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Throughout the reading there was a scene from You’ve Got Mail that came often to mind. It’s about another Austen book, but can also apply to S&S. Kathleen writes to Joe Fox:

Confession. I have read Pride and Prejudice about 200 times. I get lost in the language. Words like ‘thither’, ‘mischance’, ‘felicity’. I’m always in agony whether Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are really going to get together. Read it – I know you’ll love it.

The word “felicity” also makes an appearance in S&S, as well as “indefatigable”, “affronting”, “incommode”. How wonderful are these words? I think enjoy them more than most because they’re very close to Latin and hence much closer to my mother-tongue Portuguese. We say “felicidade” for “happiness” and “incomodo” for “inconvenience”.

Did you also notice that in Austen’s other novels there are echoes of S&S? The piano offered to Jane Fairfax in Emma, Mrs. Bennett saying she always noticed something about Wickham not quite right. I’m sure there are more connections that I missed – perhaps in a future re-reading?

It was a great ending to the book, I appreciated it better this time. On my first reading I felt that all was not exactly as pitch-perfect as I would like: Willoughby should have been more unhappy, Elinor and Edward should have been rich, Mrs. Ferrars still preferred her younger son and Marianne should have been much more in love with Captain Brandon than she seemed. But now I think I would have grimaced at the fairy-tale ending, as I would have grimaced at the convenience of Lucy’s change of heart… if Austen herself hadn’t so brilliantly acknowledge it:

Elinor’s particular knowledge of each party made it appear to her in every view, as one of the most extraordinary and unaccountable circumstances she had ever heard.

Sometimes I wish Dickens, the Brontës and other Victorians would better acknowledge the convulsed coincidences they come up with.

But what struck me most this time around was that the book is not so much about the individual sisters (or how I identify with one or the other), but about what we see when we see them together. The whole is bigger than the sum of the parts and all that. No matter what Elinor says, their stories were very similar, the difference was mostly in the way they behaved – and what a ride to witness it!

This may seem obvious is a novel called Sense and Sensibility about two sisters, but I felt it much more now, this analysis of reaction by two people so close and yet so different from one another. Jane Austen, just like Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, was a student of character.

Thanks for all who participated in the readalong – it was so much fun!

(Credits)

As I read I’m gathering examples that disprove Austen’s general image as a sentimental or “pink” author – this is a conversation I’ve had countless times, usually after people know if my partiality for her. Anyone who doubts how savagely witty she can be, has only to read these S&S chapters.

There are enough psychological undercurrents to rival a Japanese thriller, and unforgiving satire to put her in the British Black Humor Hall of Fame (if it doesn’t exist, it should!).

These chapters open with another brilliant and passive-agressive conversation between Elinor and Lucy. It feels like you’re reading two dialogues at the same time: what’s said and what’s meant.

“Indeed you wrong me,” replied Lucy, with great solemnity; “I know nobody of whose judgment I think so highly as I do of yours; and I do really believe, that if you was to say to me, ‘I advise you by all means to put an end to your engagement with Edward Ferrars, it will be more for the happiness of both of you,’ I should resolve upon doing it immediately.”

Elinor blushed for the insincerity of Edward’s future wife, and replied, “This compliment would effectually frighten me from giving any opinion on the subject had I formed one. It raises my influence much too high; the power of dividing two people so tenderly attached is too much for an indifferent person.”

Lucy is nasty. Interesting how Austen always seems to underline her lack of education, how she’s “ignorant and illiterate”, how Elinor pitied her for “the neglect of abilities which education might have rendered so respectable”. Lucy Steel is what happens when women aren’t encouraged to learn. Austen clearly took much pride it her own education and literary knowledge (she is Elinor is this book, right?) and saw it as an advantage. In P&P Mr. Darcy will also make this point with his famous “improvement of her mind by extensive reading” line.

Many of these sixteen chapters centered on Marianne and her seemingly endless plight, but my attention was all on the secondary characters.

Did you also fall in love with Mrs. Jennings? I know she a bit of a gossip, and would be an impossible house-mate, but she means well and I find her good humor and joie de vivre irresistible. She melted my heart with her reaction to the news about Vile Willoughby and her misguided-yet-sincere offers of help (finest old Constantia wine the perfect solution to gout and a broken heart, who knew?).

