Participatory Recognition

“People view hospitality as quaint and tame partly because they do not understand the power of recognition. When a person who is not valued by society is received…as a human being with dignity and worth, small transformations occur.” (Pohl, 62). As Pohl recognizes here, hospitality and recognition are deeply intertwined. Christian understandings of hospitality have frequently highlighted this fact. Yet, Christian recognition has often stressed not merely recognition of the needy, but recognition of Christ in the needy. In this post, I intend to look at both the parable of Matthew 25 and the story of Simeon in Luke 2 to begin to consider how we recognize Jesus in the other without erasing the other’s individuality and alterity.

Matthew 25 is probably one of the most cited passages concerning hospitality in the Scriptures. In this parable, Christ declares that those who care for the “least of these” in fact care for him. This is a beautiful picture. It sharpens the idea of the person as image of God, connecting the one who is the perfect image of God with those who are made in his image. It makes Christ truly present in the poor and vulnerable. But this seems to raise a serious problem. If hospitality partially consists of and necessarily demands recognition, who are we recognizing in this model? Does our recognition of Jesus complicate our recognition of the other? Can recognition of Jesus obscure our recognition of the other person in all their complexity?

This dilemma can be made even stronger by applying the rhetoric of worship or sacrifice to caring for the vulnerable, a move that is common throughout the Christian tradition. Lactantius provides just one example of this in his “Epitome.” He urges care for others as those who are also made in the image of God just as we are. And he says such activity “offer[s] to God a true and acceptable sacrifice” (quoted from Oden, 90). To describe hospitality as offering gives it a deep and beautiful significance. But does such thinking obscure our recognition of the vulnerable by shifting the focus to our recognition of God?

There are several ways one could answer this question, but I want to gesture towards a solution by looking at Simeon’s welcome of Jesus in Luke 2. In this passage, Luke describes a complex interplay of recognition and welcome (a welcome that, as we shall see, begins with Jesus but extends to Mary). Simeon is an old man in Jerusalem who has been promised by God that he will not die before he sees the Messiah. When Mary and Joseph come to the temple with Jesus, Simeon is directed to them by the Spirit. Simeon welcomes Jesus with great joy and eloquent prayer: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). Simeon welcomes this babe carried in the arms of a poor couple without hesitation.

The recognition and hospitality in this passage takes an interesting turn as Simeon continues to speak. After welcoming Jesus, Simeon warns that many will reject him (Luke 2:34-35). His next statement, however, is striking. He addresses Mary directly and warns her that “A sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). Simeon recognizes the presence of Mary. He does not ignore her on the grounds of her not being the Messiah. He does not simply lump her into the family unit. He recognizes her as a person. He recognizes her as a mother who loves her son, and who is bound up with the divine plan for Jesus’ life. Why does he do this? Doesn’t this take away from his focus on the infant Jesus?

To the contrary, the passage suggests that Simeon’s recognition of Jesus flows over into a recognition of the humanity, loves, and sorrows of the woman who stands before him. Simeon’s recognition of Mary, her love for Jesus, and her future suffering is in fact dependent upon his recognition of Jesus. Only by the inspiration of the Spirit and his recognition of the work of Christ as Messiah could Simeon speak to Mary in this manner and know to warn her of her coming sorrow.

How, then, does Simeon’s recognition of Mary tie into our original question? The story of Simeon’s welcome suggests that the recognition of Christ can be non-competitive with recognition of the other. It may even suggest that the recognition of Christ strengthens our ability to recognize the other. Simeon’s recognition of Christ leads him to deeper, not shallower, recognition of Mary. Our recognition of the oppressed and the vulnerable as figures of Christ can have the same effect: it can deepen our appreciation of their dignity and value, and thus the importance of their individual stories and pains. These points suggest one final corollary. Simeon recognizes Mary as he prophecies, which indicates he recognizes her because God has already recognized her. In Matthew 25, we recognize Christ in the poor because Christ has already recognized them and in some sense identified himself with them. We recognize others because God has already recognized them, and this can only deepen our own recognition and hospitality. But could we strengthen this even further? Instead of a simple discussion of prior conditions, could we speak of participation? Is it possible that the reason we can recognize Christ in the other is that God by uniting his church to himself catches us up into his recognition of and care for the vulnerable? If we pursue such a thought, we might return with a fuller understanding to the idea expressed by Lactantius: recognition of and care for the vulnerable is truly doxological, as a full recognition of the other is simultaneously participation in God and truly acceptable worship.

Naming John the Baptist

“How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years” (1:18).

“How can this be, since I am a virgin” (1:34)?

What is striking in the two pericopes giving Zechariah’s and Mary’s encounters with Gabriel is both their proximity, their near identity in so many ways, and their distance—a distance told in the divergence of Gabriel’s reactions. The two passages run parallel and run away. And they also exist, of course, as the final pieces of a mosaic begun in the story of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality and the promise of Isaac, exist within that story while recapitulating it and rendering it an anticipation of a motif ultimately figured around the evangelical moment. Like Mary and Zechariah, Sarah is filled with wonder and skepticism, she too offers a recital of reasons to doubt the given promise.

Pointing out Genesis 18’s return in this passage, marking its consonance, also serves to foreground the question of the near grammatical identity of the evangelical responses, raises again the question of what to do with their nearness and distance. To Zechariah and Mary Gabriel proclaims an unexpected birth, to each he announces the name the child and what the child will do. And both Zechariah and Mary ask how, both offer evidence for doubt, Zechariah citing age and Mary virginity. What then is actually different in their responses that merits Gabriel’s chastising condemnation and muting of Zechariah and his commendation of Mary? (It might be possible to say that no difference can be discerned—at least that Luke gives us no difference—that Zechariah’s doubt appears to Gabriel though not to us, perhaps that this just is the way of doubt or that the lack of difference signals our transparency to Gabriel’s perception. We know that Zechariah doubted because Gabriel says he did but not by some other means. But if all these options are possible, they are hardly satisfying—they disappoint in trading on a notion that the text’s significance, the seemingly intentional setting of these two visitations as contrastive parallels and bookends for the verses that oddly and crucially intervene, recedes before interpretation itself; they disappoint in suggesting the text’s opacity is its meaning.) Thus despite the structural grammatical similarity it does seem possible to say that Zechariah’s response is unique because his question appears oriented toward a desire for certainty that emerges from his doubt of Gabriel. And Mary, who also asks how and also offers reasons for doubt, seems instead transfixed by the event itself, her questioning less directed toward surety than expressive of wonder—we understand how how might be asked and also left open, as one says how beautiful, which is itself a question but one not ordered to an answer (still not rhetorical, I want to add, not a negation of itself as question—the expression how beautiful is truly asked even if an answer is unimaginable). Mary’s how ruptures the possibility of certainty itself, leaving only the event.

This difference might be witnessed not only in the questions themselves but in the differences between Gabriel’s responses that extend beyond condemnation and commendation. One might surmise as much because Gabriel responds to Zechariah with a declaration of his authority, but to Mary he offers a strange account of how, though not one that enacts a closure to the question’s openness. He adds words but not at the cost of miracle. Emphasizing just this, in turn, announces the significance of another dissimilarity within the pairing of these visitations: Mary’s promised event, her coming to be pregnant, just is miraculous. It exists outside the realm of what can be known. I want to say it can only be believed, though this may not make it unique. Zechariah and Elizabeth’s promise on the other hand exists within the realm of plausibility, however much it might mock the conventional horizons of expectation and biology (this is, I think, why both Zechariah and Sarah in different ways mock the promise of what they have desired—they mock because they are mocked, or at least they find themselves mocked). It exists, furthermore, within the realm of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s religious identity and tradition, even though Zechariah clearly cannot imagine their participation as characters in that identity and tradition.

