Green Mansions (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]

Overview


Modern classic tells the compelling story of Rima, a strange birdlike girl of the jungle, and Abel, the European who falls in love with her. The book owes much of its popularity to the mystic, near-religious feeling that pervades the story and the beauty of Rima's halting, poetic expressions. The author's knowledge and understanding of nature, the jungle and grasslands lend special authenticity to this captivating fantasy.
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Green Mansions (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview


Modern classic tells the compelling story of Rima, a strange birdlike girl of the jungle, and Abel, the European who falls in love with her. The book owes much of its popularity to the mystic, near-religious feeling that pervades the story and the beauty of Rima's halting, poetic expressions. The author's knowledge and understanding of nature, the jungle and grasslands lend special authenticity to this captivating fantasy.
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Product Details

Meet the Author


Though he never visited Venezuela himself, William Henry Hudson (1841-1922) was born and raised in South America, on the pampas of Argentina. His parents were emigrants from the United States who bought a ranch not far from Buenos Aires. Young Hudson’s great interest was natural history, particularly birds. He read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and works of other naturalists when he was quite young, and he collected bird specimens for the Smithsonian Institution, He left for England in 1874, where he lived for decades in great poverty, struggling to make a living as a writer; he married his boardinghouse landlady and in 1900 became a British citizen. Among his publications were novels (beginning with The Purple Land in 1885), short-story collections, ornithological studies and personal reminiscences, but none, including Green Mansions in 1904, lifted him out of poverty. It was only in 1916, when he was seventy-five, that Green Mansions was reprinted to great acclaim—the first book published by Alfred A. Knopf—making Hudson almost overnight a literary celebrity. Among his later books, Far Away and Long Ago: History of My Early Life (1918) was perhaps the most praised.

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Introduction

Neglected upon its first appearance in 1904, Green Mansions became a popular success a decade later. The story of a Venezuelan political exile and the "bird-girl" he discovers in a remote jungle, this "Romance of the Tropical Forest" drew praise from such celebrated writers as Joseph Conrad and John Galsworthy. For decades the tale was greatly admired by both the general public and literary connoisseurs, even adapted as a Classics Illustrated comic book in 1951 and an MGM film in 1959. Since the 1960s, stories with a colonial perspective on a pale-skinned female forest spirit feared by native "savages" and adored by a white hero have come to seem old-fashioned; Hudson's tale, however, is much more subtle, even ironic, than such a simple plot summary would suggest. Today the book is of special interest for its ecological implications for the Amazon Basin, its poetic style and ambiguities, and still for the Romantic sweep of its tale of Abel and Rima, doomed lovers amidst an exotic setting.

Though he never visited Venezuela himself, William Henry Hudson (1841-1922) was born and raised in South America, on the pampas of Argentina. His parents were emigrants from the United States who bought a ranch not far from Buenos Aires. Young Hudson's great interest was natural history, particularly birds. He read Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species and works of other naturalists when he was quite young, and he collected bird specimens for the Smithsonian Institution. He left for England in 1874, where he lived for decades in great poverty, struggling to make a living as a writer; he married his boarding-house landlady and in 1900 became a British citizen. Among hispublications were novels (beginning with The Purple Land in 1885), short-story collections, ornithological studies and personal reminiscences, but none, including Green Mansions in 1904, lifted him out of poverty. It was only in 1916, when he was seventy-five, that Green Mansions was reprinted to great acclaim-the first book published by Alfred A. Knopf-making Hudson almost overnight a literary celebrity. Among his later books, Far Away and Long Ago: History of My Early Life (1918) was perhaps the most praised.

