems to see all the evil without being able to offer any hope or redemption. I was waiting for some sort of turning point of redemption, and even skimmed the rest of the series, which is more of the same. There is never redemption. There is no sunrise. This is a dark and deeply problematic book, and definitely not one I recommend for Catholic teens or even adults.
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon was written back in 1991, but like several other books I’ve reviewed, it enjoys new popularity due to the successful TV series of the same title. Outlander is the first of a series of lengthy novels by Gabaldon which combine historical fiction, romance, and time travel. I truly enjoyed large sections of this novel. Claire, the narrator and protagonist, is a memorable character: a woman who possesses both a nurse’s healing instincts and a warrior’s strength and courage. Her account of time travel to 18th century Scotland and subsequent fast-paced adventures in that picturesque setting are entertaining, even fascinating, reading. Authoress Diana Gabaldon is actually a Roman Catholic, and I loved her overall positive portrayal of Catholicism. However, as much as I found to appreciate in Outlander, I also found several troubling themes and much distasteful content.
A VERY BRIEF SUMMARY
To sum up a novel over 600 pages in a few sentences: Outlander is the story of Claire (Beauchamp) Randall, a World War II nurse, who accidentally travels back in time to 18th century Scotland. To escape imprisonment by her husband’s ancestor Captain Randall, she ends up forced into marriage with a charming young Scot named Jamie Fraser. They spend the remainder of the novel alternating between violent quarrels and steamy reconciliation scenes, all while trying to avoid capture by the sadistic villain Jack Randall.
POSITIVE PORTRAYAL OF CATHOLICISM
The best part of Outlander for a Catholic reader is the wonderful, positive portrayal of Catholicism and monastic life in the last few chapters. Earlier in the book, a parish priest is portrayed as uneducated, superstitious, and vindictive, but the later chapters dealing with many holy monks and priests more than counterbalance the one caricature of a peasant priest. Towards the end of the book, a wounded Jamie and Claire seek refuge in this French monastery. Though a lifelong agnostic, Claire is impressed by the devout monks and befriends one priest, Fr. Anselm, who offers her some beautiful explanations of various Catholic practices such as perpetual adoration and Extreme Unction.
“The purpose of the sacrament is twofold,” Anselm went on, murmuring in my ear as the preparations went on. “First, it is intended as a sacrament of healing; we pray that the sufferer may be restored to health, if that be God’s will for him. The chrism, the consecrated oil, is used as a symbol of life and healing.” “And the second purpose?” I asked, already knowing. Anselm nodded. “If it is not God’s will that he should recover, then he is given absolution of sins, and we commend him to God, that his soul may depart in peace.”
On Anselm’s advice, Claire begins to attend perpetual adoration, eventually admitting that she is not alone and recognizing God’s presence. I began to be excited that Gabaldon was leading up to a conversion or miracle, but then was utterly baffled as a few pages later Claire turns to witchcraft to help heal Jamie.
WITCHES AND WITCHCRAFT
The witchcraft motif begins in the first few chapters of the book with a casual interlude of palm reading with the vicar’s cook. From there the observant reader finds an ongoing insinuation of two contradictory themes about witchcraft. A first theme is an attempt to normalize witchcraft as not particularly different than herb lore, divorce it from Satanism, and paint those who fear witchcraft as superstitious and uneducated. Claire notices the witches she meets are wise, reasonable women who by extension take a reasonable attitude towards the occult.
“Perhaps it was an attitude they shared, a pragmatism that regarded the occult as merely a collection of phenomena like the weather. Something to be approached with cautious respect, of course—much as one would take care in using a sharp kitchen knife—but certainly nothing to avoid or fear.”