On the other hand, their brother John – for shame! At the beginning of the novel I thought he was just a weak and easily manipulated man, but after his conversation with Elinor about Captain Brandon, I see there’s a littleness about him that’s hard to pity.

Will you join us for the last Twitter Movie Night this Sunday? We’re watching Sense and Sensibility (1995), starting 7PM GMT.

Advent with Austen‘s readalong of Sense and Sensibility is being hosted by Yvann over at Reading Fuelled by Tea. 

Summary of the novel here.

While the first nine chapters were all about how close these sisters were despite their differences, now we start seeing them drift apart. On one hand Marianne was either too focused on Willoughby or too isolated in her own pain. On the other there’s Elinor’s unwillingness to share her own hopes and concerns. Lucy Steel’s secret only came as one more wedge between them.

I think I’ve spoken too soon about Marianne not being as annoying as I expected. In these chapters she really goes out of her way to be contrary and self-and-Willoughby-centered.

What was she thinking by accepting the horse and going off to Allenham unchaperoned? On top of that, she goes all defensive on Elinor when she tries to put some sense into her. Her support of Willoughby’s comments about Coronel Brandon were very unfair and I’m glad Elinor stood up for him and gave them a piece of her (sharp) mind:

But perhaps the abuse of such people as yourself and Marianne will make amends for the regard of Lady Middleton and her mother. If their praise is censure, your censure may be praise, for they are not more undiscerning, than you are prejudiced and unjust.

HA!

What is it that makes Marianne act like this? She’s not a bad person, she loves her family. Is it her youth? Does Willoughby just bring out the worst in her? Or maybe it’s a consequence of her determination to only do as her heart commands (with the full support of her mother)?

Shame on Mrs. Dashwood for telling Elinor off when she questioned Willoughby’s actions – “You had rather take evil upon credit than good” – I hope she’ll come to realize just how unfair she was. It felt even worse than Mr. Bennett’s reaction when Elizabeth tried to persuade him not to let Lydia go away. If Mrs Dashwood really knew Elinor, she’d rely more on her instincts about character.

Edward finally came alive and I’m glad of it. During his time at the Cottage he showed us more about his personality, and I really appreciated the glimpses of irony and self-mockery:

“My judgment,” he returned, “is all on your side of the question; but I am afraid my practice is much more on your sister’s. I never wish to offend, but I am so foolishly shy, that I often seem negligent, when I am only kept back by my natural awkwardness. I have frequently thought that I must have been intended by nature to be fond of low company, I am so little at my ease among strangers of gentility!

(“You should practice!”, I can almost hear Elizabeth Bennett say…)

Three random and disconnected thoughts:

  • The embarrassment when Elinor found out about the hair Edward was carrying – I could feel it.
  • Lucy Steel, you little hypocrite: can you say passive-aggressive? Her interactions with Elinor made my blood boil. You can tell she had a fake smile pasted on her face, while her conniving eyes are measuring Elinor’s every reaction.
  • These were chapters filled with conversation, while the previous ones centered more on events. I’m glad of it – Austen is at her best with dialogues.
Will you join us for Twitter Movie Night this Sunday? We’re watching Persuasion (1995), starting 7PM GMT.

The Advent with Austen‘s readalong of Sense and Sensibility is being hosted by Yvann over at Reading Fuelled by Tea. 

Summary of the novel here.

Read for the readalong organized by Allie over at A Literary Odyssey.

Sometimes you just create an image in your mind of what a certain book will be like, and in this case, I was genuinely surprised on how different it turned out.

I knew Heart of Darkness was about the Belgian Congo, that it inspired Apocalypse Now and that it was an established part of the Western canon. So in my mind it was a heavy, dense story, with a vague plot full of metaphoric innuendos about human nature and how quickly we can revert to our animal origins.

What I found was a clear story that easily dragged me along. It was also the perfect book for audiobook because most of the book is story-telling my the main character. In a boat anchored in the Thames, a group of men await for the tide to turn. As night falls, Charlie Marlow starts telling the story of his experiences in an unnamed country in Africa, where he went in search of adventure.