"A Romance of the Tropical Forest" is quite a fitting subtitle for Green Mansions, which is a classic "romance" not only in the modern sense of a love story but according to the traditional definition: a tale with elements of the extravagant, the adventurous, the opposite in spirit to the "everyday" world of the realistic novel. To a writer of Hudson's era, and indeed a century before Green Mansions, a "romance" could have been a ballad-like verse tale of knights and fair ladies but most likely a prose narrative of the medieval past or exotic lands or fantastic happenings, anything from Arthurian legend to Gothic tale of terror (see Ann Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest of 1791 and later products of the Romantic Age) or South Seas adventure (including Moby-Dick). Considering the extravagant nature of Green Mansions, it is amusing that in the prologue, the Englishman who is about to present Abel's true story to the world dismisses gossip about his friend as "romance-weaving." Meanwhile, in his own narrative, Abel recites "ancient romances and ballads" to the Indian tribe he lives with: "the sweet old verse that, whether glad or sorrowful, seems always natural and spontaneous as the song of a bird, and so simple that even a child can understand it." Whether Green Mansions is quite so simple may be questioned.

Rima is hardly the first ethereal female to have inhabited a "sacred" forest. Greek legend gives us those forest nymphs called dryads and the goddess Artemis (Diana to the Romans), fatal to mortals caught spying upon her or attempting to slay her sacred deer-just as Abel first spots Rima reclining in a glade and later arouses her ire when he is about to kill a snake. But it is notably in the Colonial Era that popular tales abound of a relatively pale-skinned human living among savage, darker-skinned tribes in a wilderness seldom visited by Europeans. In Victorian literature the most famous such figure is still Ayesha (She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed), in H. Rider Haggard's She (1887), a 2,000-year-old Egyptian woman with the secret of eternal youth, who is worshipped and feared by an isolated mid-African tribe, until discovered by an English explorer. Of course, "She" is haughty and ruthless, a far cry from the tender Rima-even if Rima when angered by the slaughter of animals is a force to be feared. A parallel of a different sort is Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, who first appeared in Tarzan of the Apes in 1914. This jungle-dweller might be thought of as a male Rima, except that he is a European foundling rather than the last of some primordial race and associated with primates rather than birds, with all that that implies about early twentieth-century notions of masculinity and femininity. The two might have been ideal mates, both at home high above the forest floor and in special communication with the animal kingdom; but ultimately, Rima is a tragic figure, fragile as a bird in the face of human determination to destroy her.

It is clear that Hudson intended Rima to be-among other things-a symbol of the wilderness itself. Abel comments on her "vague, misty, greenish appearance" in the shadows of the jungle where she is so utterly at home. She may remind us of the Romantic poets' heard-but-not-seen birds-Keats' nightingale or Shelley's "blithe spirit," the lark-or of Wordsworth's rural Lucy, who is equally identified with nature and dies young: Abel in fact evokes lines from one of the Lucy poems, "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal," on more than one occasion. When Abel finally gets a close look at Rima, he offers a lengthy description that is fantastically strange for its sheer insubstantiality, as if she were something that could be glimpsed only by peripheral vision.

Though almost anyone who has ever heard of Green Mansions calls Rima "the bird-girl," Hudson doesn't use this actual term. All the same, Abel's narrative constantly compares her to birds, especially the hummingbird, that "living prismatic gem." (An especially superb description can be found in Chapter 7.) Later, when Abel asks her where she got her dress (literally gossamer, we learn), she becomes immobile as she ponders how to answer the question: "not a silken hair on her head trembled; her eyes were wide open [. . .] like the clear, brilliant eyes of a bird, which reflect as in a miraculous mirror all the visible world but do not return our look." Her native language, learned from her mother, sounds birdlike too. It is curious that although Abel has an "extreme facility in acquiring new [Indian] dialects, which had increased by practice until it was almost like intuition," he finds it utterly impossible to comprehend Rima's speech, even after very extensive exposure. Either he wills not to grasp it, because he wants her to remain the elusive spirit of the wilderness in his own imagination, or this is another of Hudson's ways of making her as much a symbol as a human character.

