Is it just a chair?

In Return of the Soldier, West uses inanimate objects to aid in emphasizing attributes of her characters. For instance, she begins the story with a detailed description of a child’s nursery. This at first seemed odd and strange to me, but after finishing the story, I see how relevant her descriptions were. A particular object that I found a sort of interest in was the chair Kitty frequently sat in. It was called, “Nanny’s big chair” in both chapters I and IV and was located by the window in the nursery.

So what is the big deal about a chair? Maybe I’m strange, but I find chairs to be symbolic of the human individual. Chairs come any many forms, such as wood, plastic, or wicker, and they can be decorated in many different ways. This is symbolic of the diversity of humans. More applicative to the story, however, is the use of chairs. They steadfastly endure great weight in support of what is sitting on them. Kitty is frequently sitting in the story, such as the times when she was lounging in Nanny’s chair or hopelessly laying on the couch with her arm hanging down. I think that this represents the emotional load Kitty is bearing on her shoulders. She seems to still be grieving the death of her son and she has to find a way to cope with her husband having no recollection of her or their marriage. In essence, it is as if she is bearing the weight of another person. Chris’s memory loss does not only affect him, but greatly affects Kitty too. She has to carry the emotional load along with him, if not more so than Chris since she is the one who remembers their relationship.

Maybe the chair does not actually mean much in the context of the story. I do, however, see significance in how Kitty is sitting throughout most of the story and she, of course, must sit in a chair.

Does West talk to us through objects?

There are many objects in the novel West employs to illustrate imperfections. Some objects she uses are the neighborhoods described by Jenny, Margaret’s hat and Baldry Court.  Jenny describes the neighborhood with a “score of houses” with “hideous patches of bare bricks that show like sores through the ripped-off plaster and uncovered rafters that stick out like broken bones” (97).  Her description is notably different than the grounds of Baldry Court, which are mutinously groomed.  Another imperfection West includes is Margaret’s hat. Jenny “pat[s] its plumes” in an effort to fix it, but concludes that it is “an inoperable case” (106). Here, West uses the theme of imperfection to create a contrast to Jenny’s desire to control and change imperfections, whereas Margaret chooses to live with them. This object also sheds light on the differences in Margaret’s and Jenny’s characteristics. Margaret is content with the imperfections in the world. However, Jenny along with Kitty feel the need to modify and groom the world around them. This is also evident in the state of Baldry Court.

I consider the grounds at Baldry Court to be especially important for the theme of imperfections In the beginning of the story, Jenny describes the grounds of Baldry Court extensively and highly. She claims it could be the subject of “innumerable photographs in the illustrated papers” and that Baldry Court reveals the not “the wild eye of the artist” but the “knowing wink of the manicurist” (48). The land that is the most perfected and controlled, Baldry Court, was the last place Chris should be in. As his cousin and his wife only “wanted to snatch” Chris “from the wars and seal him in this green pleasantness” (48).

The Baldry’s estate illustrates the differences in class between Margaret and the two women, Jenny and Kitty. Importantly, it also helps Chris’ cousin and wife understand what Chris needed after he came home. The grounds of Baldry Court are so manicured and altered that Chris feels out of place upon his return. Jenny notices Chris looks like he was an “outcast” and wonders if “Baldry Court so sleek a place that the unhappy felt offenders there” (67)? Her feelings towards the grounds are further questioned when she witnesses Margaret’s reaction to the estate. Jenny notices “there is no esthetic reason “for the strip of turf; the common outside looks lovelier where it fringes the road with dark gorse and rough amber grasses” (90). She realizes Baldry Court’s “use is purely philosophic” as it “proclaims that the Baldry’s only admire “controlled beauty” (90). Jenny realizes through this object that the perfect estate would only act as a prison for someone like Chris and that he appreciated a more natural, or even imperfect setting.

More than just a house?