His first task is to bring a man named Kurtz back to civilization. He’s their best ivory trader and feared to be very sick. When they find him – Marlow and his crew of native cannibals – Kurnst is not ill, he just turned native and convinced local tribes to treat him like a god. He also begun to take part in local brutal costumes, like putting a row of African heads around his house.

How sane and how mad Kurtz really became is left up to us to decide. Among the other Europeans Marlow meets in Africa, Kurtz had a reputation for competence and charisma – he was the epitome of an Alpha Dog. And yet, he dies feverishly screaming “The horror! The horror!” on the way back.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: it’s not a politically correct book. Africa and the Africans in Heart of Darkness stand for “the other world”, the opposite of civilization. Yet I thought the real stab was at the hypocritical westerners that think themselves so superior and yet…

For all his cringe-worthy remarks, I think it would be too simple to accuse Conrad of straight-out racism. There is the possibility that Conrad was actually trying to go into its origins. The Reading Life had a great post about this called “Two Vision of Heart of Darkness-Is it deeply racist or a powerful exploration of the roots of racism”.

The writing and the story really worked for me. I was especially taken with the descriptions of Marlow’s boat slowing going deeper and deeper into the darkness/wilderness, and that mix of fear and excitement Conrad created. My “favorite” character was the lonely Russian Marlow meets in the forest before finding Kurst. This young man had roamed  Africa for years, restlessly “ruled by the spirit of adventure“:

‘I went a little farther,’ he said, ‘then still a little farther–till I had gone so far that I don’t know how I’ll ever get back.

Oh the tin line that keeps us in check and away from our basic (true?) urges! I never read Lord of Flies, but expect that it deals with the same themes.

Thanks Allie for organizing the join reading, this book deserves a bit of debate!

***

Other thoughts: A Literary Odyssey, My Porch, The Reading Life, Melody & Words, Jules’ Book Reviews, Trish’s Reading Nook, The OF Blog, Lizzy’s Literary Life, Fifty Books Project, Open Mind, Insert Book (yours?)

The Advent with Austen‘s readalong of Sense and Sensibility is being hosted by Yvann over at Reading Fuelled by Tea. 

Summary of the novel here.


Let the great readalong begin! I’m looking forward to what everyone else has to say about Jane Austen’s first published novel. This is the second time I read S&S and it’s surprising how different if fells and how influenced I’ve been by the adaptations.

Just 9 chapters in and I’m already convinced that of all of Austen’s books, S&S is the one that benefits most from screen adaptations. She leaves a lot to our imagination and I missed scenes like the one where Margaret hides in the library, but I especially wanted to see more of Elinor and Edward’s relationship development. There’s a whole chapter with just one conversation of Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood, but so far no exchanges between one of the book’s main couples.

Still, that chapter was great, so witty, so clever, so Austen! You could see she had fun writing it, but it was also very useful to help us understand the injustice suffered by the Dashwood women, Fanny’s meanness and John’s meekness.

These first chapters also set the scene for the sisters’ relationship: unity and deep affection, but also a conflict of conduct and values. I couldn’t help thinking how alone Elinor must have felt at times. Clearly Marianne and her mother are of one mind, and young Margaret is going the same way. It must be tough on Elinor to constantly be the family’s voice of reason, Super-Ego and bad-cop.

I thought that this time around (now that I’m older and wiser, you see?) I’d find Marianne more annoying, but again, I take my hat off to Austen for creating a character like her. She has everything to be an exasperating teen, but instead I find myself thinking that what we need is more people who think and live like her: intensely and in a world of superlatives. I don’t want Marianne to be taught a bitter-but-necessary lesson. I want her to find the man she wants at 16, who reads Cowper with due passion and has an immaculate character.

And maybe Austen thought the same. Maybe she was sorrowful about the dirty job that lay ahead, or Marianne wouldn’t have been such a great character.

Now, please imagine that I said something thoughtful about parenting in Austen’s books, or social mobility, while I continue to muse about how my own idea of the ideal man evolved.

See you all at the joint viewing of Bride and Prejudice this Sunday?

My second of two posts for the read-along of The Discovery of Heaven organized by Iris on Books for the Month of Dutch Literature. This post refers to the book’s last two sections: The Beginning of the End and the End of the End.

