(Disaster ensues when Phaedra falls for her stepson!)
The gods will have their play, and we piteous humans must suffer in double jeopardy. First, vice will eventually bring destruction, and yet we are by nature weak and prone to vice. Second, everyone is subject to fate, which is not kinder to good people than to bad. So we are doomed—we cannot be virtuous as we want to be, and so we are in trouble; and yet even if we could be virtuous we would get smacked anyway by the vicissitudes of fate! Hence Euripides’ fist-waving at the gods… yet he manages to preserve some reverence. Artemis tells us that the pious are still much more highly regarded by the gods than the impious. When the impious person suffers, the gods nod “take that!”, whereas the faithful incur their favor, which can bring some benefit. So, given our sad lot in life, it is better to be suffering and good than suffering and evil. Or that is Euripides’ line anyway. In this play we see how this web of cosmic influences plays out in the life of a chaste and honorable man destined for greatness by rights, when (through no fault of his own) his stepmother takes an improper liking to him.
H. G. Wells
(A man of precisely 37.5 years of age can’t seem to find success or happiness in life… perhaps he has to do something drastic.)
“HOLE!” said Mr. Polly, and then for a change, and with greatly increased emphasis: “ ‘Ole!” He paused, and then broke out with one of his private and peculiar idioms. “Oh! Beastly Silly Wheeze of a Hole!”
Thus begins an entertaining fictional biography of a man who really needs a whack upside the head– one of several greats in that odd subgenre– Tom Jones, Babbitt, and Updike’s Rabbit series, for examples. (H. G. Wells writing fictional biography? In a contemporary setting? This might surprise those of us, such as myself, who had equated him with science fiction and socialist nonfiction. But anyway…) Our protagonist is an endearing and vivid, if frustrating character, who hides his depression with funny one-liners and his poor education with deliberate mispronunciations. And, as with many colorful characters in real life, beneath the wit cowers a man who hasn’t a clue where he’s going. His path through life is that of a flat boat with untethered sails– he might as easily plummet to his death over a waterfall as drift into a homely port. Or, to use Alfred Polly’s own metaphor, he’s in a hole. And no amount of quaint phrasing and amusing epithet, no ability to make women giggle, and no success as a shopkeeper is going to hoist him out of it.
Arthur Conan Doyle
(The scientific minds of Holmes and Watson are tested by howls on the moor, the legend of a fiery hell-hound, and a giant pawprint next to a dead nobleman.)
A novel-length Sherlock Holmes mystery! The readers of the Strand Magazine must have been delighted. They must have vigorously discussed with each other the prospects of the case between installments. Releasing a detective story by degrees has got to be risky, since the readers have so much time to figure everything out. There are enough threads interwoven in this story, though, and enough minor details that must be incorporated into a solution, that I suspect almost everyone will be surprised at something in the denouement. Besides, we would need a healthy dose of luck to solve the riddle ourselves, for there are crucial elements about which we can only guess during the narration. These are revealed to us only after Holmes has discovered them and solved the case in his mind. In this way, Doyle all but ensures that competition with the sleuth is beyond our grasp.
Although the most haunting aspect of the typical Sherlock Holmes case is nothing more than the dense fog of pipe smoke around the detective’s chair, Doyle did have an interest in spiritualism, and wrote a few books on the subject. In The Hound of the Baskervilles he combines these two interests by infusing the tale with a strong atmosphere of macabre otherworldliness. Probably more than the facts of the case or its solution, the damp darkness and chilling moans of the moor are likely to remain with us long after we have finished reading the book.