In all this, the passage gives skepticism’s opposite not as certainty but hospitality, but a hospitality that makes demands, that demands a certain sort of response—even response as submission, a relinquishing of the authority and control of the host, returning the same host/guest inversion that animates Sarah’s story. That Gabriel’s visitation demands a response but does not effect one is clear enough from the fact that his angelic presence is strange enough to necessitate, as almost always, the prefatory “do not be afraid,” yet is apparently not so stunning, so miraculous as to actuate belief in and by itself. That Zechariah might fear the angel but not trust him, I mean, opens his response as a failure to respond, but also indicates the centrality of response, the way in which he must make something (say something) of this stranger who comes to him in the Temple. All this is to say that Gabriel not only can be disbelieved, but that he can only be believed, and more, that if this was not so it wouldn’t make sense to talk of response and hospitality. We understand, that is, the depths of Mary’s hospitality because in Zechariah we see just how much it costs to believe and submit, for Gabriel’s appearance is both promise and command: “You will name him John” (1:13). The divine event demands from Zechariah a submission to a world outside his narration, and it is precisely this that his skepticism cannot allow him. In this sense, Zechariah is doubly contrasted in Luke 1, not first by Mary but by Elizabeth, who we will come to see submits to his own nonverbal description but also submits to the event as God’s own, accepts it as God’s work and favor and in turn bears the skepticism of the relatives who will not accept the name John. This disbelief, in turn, also serves to offer Zechariah his own rehabilitation and healing. It is not, in fact, as Gabriel suggests, John’s birth that frees Zechariah’s tongue but Zechariah’s submission to a narration not his own—a relinquishing of his right and capacity to name (that the name at hand, the obvious name, is his own is too significant to omit). Zechariah is healed by not naming his son; he is also healed by naming him John, of course, and this is the most mysterious point in the entire passage, mysterious in its suggestion that despite every ethical claim about hospitality and submission the chapter has raised, still we do not stop naming things and God start naming them. Nor does the recognition of naming’s often synonymy with a power that might refute skepticism free us from naming—a point I take to be constitutive of the inseparable difficulties and possibilities of the philosophical discourse of otherness. In Luke it is apparent that conflicted naming is not escaped but transformed. God’s naming does not replace our own; or perhaps better it is more important to say that despite all this, the coupling of the story with the promise of the Incarnation suggests that Zechariah’s acceptance of God’s naming exists within God’s wider acceptance of creation’s naming.

S/spirit and hospitality in Luke 1

Many commentators have rightly noted that Luke’s Gospel is filled with both hospitality and the Holy Spirit. Hospitality is evident in Luke’s frequent mention of food and feasting, as well as in encounters between “others” (e.g., Jews and gentiles, women and men), while S/spirit is named repeatedly, especially in the first half of the Gospel: a form of pneuma shows up 34 times in Luke – far more often than in the other Gospels – and 69 times in Acts. Luke’s pneumatological emphasis is clear from his first chapter, where pneuma appears seven times in critical and relational ways, as both the divine Holy Spirit and the core spirit of human persons. In this post, I will engage with Luke 1 to explore the fruitful interplay of these Lukan foci, S/spirit and hospitality.

The foundational opening chapter of Luke narrates the Holy Spirit as actively engaged in divine-to-human and human-to-human meetings and speech: Gabriel announces to Zechariah that the son of his old age will be “filled with the Holy Spirit,” even in utero (1:15); the same heavenly messenger proclaims to the perplexed Mary, a virgin, that she will conceive a child by the power of “the Holy Spirit [that] will come upon you” (1:35); when the pregnant Elizabeth receives Mary in her home, the Holy Spirit prompts a joyful welcome from the older woman (1:41); and Zechariah, his tongue finally unstopped, receives the very gift promised to his son, and the exultant father, filled with the Holy Spirit, speaks words of prophecy and praise (1:67). These episodes reveal a Spirit who crosses the barriers between heaven and earth, between human impossibility and divine promise – a gracious Presence who enters even into closed hearts and wombs to bring life and joy.

Present also in this chapter is human spirit (lower-case), both distinguishable from and enmeshed with Spirit. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son, it is promised, will prepare the way for the Lord “with the spirit and power of Elijah” (1:17); after John’s birth, Luke reports, the child “grew and became strong in spirit” as he made the wilderness – now barren but later filled with crowds – his home (1:80). And Mary, rejoicing with Elizabeth about their blessed pregnancies, proclaims, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (1:48).

The narrative arc of Elizabeth’s and Mary’s intertwining story/ies in Luke 1 is particularly rich with respect to the relation of hospitality and S/spirit. Elizabeth, once isolated from her neighbors in the disgrace of childlessness, is being drawn into community through God’s activity, through which she is host to both the unborn-John and the Spirit who fills him. For the five months since her conception, though, she has been in seclusion from others. Mary, through the power of the same Spirit, has become host, in the most intimate of ways, to the Son of God. The electing and overshadowing God has “hosted” her in the divine household, and she in turn has received God as guest, through her faithfully hospitable response to the annunciation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord” (1:38). Now Mary hastens from her home in Galilee to Judea, eager to be the guest of her relative Elizabeth, whose seclusion she breaks. Elizabeth’s hospitality to her younger relative – or is it the hospitality of her fetal son or that of the Spirit . . . or can such distinctions even be made? – wells up from within: the child jumps in her belly, and the mother cries out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (1:41-3). Mary, responding to Elizabeth’s warm blessing and embrace, sings her signature spiritual song (see Col. 3:16), “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (1:46-48). So complete is Elizabeth’s hospitality that her guest stays for three months. Mary leaves soon before Elizabeth gives birth, but Elizabeth is not left alone, for her S/spirit draws in neighbors and relatives who rejoice together with her when her child is born ((1:58).

The dance of S/spirit and hospitality, guest and host, human and divine, is beautifully evident in this story. Hospitality abounds: God to Mary, Mary to the Son of God, Elizabeth to the Spirit, the mothers to their sons, Elizabeth to Mary, the Gospel to the women . . . The hospitality is reciprocal, blurring fixed definitions of guest and host, and filled with both wonder and rejoicing, giving a doxological tone to the account. Who sings in the Magnificat, Mary or the Spirit? The fertile ambiguity of pneuma – encompassing Spirit, spirit, ghost, wind, and breath – blows open a hospitable and broad space of encounter in which distinct persons interact intimately, almost perichoretically. The Spirit who is the love between the Father and the Son in the Trinity goes forth to inspire analogous encounters among human creatures, including strangers. While Elizabeth and Mary are admittedly not estranged others, the same Spirit who creates their hospitality of spirit will also, especially in Acts, bring together those who are dramatically separated, as in the story of Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10).

In sum, Luke 1 depicts how the true spirit of hospitality is enabled and embodied by and in the Spirit. As Amy Oden says, “The spirit that gives life to hospitality is . . . humility and gratitude, arising as a response to God’s initiating grace” (100). God initiates, the women respond with modesty and thankfulness, and the relatives participate in a broadening, deepening hospitality that draws together the Trinity, the two of them, their yet-unborn sons, and ultimately all of God’s chosen people, both Jew and gentile.

Directional Charity and the Revolutionary Table

In considering this week’s theme of Charity, I have to start with a passage I love from Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, in which the narrator describes a painting of the Virtue Charity, by Giotto di Bondone:

she is holding out her flaming heart to God, or shall we say ‘handing’ it to Him, exactly as a cook might hand up a corkscrew through the skylight of her underground kitchen to some one who had called down to ask her for it from the ground-level above. (84)

The painting shows a common, workaday woman who holds a large bowl overflowing with food in one hand, and her own, fist-sized heart, lifted up to God’s outstretched hands, in the other. Charity, in this iteration, has a proper direction; it is to be offered up, as a gift, in humility, and not handed down. To state the obvious, all too often charity ends up being condescending, our acts of giving serving more our own sense of morality than they do the people we interact with. In Christine Pohl’s chapter “Hospitality, Dignity, and the Power of Recognition,” she draws out this unfortunate potential result of hospitality:  “our helping roles give definition to the relationship but they also keep it decidedly hierarchical” (74). This problem of directionality is a real one, and Pohl outlines the key roles which recognition (broadly) and sharing meals (specifically) play in counteracting a hierarchical view of others, particularly strangers in a place of need.