Objects throughout The Return of the Soldier symbolize ideas, mirror and elaborate on the characters, and act as catalysts. Margaret’s “unpardonable raincoat” is a physical manifestation of her poverty and separation from the Baldry’s upper class. The nymph in its black bowl represents Chris, or perhaps more accurately, Jenny’s perception of Chris and his thoughts. The picture of Oliver sparked Margaret’s idea to heal Chris, and the boy’s ball and clothing held the power to remind Chris of all he had forgotten. Though they possess many smaller objects with additional meaning, the homes of Baldry Court and Mariposa are a helpful representation of the people who live in them and they way in which they live.

Baldry Court is presented as a magnificent home at the outset of the novel. Kitty and Jenny have painstakingly decorated each room to satisfy the finest tastes and trends. The house exudes the rank of those who inhabit it, and even the boarder around the home, as described by Jenny, “proclaims that here we estimate only controlled beauty, that the wild will not have its way within our gates, that it must be made delicate and decorated into felicity” (Pg. 90). In this house, Kitty and Jenny tried to seclude themselves from the reality of life outside its walls. They attempt to produce a haven where Chris’s happiness is inevitable, believing their creation to be that “one little part of the world that was…good enough for his amazing goodness” (Pg. 50). Yet when Chris returned from the war, the changes they made caused him to stumble; he did not recognize his home just as he did not recognize his wife (Pg. 65). All Kitty’s efforts to maintain an image of class and happiness failed to preserve her marriage – a façade was simply not enough.

Mariposa, like its inhabitants, is the opposite of Baldry Court. It is one of many identical “brick boxes” on a mundane row, and it even lacks an almond tree, the one aesthetic feature of the street (Pg. 80). Margaret herself admits, “It is a horrid little house” (Pg. 84). Yet inside, Jenny finds all the objects mentioned in Chris’s descriptions of Monkey Island. Margaret has carried the decorations and possessions along with her, and this manages to transport even her skeptical visitor to the past. Just like her home, Margaret is consistent. She pursues truth and kindness always, whether in her dealings with the Baldry’s, with the families she served, or with her old and clumsy husband. Though the location of her home has changed, just as her beauty has faded, she remains the same. Chris knew that she would not – could not – change, and he was right. Jenny, despite whatever jealousy she felt, took note early on of “this woman whose personality was sounding through her squalor like a beautiful voice singing in a darkened room” (Pg. 82). This consistency and commitment to truth and righteousness lead Margaret to make the difficult choice of honesty in the end, despite her personal hopes and desires. Though she was not much to look at, Margaret held goodness and strength within her walls. She was the constant thread in Chris’s memory, and she possessed the power and courage to take action while Kitty looked on from her lofty window, looking exquisite on the outside but requiring Margaret’s action to fill her pretty shell.

How Does One Paint a Scene?

A scene is painted by creating a very particular environment. To elaborate briefly, one puts a larger picture on the main wall of a room to draw attention to that particular location. It magnetizes one’s eyes in a manner that allows the painter to build an aura around this one centerpiece. This one item becomes more important than the story behind it, simply because it creates a story all on its own. Such is the manner in which Rebecca West creates her own scenes in the novel ‘The Return of the Soldier.’ As a reader progresses through the pagers of the novel, they note how it is teeming with descriptive imagery, often created by the mention of one essential item – or a group of items – in any particular scene. Whether West wants to describe the visceral feelings of characters such as Kitty or Jenny, or illustrate the power of love between two people, the mentioning and description of certain items in any particular scene is certainly her modus operandi.

Towards the beginning of the novel, West uses particular items worn by Margaret Grey to create a scene that highlights the emotions of Kitty and Jenny while simultaneously creating a darker, more awkward atmosphere. Even before Mrs. Grey begins her discussion with the two ladies of Baldry Court, West describes Jenny’s account of what she is wearing. The account is very dreary and makes Mrs. Grey out as someone who is very low in status, perhaps poverty-stricken: “She wore a yellowish raincoat and a black hat with plumes [of] sticky straw…she could turn her grey alpaca skirt well above her muddy boots and adjust its brushbraid with a seamed red hand” (West, 53). Compared to the ladies of Baldry Court, this was very unbecoming and twisted the scene in a manner which makes the reader either very wary of Mrs. Grey, or full of pity towards her. This mix of potential emotions is important as, by this point in the novel, we have not yet been introduced to the past of Mrs. Grey and cannot actually understand her role in the story. Juxtaposed with the very prim and proper adornment of Baldry Court, West uses this grey atmosphere to paint a scene full of mystery and the looming sense of the threat of change. Additionally, this description also allows us to understand the feelings of Kitty and Jenny at the time, before it was discovered that Chris had amnesia, and how they loathed Margaret’s company due to her appalling appearance. This same descriptive factor would come into play later in the novel when Margaret was being fetched to see Chris.

