Six Stunning Houses in Literature


I have always been fascinated by certain houses in novels. They exert a strange power over me, especially if they are part of gothic stories. Maybe because I have been living in apartments for more than half of my life now, I am somewhat jealous of the large spaces, yards, porches, gardens, the lack of noisy neighbors, and maybe the safety of the proximity of the ground those houses provide – despite the fact that I was never in an earthquake, and, as a consequence, never experienced the trauma caused by these events, which causes most people who have been through them to wish not to live far from the ground.

I lived in a house for some time growing up in Recife, and those were some of the best years of my life. Of course, living there as a distracted child, then as a sullen and hormone-crazed teenager, and finally as an ultra-busy college student, I never fully appreciated what I had back then. I took it for granted. Then, I left the city, came to live in São Paulo, and, presently, my mother sold it and bought a huge apartment, which I fell in love with too, while I went there on vacation. 

Well, all this is beyond the point, however. What I want to do in this post is just to list book houses that I felt particularly close to or fell in love with. Not all these books are classics, but they have always been popular and famous.

The houses in this post are not listed in order of preference. The list is random to a certain extent, as I wouldn’t be able to actually rank them in terms of the impact they had in my imagination. Here they are:

  1. Wuthering Heights (Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë): Rustic, uncomfortable, subjected to the rough weather conditions of the Yorkshire moors, this was the house that brought Cathy and Heathcliff together – two of most beloved and passionate characters in literature. Becoming orphans at an early age, they grew up like savages, free and wild, running and playing around the dreary surroundings of the house, and eventually falling in love with each other. Cathy was the daughter of the place’s owner, Mr. Earnshaw,  who died when she was still a child, and Heathcliff was a gypsy boy her father found in the streets of Liverpool on one of his business trips, and brought home to live with the family. The house mirrors all the brutality and violence of the novel’s plot. In addition to that, Cathy became the ghost that, in the future, would haunt Wuthering Heights forever, driving Heathcliff crazy.

2. Manderley (Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier): Owned by the wealthy Mr. Maximilian de Winter, the house is described in all its beauty. I love houses by the sea and this, located in breathtaking Cornwall, is one of them. Besides, there’s the mystery surrounding the widowed owner’s first wife, Rebecca, who seems to have drowned. She was rumored to have been on top of her game, beautiful, sophisticated, well-connected, adored by the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Denvers,  who would later give Max’s second wife (who remains nameless to the reader throughout the novel) a hard time. However, signs abound that there was something off about all that perfection during the first marriage. Did Rebecca’s personality really match the architectural magnificence of landscaped Manderley?

3. Thornfield Hall (Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë): This is a different case altogether from the houses listed before. The main attraction is the mystery that involves the place. I lived in the UK for almost two years, but never had the chance to visit Yorkshire or see heathers. However, both Wuthering Heights  and Jane Eyre, novels written by two sisters, fascinate me. Who wouldn’t become excited reading about a house with a mysterious attic, hiding a crazy woman? That’s the most important thing about gothic Thornfield Hall: Mr. Rochester, the romantic lead, has his first wife locked up in the attic, mad as a March Hare, while Jane knew nothing about it.

4. Gatsby’s mansion in Long Island (The Great Gatsby, by Scott Fitzgerald): The green light at Daisy’s dock, which Gatsby stares endlessly, signaling how close and yet so far the woman he has always loved lives with her wealthy husband Tom Buchanan, makes one of the attractions of the book. The green light is a powerful metaphor for ambition, desire and the struggle for great accomplishments at any cost. Gatsby, the man, personifies the American dream: from a poor background, he rose to acquire a mansion, expensive cars, and a glamorous lifestyle. He also constantly gives popular and orgiastic parties, but he still needs to get the ultimate prize: Daisy herself. The parties were the means he used to call attention to himself and attract her, but only when he befriends her cousin, Nick Carraway, the story’s narrator, and persuades him to orchestrate a meeting between him and Daisy, does he have a chance to try to rekindle her love. In the novel, the house is described as a nouveau-rich paradise,  with all the extravagances and bad taste of these kinds of places,. Yet,  it does not lack its allure. The green light, seen from his side of the bay, is the strong symbol that stays with the reader long after he finishes the novel.

5. The Dakota Building (Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin): This is an exception, as it’s a condo and not a proper house. The building itself is the setting of one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen, Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski. Later, it was the place where John Lennon and Yoko Ono had an apartment and lived, at the time he was shot and killed right in front of it in 1980. As for Rosemary’s Baby, neither in the movie nor in the novella that inspired it, the Dakota building is mentioned by name. In the book, the location is not even where it’s seen and recognized in the movie by those who are familiar with the Upper West side of Manhattan. However, most people who both read the book and saw the movie agree that the power of the story is Polanski’s credit. He turned what could pass for a simple and not very sophisticated thriller into one of the most successful movies of the 1960s, catapulting actress Mia Farrow, who played the main character, into worldwide fame. One interesting comment I read somewhere was that Polanski, a non-believer in religion, did not want to make it clear that the baby was the devil (or his son). He claimed that this would go against his beliefs. After all, if you don’t believe in God, you can’t believe in the Devil. So, he turned the plot into a more ambiguous and interesting story –  there’s the possibility that Rosemary could be delusional and paranoid, imagining that she was in the clutches of a coven whose leaders are her neighbors in the dark building, and that her own husband and her trusted gynecologist were in on the conspiracy. 