Pohl points to the importance of “[u]nderstanding the historical connection between hospitality and recognition” (63), particularly as it manifests in the Christian tradition. Rooted in the belief that all human beings bear the Divine image, Christian hospitality recognized (and, one hopes, does still) that “Every person is worthy of respect because of the work of God in them and for them” (67).  Herein lies the reason for an upward directionality of charity, rather than a condescending one:  every individual is created by God, and “[b]earing God’s image establishes for every person a fundamental dignity which cannot be undermined either by wrongdoing or neediness” (65).

Rightly, Pohl points out that “Recognition and respect cannot be sustained at the level of abstract claims or commitments” (63). It is all well and good to say that we are all bear the image of God, but if that purported recognition does nothing to influence our love and care for our fellow human beings, then it breaks down into inutility. Here is where shared meals come in. Sitting down together with strangers, and particularly strangers in need, can aid true recognition of “being equals eating together” (74). While it can be easy/easier to give our money, time, or vocational talents to people in a place of need, it can be more difficult, more complicated, and more uncomfortable to just exist in relationship at the common place of the table. Pohl acknowledges this, and recognizes it as a good thing:  “Meal-time, when people sit down together, is the clearest time of being with others, rather than doing for others. It is the time when hospitality looks least like social service” (74). Sharing meals with people who are different from us, especially with people who might be seen to occupy a lower place in the societal hierarchy, allows for recognition of common humanity that goes beyond altruistic abstraction and towards specific, individual human fellowship.

Pohl didn’t have to win me over to this argument. The table is a place that I love, and I think she is absolutely right about its equalizing and dignifying potential and power. I do, however, want to probe some of her choices of language, and to consider ways in which the table might have even more power than Pohl describes.

As I made notes for this post, I noticed how often the word “hospitality” was used in Pohl’s chapter, when it felt like the word which would communicate the intended meaning was “charity.” Certainly this is intentional, and in Pohl’s title-stated aim of “Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition,” she clearly wants to convey that hospitality’s roots go much deeper than current definitions of it may imply. It is not just about the “hospitality industry,” or about hosting friends or newcomers in our homes. Pohl points out that in church history, “Hospitality provided a context for recognizing the worth of persons who seemed to have little when assessed by worldly standards” (62). In contrast to our current understandings of the word, historical hospitality was linked with need.

Looking at the etymology of both hospitality and charity is compelling. Hospitality comes from the Latin hospes, meaning “host,” “guest,” or stranger,” while Charity comes from the Latin caritas, meaning “dearness” or “costliness,” but also often referring to love for one’s fellow human beings. Given the fact that Pohl seems to be seeking to trouble a flat, service-industry view of hospitality, as well as to upend hierarchical notions inherent in contemporary definitions of charity, I understand her choice to use “hospitality.” I wonder, though, if she couldn’t similarly reinvigorate “charity” by drawing out the historical roots of love which precede charity’s current definition of financial assistance and altruism. Viewing interactions with strangers in need as “hospitality” can emphasize the relationality involved, as well as the fluidity of the host/guest roles, but so too could reimagining “charity” direct us back towards the love for others which is the best impetus for all giving.

I very much agree with Pohl that “the intimacy of a shared meal can forge relationships which cross significant social boundaries” (73). One of the most exciting contemporary examples of this is the Refettorio kitchens, founded by Italian chef Massimo Bottura and his wife Lara Gilmore. These kitchens, of which there are currently four, use food waste—in-date, surplus food destined to be thrown away—to make meals for people who need them. Many people who come to eat at the Refettorio are homeless, or elderly, or refugees, or all of the above. The parent organization of these kitchens, Food for Soul, states on their website that “a meal is a gesture of inclusion,” and that they seek to “celebrate the value as well as the potential of what is abandoned, unheeded and discarded” ( Renowned chefs from all over the world come volunteer to cook, and guests of the kitchens are served in beautifully-designed spaces, restaurant-style rather than walking through a cafeteria line.

This work by Bottura and Gilmore feels like a wonderful amalgamation of the historical notions of hospitality and charity. The Refettorio kitchens welcome people who are marginalized and serve them beautiful food. They honor not only individuals, but also the earth through their use of food destined to be waste. Still, it is complicated to discern whether these kitchens do only good; does the fact that celebrity chefs (Rene Redzepi, Eric Ripert, etc.) come in to do the cooking draw attention to the chefs’ generosity more than to the individuals who come there? How can our responses to strangers emphasize their inherent worth and dignity rather than emphasizing their need? How can our actions avoid being directed towards people in ways which imply they are “beneath us,” and instead become gestures upwards towards God, in humility and love?

I think one key is the empathy which Pohl describes as “remembering our own experiences of vulnerability and dependence” (65). By being at the table with people different from us, and sharing in each other’s lives and stories, we can work against a better-than/lesser-than view of society. And certainly we have to be on guard against the disempowerment Pohl mentions (119), where in our own desire to serves those in need we don’t allow them also to serve and minister to us. This is where the Good Samaritan story offers such a wonderfully inverted vision of charity:  the one serving the man in profound need is not one of the “higher-ups,” not from the upper echelons of society, but is one who occupies a low, disgraced place in society, at least according to the eyes of the Jewish establishment. He, the Samaritan, and not the priest or the Levite, is the one to dress the wounds of the beaten man, to provide him with room and board. And perhaps most important of all, “when he saw him, he was moved with pity” (Luke 10:33); the Samaritan notices the man, and his heart responds. In light of the inverted hierarchy of this parable, I can envision a world where the table, and especially a table where the marginalized are invited to serve, to cook, or to create, becomes a place of revolutionary hospitality, charity, and love.

Church, State, and Hospitality

Throughout Pohl’s work, balance stands out as a strength: she considers multiple dimensions of hospitality (e.g., provision and recognition), the needs of both host and guest, and the challenges different sorts of hospitality may pose, among other things. One challenge to Christians in particular is the need both for “maintaining distinctions” and “protecting difference” (82–4). Benevolence must not require conformity to Christian belief and practice, particularly in times of danger for potential guests, because Christians have a responsibility to welcome the needy and persecuted. Yet the Christian community must remain free to define itself with distinctively Christian beliefs and practices (83).

Considering this challenge of Christian responsibility, Pohl recalls Christian hospitality to Jews during World War II in Le Chambon and notes that original Christian thought on hospitality related to such provision of safety to the persecuted and endangered. But for her, “Today hospitality, rights, and entitlements are separate, and they should be” because material needs and protection should not depend upon one’s commitments and beliefs (83). At the same time, human wellbeing requires not only these things but also connection and belonging, without which one remains “anonymous and vulnerable.” Thus, Pohl concludes, we need complex interactions between “bounded communities” that provide connection and belonging and “a larger community with minimal boundaries” that offers basic provision and protection (83). To that end, though the former sort of community can be found in churches, families, etc., “the more anonymous care of the state is essential” to protect basic human rights from the impact of “more parochial hospitality which chooses its guests and the needs it will meet” (84).

I find this claim disconcerting. On the one hand, I wonder if “more anonymous care” is indeed essential, and if whatever such care uniquely provides must come from the state. If the answer to either is yes, what does that say about the role of the church in providing for human needs? Must the church depend on the state as the church promotes human wellbeing? On the other hand, I wonder if it is realistic to view the state as securing the needs Pohl suggests it secures. Can the church depend on the state as the church promotes human wellbeing?

A charitable reading of Pohl might suggest she is working descriptively, not prescriptively. The fact that “many social groups find it very difficult to accept people different from their prevailing membership” drives her claim about the state (84). Perhaps following one prominent strand of political theology, the state in this view limits certain evils, even if it cannot fully lead humankind into the good. It is certainly a strength of Pohl’s vision that it accounts for human sinfulness in the forms of exclusion—a risk not only to human belonging but sometimes to provision and protection—or coercion. Still, however, it is a prescriptive claim to say hospitality, rights, and entitlements should be separate. And to say that the state serves a certain function is not to say it must serve that function. Pohl’s understanding of our fallen nature’s impact on hospitality and human wellbeing should be accepted, but there may be other ways to address problems posed by our fallenness.