By the very end of the novel, similarly, a critical group of items, the ball and jersey of Chris and Kitty’s deceased son Oliver, surface that bring an impending sense of doom and threatening change. Two items that normally create thoughts of nostalgia and a faint sense of joy instead play the role of antagonist as the reader is force to understand that these items will force Chris to sacrifice all his bliss for a contorted sense of what is normal or just. With this in mind, West describes the items in the following manner: “[Margaret] nursed the jersey and the ball…she kissed them…and regarded them with tears” (114). Unlike the previous description, this one is short and sweet, as it should be. Where the reader may initially have the notion that these items will bring back Chris’s memory and all will proceed for the better, West very swiftly knocks the notion aside. With this quick mention of the reaction that the items create in Margaret, the reader understands now that this is a melancholy, stressful event, that will lead to Chris and Margaret’s downfall. As Margaret describes: “Put it like this…if my boy had been a cripple…and the doctors had said to me, ‘we’ll straighten [his] legs for you, but he’ll be in pain all the rest of his life,’ I’d not have let them touch him” (114). This analogy to the power of the items is powerful and alarming; the choice being to simply spare Chris or damn him. By the end, when we are told Margaret has shown him the items, the reader does not need to know what is written further to understand the conclusion. The dark and brooding description behind the power of these items allows one to understand that their heroes’ love story has come to an end.

In summation, one may come to understand the power of the items spread all throughout the novel by West. By simply describing the effects of one group of items, the scene is amply created and fulfills its role substantially, whether creating a sense of wonder or threatening inevitable downfall. I find it meaningful here to make one quick aside as I describe my own personal feelings towards one particular item, the mackintosh rug that Chris and Margaret rested on in the garden in chapter five. West allows Jenny to describe the rug and scene as such: the rug was “spread on [a] little space of clear grass…it lay quite smooth and comfortable under him…the woman has gathered the soul of the man into her soul and is keeping it warm in love and peace so that his body can rest” (100). This scene is the epitome of love and peace. West allows for the rug to be one small item isolated from the world on one clean square of grass where two people in love can go to escape and seek happiness in a universe so full of distress and darkness. West allowed for both the beginning and end of the novel to include items that created a gloomy atmosphere, but for one brief period in the middle, she allows for small pieces such as this rug to manifest themselves and create these all-too-short moments of peace. As West ends the novel by creating an ironic scene where a woman is bound by societal norms to damn herself and her lover to despair, it’s as if she uses this novel as a critique to society itself. What is the rationale behind sacrificing our own happiness to submit to a societal norm of complacent neutrality? Whatever one’s opinions might behind the writing of this novel, it is still a steadfast understanding that it is only through West’s masterful use of items and imagery that one is able to come to any understanding whatsoever.

 

Will Mr. Hat and Mr. Blanket please stand up?

Objects and possessions hold a role almost equivalent to characters in “Return of the Soldier”. One of the most notable items that receives references repeatedly is the ugly cheap feathered hat worn by Margaret. It comes to symbolize the poverty and uncaring unfashionableness of Margaret, and although at one point Jenny even tries to preen it with her hands into a socially acceptable article, she finally admits it is an “inoperable case” and gives up (p106). Margaret is unaware of her ugly clothing, and even if it were pointed out to her, she would probably not care, for she does not have the means to do anything about it. Not only is she modest and humble, but as Jenny pointed out, the clothes in fact serve to put her beautiful personality and character in the best light. Like a rough frame around a masterpiece, Margaret has no finery to distract “from the message of her soul”(102).

