Perfect Strangers

First off, I cannot link my title, so you should click here, be transported back in time, possibly to a time that you did not know existed (you youngsters), and then do it again here.

So I hate to play Captain Obvious, but our man Dobbin is the chief stranger in Vanity Fair. Dobbin is time and again neglected and ignored. He is even treated as the stranger by the narrator. The narrator often casts him out of England, as Dobbin spends much of the novel in India, or elsewhere with his regiment, away from the narrative. We furthermore see Dobbin as the stranger early in the narrative, when he is picked on at school because his father is a grocer, though Dobbin of course changes his circumstances by standing up to George Osborne’s bully (40-44). He is ignored by his friends when an adult, as is observed by the Vauxhall party episode early in the novel (54-58).

Most enduringly, Amelia treats Dobbin as a stranger by ignoring his love. It is Dobbin that finances Amelia’s departure from Brussels after George dies with no reciprocation. And Dobbin provides some financial support for Amelia and George Jr., again, without much acknowledgement. Moreover, Amelia treats Dobbin like a stranger when she hears that he is to be married. She enthusiastically congratulations him, which causes him to feel miserably downcast because, “She would not see that he loved her” and, after he had cared for her in Brussels, “‘forgot me before the door shut between us!’” (436). Here Dobbin, the stranger, is not seen, but is forgotten. And it only gets worse for Dobbin, as he soon learns that Amelia herself is to get married (438-439). Amelia further treats Dobbin as a stranger when Amelia defends her old friend Rebecca near the end of the novel. Dobbin sees Rebecca’s manipulation and eventually returns to his regiment because Amelia is again choosing someone else over him (669-670).

What? You disagree? Okay, I can see how Rebecca can be seen as a stranger. She is the child of poor artists and is orphaned. While her duplicity, whether with Jos, Rawdon, Lord Steyne, or Jos again, is abhorrent, she is portrayed in a sympathetic light, which seems to stem, at least in part, from her always outwardly playing the role of the insider, yet never quite permanently eluding her outsider designation. Moreover, an argument could be made for Amelia as a stranger, with her pecuniary state and her subsequent estrangement from George Jr. that results from her poverty as the primary example of her being a stranger (494-498).

So, perhaps there are many strangers in the novel. As a closing thought, what do you think about children as strangers in Vanity Fair? George Jr. is spoiled by his mother, which could be construed as a form of distancing and neglect in contrast with a way of knowing a child. Furthermore, George Jr. goes to live with his grandfather, away from his mother, for a period of time. Does this make him a stranger? Rawdon Jr. is spoiled by his father, but he eventually takes his governorship and moves away. Moreover, Rebecca completely ignores Rawdon Jr. his entire life, until she learns that he has inherited the baronetcy and therefore has money. He therefore is not known by his mother at all and only moderately more by his father. Does this make him a stranger?

Austin Powers and the Narrator of Vanity Fair

You are likely thinking “finally!” Or perhaps “what?!?” Either way (and I am pretty sure there are only two possible reactions to my title), watch this now and by the end of my post, everything will be illuminated.

Casting our male and female gazes upon the semester, it is notable that the narrator of Vanity Fair is unlike the other narrators that we have read thus far. Having said this, he (I say he because Thackeray does) does share some superficial qualities with these other narrators, yet he exhibits vastly greater artistry. The narrator of Vanity Fair is quite conspicuous, as is the narrator of Mary Barton, yet the narrator of Vanity Fair is much more dexterous when speaking directly to the reader, whereas the narrator of Mary Barton is startlingly abrupt. Moreover, the narrator of Vanity Fair has a moral aim in mind, as does the narrator of It Is Never Too Late To Mend. However, the methods of the two narrators could not be more different. William Thackeray’s narrator utilizes satire and is incredibly successful, while Charles Reade’s narrator preaches at the reader and therefore fails to gain the sympathy of the reader.