To this end, my knee jerks away from relying on the state. As Pohl’s own history attests, the state quite often (and in many forms) does not protect basic human rights, and when it has failed, the church has often stepped in to protect them. We see that still today as the right to live and work is denied to migrants by their deportation under the U.S. government, and many churches have responded by sheltering immigrants. Beyond skepticism of the state as an able protector of rights, I am also more optimistic that the church can provide the provision Pohl thinks must come from more anonymous groups/organizations without coercing those provided for. Difficult as it may be, difference within the church seems to be of God’s design, as evidenced by the Gentile inclusion and eschatological visions of a highly diverse church gathering to worship (E.g., Isaiah 60, Revelation 7). The church’s community of belonging is meant to be heterogeneous. And it seems plain to me that though not all whom the church takes in will follow Christ and participate fully in its life, even a difference of faith does not preclude belonging in all forms; still the church can recognize and provide for the other rather than eventually casting others out to preserve the church’s distinctiveness. Perhaps as a sort of bounded community exists around faith in Christ, common identity as God’s creatures, which Pohl notes at other points, can constitute something like the larger community she calls for, freeing the church’s support of universal human wellbeing from necessary dependence on the state.

The eschatological church is not the church we see today, however, and the multitudes of Revelation 7 are homogenous in at least one feature: their worship of the lamb. Even if the church can and should offer belonging, provision, and protection to all, many who do not worship Christ will choose not to receive these things from the worshipping community, whether or not the church pressures them to join in the praise. A dose of Pohl’s pragmatism seems necessary. The church is universally called to promote the wellbeing of the other, and in a fallen world, perhaps that can best be done with help, through the interaction of bounded and larger communities, including but not limited to the church, Pohl commends (83). This need not depend on the state—NGOs, charities, and community organizing, among other things, can provide for and protect the endangered and the needy. Where ecclesial hospitality seems ill-fitted to provide for certain individuals or groups, perhaps the church can call upon other communities and share its resources with them. I remain doubtful that the church can or should depend on the state in its work for human wellbeing, but it need not deny the difficulties of hospitality in a fallen world or the sorts of contributions of others to human wellbeing that Pohl identifies.

The Least of Whom? Tracing the Element of Surprise in Matthew 25:31-46

For many centuries—and throughout this semester—the conclusion of Matthew 25 has been a touchstone for those who want think about Christ’s appearance in the “distressing disguise” of the poor. This passage offers a profound link between responding to those in need and responding to the incarnate Lord himself. However, a close reading brings surprises beyond the one experienced by the “sheep” and “goats” within the text. Jesus’ words demonstrate a curious slippage between different categories and genres. Even more strikingly and significantly, his reference to “the least of these” is less straightforward, and perhaps ultimately more surprising, than we might initially assume.

Chapter 24 in Matthew’s Gospel is a prophetic text addressing “the sign of [Christ’s] coming and of the end of the age” (24:3b).[1] Matthew 25 continues that theme, moving clearly to final judgment: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory” (25:31). Here he clearly takes up Second Temple Jewish prophetic language.[2] Yet the last part of Matthew 24, and the entirety of chapter 25 up to this point, have addressed their subject in the form of parables; and as Jesus continues, the genre distinctions of “parable” and “prophecy” begin to blur. He compares the act of judgment to a shepherd separating sheep and goats, and the next verse seems to literalize the simile: “Then the king will say to those at his right hand….” Here the “Son of Man” who acts “as a shepherd” has become “the king”—a familiar term from many of Jesus’ parables.[3] The “sheep,” those “on the right,” are again renamed “the righteous” when they answer him in verse 37 (cf. verse 46). One of the surprises of this text is simply the way its language presents a moving target for the reader.[4] While it never becomes a proper parable, it does introduce parabolic elements. Perhaps this is intentionally disorienting, to prepare readers for what follows.

The great surprise comes when the king informs those standing before him that they have cared for him in times of grave need—or have failed to do so—and makes this the basis for their judgment. A king choosing to describe himself in terms of radical lowliness and abasement is itself shocking: “I was hungry… I was thirsty… I was a stranger… I was naked… I was sick… I was in prison….” But when they express astonishment, he answers with the most surprising statement of all: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me” (25:40).

Who are “these members of my family”?[5] It is possible to read this as a reference to something like what we now refer to as the “human family”; this seems to be the default assumption when we take this passage as a call to care for anyone who is in need. However, such a usage would (so far as I am aware) be unprecedented in the recorded teachings of Jesus. Like later New Testament authors, Jesus uses the language of kinship in a different—though, in his context, radically subversive—way. This is made explicit earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, when someone tells him that his mother and brothers wish to speak with him. “[P]ointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12:49-50). Such a reappropriation of kinship language is itself a profound surprise in a traditional culture where familial bonds are fundamental markers of identity. But elsewhere he makes an even stronger act of identification with his followers: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40; see John 13:20). This latter passage continues: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward” (Matthew 10:42; see Matthew 18:5).

So “the least of these” in Matthew 25 seems to have a more specific primary referent than simply “those in need.” Indeed, it can be read as a profound (and profoundly reassuring) expression of Jesus’ solidarity and even identification with those who entrust themselves to him.[6] And this, in turn, could echo the recurring theme throughout the Gospels that the determining factor in a person’s spiritual status is how he or she responds to Jesus. The king’s judgment only makes sense because he takes a response to “the least of these” as precisely a response to himself.

However, certain aspects of the text complicate this reading as well. Those experiencing judgment in this passage are “the nations,” and it is far from obvious that such a comprehensive eschatological categorization excludes Christians.[7] Are various followers of Jesus among those gathered on the right hand—or, God help us, those on the left? If so, this cannot be solely a judgment of “their” response to “us” (or to Christ in “us”).

Moreover, this prophecy comes on the heels of a series of parables warning sternly about the need for preparation and the probability that even those who know him will be surprised by his arrival. If this final passage does represent an affirmation of the Lord’s solidarity with those who commit themselves to him, can it really be true that it includes no element of challenge or warning for the disciples themselves? After all, they are the primary listening audience, at least within the text; and the implied hearer of the text is also probably a follower of Jesus, or at least someone seriously considering becoming such a follower. Four times we hear a list of specific needs, the response to which determines the outcome of final judgment. Such particularity seems unnecessary if the message is only one of reassurance.

A third, related and more serious complication: why does the text place such an emphasis on the kind of brethren with whom the “king” expresses a particular identification? This is not merely an act of solidarity with his “brethren,” but especially with a subset of them: those who are most likely to be overlooked or forgotten or neglected. At a minimum, this suggests that Jesus is also reasserting his repeated upending of the usual order of things: “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). The ones of whom the king says “that was me!” are the subset of his followers who seem least king-like, or—to put it more strongly—whose worldly need and suffering provides the least external evidence of divine concern. In other words, the God revealed in Jesus is the same God who, according to the prophets, sides with widows and orphans and strangers. This matters.

The most significant complication of all, though, is the fact that the basis for judgment really does come as a surprise. In R. T. France’s words, “the striking feature of this judgment scene is that both sheep and goats claim that they did not know that their actions were directed toward Jesus…. They have helped, or failed to help, not a Jesus recognized in his representatives, but a Jesus incognito.”[8] Whatever reassurance Jesus is giving his disciples through his act of solidarity, the act of judgment emphasizes that his “distressing disguise” is precisely a disguise.[9] When the “Son of Man” arrives in glory, he already will have arrived—frequently, and to all “the nations”—in ways that none of them expected.