6. The House on Matacavalos Street (Dom Casmurro, Machado de Assis): That is the setting of one of my favorite Brazilian novels. Today, this street, in the district of Santa Teresa, has the name of Riachuelo. When the main character, Bentinho, starts narrating the story of his life, already a middle-aged man, resentful and a recluse, the house he spent his childhood in had already been demolished, but it held such a symbolic reference to him that he had it rebuilt, in exactly the same way, only in another neighborhood. And that’s where he lives in the present, nursing his traumas and pains. The original house was next door to Capitu’s, the main female character of the novel, and the love of his life.  Those neighboring houses witnessed the birth and blossoming of a sweet and romantic love story between teenagers  growing up together. The story is told subjectively from the point of view of an unreliable character, Bentinho, so, as a result, the reader can never be sure whether his estranged wife Capitu was really unfaithful to him, having had an affair and got pregnant by his best friend, Escobar.

What are your favorite book houses? Let us know by leaving your choices in the comments section below.

Jorge Sette

“You’re so vain” (Books I think are about me)


I got a funny reaction to my blog post on Wuthering Heights (http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-j0) from an anonymous reader. He or she wrote to me saying: “You are so vain, you probably think Wuthering Heights is about you”. I suspect this is an adaptation of a line of an old Carly Simon song, who allegedly was referring to Mick Jagger. In a way, I found the comment rather amusing, and, to be quite honest, remarkably true. Even more worrying: I tend to think that every single book I love is about me! As a matter of fact, it only interests me if I can somehow relate to it. And I guess this is what happens to every reader, at least the more romantic ones, like me. So, yes, you got it right, dear anonymous e-mail writer.

Take for example some of the best books I have read (and often reread) : Dom Casmurro (by Machado de Assis), Nemesis (by Philip Roth) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (by Tom Wolfe). They are really all about me.

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Dom Casmurro, by Machado de Assis.

The first time I read Dom Casmurro I was still in high school, and totally fell in love with Capitu. The kiss she and Bentinho exchange while he is combing her hair and she drops her head back, making their faces align in opposite directions, is  one of the most romantic scenes I remember as a teenager. Imagine my surprise when I saw a repeat of that scene decades later in the movie SPIDER MAN! This time he was hanging upside down from a wire fence while Mary Jane was looking up.  The same kind of kiss. Also, like Bentinho, the main character in Dom Casmurro, I can be quite jealous in a relationship and totally understand how paranoid it must feel to have your kid grow up to look like your best male friend. And the best thing is, every time I read the book again, I find new clues that indicate that Capitu must have been unfaithful, although we can never be one hundred per cent sure, as the story is very cleverly told from the point of view of the narrator only, who happens to be Bentinho, the husband.

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Nemesis, by Philip Roth

Nemesis by Philip Roth is a very universal story, and if you can’t identify with it, I’m afraid you have a problem. Although I’m not Jewish and am fortunate enough not to be physically disabled (the story is about the terrible consequences of the outbreak of a polio epidemic in the mid-1940s New Jersey), I fully identify with the book’s themes. The main message, as I see it, is, if you are struck by tragedy, if you have a disability of any kind, or anything else people may look down upon or reject you for (and that probably applies to all of us), there is no point in blaming God or the Universe for it. Get on with your life, it’s your responsibility to make the most of it and restore or construe your own meaning for happiness. Or fight back. This is something everyone needs to hear: take full ownership of your failures and problems, and deal with them. No one else will care as much. Tough, but real.

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The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe

The Bonfire of the Vanities: the main character finds himself in a kafkaesque situation: he gets lost in a dangerous part of  the city while driving back from the airport with his mistress, and accidently seems to strike a young black man he was sure was trying to mug them.  What a nightmare!  Was it a hit-and-run accident? Should they tell the police straightaway? But the wife will find out about the mistress then. Was the kid really hit, all they heard was a little noise (“thok”) after all. Surely the boy was OK. What decisions do they need to make? Mistakes are inevitably made along the way and there are terrible consequences. Moreover, there are many third parties (journalists, community leaders, attorneys, politicians, etc) trying to profit politically from the situation. Nothing is as morally simple as it first looks. Interesting questions. The reader gets deeply involved in the plot and its turns. “Unputdownable”. Besides, it’s very tempting to picture myself living the good life of a succesful Wall Street yuppie in a huge two-story apartment off Park Avenue in Manhattan…without the tragedy! Another book that COULD be about me.

So I’m really sorry if the anonymous e-mail writer intended to hurt my feelings accusing me of believing that Wuthering Heights is about me. Catherine, one of the book’s main characters, says at one of the most important plot points in the story: “I am Heathcliff!”  Well, so am I!