Another object that obtains profundity is the blanket on which Margaret and Chris sit peacefully in the woods. The fact that Margaret spread it so carefully “smooth and comfortable” with her “dreadful hands” indicates that she can create kindness and loveliness even though she is poor, rough from work, and not pretty. Her devoted attention to the comfort of Chris is an indication of her golden personality, and it further impresses on Jenny that Kitty and Jenny herself are not and never were the sole providers of Chris’s happiness, as previously thought. This revelation probably continues to strike a dissonant chord on Jenny’s peace of mind as well as shaking her conception of her place in the world- no longer does she have a monopoly on his affections and comfort.

The blanket further symbolizes a tiny island of happiness, security, and beauty in the troubled world. Chris and Margaret are briefly recapturing the honeyed bliss of youth and true love. On their little island they are separate from reality and untroubled by the truth. Jenny notes that on their blanket they “sat thus englobed in peace as in a crystal sphere”(100). Her resulting envy of this admirable untroubled bliss is so strong that she is “forced to go and sit down on the the rug” beside them”(102). Although she doesn’t belong there, Margaret allows this with kind humility. Thus finally Jenny is able to step into the other world she’s observed and looked down upon for so long- she used to see peasants outside her gates sit on blankets and nap in just such a fashion. This symbolizes her final steps into empathy and self-awareness, which morphed throughout the novel from proud delight in wealth to scorning her selfish lifestyle and admiring the good at heart.

What Do the Letters Say?

Since there are not a lot of characters present in Rebecca West’s novel The Return of the Soldier, inanimate objects begin to play a more important role in character and story development. These objects give us insight into character relationships and background story to further explain why certain events are occurring the way that they are in the novel.

I found the letters to be of major importance in making the novel what it is. Putting in letters or notes seems to be a popular device used in British literature as we have seen letters in all three of the novels we have read this semester (Frankenstein, Lady Audley, and now The Return of the Soldier). There is one major difference between the letters from the other two novels and this one. In The Return of the Soldier, we are never shown exactly what any of the letters say. In chapter 1, Mrs. Grey is telling Kitty and Jenny of the letter she received from Captain Baldry when he is in the hospital. Again, in chapter 4 we hear about more letters from Chris to Margaret but never see them.

It is interesting that West chooses to never show us, the reader, what the letters say and only have a character from the novel relay what they said or merely bring up their presence. For starters, we don’t even know if these letter truly exist or if this is just Margaret making them up. Mrs. Grey could also be leaving out important details of these letters or twisting Chris’s words around when telling Kitty and Jenny what these letters say.

Since we do not get the actual letters in the novel, it becomes important to see how the characters respond to them. After Kitty sees the letter from Chris to Margaret explaining that he is in the hospital, she responds by saying “This is a likely story” (58). Kitty hasn’t believed Mrs. Grey’s story the entire time and getting physical proof that her husband is hurt doesn’t change her mind either. This shows Kitty’s untrusting nature towards Margaret and her belief that Margaret is trying to steal money from her just because she is from a lower class.

Jenny is the only other person present when Margaret talks about the other letters that she received from Chris when she returned to Monkey Island. Although Jenny doesn’t give us her response to these letters, we do see how distraught Margaret is over them. Jenny says that “She bowed her head and wept” (89). When I read this for the first time, I saw this as Margaret regretting not getting these letters sooner. It seems to me that she is pondering what life would be life if she had married Chris instead of her husband and if she had seen these letters sooner, maybe she would have ended up with Chris instead.

It’s interesting to see the importance that letters have taken in the novels that we have read this semester, but it is more so to see how characters respond to letters when we never get to see them. Although this is frustrating, feeling like you’re missing out on part of the story, it leaves you wondering what the letters actually said and doesn’t allow you to build bias towards anyone because they may react to the letters differently than you would have.

How should I feel about Kitty?

Kitty is definitely another example of a character that is neither totally monstrous but not totally virtuous either. Kitty is presented as this worrying wife of a soldier at war. She is at the mercy of the effects of the war on her and her husband. Kitty Baldry is very classical in her outlook on life. Instead of the romantic optimism which Chris exhibits throughout the novel, Kitty’s life revolves around the “proper forms” of an upperclass performance. I am, however, compelled to sympathize with her because she is a woman who just married this man who is then sent off to war. War would be tough on anyone and to have to lament over whether or not your husband is going to return would drive anyone crazy. On top of that she also just lost her child at a very young age. This coupled with Chris’ return in which he doesn’t even remember her represents a loss of Chris as well. To have hope upon Chris’ return only to find out that you are not a part of his memories anymore gives me a reason to sympathize with her.