Claire undergoes a witch trial when she is arrested along with a friend and accused of dabbling in the occult. Her friend, who is a self-proclaimed witch, ends up sacrificing herself so Claire can escape, emphasizing the motif that witches are basically good people. Up to that point, Claire has regarded witchcraft with leeriness, but eventually she turns to witchcraft herself, as mentioned above, to save Jamie in the last extremity. She decides to “summon a ghost” by using a reflection pool as her witch friend had taught her to assist in exorcising Jamie’s nightmares. Afterwards, she leaves her room “with a prayer for the soul of the witch Geillis Duncan.” This whole interlude of Claire using the occult is particularly troubling because of its placement in the plot. Jamie has been given Extreme Unction, the monks have commended him to God’s providence … and then Claire turns to witchcraft to save him. The second theme about the occult seems to be: God is a comforting idea, but witchcraft works better.
Another aspect of Outlander that I found very troubling was that the great romantic relationship in the story between Jamie and Claire skirted dangerously close to a domestic abuse situation. Both hot tempered, they frequently engaged in shouting matches, hurling verbal abuse at each other. Jamie threatened Claire with physical abuse on several occasions. For example: “Try that again and I’ll slap you ’til your ears ring.” And on one occasion, he does follow through with a threat and beat her with his sword belt. Worse, he confesses to enjoying it:
“Enjoyed it! Sassenach,” he said, gasping, “you don’t know just how much I enjoyed it. You were so … God, you looked lovely. I was so angry, and you fought me so fierce. I hated to hurt you, but I wanted to do it at the same time … Jesus,” he said, breaking off and wiping his nose, “yes. Yes, I did enjoy it.
LANGUAGE & LYING
Taking the Lord’s name in vain is frequent throughout Outlander. Claire is the worst in this regards, blaming her foul mouth on having served in field hospital. Jamie is at first held up as a fundamentally good, moral character; it is disappointing as the book progresses and he curses regularly too. Lying is also commonplace. Jamie and Claire make a pact not to lie to each other, but otherwise Claire sees no problem with lying. In fact, the book opens with her flippantly lying to her landlady.
PEDOPHILIA A LAUGHING MATTER?
There are at least two homosexual characters. One is the Duke of Sandringham, who has a reputation for preying on teenage boys. Now this is not represented as a positive, but it is presented as fairly amusing. The Duke is a jolly, intelligent man whom Claire says she rather likes. An interesting way to draw a sexual predator, isn’t it? Jamie tells humorous anecdotes about the Duke’s attempts to assault him as a teenager. I find making a joke out of pedophilia at best offensive and at worst an effort at normalization. I do not know the author’s intentions of course, but humor is a great way to normalize deviant behavior.
THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS
The final and insurmountable difficulty with Outlander for a Catholic reader is that it is, simply put, too explicit. Unless you are willing to skip large sections of the text, you find yourself reading intimate details about Claire’s lovemaking with Frank and Jamie that no one needs or should want to know. Even worse, Gabaldon spends page after page describing Jack Randall’s sadistic homosexual tendencies in great detail. This was completely unnecessary to the plot and simply revolting to read. Skimming over a few paragraphs of such unnecessary explicit details about lovemaking and sadism is one thing, but the novel is simply rife with such passages.
The curious combination of accurate Catholic knowledge mixed with witchcraft, domestic abuse, and explicit sex scenes is honestly more disturbing than a run of the mill romance novel. Gabaldon has clearly been catechized, and yet writes a book that seems set on muddying the waters about witchcraft, romanticizing domestic abuse, and swimming with sex scenes. To quote some Jane Austen, “Better be without sense than misapply it as you do.” Outlander could have been a great book without the smut and witchery. But as it is in actuality, my advice is: this book is certainly not appropriate for teenagers, and adults should be forewarned that this is not a clean novel.
The Handmaid’s Tale has been a runaway hit as a TV series (which I have not watched) so I was curious to review the book which was the inspiration behind it. Margaret Atwood’s novel is the story of Offred, a woman who is assigned the position of handmaid in a dystopian society formed in a twisted imitation of the social order in Genesis. Offred narrates a series of fragmented snippets of life in the Republic of Gilead. I believe the popularity of the novel is due to Offred’s independent spirit which refuses to completely believe in or accept the twisted world in which she lives. Although I too admired Offred’s resistance against a clearly convoluted way of life, I found the book overall to have several extremely troublesome aspects which Catholic readers might want to consider before perusing it.