Thackeray is successful with his satire in large part through his chameleon-like narrator, whose voice guides and orders the construction of the narrative at one point, permits the freedom for subversion within that structure at another, and cleverly and humorously mirrors what is happening in the narrative at the next. An example of this is observed when the narrator is foregrounding for the readers Dobbin’s temperament in the wake of George and Amelia’s honeymoon, “I throw out these queries for intelligent readers to answer, who know, at once, how credulous we are, and how sceptical [sic], how soft and how obstinate, how firm for others and how diffident about ourselves” (223). The narrator is here acknowledging his nimbleness and fluctuating voice.

Through his nimble voice, the narrator of Vanity Fair accomplishes many things: for instance, a critique of the aristocracy, a moral appeal to the middle class, and a disparaging of jingoism (65, 91, 326). But a central task of the narrator is a reconsideration of genre. The novel’s narrator most clearly depicts this at the end of chapter eight when he states, “while the moralist who is holding forth on the cover, (an accurate portrait of your humble servant) professes to wear neither gown nor bands, but only the very same long-eared livery, in which his congregation is arrayed” (83). Here the narrator unmasks his aim by taking the title of moralist. Yet this moralist is wearing the costume of a clown (“long-eared livery”), not the “gown” or “bands” of the priest, the garb which Reade’s above mentioned narrator wears. Furthermore, this clown costume is the same that “his congregation is arrayed” in. It is in this clownish clothing, satire, that the moralist narrator may complete his work.

Yet, the narrator is not simply a moralist, as he discusses “a brother of the story-telling trade at Naples” who was worked into “a rage and passion with some of the villains whose wicked deeds he was describing and inventing” (83). The narrator is here invoking and criticizing the Italian melodrama. He follows this story with a critique of French realism (84). Yet Thackeray does not criticize these genres in order to exclude them from his novel, but to include them. Thackeray critiques the generic elements of melodrama and realism by combining them in his moralist satire. Indeed, Thackeray’s blending of different genres alters the very definition of these genres. It adds complexity to the novel, where the Victorian novel corresponds in its generic gluttony to Joseph Sedley, the resident glutton of Vanity Fair. The novel both critiques the above genres and becomes them.

Becoming Jane

One concept that Gayatri Spivak explores in her essay “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism” is what she calls “soul making” (247). One way in which she uses this term is to describe the actions of Rochester (and others) toward Bertha Mason, or, in imperialistic terms, the actions of Britain toward the nations it colonizes, which, in the case of Jane Eyre, is Jamaica. Spivak considers the “soul making” of Bertha, the Other literally described as an animal, as Spivak points out, as a divine mandate, where she cites Rochester’s self-allowance to ignore his marriage to Bertha and his subsequent freedom to marry Jane (247). After citing the passage where Rochester explains to Jane the circumstances of his marriage to Bertha, Spivak continues by claiming, “It is the unquestioned ideology of imperialist axiomatics, then, that conditions Jane’s move from the counter-family set to the set of the family-in-law” (248). This is the very ideology which Spivak endeavors to subvert, instead conceiving of the “feminist individualism” inherent in her term “soul making,” specifically in the character Jane (248).

Spivak’s argument is provocative; but does it hold up to scrutiny in light of Jane Erye? I believe it does in part, with one variation. I believe the term self-making would be more apposite for Jane. Since Bertha is described as an animal, the term “soul making” makes sense for her. But with Jane, the narrative implies that she has a soul, yet an underdeveloped self. This bears out in the central transformation of Jane as an adult. After she had been attacked by Bertha on the eve of her wedding and has relayed the story to Rochester, he instructs her to sleep with Adéle for the evening, hoping that Bertha will not strike again. While sleeping with Adéle, Jane imagines Adéle metaphorically as her own departure from innocence when she states, “With little Adéle in my arms, I watched the slumber of childhood…She seemed the emblem of my past life” (373).

Her past life over, it is necessary for Jane to construct a new, cohesive self. She achieves this in her denial of Rochester, “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as now I am mad” (408). The above noted divine mandate that Rochester has alluded to just prior to this internal dialogue by Jane works to privilege this development of self making, which could further be described as her ego formation, evidences by Jane’s repetition of the first person pronoun “I.” Jane here announces her selfhood and distinguishes herself from Bertha.