This has two effects, one theological and one practical. Theologically, it underscores the nature of the incarnation itself: that the second Person of the Triune God becomes poor, a person without a home and reliant on others (see Matthew 8:20 and the description of the women in Matthew 27:55). He “emptied himself” and was “despised and rejected… a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Philippians 2:7, Isaiah 53:3). The “distressing disguise” of Christ in the poor underscores the fundamental realities of divine self-revelation.[10]

Practically, this “element of surprise” may be the reason why Christians—both in the early Christian era and today—have taken Jesus’ words as a general call to respond with charity and care, not only toward fellow believers (certainly a priority in the early Church), but also beyond the bounds of “these members of my family” to every person in need. They, too, bear the image of God.[11]

But there is a final paradox here: the attempt to meet every stranger as if they were Christ is, in a certain sense, an attempt to circumvent the surprise. It is easy to imagine that if one always feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, visits those in prison, and so forth, then when the other sheep say “When did we see you?” one can smile quietly and whisper, “Aha! I thought so.” But here the parable challenges us once again. Christ’s coming is not subject to our expectations.[12] No one in the story avoids surprise—except for the king himself.


[1] Biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] As has often been noted, “the Son of Man” is Jesus’ favorite term of self-reference. This passage echoes Matthew 16:27 and prepares the way for the climax of Jesus’ trial-scene in Matthew 26:64, where the allusion to Daniel 7:13 is made explicit. There is also quite possibly an allusion in these Gospel texts to the pseudepigraphal book of 1 Enoch 69:27-29: “And he sat on the throne of his glory, and the whole judgment was given to the Son of Man, and he will cause the sinners to pass away and be destroyed from the face of the earth.  And those who led astray the world will be bound in chains, and will be shut up in the assembly-place of their destruction, and all their works will pass away from the face of the earth.  And from then on there will be nothing corruptible, for that Son of Man has appeared and has sat on the throne of his glory….” M. A. Knibb, The Ethiopic Book of Enoch, vol 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).

[3] The Hebrew Scriptures’ link between shepherd and king, embodied especially in David, may also be at play here.

[4] The two destinations also undergo renaming. The “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” of verse 41 becomes “eternal punishment” in verse 46, just as “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” of verse 34 becomes “eternal life.”

[5] The Greek is literally “my brethren.” This is the language of close kinship bonds, which carry with them a high degree of commitment and obligation. The Greek masculine plural can (and here almost certainly does) refer to a mixed-sex group.

[6] For another instance of this, in a quite different context, consider Jesus’ words to Saul of Tarsus when the latter is carrying out acts of violence against followers of the Way: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).

[7] The fact that this is a judgment of “the nations” may also suggest that it has a corporate, and not just individual, character.

[8] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), 959. Emphasis original.

[9] This also recalls the verse in Hebrews about “entertaining angels without knowing it” (13:2).

[10] Arthur Sutherland, in another of our readings, points out the ways that Jesus in his earthly ministry actually experienced the characteristics of those with whom the “king” at the end of Matthew 25 identifies. I Was a Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 2-4.

[11] This responds also to Jesus’ more general instructions in the Sermon on the Mount: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42). There is substantial Biblical basis for a Christian call to care for those in need, regardless of how one reads Matthew 25. My point here is simply that “the least of these” in Matthew 25 does not lead us to that general Christian call as straightforwardly or easily as we often assume.

[12] This is true eschatologically as well as in Christ’s first coming; preparation does not negate the unexpectedness of the event when it arrives. “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father…. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:36, 44).

Luke – Possibly the MOST Pivotal Character

For the majority of Lady Audley’s Secret, Luke Marks was a character I did not think much of. He did not seem to add much to the plot and was kind of just there in a way. That is, until the end. Luke ends up playing one of the biggest roles in the novel when he reveals the wealth of information he possesses that ends up solving the mystery about Lady Audley. “‘…suppose I feel that I can’t die with a secret on my mind (…) I’d have been burnt alive before I’d have told her.’ He spoke these words between set teeth, and scowled savagely as he uttered them” (Braddon 421). I find it so intriguing that Luke knew something about Lady Audley for the entire novel and only decided to disclose it when he was close to death. He obviously has strong negative feelings regarding her, so one would think that he would have wanted to reveal this information sooner. In addition to this, “‘…I’d never have told her – never, never! I had my power over her, and I kept it; I had my secret, and I was paid for it…’” (Braddon 421). It is revealed to the readers that the main reason behind Luke’s decision to withhold the information about George from Lady Audley is because it gave him a sense of power over her. Lady Audley believed she had killed George when she accidentally pushed him into the well. Luke believed that this idea of being responsible for George’s death probably tormented Lady Audley. Luke was the only person who knew George was actually alive for awhile, and he knew that knowing this would bring Lady Audley relief – something he did not think she deserved.

The fact that he withheld this information shows how much power he actually has in this novel. If Luke was not involved in this way, the novel would probably have a completely different outcome. I find this extremely interesting, since Luke is a character I previously thought nothing of. The fact that Braddon uses him in this way makes for a very interesting plot twist that I really enjoyed. As soon as Luke is an important part of the novel, he is gone. “The landlord waited upon him at dinner, and told him that Luke Marks had died at five o’clock that afternoon. ‘He went off rather sudden like,’ the man said, ‘but very quiet’” (Braddon 434). Luke had been struggling to survive ever since he was badly injured in the fire, and it was this pivotal information he possessed about the supposed murder of George that was keeping him alive. The fact that he dies so suddenly after revealing his information to Robert shows what an intense hold it had over him. The thing that intrigues me the most about Braddon’s use of Luke is that he becomes important in one chapter and is then dead by the end of it. This really adds to the suspense and intrigue of the novel in my opinion, and is one of the reasons this novel is known as “sensational.”


Neglected Georgey

One of the main concerns for the characters in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel Lady Audley’s Secret is that of how Lady Audley left her son and husband to go and start a new life. Little Georgey, however, was not only abandoned by his mother, but neglected by almost everyone he came across, showing how this ideal for women was one that men could ignore without any consequence.

Lady Audley herself admits to not having a connection with her son. In telling her story to Robert and Sir Michael, she states “my baby was born, and the crisis which had been fatal to my mother arose in me” (Braddon 361). Of course, not all mothers are happy to be so when they first become mothers and have to readjust to their new lives, but Lady Audley here never does. She sees her child as “a burden upon [her] hands” and seems to have no trouble leaving the boy with his father, even though she knows that Mr. Maldon has used up her money in going to bars (Braddon 364). She eventually does check up on her son, but only after she is forced into seeing her father by the return of the elder George Talboys. Gerogey himself never knows this woman as his mother, or at least does not remember it, and therefore is neglected by her.

The men in the novel blame Lady Audley for leaving her son, even if it seems to be only an addition to her leaving her husband, but they also neglect the boy. Mr. Maldon does not take great care of the child, as seen by his house being “shabbily furnished, and disorderly, with a child’s broken toys scattered on the floor, and the scent of stale tobacco hanging about the muslin window curtains,” (Braddon 79). That coupled with Maldons repeated sale of little Georgey’s watch to get money proves that this certainly was not the best environment for the child [Braddon 191]. Of course Mr. Maldon is poor and stuck in bad habits, but this does not excuse the fact that he is bringing up his grandson in a poor environment, even if he loves the lad.

The boy’s father, however, does the same. When George gets home from being in Australia, he is stricken to learn about his wife’s alleged death. He does not, however, think of his son until he actually sees him. In fact, at first George is only talking to his father-in-law before little George speaks, and only then does the father call out “my darling! My darling! … I am your father” (Braddon 83). He even leaves Georgey with Mr. Maldon since the boy “is very fond of his grandfather” (Braddon 83). There is no thought of how the environment is bad for the boy. !t is only when Robert, now the boy’s guardian, sees a child’s coffin being carried out of the neighborhood that Georgey is removed from it (Braddon 188). Neither George or Robert are criticized for leaving, neglecting, or otherwise not doing right by the child, however, unlike Lady Audley.