On the other hand, she is not totally blameless either. She is obsessed with self-control, good breeding, manners and making life tidy and comfortable. She even goes as far as to create a facade of happiness which she projects on Baldry Court. Baldry Court, is a mirror of Kitty, a woman of delicacy and refinement removed from the world and the war that had rocked it. She will do anything to keep her perfect little life intact even if it means not facing reality. Facing realty is a big theme in this book and eventually Kitty must be told about Margaret’s place in Chris’s life because she must understand that she was neither his first lover nor his most important one.  She must accept this in order to move on and help Chris.

In the end, I believe I sympathize with Kitty because she has been placed in a very hard situation and is simply trying to keep hope and her life intact. For example, Margaret receives a letter from Chris about his return, however, Kitty receives no such message about her husband’s imminent return, hearing about it secondhand from Jenny. Not receiving a letter, combined with Kitty’s discovery that Chris has experienced a partial memory loss, causes her great psychological stress and pain. It is almost as if she has lost her husband twice. Once upon his leave for war and again when he comes back a different man. This roller coaster of emotions would be taxing on anyone.

How does one feel about Kitty?

In just the beginning of The Return of the Soldier, we have encountered quite a few interesting characters, but what does one think of Kitty in particular? Is the author challenging us to sympathize with her? Kitty Baldry, wife of Chris Baldry, can be described as an upperclass woman with her life revolving around luxury, manners, and the comfort of the aristocratic life.  I do not think Kitty will ever be able to snap out of that lifestyle as proven that not even after the death of her child. This is why at this point in the novel I do not find her a sympathetic character and do not sympathize when her husband does not recognize her.

The author emphasizes society, like Kitty, that stayed back during WWI because their viewpoints do not change like a soldier’s viewpoints do. Their lifestyles remain relatively the same, while soldiers have been wounded with what they’ve seen.  Kitty is stuck in the mentality of making herself seem nice, important, and trying so hard to please others. She says, “I specially want to be kind to people while Chris is away. One wants to deserve well of Heaven” (pg 52). By those statements it becomes more clear to the reader that Kitty is self-seeking and wants to do life for the well-being of her, not because she actually cares for others. We have to remember that Chris has gone through a traumatic period in his life. He no longer sees the world like Kitty does, it is no longer about luxuries and what others think of him; he has experienced one of the worst wars humanity has ever known. A class system does not mean much to him. His perspective of everyday life is not the same anymore. The life he is used to now is not the life she is used to and she clearly does not seem to understand. When a soldier, in this case her husband, returns from war, the reader would think that a wife would be so attentive and give full attention to him. War is not something to brush off, but Kitty once again still has to make his arrival about her. Being worried and stuck in the mentality that appearance and class are still all that matter, she greets her husband in an extravagant unnecessary way. She restored her wedding dress wearing it with pearls around her throat and lets a longer chain of diamonds droop (pg 66). Chris not only arrives to a new surprising home, “up here …in this old place…how one hears the pines… this house is different” (pg 65), but thinks of another woman when he sees his wife.

The way Chris reacts to all the change around him since his arrival shows that his lifestyle has drastically changed and no longer has the ego of Kitty. Kitty in the mind of the child does not seem to have it and leaves “like a child who hasn’t enjoyed a party” (pg 71). How does one sympathize with acts like those?

 

To sympathize or to not…

Kitty is the epitome of a complicated and complex woman, as she struggles with maintaining an ostentatious façade for the public while repressing her internal pain. Although Kitty has endured hardship and tragedy, there is an element of judgment that West uses, which provokes the reader from completely sympathizing with her character. West uses Kitty as a tactic to cultivate the question to readers of whether or not she deserves wrath or sympathy.