It is fitting that Jane dreams that very evening of her childhood, the time before her self making, specifically the night she was locked in the red-room (410). In this dream the moon, a consistent and multifaceted image in Jane Eyre, speaks to Jane, affirming her self making and her decision to leave Thornfield. Jane does leave and her development in the novel is brilliant. Yet, Jane’s self making plays a role, at least in some degree, in Bertha’s suicide and Rochester’s injuries. These consequences leave the reader with many questions, one of which is: why does the structure of this society allow this to happen?

On Friendship

When I was reading Jane Eyre, I was thrilled because the idea for my blog post entry came to me rather early in the week: I would write about the importance of story in the novel. Then I read Vicky Simpson’s article, “‘The eagerness of a listener quickens the tongue of a narrator’: Storytelling and Autobiography in Jane Eyre,” and I became vexed. That’s right, my reaction was not unsimilar to this one (cue to 2:08, but really, you should watch the whole clip). In her article, Simpson claims, in part, at least, is that Jane’s storytelling and imagination are central to her identity and her pursuit of authority, specifically related to her gender.

Simpson’s argument is plausible. However, she views Jane’s storytelling, and by extension her imagination, as rather utilitarian. For instance, she states that Jane tailors her “tale[s] to suit the needs of her audience” (5). Furthermore, she believes that her stories are “a useful strategy” and “a tactic” (5). Is Jane really a tactician with her storytelling? No, of course she is not, at least not over the first half of the novel. Consider the ten year old girl from the first ten chapters. She is a scared little girl with no one to love her.

Simpson seems to miss an important component of Jane’s imaginative life, namely friendship. Even though Jane was seemingly a better match in friendship with Mary Ann, not least of which because “she could…tell me amusing stories,” Jane preferred the company of Helen because she could give “a taste of far higher things,” which turns out to be a relational and an imaginative boon for Jane (143). What I believe Jane means here is that Helen could make Jane feel less like the other. Though the storytelling that Jane can partake in with Mary Ann is a good, becoming less of the other is a higher good. Helen does this by befriending Jane when she first arrived at Lowood and did not have any friends. Moreover, Jane eventually feels close enough to Helen to tell “her all the story of my sad childhood” (135).

Helen furthermore attempts to help Jane feel less like the other by talking to her about God, the ultimate Other. Jane and Helen spend Helen’s last few hours alive talking about death, God, and heaven, the latter of which Jane conceptualizes heaven for the first time earlier in the evening in the forest. Helen assures Jane that there is a heaven, that Helen will shortly be heading there, and that they will eventually meet in heaven when Jane dies. Helen’s friendship, along with Miss Temple’s, helps establish the next eight years at Lowood as years of success and stability for Jane. Storytelling is vital to Jane in this early retelling of her imaginative life. Yet, friendship that yields “a taste of far higher things” is even more foundational.

On Reading

As readers, most of us, to some degree, are like those urchins who pencil mustaches on the faces of girls in advertisements

—W.H. Auden (The Dyer’s Hand, 4)

How should Charles Reade’s It Is Never Too Late To Mend be read?

One way to think of Reade is as an anti-Chestertonian figure. G.K. Chesterton so often arrives at truth by fiction, in contrast to Reade’s emphasis that fact leads to truth. Mary Poovey, in her essay “Forgotten Writers, Neglected Histories: Charles Reade and the Nineteenth-Century Transformation of the British Literary Field,” affirms as much by stating that “Reade was adamant that one could not distinguish between facts and fiction and that, far from leading away from truth, facts paved the royal road to this goal” (444). Margaret Oliphant furthermore critiques Reade’s use of fact at the expense of truth, yet, as Poovey indicates, Oliphant praises his “‘unmistakeable powers’” (446). Oliphant’s critique of Reade’s generic errors while acknowledging his abilities presents a mingled sort of critique, which seems to be a fruitful way to read the novel.