The Handmaid’s Tale is in essence a story about forced prostitution and adultery. There is only the slightest element of choice in Offred’s situation as a consort to a married Commander. Her alternative was to die cleaning up toxic waste, and any protest about her position will result in immediate execution.
Sexual content includes various descriptions of Offred’s lust for nearly every man she meets from the guards to the chauffeur to her husband. She repeatedly justifies this lust as a natural result of sexual repression. She enjoys teasing the guards because they “have no outlets now except themselves, and that’s a sacrilege.” The novel implies that the lack of access to porn and prostitutes is actually a negative for society. Other content includes descriptions of adultery, sex with two women, fornication, and masturbation.
I think some of the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale is a result of the “glamour of evil.” Most people are repelled and sickened by Offred’s situation, but there is a sort of fascination with the depravity of the situation that leads the reader on. If we stop and think for a moment, what good will come of reading this fictitious account of a sick world?
SMIRCHING TRADITIONAL VALUES
Most of my concern about The Handmaid’s Tale is aimed at its subtle attempts to besmirch. For example, there are several digs at traditional values such as when Offred describes her room:
“There’s a rug on the floor, oval, of braided rags. This is the kind of touch the like: folk art, archaic, made by women, in their spare time, from things that have no further use. A return to traditional values. Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?”
Do you see the association that is made cognitively? Traditional values equal dissatisfaction. Along the same lines, Offred is miserable when she loses her job when the Republic is first being set up. She feels unfulfilled and aimless staying at home, and resents relying on her husband to take care of her and earn the family’s income.
STABS AT CATHOLIC BELIEFS
Another area that The Handmaid’s Tale attempts to do a smear job on is a variety of Catholic terms and concepts. There are several pokes at nuns. Offred describes her dismal life as similar to a convent: “Time here is measured by bells, as once in nunneries. As in a nunnery too, there are few mirrors.” Later, she explains: “Some people call [dresses] habits, a good word for them. Habits are hard to break.”
Another stab is taken at saints, comparing the twisted Aunts who are in charge of the handmaids with them.
“Aunt Lydia did not actually say this, but it was implicit in everything she did say. It hovered over her head, like the golden mottoes over the saints, of the darker ages. Like them too, she was angular and without flesh.”
There are a couple uncomplimentary references to chalices, associating them with emptiness and the Handmaid position. Offred describes herself: “We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” At another time, she says:
“The tulips along the border are redder than ever, opening, no longer wine cups but chalices; thrusting themselves up, to what end? They are, after all, empty. When they are old they turn themselves inside out, then explode slowly, the petals thrown out like shards.”
Then, of course, there is the very word “Handmaid” itself. One of our titles of Mary is, of course, “Handmaid of the Lord.” This book is certainly going to give the reader a bad taste about that title. Another Marian reference is the choice of “Blessed by the fruit” as the accepted greeting for this dreadful society.
Indulgences and rote prayers like the rosary also get attention. Soul Scrolls, nicknamed Holy Rollers, are machines that print and read endless renditions of certain prayers. People buy a certain number of renditions of a prayer as a “sign of piety and faithfulness to the regime.” Offred describes the noise of the soulless machines: “You can’t hear the voices from outside; only a murmur, a hum, like a devout crowd on its knees.”
BAD TASTE ABOUT THE BIBLE
Yes, I realize that the book admits to presenting a twisted version of the Bible. However. How many people are familiar enough with the Bible to tell what is distorted and what is spot on? And overall, how many negative cognitive associations does this book create?
To name a few instances of Biblical references being woven in. Servants are called “marthas.” Handmaids can be struck, because “there’s a Scriptural precedence.” All the shops are references to Bible verses. Lilies of the Field. Milk and Honey. All Flesh. Offred says: “You can get dried-up rolls and wizened doughnuts at Daily Bread.”
The “Aunts,” who are the indoctrinators and managers of the handmaids, use Bible verses liberally in their indoctrination.
“Hair must be long but covered. Aunt Lydia said: Saint Paul said it’s either that or a close shave.”