Kitty is initially presented as a woman of high class and beauty, full of cold heartedness and pitilessness. This is shown in the scene when Margaret arrives to share the news about Chris and his amnesia, as Kitty gives her the time of day solely because she “wants to be kind to people while Chis is away… [and] wants to deserve well of Heaven” (52). This in itself begins to unravel the judgment that West is attempting to get readers to feel towards Kitty- Is kindness really kindness if there are selfish motives at hand? Jenny, the unreliable narrator, goes on to describe Kitty as a “splendid bird of prey” and hopes she will let Margaret go without “scarring her too much with words” (56). Kitty and her seemingly heartless self are exposed in this interaction, as Margaret has simply come to do a good deed and is completely mistreated for her compassion. At this point, as a result Kitty’s coldness, readers are challenged to sympathize with her character.

To play Devil’s Advocate, you would have to take into consideration all that Kitty has been through over the last years. She has lost her sweet baby boy, she has lost her husband to the war, and now his ex-lover shows up to announce that he has no recollection of whom she is. The poor woman “dressed in all respects like a bride” just to impress him on his arrival (66), and if that’s not complete desperation, I don’t know what is. Kitty is in a mad spiral of desperation to win her husband back (rightfully so), which leads her to show weakness, therefore tugging on reader’s heartstrings. It seems to me that although there is no excuse for mean-heartedness, Kitty is simply repressing many internal struggles, which have invited me to ultimately sympathize with her.

How can I judge such a “perfect woman”?

Kitty initially symbolizing high class, grace, and pure beauty would cause me to think quite highly of her. However, this perfection is quickly undone by the return of her soldier and dementia ridden husband, Chris. My sympathy for her turns to judgment as a result of her response to his return. Firstly, West sets the foundation for Kitty’s character up by utilizing Kitty’s outward appearance through Jenny’s narration; “I saw that golden hair was all about her shoulders and that she wore over her frock a little silken jacket trimmed with rosebuds. She looked so like a girl on a magazine cover that one expected to find a large “7d.” somewhere attached to her person” (Page 48). The change of appearance that will result from Chris’ return will demonstrate the identity crisis Kitty undergoes, transforming her from a “angel in the house” to a woman enveloped by childish tendencies and a jealousy that turns her beauty into ugliness. Instead of reuniting with her war torn husband with patience and loving him like a wife of 10 years would reasonably do, she further attempts to exude perfection around him. She is concerned with her social status, and the appearance she gives off to the world. Her obsession with her social status is first evident when Margaret Grey comes to visit.

Furthermore and more significant in my rationale for lacking sympathy for Kitty, after Chris comes home, her reaction is to impress him with her appearance in order to make him fall in love with her and out of love with Margaret. She puts her wedding dress on before their first dinner together, adorned with jewels and perfected hair. However, her image comes off as more peculiar than beautiful. Jenny describes her as looking “cold as moonlight, as virginity, but precious; the falling candlelight struck her hair to bright, pure gold” (Page 66). Kitty thinks that her beauty will make Chris remember his former perfect life with her. However, his love for Margaret is too strong and Kitty’s beauty does not help her. Chris’ “shellshock” has unraveled her identity and life. When she goes up to bed, Jenny describes her as “a child who hasn’t enjoyed a party as much as she though she would” (Page 70). Kitty has become childish because she is frustrated that her life is out of her hands and her idealistic world is now gone. 

How are we supposed to feel about Kitty?

Many of the characters we have experienced within the stories have presented multiple sides to their characters so we struggle with how to view/side with them.

In the novel, Kitty is presented to us as one who is lamenting over the loss of her son and the fact that she is not able to raise her son. Along with the fact that she dresses as a bride to show her purity and make Chris fall back into love with her.

Although we have contrasting sides where we see her as a very controlling and power wanting upper-class women, whose life revolves around the “proper form” of upper-class performances/status. Along with this, Kitty is short to Magaret whenever Margaret reveals the information about Chris. Beautiful women of her type lose, in this matter of admiration alone, their otherwise tremendous sense of class distinction; they are obscurely aware that it is their civilizing mission to flash the jewel of their beauty before all men. She tries extremely hard to be pretty and is visibly disgusted by poor people.