Lady Audley did wrong by leaving her son, especially in the care of her father who vexed her so much with his money issues and bad habits that she herself left. However, George did the same, leaving his wife and son to live with Mr. Maldon. Maldon himself did not take proper care of the lad, even though he did love him, and Robert Audley, the boy’s guardian, did not start protecting him until he realized the lad could die. None of these men are criticized for leaving or neglecting Georgey in the way that Lady Audley is. Only George has to bear some criticism for leaving, but he is often forgive for it mush quicker than she is. In the end, it is the woman who is blamed for leaving while the men don’t concern themselves too much with the needs of the child. Thus this standard of making women and only women in charge of the children leads, through one woman not living up to her gender norms and several men not stepping in to fill that roll, to young Georgey being neglected.The gender norms lead to an innocent child being neglected, and so the novel displays how these norms can be harmful.

Sir Michael’s Fate

One of the prominent male characters in “Lady Audley’s Secret” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon is Sir Michael, the second husband of Lady Audley.  Toward the end of the novel, Sir Michael “has no fancy to return to the familiar dwelling-place” that he and Lady Audley had shared before her secret of her past was revealed (Ch. XLI).  He has no desire to revisit the home that he was supposed to live in with his wife because it would only remind him of the happiness that building a larger family would bring him.  He decides to stay with his daughter in Europe until her marriage, and will eventually move into another estate that Sir Michael had bought.  This ending, or fate, of Sir Michael simply shows him as a disappointed man who is ready to move on from the wrongdoings of someone he loved.

Sir Michael is possibly one of the least problematic characters in the novel, always going on “his morning walk around his farm” and always having “presents spread out” for Lady Audley (Ch. IX, Ch. VII).  His peaceful nature and generous heart allows the reader to judge Sir Michael as one of the “good guys” in the novel, as he seems to not have any deceit or malicious motives, much like Lady Audley.  His character is consistent throughout the novel as one of the bystanders who got hurt by the lies and secrets of Lady Audley, his wife.  The reader may tend to be on his side toward the end of the novel simply because he is so hurt by the secrets that he does not have the heart to return to his home that he had shared with Lady Audley.

A significant scene in the novel that cements the idea that Sir Michael is innocent and was unsuspecting of his wife’s murderous past was when Lady Audley confesses to him that she has been lying and deceiving him about Robert being mad and her past.  He begins to remember a “crowd of unheeded words and forgotten circumstances” that had not held much importance individually (Ch. XXXIV).  This shows that Sir Michael had been lied to by her, and that he did not make the connections until he heard the full story from Lady Audley.  He honestly had been living in the dream world that Lady Audley had created for them, and the reader can observe the raw emotions that Sir Michael experiences after he is told that that world is based on lies and possibly murder.  He is so distraught that he flees with his daughter Lucy, who is conveniently headed to London, indicating that he truly had no idea about his wife’s past throughout the entire novel.  Even though Sir Michael did not reveal any of his personal secrets, the secrets that were revealed by Lady Audley affected his life to the point that he had to eventually leave his home permanently because the memories caused too much pain.

Mobility as a Disruptive Force

In a sensation novel that concerns itself chiefly with deception, Lady Audley’s Secret is also concerned with mobility- both literally and figuratively. Where in the literal sense it is the mobility of characters such as George that sparks a huge chain of events, and figuratively a mobility of social class through Lady Audley, described by Robert as a “poor little creature; poor unhappy little golden-haired sinner” (269) and the effective reshaping of her entire life. The attempt at a transition from a lower social class to a higher one is prevalent in other minor characters like Phoebe, Lucy, and Luke, who all try to advance their financial and social positions, and this force of social mobility ends up being a disruptive force in Braddon’s novel.

Robert is a man who brought himself out of ignorance through his mobility. The only way he was able to discover Lady Audley’s secret was through having to travel place by place until he was able to unravel the necessary clues. Mobility in Robert’s case was a necessary disruption that unraveled the secrets encompassed in the novel for the reader, and it is through this mobility that the art of sensation was brought about by Braddon. “‘Why do I go on with this,’ he said, ‘when I know that it is leading me, step by step, day by day, hour by hour, nearer to that conclusion which of all others I should avoid?” (183), Robert exclaims about George concerning his quest to discover the truth. Perhaps it is through his mobility that Robert was able to push on, that being stagnant would have been a slow-burning fuse that would have amounted to nothing. This is purely speculation, but a speculation that is recurrent with the fact that every main character in this novel is centered around mobility.

George is another example of literal mobility as a disruptive force, and his decision to go to Australia is the spark that sets off the chain of events throughout the rest of the novel. The disruption here is the obvious strain on George’s marriage, but there is also a figurative disruption of mobility through George actually climbing the social ladder. Here George does something that is rarely done, which is rise to a better financial situation through sheer will. Granted, finding gold is more luck than science, but the decision to move to a then-existing penal colony to find gold is daring to say the least. It was through his physical mobility that George gained social mobility, but lost everything else. Maybe Braddon is suggesting through the story of George that society was set up in a way that you could not gain financial influence without losing emotional support, that the two were mutually exclusive. This could explain why the general attitude towards the rich was less than savory in the Victorian era- because they had moved away from empathy to gain gold.

The mobility of Lady Audley through social classes was described by Braddon (the narrator, specifically) as her “no longer innocent, and the pleasure we take in art and loveliness being an innocent pleasure had passed out of her reach” (309). Lady Audley had strayed away from the things that made people people and focused only on escaping her own sins. In fact, the narrator says that “all the treasures that had been collected for her could have given her no pleasure” (309). Here the mobility of Lady Audley serves as an internal disruptive force that has both internal and external implications. The internal are obviously deceit, lust for power, and influence over lesser classed beings. The external are the created strifes with George, Luke, and Robert to name a few characters that create a power struggle that only leads down a road towards more disruption in everyone’s lives.

The Ins and Outs of Lady Audley’s Secret

Lady Audley’s Secret uses the sensation genre to question the difference between appearance and reality. One way the novel does this is through the contrast of exteriors against interiors. It uses the domestic setting of sensation novels to explore outward appearance to morality. The book opens, not with Lady Lucy Audley, but with a description of Audley Court even though the first chapter is called “Lucy.” Through extensive description, the house becomes a character of its own. The first three pages exclusively describe the court. To describe the manor, the narrator states, “It was very old, and very irregular and rambling” (3). The word “old” suggests the home’s deeper, invisible history, such as how it was once a convent. “Irregular” ties to the patchwork nature of the place while “rambling” personifies the house as either a drawn-out character or a random growth, both of which fit according to the rest of the description. Yet, the outer appearance of the house differs to its inner character. The narrator goes on to call the house “a noble place; inside as well as out, a noble place” (4). Later passages provide a catalogue of the interior of the house, which contains objects of beauty, specifically paintings, but this section focuses on the religious and aristocratic history of the house as justification for its appearance. While the description of the outside of the home is not characteristically noble or beautiful, the interior beauty and history cover its outer flaws to make it “noble.” Through this image, the author sets up the idea that appearance does not equal character. The tension of the differences arises from the horrible secret the fine, old house holds; Lady Audley’s secret past taints the nobility of the home. One of the main symbols of this is the painting of Lady Audley (107). The painting hints at Lady Audley’s secret within the materialistic context of the house. It also highlights the connection between her extreme beauty and her selfish actions. Through the painting, the narrator reveals how Audley Court takes on and reflects Lady Audley’s sins.