“If you have a lot of things, said Aunt Lydia, you get too attached to this material world and you forget about spiritual values. You must cultivate poverty of spirit. Blessed are the meek.”
“Aunt Lydia thought she was very good at feeling for other people. Try to pity them. Forgive them, for they know not what they do. Again the tremulous smile, of a beggar, the weak-eyed blinking, the gaze upwards, through the round steel-rimmed glasses, towards the back of the classroom, as if the green-painted plaster ceiling were opening and God on a cloud of Pink Pearl face powder were coming down through the wires and sprinkler plumbing.”
“For lunch it was the Beatitudes. Blessed be this, blessed be that. … Blessed be those that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Nobody said when.”
“From each, says the slogan, according to her ability; to each according to his needs. We recited that, three times, after dessert.”
But not all the Biblical references come from the evil Aunts. I love the Book of Job, so I particularly resented this entry of Offred’s which formed some subtle negative associations with it:
“It’s strange, now, to think about having a job. Job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they’d say to children when they were being toilet trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet. You were supposed to hit them with rolled-up newspapers, my mother said. I can remember when there were newspapers, though I never had a dog, only cats. The Book of Job.”
Another memorable convolution of Offred’s was equating the Incarnation with falling in and out of love:
“The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh. And sometimes it happened, for a time. That kind of love comes and goes and is hard to remember afterwards, like pain. You would look at the man one day and you would think, I loved you, and the tense would be past.”
I think The Handmaid’s Tale has an agenda here: to create a subconscious recoiling from Biblical references. To contaminate God’s word by association with such despicable characters.
A few broad statements here about The Handmaid’s Tale depiction of people of various genders. Men are drawn as power-hungry, overbearing, and hypocritical. Most women are weak followers or brainwashed zealots. So who is the reader supposed to admire in this novel? Moira.
Who is Moira? Moira is Offred’s best friend, a spirited, courageous woman who resists the regime. She becomes a veritable legend by successfully escaping the “Red Center” where the handmaids are processed. Offred describes her as “daring and spectacular.”
Moira is also a very outspoken lesbian. I am not saying there is anything inharmonious about a lesbian being courageous and spectacular. But I am saying that the single admirable character in The Handmaid’s Tale being a lesbian indicates an agenda to normalize and even create favorable views of homosexuals.
DEHUMANIZATION OF DISABLED CHILDREN
I believe another hidden agenda in The Handmaid’s Tale is to shore up the fiction that a disabled or genetically abnormal baby is not even a person. In The Handmaid’s Tale, sterility and infertility are rife, and many of the children born have birth defects. The term “unbaby” is used for children who are born disabled or disfigured. Offred speculates about a fellow pregnant handmaid:
“What will Ofwarren give birth to? A baby, as we all hope? Or something else, an unbaby, with a pinhead or a snout like a dog’s, or two bodies, or a hole in its heart or no arms, or webbed hands and feet? There’s no telling.”
She later implies that the “unbabies” are killed. Does having a hole in the heart, or no arms, or disfigured hands, make a baby not a person? Of course not!
There is an implication that nothing can be done about disposing of the “unbabies” before birth because abortion is illegal. And the assumption is definitely that this lack of access to abortion is a negative, since these “unbabies” are not persons.
TWISTED DESCRIPTION OF WHAT A CHRISTIAN WORLD WOULD BE LIKE
I have read other Catholic reviews which claim that The Handmaid’s Tale is pro-Catholic. Sure, there are a few token mentions of priests or nuns being persecuted too. But much more prevalent is a litany of atrocities committed with a facade of religious fervor. Abortionists murdered as war criminals. The old sent off to “colonies” to a slow death cleaning up toxic waste. The entire concept of the Handmaid system with its adultery and perverted sex.
What are the key words the reader will walk away association with religious people in authority positions? Intolerance. Hypocrisy. Totalitarianism.
The whole premise of the Republic of Gilead is deeply troubling. It feeds liberal frenzy that right-wing and fundamentalist Christians are unbalanced zealots who need to be placed on terrorist watch lists. Would any true Christian seize control of the American government by massacring millions? Can you imagine if this book had been set in, say, an enforced Islamic society? Would it still be popular?