Mr. Eden and the prison where he is chaplain provide a good example of Reade’s aesthetic amalgam. Reade details at great length the conditions of the silent system that is enforced in the prison under Mr. Hawes, including enforced silence, reduced human interaction, solitary confinement in complete darkness, starvation, psychological abuse, and punishments such as the crank and what amount to crucifixion. Reade inserts these abuses in a narrative, but the reader (at least the contemporary reader) is often all too aware that Reade is using this narrative to move the reader to action. Moreover, this can be observed when he rouses Mr. Lacy into action, after Mr. Lacy initially asserts that he presumes Mr. Eden’s claims to be unfounded. Poovey notes this when she states that Reade believed that it is “the details of life, not the writer’s imaginative expansion, [that] could provoke readers to intervene in social wrongs and thereby realize the truths that fiction animated” (444). Though the reader is horrified by the cruelty in the prison, and can think of many correlating contemporary examples, he or she cannot help but feel somewhat manipulated.

Yet the reader encounters a complex figure in Mr. Eden. Yes, he does seem to be Reade’s tool of idealism at times. But the way he embodies what he teaches, for example by undergoing, albeit briefly, solitary confinement and “the jacket,” is undeniably appealing. Though at times he seems to moralize (he is a preacher, after all), his embodiment of the truths, as opposed to the facts, that Reade desires to convey make Mr. Eden an admirable character. He has humanized what was a dehumanizing place under Mr. Hawes, where, for example, he ensures the inmates have a variety of purposeful work once Mr. Hawes is ousted.

It Is Never Too Late To Mend is not an artistic work of the highest order. And that is okay. There are still redeemable parts of it. The words of the epigraph by W.H. Auden remind that at least part of the work of a critic is to understand and communicate understanding about a work, not graffiti it. Auden moreover stated that “works which were in themselves poor have often proved a stimulus to the imagination and become the indirect cause of good work in others” (The Dyer’s Hand, 5). Though the novel is not necessarily “poor,” these words seem an apt guide to reading it.


Okay, call me crazy, but I believe I have just discovered the secret key to writing a Victorian Novel. No, this secret is not as cool as John Meadows’ secret door in his study, but it is almost as cool. When writing a Victorian novel, be sure that there are two separate, but intersecting narratives. Then, remember to make a Jewish character the moral center of one section, and a Christian character the moral center of the other section. Daniel Deronda. Check. It Is Never Too Late To Mend. Check. Dracula. Oh! So close. Are we certain that Van Helsing isn’t Jewish? We are. Dang. Well, I’m blest and I’m blowed.

Isaac Levi is the Jewish character in It Is Never Too Late To Mend that is the moral center (of sorts) for one section of the narrative, at least until Francis Eden shows up. I say of sorts because he does curse and later plot a “subtle Eastern plan of vengeance” on Meadows, whatever that now racist comment means—actually, I think it means he is going to learn all about Australia and foil Meadows’ evenings (92). Yet, after George sticks up for Isaac in his fight with Meadows and invites him into his home, Isaac responds upon entering his home, “‘Peace be under this roof, and comfort and love follow me into this dwelling’” (12). Though not seeking it, George earns the Fielding household Isaac’s blessing. This makes sense, as George and his brother William, a modern day Jacob and Esau (George finds affection from women and is a rotten farmer, while William is eager to farm and loves pigs), eventually fight for Susan’s hand in marriage, which seems to be a blessing since everybody and their brother (literally) are attempting to woo her. Moreover, later, as George announces he is leaving for Australia, Isaac steps in to mend several relationships before they become disordered while George is gone. He tells George about his brother’s romantic interest in Susan. They then publicly make a covenant, or “fleshly compacts,” that restores there relationship, induces William to act as a brother to his brother’s fiancé, compels Susan to be more committed to George while he is away, and prevents Meadows from open conquest in his pursuit to marry Susan (44). Well played, Isaac.