Previously on The Discovery of Heaven…

An Angel is assigned to create a human that would restore the 10 Commandments to Heaven. Through careful planning and a few subtle pushes here and there he manages to get the right man to get the right woman pregnant. Ada, the mother to be, has a car accident which puts her in a coma for the rest of her pregnancy, when she gives birth to a boy, Quinten.

That’s where we left off. In this second half, Ada’s grieving husband Onno desperately accepts the offer of his best friend Max (the only one who know he’s actually Quinten’s biological father) to raise his child with Ada’s grandmother, with whom Max has started an affair. Quinten grows up among a group of eccentrics who unknowingly give him some of the knowledge and skills he needs to fulfill his life’s purpose.

(Now that I summarize it in only two paragraphs it even sounds more like a telenovela than before :))

(Sancta Sanctorum, Florence – credits)

It took me about two months to read this book, although I alternated it with lighter stuff. It’s not a light read and it has a lot of ideas to be digested. Mulisch has my respect, this is a very intelligent piece of literary art and I’ve learned a lot from it, but I’m afraid it left my heart a bit cold. I’m actually not sure Mulisch wanted us to feel warmly towards his characters or the book in general. Maybe he preferred us to to admire his intellect instead. That said, I felt partial to Onno, but I might have been influenced by seeing Stephen Fry play him in the movie. Who can resist Stephen Fry?

The last quarter – The End of the End – was by far my favorite part. Was I the only one thinking that Harry Mulisch is a sort of brainy Dan Brown.. or that Dan Brown is a lowbrow Harry Mulisch? And I don’t mean it as an insult!

The scenes where Quinten and Onno put the pieces of the puzzle together were exciting and the pace was perfect to build up the discovery. I had my computer around as I read to be able to research references and places. I also got a kick out of seeing how incidents that happened of 500 pages before were so important in helping Quinten achieve his goal. For instance, the neighbour who taught Quinten to open locks and the accidental conference in Cuba that forced Onno to give up politics. I even think Onno had a stroke just so could leave a cane behind.

Some final random thoughts:

  • The lack of fleshed-out feminism characters was even more noticeable in this last half. It made me want to read Mulisch’s other books and see it they’re always his Achilles’ heel
  • I loved the first description of Florence. It matches precisely what I thought when I first visited:
Maybe it was the sound of its name, Florence, that made him expect the town would be even more silvery and silent. But he found himself in a noisy, stinking cauldron of traffic that he had forgotten after five days in Venice. The function of the sea, which protected Venice sufficiently, was here fulfilled by the thick walls, colossal blocks of stone, bars, buildings like fortresses; the beauty was virtually only in doors, in palaces and museums.
  • I’m still not sure what to think of the ending.

Iris, thank you so much once again for organizing the Month – is it something you’ll be doing again next year?

So we arrive at the end of the book and this great read-along. These final chapters were my favorite and I especially enjoyed the part where Lucy, high on drugs, warders through a mid-night party in the park 🙂

But now seriously: the chapters in the Park were masterpieces of pacing. The way Brontë built up and released tension turned Villette into a page-turner, something I couldn’t in truth say until then.

I absolutely loved the Lucy and Graham moment in the park and even got a bit teary when she describes “Lucy’s Room”. Graham is not a bad man and can be redeemed… just not by her. I’m sure many of us have a Graham in our lives.

He did not with time degenerate; his faults decayed, his virtues ripped; he rose in intellectual refinement, he won in moral profile: all dregs filtered away, the clear wine settled bright and tranquil.

It was also a guilty pleasure to see Lucy (finally) lash out at Mrs. Beck – “Madame, you are a sensualist.” I had to go to the dictionary to understand exactly what she meant here – “sensualism is the philosophical doctrine according to which sensations and perception are the basic and most important form of true cognition.” That doesn’t seem too bad, but the way Lucy says it it really sounds like an insult.

And talking of insults, I was laughing at myself over Lucy’s swearing – “Dog in the manger!” – I think I’ll adopt the expression.

I was happy with the ending. After the drama and anguish, after the exposure of the true villains of the story, I welcomed the little house with the white walls and delicate china. However (there always seems to be a “however” between me and Mr. Paul), it was a bit cheeky of Mr. Paul to go ahead and rent a house for Lucy without actually knowing if she would accept it or his proposal. Also, he made her wait at the Pensionnat, when he knew she was close to people who didn’t want her wellbeing. But all is forgotten, after all, he trusted her and let her to make her own way for three years – how many Victorian heroes would do the same? I think they’ll be very happy together.