As for her death by fire-she is a phoenix who does not rise from the ashes-Hudson may be suggesting that if she is the spirit of the wilderness, the wilderness itself can be obliterated. It is the natives rather than forest-depleting European colonizers who are the ones who destroy Rima. But evidently to Hudson, all human intervention in the wilderness is the beginning of the end; he has little of our contemporary interest in ways that indigenous people can preserve the wilderness by inhabiting it with a sense of ecological balance. Though Abel's perspective is far from Christian, his narrative does seem to show all humanity as "fallen," corrupt, in contrast to the purity of nature.

On occasion Abel fears that Rima is a femme fatale, a "tricksy" maiden luring him deeper into the forest like a will-o'-the-wisp, the sylvan equivalent of sirens and mermaids. And she does in one scene have a poisonous snake at her ankle. But truly she is more like an anti-Eve-the one unfallen creature in this Eden-like paradise-than a temptress, while Abel gets himself bitten (though he is mysteriously healed, after a panicky flight, as if the bite were the shock of first love). Only occasionally in this book does Rima seem a human character rather than a phantasm. We see the shyness and confusion of one who is falling in love without understanding what is happening; we see her temper and resentment, her impetuous, even heedless and immature moments. But whatever we make of Rima, we must remember that our views of her are filtered through the sensibility of Abel, our narrator.

Like those birds and rural maidens in Romantic poems, Rima on one level is the figment of a poetic imagination trying to grasp a natural world truly beyond human comprehension. Abel is an arch-Romantic in several respects, most obviously in his rapturous appreciation of the wilderness-a place where beasts of prey are often mentioned but never seen. He enjoys not just the "varied glory of scenery peculiarly refreshing and delighting to the soul," but feels "purified" by the "secret innocence and spirituality in nature"-embodied, of course, in Rima. The book is not truly pantheistic, however, even if Rima "was so near to the supernatural that it seemed brought near me." Abel loses all faith after the death of Rima, railing against the universe. Here he is a descendent of the darker side of Romanticism: a man restless by nature who becomes haunted and destructive, more a Cain than an Abel; a Heathcliff of the jungle who carries around his love's ashes in hope that they can finally be buried together.

In short, Abel is far from the sort of simple hero who seems to be the author's dream surrogate and the identification figure for the reader. Unfortunately for many modern readers, his least attractive traits, prominently his intense dislike of the Indian "savages," may make not only him but Hudson himself look hopelessly colonialist. Still, the author does provide ways for us to look more ironically upon this impassioned, sometimes reckless and haughty individual.

First, Hudson uses a framing narrative, a time-honored device in which an impartial individual introduces the hero's story, which could be in the form of a diary, a deathbed confession, or a simple confiding. Especially popular among the Victorians (see H. G. Wells' The Time Machine [1895] and Henry James' The Turn of the Screw [1898]), the frame provides an air of everyday reality against which the fantastic narrative is placed. In Green Mansions, it is surely significant that it is an Englishman of British Guiana (where Abel has come to settle) who befriends the broken man and presents his life-story to the public. Hudson, by contrasting a presumably level-headed "blue-eyed Saxon of the cold north," one who sees Venezuelans as a "turbulent people," with our "nervous olive-skinned Hispano-American of the tropics," invites his readers to take a cool perspective on Abel, even in amidst the most heated portions of the narrative. It is tempting to speculate that the author, born of Anglo-American stock but growing up on the pampas, saw himself as an amalgam of the two men.

Abel has a number of traits English-speaking readers have long identified with the Spanish and their New World descendents, marking them as "Other" than Anglo. He admits to having bouts of lust for gold-"inflamed" by dreams of "glittering yellow dust" promising "pleasure and power"-exactly like the conquistadors seeking El Dorado in those very jungles. In his youth he indulges in the firebrand politics of Latin America, drawn by friends and family into an attempted coup for no good reason. He comes to repudiate those "idle political passions," yet later, his betrayal of one Indian tribe to its enemies shows him to be mired in a politics of vendetta. Finally, Abel shows the sort of male vanity that Anglo-Saxons often label "macho." When he overhears Rima's prayer to her mother, clearly showing that she is in love with him, he tells us "that her petition had unwittingly revealed to me the power I possessed, and it was a pleasing experience to exercise it." At one point, thinking of a city woman he once loved, he opines that "women, though within narrow limits more plastic than men, are yet without that larger adaptiveness which can take us [men] back to the sources of life." After telling Rima he will spend a few days with his "Indian friends," then realizing it is a foolish plan, he sticks to it so she won't think he has a "weak, vacillating mind." He is gentlemanly enough to stay away from her for several days when he feels his "passion" for her starting to overwhelm him, but he is also petty enough to withdraw on other occasions to "punish" her for her elusiveness.