Lady Audley embodies the juxtaposition of interiors and exteriors; her outer beauty masks her inner darkness. The narrator suggests that when Lady Audley was a child, she saw her beauty as “a counter-balance of every youthful sin” (310). From the beginning of her life, her beauty is her sole virtue against all her other sins. The first thing, and sometimes the only thing, people notice about Lady Audley is her beauty, in which she grounds her identity and self-worth. When Robert questions a landlord of a hotel about Lady Audley’s original identity, the landlord responds, she “was much pitied by the Wildersnea folks… for she was very pretty, and had such nice winning ways, that she was a favourite with everybody who knew her” (262). The first thing the landlord comments on is not her character but her beauty. Additionally, the first reference of Lady Audley in the novel is as Sir Michael’s “pretty young wife” (46). Indeed, the majority of the descriptions of her focus on her physical beauty (49). Characters within the novel equate beauty with morality and form their moral judgments on appearance. Lady Audley recognizes societal understanding of beauty and manipulates it to hide her lack of morality. Even after Robert learns her secret, and she receives her punishment, she states, “But even exile was not hopeless, for there was scarcely any spot upon this wide earth in which her beauty would not constitute a little royalty” (387). While Lady Audley claims her beauty as justification for her actions, she also uses it as a way to gain power. She never learns that she needs to change her character instead of relying on her beauty. In the end, she refuses to repent.

The novel’s treatment of the house and Lady Audley condemns the way that their exteriors do not match their interiors, specifically because of Lady Audley’s secret. At the end of the novel, “Audley Court is shut up”; a year earlier, Lady Audley “had expired peacefully at Villebrumeuse, dying after a long illness” (445). Neither the house nor the woman survives the struggle of the book, perhaps because of the discord between their appearances and realities. The secret of Lady Audley’s past destroys the beautiful and noble facades that Lady Audley and Audley Court create. Despite the novel’s critique, the protagonist, Robert Audley, experiences the same disjunction between the way that others see him and his true character. Sir Michael, as well as most if not all of the other characters, “mistook laziness for incapacity” because he had “no occasion to look below the surface” (297). Through Robert’s search for justice, he proves his worth. He reveals his honest and loyal character under the guise of lazy indifference. Clara Talboys, similarly, seems to be cold and unfeeling toward her brother. When she is alone with Robert, however, she reveals her deeper affection for George and her overall virtue. The narrator explains, “This girl, this apparently passionless girl, had found a voice, and was urging [Robert] on toward his fate” (221). Clara forces Robert to confront and question his first impression of her. She therefore comes to serve as a major motivation and model for him. There are also characters within the novel, both houses and people, whose interiors and exteriors match. For example, Harcourt Talboys appearance matches his character, which also matches the appearance and character of his home (205). Later on, however, Robert learns the depths of Harcourt and his home underneath their appearances. In addition, Luke Marks begins and ends the novel as a gruff character, yet he reveals depths to his character, both through his blackmail of Lady Audley and his ultimate treatment of Robert (421). Just as characters automatically favor Lady Audley, they immediately overlook and underestimate Luke for his lower-class behavior, such as heavy drinking. His home, the Castle Inn, mirrors this appearance, inside and out (161). While Lady Audley uses these expectations, Luke rejects them by gaining power over Lady Audley. The novel explores the ways in which exteriors and interiors differ or match to show that the reader cannot rely on either to form a moral judgement of a character.

Think about the children!

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensational Lady Audley’s Secret features twists and turns, conniving plots, and multiple identities. Among the insanity, the reader may forget about the effect on a character outside of Lady Audley’s domestic sphere. This character, being the direct product of one of the most central of the dramatic storylines: Georgey. What is the ultimate role of Georgey in the novel? Perhaps Braddon intended for him to provide sympathy and show a different family dynamic and its effect on the young boy.

Georgey, as a relatively minor character, garners much sympathy from readers and characters alike as he plays the innocent bystander and byproduct of his parents’ troubled relationship. George leaves his wife and their weeks old infant, and in turn, she leaves as well. This abandonment illustrates the complete lack of power that Georgey holds over his life trajectory, which serves to indicate the extent of Braddon’s sympathy rhetoric. His grandfather supports Georgey, but he grows up without much structure and in poverty with his alcoholic family member. Georgey does elicit much sympathy for himself, but ultimately, he may serve to also elicit both sympathy and resentment from Lady Audley and George. While both parents have wronged their son deeply, could Braddon also be using Georgey as a plot device that not only creates sympathy, but also enhances it? For example, the first conversation between Georgey and his father begins with George’s outcry to him,“‘I am your father, come across the sea to find you…will you love me?’” (Braddon 83) which is sad enough on its own, but then amplified by Georgey’s response. Uncertain, he “pushed him away” and said “‘I don’t know you’” (Braddon 83).The heartwarming tenderness of a father and son reuniting is as absent as George during Georgey’s early childhood. Georgey’s purpose in the novel may be to strengthen the readers’ emotional response to George and to Lady Audley.

Although initially the parents have wronged him, Braddon complicates the narrative with empathetic background motivations. George left his family, but only in an effort to support them. Lady Audley, then Helen, took drastic measures only because her choices as a single mother at this time were very limited. She returns to him in secret, and her son knows her only as “the pretty lady” about whom “Granpa told [him] not to tell anybody” (Braddon 191). He goes on to describe how she visited him when he was little, “came up into [his] room, and sat upon the bed, and cried—and she left the watch under [his] pillow” (Braddon 191). Through the relationships in the novel, Braddon allows Georgey to work as a central force of sympathy, as he increases the often bittersweet, sympathetic aspects to other characters. He does so namely for his parents, but also for his grandfather and Robert.

Georgey’s connections to the other characters are subverted from typical Victorian standards of the family unit. The inclusion of a child complicates the Talboys couple’s relationship and dynamic. Once uncared for by his parents, he is given to his grandfather. Now, Georgey’s upbringing was not ideal but was also not abusive, for he was “happy enough with his drunken old grandfather, who had always displayed a maudlin affection for the pretty child, and had done his best to spoil Georgey, by letting him have his own way in everything” (Braddon 201). Further still, he is then given to Robert, who enrolls him in boarding school. Georgey got quite unlucky and quite lucky with his family connections, as his family members both abandon and support him.

Ultimately, Braddon uses the character of Georgey to create higher stakes and more drama for his surrounding family. We are supposed to feel sympathy for him specifically, but it also seems to be intended that we mainly view Georgey as he stands in relation to the other characters. For this reason, Georgey remains a minor character, with long-reaching effects on how the readers view the surrounding George, Lady Audley, Robert, and Maldon. Fortunately, he does receive a happy ending and truly reconnects with his father George, as well as Robert and Clara. This is pleasurable, to see such a sympathetic character with continuously low power eventually reach contentment at the novel’s end. This ending is even more satisfying considering the heavy work of sympathy that Braddon used on him – and through him.

Sympathy for the Lady

Braddon’s carefully architected portrayal of Lady Audley becomes infinitely more successful when the reader chooses to be complicit in her crimes.  Braddon compromises the reader with her subtle attempts to elicit sympathy for Lady Audley and distaste for Robert.  I think that the novel’s “success” is directly proportional to the sympathy or distaste created in the reader.  In this blog post I will identify several methods and examples employed by Braddon.

There is no question as to the guilt of Lady Audley.  The only item therefore would be the justification for her actions, those criminal, immoral and unethical.  A method Braddon uses to portray Lady Audley as a victim is to paint the men around her as immoral, unethical and misogynistic.  Robert repeatedly offers to the reader accounts of his vile views of women.  He shamelessly states that he “hate[s] women” and that they simply act in self-interest and are calculating mercenaries (229).  He laments that women control men like marionettes, pulling their strings, forcing men into undesired behavior and actions at a whim.  Men may be the head, but women function as the neck, driving them to action.  He evokes Tennyson, “men might lie in the sunshine and eat lotuses, and fancy it ‘always afternoon,’ if his wife would let him! But she won’t, bless her impulsive heart and active mind (228)!”

Braddon’s narrator often breaks action of the novel to provide an observation or create perspective for the reader.  On Page 243, the narrator interrupts the seemingly mundane to express the sacrifice women must make and the continuously shifting gender expectations placed on women.  Lady Audley is preparing tea, where “she reigns omnipotent, unapproachable.”  The choice of words expresses the shrinking sphere of influence and the small arena that women are allowed to control.  Fear exists that even this task of serving tea may be stripped away.  “To do away with the tea-table is to rob woman of her legitimate empire (243).”  “Better the pretty influence of the teacups and saucers gracefully wielded in a woman’s hand, than all the inappropriate power snatched at the point of the pen from the unwilling sterner sexy (243).”  Men legislate away everything from women, leaving them the remaining scraps to rule over.