At this point in the text, I would say that we are to sympathize with Kitty from the standpoint that she has lost her son and that she has lost the love of her husband, and she is trying to fight to gain his love back. Kitty has lost two things in her life that are possible of loving her. However, she is also wrapped up in her desire to be proper, so she is also somewhat disliked.

What Does Thackeray Actually Think About Class?

Early in Vanity Fair, the “incisive” and “liberal” Miss Crawley makes a comment about class that puts Becky Sharp in a positive light. Although Becky retains no social capital from her birth, Miss Crawley claims the young woman is better than those with class status: “‘What is birth, my dear?’ [Miss Crawley] would say to Rebecca—‘Look at my brother Pitt; look at the Huddlestons, who have been here since Henry II.; look at poor Bute at the parsonage; is any one of them equal to you in intelligence or breeding? Equal to you—they are not even equal to poor dear Briggs, my companion, or Bowls, my butler” (119). Taken at face value, Miss Crawley’s statement appears to be a trenchant critique of the British class system. Becky is more intelligent than Sir Pitt and “poor Bute” (though I cannot say the same about “poor dear Briggs”). Becky does seem to hold “better” internal qualities than the upper class people Miss Crawley compares her to. (Of course, Becky does not always use these qualities in the best way). There is one major problem, however, with this critique: it comes from Miss Crawley. The wealthy woman is clearly an object of ridicule in Vanity Fair, so why would Thackeray make her the mouthpiece of this class critique?

This passage illuminates one of the major tensions in the novel—how do we know when the novel actually critiques an idea, system, or character? At the same time, how do we know when Thackeray is playing with his readers? Can we trust this narrative voice? Vanity Fair satirizes most of the characters and various aspects of society, but does the narrative voice believe in anything? Why satirize if not to incite change?

The tension arises for me when I compare Miss Crawley’s class critique with a later statement by the narrator. When Becky begins to rise in society, the narrator soliloquizes on the idea of the “best” people in society: “Here, before long, Becky received not only ‘the best’ foreigners (as the phrase is in our noble and admirable society slang), but some of the best English people too. I don’t mean the virtuous, or indeed the least virtuous, or the cleverest, or the stupidest, or the richest, or the best born, but ‘the best’…” (588). While the narrator’s tone is far different from that of Miss Crawley, he, like the wealthy woman, questions the notion of “the best” in society. By using scare quotes, Thackeray shows that the idea of “the best” is empty. To be the best is to be made “the best”—there is nothing inherent that makes someone better than another. Is this not a similar critique as the liberal-minded Miss Crawley? Why would Thackeray’s narrator make the same point as a ridiculous character? Doesn’t that just undercut the trust the reader has in the narrator? At the same time, however, the second passage shows that Becky is no model of moral value. While it is difficult to know where the reader might want his readers to fall in the question of class, perhaps these passages show that Thackeray believed everyone of all classes was horrible.

The relationship between these two passages helps to show why the narrative voice in Vanity Fair is so slippery. In the end, though, it makes me wonder—does the narrator have anything of worth to say? Does Thackeray offer critiques just for the sake of critique? Or, is Thackeray trying to make some kind of point with his narrator? If Thackeray is using satire to create change, why undercut the narrator so much? Surely Thackeray isn’t trying to hold Becky up as a model of moral values and she isn’t “better” than any other character.

On the other hand, is Thackeray making a point about words and language itself? The Hebrew term heh’bel is translated as vanity but it also means “vapor” or “breath.” While I am not trying to suggest that Thackeray knew Hebrew (maybe he did), I do think this Hebrew word can offer some insight. Perhaps, by undercutting the narrator’s satirical voice, Thackeray is saying that our words, our language is all vanity, breath that escapes our mouths and dissipates, inciting no change or leaving no lasting effect. But on the other hand, maybe Thackeray is not saying that. Who knows?

Can Lady Audley Plead Insanity?

“She was no longer innocent, and the pleasure we take in art and loveliness being an innocent pleasure had passed out of her reach…she had strayed too far away into a desolate labyrinth of guilt and treachery, terror and crime, and all the treasures that had been collected for her could have given her no pleasure.” At this point in the story we begin t develop sympathy for Lady Audley as her “intentions” aka her “craziness” become more clear. The pleasures of the world were no longer giving her pleasure and she had fallen into the pit of guilt and treachery. Is she a victim of her own madness or is she truly a victim? I believe the story is setting up both, because it is clear she is an agent of chaos, but she is also a victim of that chaos.