The Handmaid’s Tale has received so much exposure lately due to the TV series. In our secular post-Christian society, unfortunately this may be the most exposure many people have to the Bible and Christian values. For a well-catechized Catholic, reading this book is an exercise in detecting subtle propaganda and devious. But for the average person, this novel will imbue a deep distaste for many Bible verses and Catholic symbols and figures. Add to this the homosexual agenda and dehumanization of the disabled, and my conclusion is that this novel is not worthwhile reading.
By request, I conclude my series of reviews of popular teen dystopian series with my thoughts on Divergent. Veronica Roth’s Divergent series is one of the most popular in this genre, probably second only to Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games”. Like Hunger Games, Divergent features a strong female protagonist, Beatrice “Tris” Prior, who tells the story in the first person present. And like Hunger Games, Divergent raises questions about societal norms, fascism, and what a good person is to do when confronted with an unjust government. Like Hunger Games, there are certainly positive messages to take away from reading the series, but the question is: do the positives outweigh the violence and negative messages?
THE OVERALL STORYLINE
Divergent, the first book in the series, introduces the reader to a dystopian Chicago which is divided into five factions, each of whom is obsessively fixated on one virtue. Abnegation values self denial, Candor values honesty, Dauntless values bravery, Erudite values knowledge, and Amity values kindness. Usually a person has an aptitude for one faction, but a few special Divergents have aptitudes for multiple factions. At 16, a teenager has one choice to decide which faction to join, and Beatrice “Tris” Prior chooses Dauntless. Divergent follows Tris through the initiation process, then stars her and her boyfriend Tobias “Four” stopping an attempt by the Erudite to seize control of the city.
Book two, Insurgent, describes Tris’ attempts to figure out what is beyond the fence which encloses Chicago. With the help of a few unlikely allies, she reveals hidden Erudite footage about the origin and mission of the city: to produce a primarily divergent population which can help the outside world.
The final book, Allegiant, reveals Tris, Four, and others leaving Chicago and entering the outside world. There, they learn that Chicago is actually an experiment by the Bureau of Genetic Welfare to determine if living in factions can help return damaged DNA to its original “pure” form. The series concludes with Tris sacrificing her life to wipe the memory of the scientists at the Bureau so that the genetically damaged will be regarded as equal human beings thenceforth.
Overall, it’s an exciting, fast-paced series with a compelling, charismatic first-person narration style. Its popularity is easily understood. But beneath the swift-moving story line there are a host of issues which parents may find concerning.
Hunger Games took a lot of bad press for violence, but honestly I found Divergent much more consistently violent. Teenagers intentionally harm other teenagers, such as one occasion where a sixteen year old sticks a butter knife into a rival’s eyes. There is an inordinate amount of hazing in the first book, both instructor on student and student to student. There are massacres, and there are executions which involve shooting the wrongdoer in the head. There is a scene where a group of students attempt to sexually molest and then murder Tris.
Even more alarming to me is the amount of violence Tris herself commits willingly. At least in Hunger Games Katniss mostly committed violence under duress. Tris chooses Dauntless as her faction because she craves the danger and adrenaline rushes, but quickly decides that if it takes hurting others to excel, she’s willing to fight her way to the top. She scorns her classmate who refuses to beat others senseless to improve his rankings. In contrast, Tris herself continues kicking a girl who has bullied her long after she’s beaten, and then says she doesn’t feel guilty at all. Tris also repeatedly has to shoot her family in the head to escape her fear landscape, a visual I had a hard time shaking.
Divergent is simply awful when it comes to setting an example of a chaste relationship to teens. The protagonists, Tris and Four, are forever ending up making out in bed together, sometimes scantily clothed. There are no explicit sex scenes, but a lot of talk about wanting to have sex, descriptions of taking off clothes, hands under clothes, and sleeping together. There is also a disturbing theme about using each other and kissing or sex to forget problems temporarily and avoid addressing relationship issues. Tris is forever saying things like, “I press my mouth to his, because I know that kissing him will distract me from everything.” Are these messages about what is appropriate between teenagers and using one another what we want to teach our teenagers?
