It is melodrama. No doubt when it was published in 1880 it was written in the style of a best seller but I found it very difficult to read. There are the appeals to the reader "O! My reader" and there are the capitalisations "IT WAS THE NAZARENE", the stragne sentence structures "Both had hair and eyes black" and the preponderance of Thous and wilts and dosts and the long explanatory descriptions and the stock characters.
The first of the eight books is the story of the wise men coming to Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus and has nothing whatever to do with the main narrative which starts in book 2.
Judah is a rich young lad who lives in a big house in Jerusalem with his mum and his sister and his servants, his merchant dad having died. One of his best friends is the slightly older Roman lad called Messala (usually, for some reason, the Messala) who, perhaps because he is jealous that Judah is so extraordinarily good looking, seizes the pretext of an accident in which Judah nearly kills the Roman governor to have Judah arrested and his mum and sisters tossed into the darkest dungeons and all his property seized. Becoming a galley slave (this first part reminded me very much of The Count of Monte Cristo which is another revenge story but a far better book) kills most people within a year but it just toughens Judah until, three years later, he saves the life of a rich Roman in a shipwreck and becomes an adopted son. Of course the purpose of his life is first to find his mum and sister and second to revenge himself on Massala although he spends a good few years becoming a pampered young Roman first (learning how to become the best fighter and the best chariot racer) and then a few years more, in Jerusalem, training an army of rebels, before really setting his mind to the task.
The plot sets up some good situations and then wastes them. The high point of the film was the chariot race and there is no question that this is an important part of the story but it is over and done with just over half way through; not only that but Ben-Hur's victory isn't exactly fair and square. Sometimes the book sets up interesting conflicts such as the choice facing Judah between the beautiful but mysterious Egyptian, daughter of Wise Man Balthasar, and the humble slave for life Esther but in the end the choice is rather made for him. Similarly there is an interesting conflict facing Simonides, a slave who must embrace slavery if he recognises Judah, but the resolution is rather a damp squib. The potential enmity of Messala is defused too quickly and so is the problem that Judah is actually an escaped galley slave. Towards the end of the book Judah is a rich man with dreams of commanding a rebellion against the Romans. Then he meets Jesus and the conflicts between the two contrasting visions of Power and Glory are acknowledged but never properly explored.
I think my problem with the hero is that Judah shows very little character development of the sort required by modern audiences. As Simonides (whose story reveals true heroism both in his sacrifice for love and in his sacrifice to serve the Hur family) says when Judah waltzes in and demands that this faithful slave give him his inheritance because the fortune was achieved using the capital Simonides saved from the confiscation of Ben-Hur's assets, “The fortune cost him nothing - not an anxiety, not a drop of sweat, not so much as a thought” (B4C11) And this is the same all the way through. OK he has to serve three years as a galley slave but everything before and after that drops into this young man's lap.
And yet there are some areas of grey in the portrait Wallace paints of his hero. Messala's denouncement comes about after Judah drops a roof tile on the Roman governor's head; Judah says it was an accident but he wasn't framed. The victory in the chariot race is obtained by breaking the rules. Judah wants to be a resistance hero (a terrorist in modern terms?) and never really understands the message the Jesus is preaching. Judah's quest for his mum and sister is very easily diverted. There is so much potential nuancing that could be done with this. But I don't think Wallace realised that. I think Wallace was selling an Anerican dream in which you can be rich and powerful and beautiful and still a good Christian. I don't think, for all the cod theology burbled in this book, Wallace had the subtlety and psychological insight to turn this potentially brilliant story into a great work of literature. He was too busy trying to tell the Greatest Story Ever Told.
On the other hand I haven't written a best-seller.
I must be one of the few people in recent years to have read the book before watching the film. I have now watched the Oscar-winning Charlton Heston version. I was pleased to note that the film scrapped the first book (the story of the first Christmas) which underlined the fact that it had little to do with the plot. It also moved the chariot race, for many the peak of the drama, to a later position. Furthermore, it omitted the idea that Judah trains troops with the intention of starting a rebellion against the Romans; the film maximises the good boy potential of Judah. The old housekeeper is scrapped and her role in the leprosy sub-plot is taken by Esther. Esther's love rival (Balthasar's daughter) is removed which takes away this sub-plot but the fact the Esther has been seeing Judah's leper mum and sister without telling Judah provides the opportunity for a lover's tiff. The film (as with the book) climaxes with the crucifixion (which coincides with the healing) but later events have been compressed to get to where we are going in a more economical manner. The film therefore represents a tighter and better-paced plot while losing some nuances of character. However, the film has a serious time problem. It is widely accepted the the ministry of Jesus lasted three years but he is already going when Judah is sent to the galleys and Judah is in them for three years not to mention the extra time he spends as a playboy in Rome and therefore by the time he returns to Jerusalem Jesus sh ould already be dead and buried (and resurrected perhaps).
I enjoyed the following lines:
- “The sunburnt ways of the wilderness.” (Book 1, Chapter 1)
- “It was morning time. Before him was the sun, half curtained in fleecy mist.” (B1C1)
- “the lamp of Hindoo genius was let down a well, where ever since it has lighted narrow walls and bitter waters.” (B1C4)
- “The enemy of man is man, my brother.” (B1C5)
- “In the manner of customs, climate is a lawgiver everywhere.” (B2C3)
- “Youth is but the painted shell within which, continually growing. lives that wondrous thing the spirit of man.” (B2C4)
- “Knowledge leaves no room for chances.” (B3C2)
- “Oh, if, in being forgotten, we could only forget!” (B3C3)
- “The hair of the dancers floated free, and their limbs blushed through the robes of gauze which scarcely draped them. Words may not be used to tell of the voluptuousness of the dance.” (B4C5)
- “How many kings have you heard of who were better than their subjects?” (B4C16)
- “It is neither wise nor honest to detract from beauty as a quality.” (B5C3)
- “When God walks the earth, his steps are often centuries apart.” (B5C8)
- “It made me restless by keeping always present a feeling that I, who have so much to do, was dropping into idle habits, and tying myself with silken chains, and after a while - and not a long while either - would end with nothing done.” (B5C9)
- “Time is in the green yet; let to-morrow answer.” (B8C2)
May 2018; 436 words