Francis Eden is another character noted for his blessing, which Susan notes that he utters at the end of a church service with “solemnity, warmth, tenderness and all his soul, [and] the people lingered some moments in the church and seemed unwilling to go at all” (77). Eden is the Christian moral force in the second narrative strain and is undoubtedly the central moral force in the first third of the novel. This is immediately apparent early on with Mr. Giles and with Susan. Yet, nowhere is this more present than in the prison. His interaction with Robinson in the dark cells is a perhaps the most moving example, in which Robinson exclaims, “You have saved my life” (178). Robinson was, of course, about to kill himself, after enduring the torture of the “separate and silent system” (142). The fate of the prisoner in such a panopticon prison is a sense of dehumanization, especially in Charles Reade’s iteration of it. Michel Foucault chillingly describes the object of such a prison in “Panoticism,” stating a prisoner “is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject of communication.” This dehumanization, as well as the alleviation of undue suffering and the salvation of the prisoners, is what Eden is after.

A few questions to consider as we continue to read—How will these moral figures, with their blessings in hand, operate in the remainder of the narrative? Will Isaac continue his complexity by blessing and cursing, or will he abandon his vengeance? How will Frances’ striving to reform the souls that inhabit the narrative turn out?

If You Don’t Know, Now You Know

It is not everyday that you realize a cherished author was a flaming racist. Today was one of those days when I read an excerpt from Charles Dickens’ essay “The Noble Savage.” Charles. Wow. His racism goes to eleven. A representative example of said racism, Dickens, speaking of the Ojibbeway Indians, calls them “mere animals” and “wretched creatures” (988). Dickens is of course refuting Rousseau’s notion of the Noble Savage, which should be roundly rejected. And he does seem to soften his stance in the last paragraph. Yet as I read on, I kept wondering about Dickens’ epistemology. Why does he seem so certain in his knowledge of these groups of uncivilized “others.” Dickens’ knowledge of the these “others” seems based on quasi-science, anecdotes, and observations of small sample sizes, which is distressing. It is reassuring that not all Victorian author’s sided with Dickens. Patrick Brantlinger indicates that authors like Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, whom Brantlinger states was “a vigorous critic of British imperial policy” in his writing, provided a contrasting voice to that of Dickens (79).

Wondering about Dickens’ epistemology compels me to think about how knowledge is sought or obtained in Dracula. The reader seeks the narrative, not from a narrator, but from many narrators. The epistolary nature of the narration adds a complication to the pursuit of knowledge. The reader is reading a text that was first written down in diaries and correspondence, then collected and pieced together by the author. Therefore, what the reader knows is twice removed from the actual events. This shows that, in spite of Stoker’s epigraph regarding the veracity of the narrative accounts, he is attempting to make manifest the precarious nature of knowing (29).

Knowledge is furthermore destabilized by an impotent science. John Seward, as a doctor man of science, observes and reads the human mind, as we see in his diary entries about his patient Renfield. Yet, he seems powerless to do anything to help the one patient the reader hears about, Renfield, outside of basic observations (152-153). He even must be reminded by Dr. Van Helsing that, as a scientist, he must continue to make hypotheses, even, or especially when he is bewildered (156). Is Stoker trying to undermine Seward’s reliability to the reader? It seems that he is, as Seward provides Stoker a critique of the British imperialist vision, where the validity of British progress is called into question.

Abraham Van Helsing is also a man of science, and a doctor of everything (148). Do other characters trust his knowledge? In many ways they do, chiefly in his care for Lucy (156-198). But he is not fully trusted. This is why he curiously hides knowledge from Seward about Lucy’s becoming a vampire (165). He could have told them earlier. Yet, he knows they would not believe him without considerable proof. It seems that he is not believed because he is a quasi-”other,” being from Amsterdam. Moreover, the truth he has to tell is that the beloved Lucy is becoming or has fully become a vampire, which Stoker seems to be employing as a metaphor for a fully “other,” someone who is not from England or Western Europe. Stoker, an Irish man living in England later in his life, would have known the feeling of otherness.