Having tattoos is apparently an integral part of the Dauntless identity, which is obviously lauded since Tris and Four choose it. Parents should realize that in Divergent, tattoos are normalized as a legitimate way of immortalizing a memory. Tris gets several to mark important events and persons in her life. There is also an interesting motif about enjoying the pain involved in getting a tattoo. For example, Four describes getting his first tattoo: “It was agonizing. I relished every second of it.”
The drugs in Divergent are a series of serums which achieve different results: memory erasing serums, peace serums, death serums, fear-inducing serums, and so on. The way these drugs are used is mostly by injection, and some characters use them in ways alarmingly similar to real life drug use. The Dauntless use a fear-inducing serum to cause a hallucination of one’s worst fears: a fear landscape. Four obsessively injects himself and goes through his fear landscape, and even injects Tris so she can “journey” with him. The Amity inject a peace inducing serum to send troublemakers into hippy happiness again. The Amity also bake this peace drug into their bread so that their entire community “feels peaceful” constantly. I find all this drug use normalization concerning in a novel aimed at teens.
Another normalizing attempt in the series is a couple of completely unnecessary plugs for homosexual relationships. One of Tris and Four’s friends, Lynn, confesses on her death bed to “really loving” her friend Marlene. Another minor character, a grown man named Amar, confesses to having had a crush on Four when he was a minor. However, he is described as being over that and now being in a relationship with another minor character, George. There are repeated descriptions of Amar and George hugging and sharing affection.
Another extremely disquieting theme in Divergent is that lying is not a big deal. From the beginning, Tris declare she could never belong in Candor because she lies easily and often. She does not seem to see this as a negative at all. She describes herself at one point: “I don’t know when I became so good at acting, but I guess it’s not that different from lying which I have always had a talent for.” Tris also lies to Four repeatedly, even premeditated lies. For example, in an emotional scene in Insurgent Four begs her not to sacrifice her life by going to Erudite headquarters. She knows she is going to go anyway, but looks him in the eyes and promises not to go, then thinks: “This lie- this lie is the worst I have ever told. I will not be able to take it back.” Additionally, many of Tris and Four’s plans are contingent on lying convincingly. Tris can even resist the “truth serum” and gets herself out of trouble multiple times by lying while under its influence.
ENDS JUSTIFYING MEANS
The reason Tris and Four lie frequently is that they believe the ends justifies the means. Divergent gives lip service to the belief that ends do not justify means insofar as Tris states that it is wrong to sacrifice the lives of human beings for the purpose of genetic cleansing. But in practice, Tris and Four often lie and even kill to achieve their goals. Four explains at one point in Allegiant that for his father, his mother, and sometimes himself, “the end of a thing justifies the means of getting there.” For Tris, it doesn’t even have to be a noble means. She will lie to save herself embarrassment or inconvenience.
Unlike Hunger Games, where God and religion are absolutely ignored, Divergent flirts with the idea of God and religion having some meaning, at least for some people. Praying and talking about God and heaven is something only the Abnegation do in Divergent. I consider this relegation of God and prayer to being a belief specific to a particular Faction an extremely subtle way of dismissing religion.
Tris herself has little to say on the subject of religion. She is basically an agnostic, treating all things religious with ambivalence. She is generally uncertain about the existence of any afterlife. But when faced with imminent death in Insurgent, she states that she does not believe that anything she does or doesn’t do will make an impact on her eternal future, if there is one. “I don’t believe that what comes after depends on anything I do at all.”
PHILOSOPHY OF VIRTUE
At first, I was excited that Divergent was raising questions about what it means to have various virtues. But by the end of the series, I realized that the conclusions Roth leaves the reader with regarding specific virtues and how virtues relate to one another are quite problematic.