His attitude toward the native peoples is what the modern reader will question the most. Is he a reflection of Hudson's own prejudices, all too typical of his day? (Rima too makes a distinction between "whites and savages" and has an "instinctive aversion" to them--according to Abel.) Or is Hudson critiquing racism by making Abel's views seem extreme? Even as early as chapter one, Abel tells us that though Orinoco Indians gave him shelter, food, and other aid without recompense, we "must not, however, run away with the idea that there is any sweetness in their disposition, any humane or benevolent instincts such as are found among the civilized nations: far from it. I regard them [. . .] as beasts of prey, plus a cunning or low kind of intelligence vastly greater than that of the brute." There are many such passages, though Abel seems restrained compared to Nuflo, Rima's adoptive grandfather, a peasant who sees Indians as "children of the devil," wishes a plague would destroy all of them, and in his bandit days attacked their villages.

Of course, Nuflo is clearly a hypocrite, and Abel, also clearly, becomes possessed by his fury against the tribe who have killed Rima (and, by the way, have reason to distrust him). He feels a "savage joy" when he kills one man, and much more disturbing, he betrays the tribe which once befriended him to their rivals, leading to a massacre that he possibly participates in. He admits to a "moral insanity" that, he claims to become aware of only when he looks upon the bloodied corpse of Cla-cla, an old Indian woman who had shown great affection toward him earlier in the novel.

Overall, Hudson makes not only the old woman but Runi, the tribal chief, and others seem more like real human beings, with reasonable suspicions and lighthearted mirth, if also irrational fears and deceitfulness, than Abel seems capable of perceiving. Though he never visited Venezuela, Hudson made excellent use of the books of Victorian anthropology and nature studies that he consulted. His evocation of a beautiful and greatly varied tropical forest, from open savannah to rocky ravine, in repose and amid violent storms, may strike the reader more than his rendering of human character, but the latter is surprisingly subtle at times. His curious mixture of meticulous realism and poetic fancy, though not "magic realism" in the later Latin American sense, makes Green Mansions a novel greatly deserving of a new generation of readers.

Joseph Milicia (Ph.D., Columbia University) is Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin Sheboygan. He has published articles on Henry James, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), John Steinbeck, science fiction, and film directors, actors, and composers, and he is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Science Fiction and Multicultural Review.
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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2005

    Extraordinary LIfe of W.H. Hudson

    If you believe that all life of this earth shares a common bond (we are all connected as is our destiny), and you want documentation to bolster that view, read 'Green Mansions'. But don't stop there! Find and read Hudson's books on England following his emigration as a young man in his 30's. CHEERS!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2001

    Lyrical, mysterious, haunting

    This story of ill-fated love set in the lush forests of Venezuela is surprisingly modern in its outlook on humankind's relationship to nature - and in its refusal to provide an easy resolution to its poignant narrative. Fans of Rand Johnson's 'Arcadia Falls, A Fable' - another haunting and mysterious book that uses a star-crossed romance to explore man's impact on the natural world - will love this.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2014

    BASEMENT

    <p>

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2012

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 21, 2011

    I remember it as Wonderful!

    I purchased this for my great neice who had surgery. I did so because it was one of my favorite books growing up.

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  • Posted September 5, 2011

    Beautifully Written Love Story

    Green Mansions is a beautifully written love story. Hudson's descriptions of nature and wild life are breath taking. I was very moved by the love Rima had for the jungle, and it's creatures, as well as the love that her and Abel shared.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2009

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