Lady Audley is described as victim of uncontrollable circumstances, cast upon her by fates beyond her control.  Her beauty was her fatal flaw.  After her encounter with Robert in the lime-walk, she reflects on “that fatal early time in which she had first begun to look upon her liveliness as a right divine, a boundless possession which was to be a set-off against all girlish short-comings, a counter-balance to of every youthful sin (310).”  The narrator personifies character flaw to remove guilt from Lady Audley.  “Surely, if her thoughts wandered so far along in the backward current of her life, she must have repented in bitterness and despair of that first day in which the master-passions of her life had become her rulers, and the three demons of Vanity, Selfishness and Ambition had joined hands and said, ‘This woman is our slave; let us see what she will become under our guidance (310-311).’”

I’m not certain what Braddon was attempting to do in this last passage.  I personally found it more revolting than humanizing.  I still believe that the success of this novel is directly linked to the response of the reader and how sympathetic they feel for Lady Audley.  However, I think that gender, class and time alter this success.  With many of the novels we have read this semester for class, I think we must recognize that as modern readers we were not the intended audience.  We should understand who the intended audience would have been and make every attempt to view it through that lens.



The Power Struggle in Lady Audley’s Secret

Throughout her novel Lady Audley’s Secret, Mary Elizabeth Braddon explores the theme of power through the use of several tools. In some situations, Braddon uses non-physical, abstract means to communicate power — charm, manipulation, blackmail, secrets, etc. In other cases, the reader might notice more concrete forms of power such as physical evidence, gender, money, or social status. Although these are all effective sources of power, I would like to propose yet another form of power I have noticed throughout the novel: the power of choice.

Braddon makes it clear that Lady Audley’s origins did not offer her much choice in her life. This is shown in her response to Sir Michael’s proposal, “…you ask too much of me! Remember what my life has been; only remember that! From my very babyhood I have never seen anything but poverty” (Volume 1, Chapter 1, pg. 52). Up until Sir Michael’s proposal, Lady Audley seemed to lack the amount of choice the upper class was given. In her life prior to becoming Lucy Graham,  Lady Audley was caught between abandoning her family for a new life or suffering a life of poverty. By marrying Sir Michael, Lady Audley inherits more choice. She’s free to live the life she wants, free of the discomforts of poverty. It is, perhaps, in this “bargain” that Lady Audley gains her power.

As the novel progresses, the power seems to shift from Lady Audley to Robert. Despite Lady Audley’s ability to charm those around her, Robert manages to collect concrete knowledge about her secrets and stores them in his pocketbook. It is only once he has compiled all the information he needs to connect the dots between Lady Audley’s lives that he realizes his power, “My duty is clear enough… not the less clear because it is painful – not the less clear because it leads me step by step, carrying ruin and desolation with me, to the home I love” (Volume 2, Chapter 9, pg. 258). On one hand, Robert feels his duty is to tell Sir Michael, his dear uncle, the truth. On the other hand, Robert knows telling his uncle the truth means he will be taking away his uncle’s happiness and sentencing a woman to a life of poverty and a lack of autonomy.

As Robert gets closer to exposing her secrets to Sir Michael, Lady Audley’s choices begin to narrow. This is best shown in Chapter 1 of Volume 3:

Perhaps it would be wiser in me to run away, to take this man’s warning, and escape out of his power forever… But where could I go? what would become of me? I have no money; my jewels are not worth a couple of hundred pounds, now that I have got rid of the best part of them. What could I do? I must go back to the old life, the old, hard, cruel, wretched life—the life of poverty, and humiliation, and vexation, and discontent (pg. 328).

In this moment, Lady Audley is faced with a powerful choice – should she run away and let go of the only power she’s ever known, or should she continue to try to hide her true identity in hopes of holding onto the power she has gained throughout the novel?

The characters in Lady Audley’s Secret use several tools to gain power over one another; however, the concept of choice as a weapon of power is among the most interesting. Although I believe every character is responsible for his or her actions, both George and Lady Audley are equally at fault for choosing to abandon their family, it is true that some characters have a larger variety of choices to make than others.

The Real Power Robert Possess is Character

In the novel, Robert possess the most power because of the knowledge he discovers about Lady Audley, however, he gives part of his power up to Lady Audley to preserve the Audley name as well as avoid scandal. This would then mean that Lady Audley holds the power, but her mental state forces her to give the power back to Robert. In his refusal to hurt Sir Michael, tarnish the Audley name and staying with Lady Audley, his real power lies in his character.

The knowledge that Robert gains comes from the original motive of looking for George first reveals his character. In the beginning, Robert was lazy, carefree and didn’t seem to care about much. It is not until George goes missing that he becomes motivated and dedicated which then leads him to discover a slew of secrets. These secrets allow him to hold the power though they originally stemmed from a motive of good character. When he confronts Lady Audley near the end, he basically gives her the power because he doesn’t want to hurt his brother or tarnish the Audley name. After he confronts Lady Audley he says: “I would have condoned our crimes out of pity of your wretchedness, You have refused to to accept my mercy…I shall henceforth only remember my duty to the dead” (291). This seems to suggest that Robert will tell Sir Michael about George and her secret identity, but he does not and Lady Audley gets to him first. This is when Lady Audley suggests that Robert is mad by implying “madness is sometime hereditary” (300). Even though Robert has the upper hand in this moment, he knows Lady Sudley’s secret and still refuses to tell Sir Michael. This shows Robert’s as well as Lady Audley’s character. While Robert holds power over Lady Audley, he chooses not to hurt his brother, but Lady Audley goes directly to him in hopes he will turn on Robert. She tells him that Robert is mad because he says George was murdered at Audley Court, which upsets Sir Michael. The author uses exclamation points and dashes to show his exasperation and disbelief: “This Mr. Talboys—a perfect stranger to all of us—murdered, at Audley Court!” While this is something Robert wanted to avoid (302). Her actions could be proof that Lady Audley does use her situation and knowledge for her benefit and power, and does not care about the emotions of her husband. She uses Sir Michael’s ignorance and Robert’s silence to carry the power at this point in the novel, though it is only because Robert basically let to her.

In the ironic turn of events, Lady Audley is the one who has hereditary madness and this forces her to give the power back to Robert. Again, however, Robert simply wants to send away Lady Audley so that the Audley name is not ruined. After Lady Audley confesses to Sir Michael, Alicia does not know what just happened. Robert does not reveal to details which also proves his character: he is not a gossip. This reminds the reader that he did not seek out these secrets or power, he just came upon them and does not wish to involve anyone who does not need to be. This can be contrasted with the scene where Lady Audley complains to Phoebe about Robert tormenting her because she involves Phoebe and even tries to solve both of their problems with a fire. This solution reveals the madness in her mind. Then when Dr. Mosgrave says, “She has the cunning of madness, with the prudence of intelligence… She is dangerous,” Robert still agrees to go with her to the institution (385). Sir Michael leaves immediately after her confession and does not give their relationship a chance or even wait for the doctor’s verdict on her madness. He leaves her with Robert, which shows how much he trusts him, even though Sir Michael may not have the best judge of character. The reader must remember Robert knows how much Lady Audley hurt his best friend, and he still does not abandon her. While he may have other motivations, like finding our what truly happened to George and upholding the Audley name, it still shows his character. It also shows his final power over Lady Audley, he could have killed her or left her to go insane.

The power struggle between Lady Audley and Robert can be disguised as who holds the knowledge, though the true possession of power is held by Robert because of his character. He reveals his good character again and again with his decisions and how he handles the power, which in turn reveals Lady Audley’s character as she does almost the opposite in each instance. His aversion of scandal also shows that he did not dig up these secrets for the fun or drama of it, and the preservation of the Audley name proves he doesn’t want to be taken as something he is not. Robert is the moral character in the story, and this is why he holds the power.