Further on in the sotory we see further reason to sympathize with Lady Audley as she explains her madness. ”I killed him because I AM MAD! because my intellect is a little way upon the wrong side of that narrow boundary line between sanity and insanity.” Lady Audley’s “inherited insanity” gives the reader more pause for sympathy when bringing judgment against her. She is the main culprit of the sensation novel and most everything that goes wrong in the story is her fault. However, once the reader realizes her circumstances they can (somewhat) understand her actions.

 

Why is it never that easy?

If the characters in Lady Audley’s Secret were simplified to the terms of protagonist and antagonist, hero and villain, (perhaps in some high school English class,) then Lady Audley would be the obvious antagonist and villain. But one of the main themes in the book is that people in real life cannot be categorized simply- lines between good and evil, victim and villain are often blurred and depend on point of view. Therefore, given the book’s intention to suggest this theme, it would be careless and crass to attempt to settle for simple categories.

Lady Audley made the most mistakes in the novel. But every other character made mistakes as well- especially George Talboys’ “desertion” of his young wife, who was left “with no protector but a weak, tipsy father, and with a child to support”(pg 361). He didn’t contact her the entire three years he was away. The ship journey to Australia and the gold fields in Australia were so dangerous in the 1800s, it is understandable for Lady Audley to come to the conclusion that her husband was dead. She moved on as best she could- as a dependent woman in the 1800s, she didn’t have the luxury of mourning him for the rest of her life.

But although she was victimized in this instance, her actions later upon the realization of George’s return are malignant and calculated. She posted the “advertisement of [her] death”(364), and left George for dead after knocking him into a well. It is difficult to conclude if her “inheritance of insanity” from her mother is real or imagined, and if it excuses her in any way (359). Her attempt to kill Robert with a fire is another blatantly villainous action. But her sad response later when Robert informed her that no lives were lost in the fire makes you doubt how truly villaionous she is; three times she repeats that she is glad- “I am glad of that…I am glad of that- I am glad no life was lost”(373). Is that something a villain would say?

Lady Audley is a strong active character, who takes her fate into her own hands, however misguided her decisions turn out to be. The book makes it clear that it is difficult when you are living the events to see what decisions will turn out good, and what bad. One must rely on past experiences and a well-trained moral compass, and Lady Audley’s experiences and moral values were from childhood deprived and neglected. It is no wonder that she found it difficult to choose auspiciously, when passion, fear, and limited information muddied the distinctions between ill-advised decisions and good ones.

Victim or Villain?

Throughout the novel, we see Lady Audley primarily as a villain. She seems as though she is always trying to manipulate someone or something in a very malicious way. For example, when George went missing in the beginning of the novel, she basically discounted Robert’s concerns and told them to get rid of him. Making everyone think that he was crazy and attempting to start a relationship with her, instead of really being able to investigate where his friend might have gone. Again, we see Lady Audley’s manipulation taking place when George sees her portrait during the thunderstorm. Lady Audley leads him to believe that she is just terrified of the storm, manipulating his beliefs, when in reality she is afraid of being caught. Lastly, we see Lady Audley displayed as a villain when she starts a fire at the Castle Inn. This shows that not only is she manipulative, but also very violent and destructive and will do anything to get rid of Robert and Luke because of the information that they have on her. She tried to manipulate the situation again in order to get her way.

 

Though through the majority of the novel Lady Audley is the villain, towards the end of the novel we see her more as a victim. At the end, she is taken to an institution because everyone sees her madness and acting irrational. This almost makes us feel for her because throughout the novel we were seen that she is crazy, so maybe this is her excuse as to why?

 

Overall, I believe that Lady Audley is really the villain more so than a victim. Even though she was mad and we might have some sort of sympathy for her, she was very manipulative in her actions and irrational in her decision making. She put others in harms way making it almost hard to even see her in the shoes of a victim.