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

O Morro dos Ventos Uivantes (Wuthering Heights): uma obsessão!


O primeiro contato

A primeira vez com que me defrontei com Catherine e Heathcliff, personagens principais de O MORRO DOS VENTOS UIVANTES (Wuthering Heights), eu tinha quinze anos, e eles falavam em português. A cópia que eu lia, uma bela edição traduzida, de capa dura  em vermelho da Editora Abril (veja foto abaixo), mencionava “charneca” (the moors)  e “urzes” (heather). Nunca ouvi essas palavras em português noutro contexto, e as acho impressionantes e memoráveis. Não posso dizer, portanto, que minha obsessão  pelo livro tenha sido causada pelo inglês apaixonado de Emile Brontë, a autora. Foi a história em si, o enredo, a estranheza dos personagens, com suas personalidades fortes e até mesmo violentas,  e especialmente o cenário desolado de Yorkshire, que me marcaram tão profundamente.

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O Morro dos Ventos Uivantes

Chegando ao original

Só muitos anos depois fui ler o original em inglês (confesso que até hoje tenho dificuldades com o dialeto local do personagem Joseph, o caseiro, fariseu fanático e mal humorado, sempre pontificando contra o pobre Heathcliff), e também, pude ouvir o texto em duas versões diferentes de audiobook (há várias, com diferentes narradores, disponíveis no site audible.com, que, acredito, pertence agora a Amazon). Cheguei a colecionar diferentes cópias impressas. E toda vez que vou à Livraria Cultura tenho que me controlar para não comprar uma nova, com capa e formato diferente. Tenho duas no Kindle.

Não sou a única vítima do fascínio  quase inexplicável que Wuthering Heights exerce sobre alguns leitores, conheço muitos deles. Numa editora em que trabalhei, tinha laços muito estreitos com uma colega que morava na Inglaterra. Comentando sobre nossa amizade, uma da minhas chefes me congratulou, dizendo que era muito importante manter um bom relacionamento com clientes internos. Respondi com bom humor que não se preocupasse, pois eu e a colega tínhamos um vínculo inquebrantável: nossa paixão por Wuthering Heights.

A história

Para os que não conhecem o enredo, a história,  que se passa na segunda metade do século XVIII, contada em flashbacks,  é muito simples: um orfão de Liverpool, Heathcliff, de origem possivelmente cigana, é adotado por uma viúvo, que o recolhe durante uma viagem de negócios, e o traz para morar no casarão da fazenda que dá nome ao livro,  situada num área desolada e inóspita do norte da Inglaterra, cercada pela charneca (saboreio essa palavra com prazer, como se fosse uma fatia de cheesecake). O viúvo tem um filho e uma filha, Catherine (Cathy), que, a princípio, desprezam e maltratam o recém-chegado.

Catherine e Heathcliff, no entanto, são espíritos livres e selvagens, e, é claro, não demoram a se encontrar um no noutro. Passam o dia brincando e correndo pela charneca (olha essa palavra aí de novo!), até que o inevitável acontece: se apaixonam. Surpreendentemente, Catherine decide se casar com um vizinho mais endinheirado, pois, para ela, a posição social é tão ou mais importante que o amor. Heathcliff a entreouve, sem que ela perceba, quando Cathy confessa à governanta (a narradora principal da  novela) que seria humilhante casar-se com ele, apesar de ser a sua alma gêmea. “I am Heahcliff”, ela diz em certo momento, numa frase icônica,  mostrando que o sentimento dos dois vai muito além de uma mera paixão física.  Mas Heathcliff não chega a ouvir esta parte, pois já decidiu que não pode viver mais ali  e se vai.

Anos depois ele retorna, rico e poderoso. O resto da história é uma intriga de amor, ódio, ciúmes e vingança – não, não é novela das oito da Globo, sei que há paralelos, mas não se enganem. Tudo isso envolto numa atmosfera gótica, com a violência da geografia e das condições climáticas (frio, chuva, neve e vento) não apenas servindo como pano de fundo, mas refletindo e reproduzindo, na natureza, as paixões dos personagens principais.

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Versão cinematográfica clássica, de 1939.

Os filmes

Vi duas versões cinematográficas do livro: a clássica,  de 1939, com Lawrence Olivier no papel de Heathcliff e Merle Oberon no papel de Catherine, e uma mais recente, dirigida por Andrea Arnold, de 2011. A que prefiro é esta última,  que ousa escalar um ator negro para o papel de Heathcliff. Esta versão para mim é a que reflete mais fielmente os personagens do livro. É uma versão mais sombria,  cheia de silêncios e imagens impactantes do desolamento da região. Com atores em ótimas interpretações. Veja clip abaixo.

Por fim

Como conclusão, ressaltaria que a literatura, além do prazer (e obsessões)  que proporciona e da capacidade que tem de aumentar nossa empatia, colocando o leitor numa posição privilegiada para apreciar  e entender o ponto de vista e a perspectiva de terceiros, é também uma forma eficaz de aprendermos ou aprimoramos  uma língua estrangeira.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.