I believe one fundamental issue in Divergent is a lack of understanding of what a virtue actually is. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle defines virtue as a disposition to act rightly, and as a mean between the two vices of excess and deficiency. This simple yet powerful definition is what Roth was clearly lacking when she wrote the Divergent series. She often describes an excess as the virtue. For example, the Abnegation are supposed to be selfless, which Roth describes at times as a complete unwillingness to ever accept help. Unwillingness to accept help is a form of pride, not a virtue. Similarly, she describes the Dauntless bravery in terms of recklessness or rashness, which are actually vices directly opposed to the virtue of courage. These muddied examples of virtue are concerning in a teen novel since many teens are not going to have the ethics background to recognize the false understanding of virtue shown in Divergent.
Another part of Aristotle’s definition of a virtue is that the virtues do not exist in isolation; they are facets of a virtuous person. Divergent definitely treats the virtues as separate goals to pursue, and even vacillates on the question of whether different virtues are actually opposed to each other. Four is more correct than Tris when it comes to this question, telling her in the first book that “I want to be brave, and selfless, and smart, and kind, and honest.” But Tris disagrees, saying: “It doesn’t work that way. One bad thing goes away, and another bad thing replaces it. I traded cowardice for cruelty.” She honestly believes that one person cannot have two virtues.
I hoped that by the end of the series, Tris and Four would espouse a more accurate understanding of virtue, but the last book, Allegiant, leaves the reader with the message, “Every faction loses something when it gains a virtue: the Dauntless, brave but cruel; the Erudite, intelligent but vain; the Amity, peaceful but passive; the Candor, honest but inconsiderate; the Abnegation, selfless but stifling.” I do not accuse Roth of intentionally confusing teenagers about the nature of virtue, but I think she lacks a coherent, correct understanding of virtue. Unfortunately, this translates into potentially dangerous misconceptions about virtue in impressionable readers.
Considering the sexual content, violence, lies, agendas, and shaky philosophy, I advise not having your teenagers read Divergent. In case you’re still unsure, let’s talk about the ending of the series.
Spoiler here, but Tris dies near the end of Allegiant, so the trilogy ends with a devastated Four receiving life advice from Tris’ best friend Christina. The important take away for teenagers here from the surviving main characters? “Sometimes life really sucks. But you know what I’m holding on for? … The moments that don’t suck. The trick is to notice them when they come around.”
Okay, I will admit there is nothing inherently wrong with this advice. But honestly, I found it sort of depressing. The best we can do is hold out for the moments in life that don’t suck? Really?
How about seeking the true, the good, and the beautiful? How about living with passion and purpose? How about seeking all the virtues and becoming the best version of yourself? How about striving to see each moment as a gift, each suffering as a kiss, each joy as a taste of heaven?
If you haven’t seen the movie, it is in essence a spoof on fairy tale adventures. Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in the world, is being forced to marry a wicked prince. But she is rescued by her her lover Wesley, a Sicilian bent on revenge, and a giant. There are swashbuckling sword fights, miraculous rescues, wicked villains who are satisfactorily punished, and a hilarious commentary from the narrator. The book also has these elements. In fact, the movie contains all the best parts of the book and leaves out the muck.
And there is so much muck in this book. Before you get to the adventure proper, you must wade through 32 pages of Goldman describing, first, making a pass at a bikini-clad Hollywood starlet (note that Goldman is married). Second, lying repeatedly to his wife. Third, complaining about how his wife doesn’t understand him. Fourth, describing how he knows all the above is wrong, but doing it anyway.
By the end of these 32 pages I was so angry I almost destroyed the library book. After cooling down, I continued to the story proper. The book version of The Princess Bride opens with an account of the most beautiful woman in the world, a maid who is having an adulterous affair with a duke. The duke’s shrewish wife ruins the maid’s beauty by plying her with chocolates. I’m not a psychologist, but by this point I was convinced that Goldman had a very dysfunctional marriage. I later found out that he and his wife, who was actually a psychologist, divorced after the book was published.
It’s rather sad, really, to realize how Goldman views marriage. There isn’t a happy relationship in the book. Buttercup’s parents are described as having an unhappy marriage: “All they ever dreamed of was leaving each other.” Buttercup and Wesley do not even have a particularly inspiring relationship. Buttercup is rude, slovenly, and quite dull-witted when Wesley falls in love with her. Basically, he loves her because she’s beautiful. And once he rescues her, they soon fall to bickering and belittling one another.