Once again, thank you Wallace for organizing and moderating the discussion and to the bloggers out there who stuck by the read-along until the end – it was a pleasure sharing this book with you!

PS:

“Do I displease you eyes much” I took courage to urge: the point had it’s vital import for me.

He stopped, and gave me a short, strong answer; an answer which silenced, subdued. Yet profoundly satisfied.”

That was a kiss, right?

PPS: Didn’t Ginevra’s letter remind you of Lydia’s in P&P?

Brussels’ Parc Royal, very close to the Pensionnat Herge.

Much to think about in these chapters. I was left with some nagging questions which I hope the other participants in the read-along might help answer.

First about M. Paul’s habit of spying on the Pensionnate (with a glass if it’s night… shudder). He says:

There I sit and read for hours together: it is my way-my taste. My book is this garden; its contents are human nature – female human nature. I know you all by heart.

All I could think was “RUN, LUCY! SAVE YOURSELF!” When she tells him “It is not right”, he starts going on about religion and his rich father. I don’t know how M. Paul’s supporters will justify this, but I’m curious to see 🙂

Also in that same conversation he tells Lucy about St. Pierre’s intentions (not very gentlemanly) and how his spying allowed him to see St Pierre as she truly was (“I have seen her rancours, her vanity, her levietes”). Lucy seems to accept that justification and even says, surprisingly “If you were a wicked, designing man, how terrible would all this be!” You know what this whole scene reminded me of? The Phantom of the Opera, but with a less likable Phantom.

(“One Sunday afternoon, having walked the distance of half a league to the Protestant church, I came back weary and exhausted” Villette, chapter 31 – the photo is of the International Protestant Church of Brussels, where the Brontës used to worship. It’s still active today.)

But moving on to the new-found love between Lucy and Polly. I didn’t see it coming and am not sure if it’s not a bit out of character. Is Polly less annoying than she was before or was Lucy freed of blinding jealousy when she buried her letters and devotion to Graham? Also, can you help me understand this speech of Lucy?

Much pain, much fear, much struggle, would have troubled the very lines of your features, broken their regularity, would have harassed your nerves into the fever of habitual irritation you would have lost in health and cheerfulness, in grace and sweetness. Providence has protected and cultured you, not only for your own sake, but I believe for Graham’s. His start, to, was fortunate: to develop fully the best of his nature, a companion like you was needed: there you are, ready.

At first it seems a sweet thing to say, full of compliments, but when reading closely what it really says is: if you were a bit more complex, a bit less beautiful, Graham wouldn’t want you.

I still don’t understand why she would say that Graham needs Polly in order to “develop fully”. Does he really need another person in his life that thinks he’s God incarnate? Is Lucy truly sincere here?

I just wrote one shot note on the picnic: “Chapter should have been called “An Ode to M. Paul”

Finally about the house in Basse-Ville and ensuing tête-à-tête. It was truly gothic experience and kudos to Lucy for keeping her cool. I wonder what Catherine Morland’s flamboyant imagination would make of it all. I bet nothing as noir as the real story.

The conversation between Lucy and M. Paul in Chapter 35 was really well written: M. Paul did well and Lucy used the right amount of teasing. Her happiness at the end was very genuine and apart from her walk in London, I never felt so close to her. However, I’m afraid that in my heart, M. Paul is beyond salvation. True, he’s generous and selfless but I think he does it a lot because he likes the image of himself as the ever-loyal lover and self-sacrificing man.

He watched as Lucy was submitted to an interrogation which was clearly painful for her because his vanity and honor needed to be saved. In his mind, Lucy’s essay is not a reflection not of her abilities, but of him as a teacher. In the chapters describing his private lessons, he made it clear that Lucy shouldn’t be eager for knowledge or too proud of what she manages to achieved.

I have not doubts M. Paul is a good man and that Lucy has found her intellectual match. I’m just sorry she has to hide this from him.

As Dr John falls into the story’s background and the focus shifts to M. Paul I start getting more and more confused: am I suppose to like him?!

(The Brussels Brontë Group with the British Ambassador to Belgium)

Maybe I’m being a bit unfair here (who knows what will happen in the next chapters?), but the word “bully” keps popping into my mind.  That scene at the Hotel Crécy, when Mr Paul “sibilates” those insults and just minutes afterwards speaks to Lucy “politely, and even deferentially” reminded me of the usual behavior of violent husbands.

By making M. Paul behave like this (the criticism of Lucy’s dress, the inflamed speech against the English) is Charlotte Brontë expecting us to think “what a passionate man! I wish someone was jealous like this over me”? Because I’m not feeling it, and am becoming increasingly concerned about Lucy’s interest in him.

She actually tells us the reason behind her fascination:

He [Dr John] has said, and you have heard him say it: “Lucy’s disadvantages spring from over-gravity in tastes and manner – want of colour in character and costume. ‘Such are your own and your friends’ impressions; and behold! There starts up a little man, differing diametrically from all these, roundly charging you with being too airy and cheery – too volatile and versatile – too flowery ad coloury.

I understand why Lucy might start to enjoy this new image of herself, but from where I’m standing, she really could have used a bit of colour to character and costume, or at least some… lighten-up.  So someone who sees her as too vivacious must be at the extreme of the specter. I think we all agree that Dr John is not the man for her, but can she really be happy with someone like M. Paul?

These chapters also made me wonder how much of Mr Heger (Charlotte’s Professor whom she fell in love with while living in his Pensionnate) is in M. Paul. Lucy seems to understand him really well and he also becomes her tutor. I even googled M. Heger to see if his anniversary was in March, but didn’t find the date.

I’m really curious about how I’ll feel about all of this by the end of the book.

Or a lighter note, I couldn’t help but smile at Lucy’s comment on the different ways to greet people:

[Fraulein Braun] though we thought we were very cordial with her: but we did not slap her on the shoulder, and if we consented to kiss her cheek, it was done quietly, and without any explosive smack.

Living in an extremely international city and in a country culturally divided into three, how to say hello is important. The Flemish part of Belgium gives three kisses on the cheek, the Walloon part gives 2, the French community gives 1 or 2 (haven’t figured out what the choice depends on), the Italian also 2 but they start on the right side of the face, the Russians and Balkan men kiss other men, and some other nationalities don’t kiss at all.

So as you can imagine,  at a normal party of the Brussels international community, some diplomacy is required!  At Joanna’s wedding last Saturday, for instance, 16 nationalities were represented in a group of about 50 people 🙂

Brussels Grand Place – Charlotte and Emily have surely been here

AHA! So there’s the possibility that Dr John is not the hero of our story after all. I have to confess I was a bit confused with Lucy’s future voice, which hints he’s not her Prince Charming:

Dr. John, you pained me afterwards: forgiven be every ill–freely forgiven–for the sake of that one dear remembered good!

But it’s also at about this point that “past” Lucy starts finding cracks in the glowing image she’s create around Graham. There was for instance, the light-hearted way he judged Vashti’s performance (so different from the impact on Lucy), and how he acted during the episode of the lost letter:

Graham in mirthful mood must not be humoured too far. Just now there was a new sort of smile playing about his lips–very sweet, but it grieved me somehow–a new sort of light sparkling in his eyes: not hostile, but not reassuring.

And if during those two occasions Lucy seems only to become sad and disappointed, we also see he can out-right annoy her:

“Happiness is the cure–a cheerful mind the preventive: cultivate both.”

No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to _cultivate_ happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure.

I also get easily annoyed with this self-help babble. Someone should print t-shirts saying “Happiness is not a potato.” – how cool would that be? I would buy one!

Apparently, Dr John is not the intellectual equal (who treats her like an equal) that Lucy needs. This has become more evident with the return of Polly. I’m still to decided what I find more annoying: Polly as child giving herself adult airs or Polly the adult acting like a child. Is she Bronte’s not-so-veiled sting at the infantilization of women?

Still, Lucy has proven to be an unreliable narrator before, so maybe I’ll have to swallow my words soon. Maybe these “disagreements” are just a sweet way that Lucy Breton has of saying to her husband “Do you remember how silly you were, you old dear?” But I hope not. I’d rather have a story in which Lucy grows to know more about who she is and what she wants than one in which Dr. John suddenly realizes he’s been blind all along.

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