Now there is still some decent comedy in the story. As I said, the movie combines all the best parts of the book with a wise cutting out of the love-doesn’t-exist theme. But a little comedy does not make this book worthwhile reading, so do not waste your time or give it to your teenagers. While disappointing, I will give The Princess Bride credit for being life changing for me in one way. I am never again going to be able to say “the book is always better than the movie.”
After reviewing a parenting book, I wanted my next review to be on light literature, so I continued my project of reviewing popular dystopian novels such as “The Hunger Games” and “The Maze Runner”. Unfortunately, the next teen dystopia on my list was The Selection by Kiera Cass. I say unfortunately because this book is high on the list of “most unsatisfying” and “least worthwhile” books I have ever read, and I almost did not even bother reviewing it. However, given its popularity with teenage girls and status as a New York Times Bestseller, I felt obligated to provide feedback.
The Selection is marketed as “dystopia meets the Bachelor.” I would describe this novel as a very light, vanilla form of dystopia, where hardship consists mostly in rigidly defined social castes and some food shortages among the lower classes. The heroine, America Singer, is, predictably from a lower caste and the long shot to win the Prince Maxon’s attention in a Bachelor-esque contest for the queenship and throne. Again predictably, she gains his attention immediately with her honesty and sad story of having a broken heart from being dumped by her ex-boyfriend back home, Aspen.
Of course this book is not evil incarnate, and I will freely admit there were certain redeeming themes. For example, America is careful to only use make up and clothing to enhance her natural appearance. She also learns a good lesson about premature judgments when she has to rethink her rashly formed opinions about Prince Maxon. America is also a good role model when it comes to friendships, being open, amicable, and charitable to the other contestants. That is the best I can say for her.
AMERICA THE CHEATER
Since this is a teen romance novel, of course there is a love triangle, activated when ex-boyfriend Aspen decides he no longer wants to be an ex. I found it completely infuriating that America has little problem with dating Prince Maxon, knowing he loves her and admitting she might love him, while also renewing her relationship with Aspen. America admits she knows this is wrong, says she feels guilty, but continues to lead on both men anyway. I found this deceit from America particularly offensive because what initially catches Prince Maxon’s attention is her honesty. Take away her honesty, and she becomes a much less likable and admirable character, and a poor model for Catholic teens.
The whole concept of The Selection actually bothers me. Should a man be dating 35 women at once? Perhaps you must define “dating” to answer that question. Calling taking each of 35 women out to dinner in turn “dating” is one thing, but when you add declarations of love and kisses into the mix, Prince Maxon’s behavior begins to verge more on cheating, at least to me. America struggles with feeling jealous of the parade of “other women,” but thinks she needs to squelch her feelings because it’s all part of the Selection. Yes, it’s strange circumstances, but I find the overall messages here about what dating should look like, especially dating multiple women, troubling.
To give a small measure of praise, at least in this first book of the series Kiera Cass keeps her characters clothed. However, I did find the rather graphic descriptions of America making out with her ex-boyfriend needlessly erotic. One might also pause to wonder why these scenes between America and Aspen are dwelt on so heavily, since the overall impression from the book is that you should want America to end up with Prince Maxon. On this front alone, I would pause to question the authoress’ agenda before handing this book to a young teenager.
Another interesting agenda I noticed in this novel is a theme promoting free access to birth control. The only law America seems to truly dislike is the one forbidding fornication. She is angry that she doesn’t have the right to choose when and with whom she has sex. She also resents that birth control is a luxury only available to higher castes. Again, this is the heroine of the story here, the one the reader is supposed to admire, advocating for birth control and free love. Troubling much?
The Selection ends abruptly on a cliffhanger without resolving any of the main conflicts. A loose end to be tied off in a future book is one thing, but this level of jerky ending is usually a sign that the author is more interested in garnering sales of additional books then writing a worthwhile book. All things considered, The Selection is not a selection I would recommend.