We see in Dracula, the epistemic endeavor is complicated. Stoker uses an epistolary narrative technique to create a world where there is a suspicion surrounding knowledge. Seward’s ineffectualness as a psychiatrist furthers the instability surrounding knowledge in Dracula, which I believe Stoker is using to critique the British imperialist vision. Moreover, Van Helsing must hide the truth of his discovery in part because he is quasi-foreign, though also because he is revealing that the beloved and beautiful Lucy has become a vampire, which seems to indicate a taking on the identity of a fully foreign or exotic “other” who is converted by that fully “other” character, Dracula. Stoker is thus calling into question British assumptions of the “other,” while creating a brilliantly entertaining story.

Fr. Daniel

Rachel Hollander mentions in her article, “Daniel Deronda and the Ethics of Alterity,” that Deronda assumes the status of “a kind of priest” to Gwendolen throughout the Daniel Deronda (94). This phrase caught my eye because I had long thought of Deronda’s of mentor to Gwendolen to resemble that of a priest. Not a real priest, mind you. But she would come to him and confess her transgressions and sufferings, at which point he would offer her guidance. Hollander does go on to assert that Deronda’s faux-priestly efforts do not bring about the moment of transformation for Gwendolen, but it is their mutual recognition of their respective otherness that allows Gwendolen to begin to realize her full ethical potential (94-96).

Hollander also refers to “the loose-end of Gwendolen’s future” at the end of her essay (96). Okay, so I did like the ending, for the record. The reader does get to see Gwendolen achieve a fuller complexity in the last 50 odd pages, if only in the crushing of her hope that Deronda might requite her love for him (Am I the only one that wanted Gwendolen and Daniel to be romantically involved? I knew it would never happen. And I knew it probably would have been a disaster. But that did not stop me from wanting it to happen). Did Eliot really end the novel for generic reasons as Hollander asserts? Why didn’t Eliot give a more complete depiction of how Gwendolen and Deronda manage in their respective lives? Ending it the way she does, Eliot does leave the reader with Gwendolen’s words near the end “I said…I said…it should better…better with me…for having known you” (691). I believe Gwendolen’s words; though she is sobbing because Daniel is marrying Mirah and leaving the country, she believes she is a better person for knowing Deronda.

There is another question that I have about the end of the novel. Why didn’t Mrs. Glasher make an appearance once Grandcourt died? Granted, such a scene could have caused a fight. Yet it could have provided an opportunity for Gwendolen to feature her hard won humility in avoiding a fight. She could have expressed her penitence for having married Grandcourt, which could have provided more resolution regarding their respective involvements with Grandcourt. The financial issues surrounding his will get settled. Why not the relational and emotional issues?

Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.

Hollander, Rachel. “Daniel Deronda and the Ethics of Alterity.” Literature Interpretation Theory, 16: 75-99, 2005.

“I’m Texting and I Know It”

As we look at Daniel Deronda, we begin to see a lot of characters staring around. If they are not gaping at themselves (yes, Miss Harleth, please stand up), they are gazing at each other. I mean, not gazing at one another with puppy dog eyes (with one exception—Rex, down boy!). I am talking about the piercing sort of gaze that can either prophetically envision all that will come to pass, instantly see into a person’s soul, or be used as a cool way of warding off bullies (Deronda, I am looking at you).

Why is this all this gazing around important? Mary Poovey, in her book Uneven Developments, observes that texts embody ideology. Indeed, “texts give the values and structures of values that constitute ideology body—that is, they embody them for and in the subjects who read” (17). Poovey is discussing the ideologies that are embodied in the texts that readers read. In Daniel Deronda, there appears to be a meta-texting going on. The text that the reader is reading is full of characters that are reading other texts, the characters in the novel.

Gazing in Daniel Deronda begins with the novel’s first words, where Deronda considers Gwendolen’s beauty and glance toward him (3). He is uncertain of how to interpret what he sees, though he senses their is evil in it. She, however, is more certain; she posits that Deronda has placed “an evil eye” upon her (6). Both turn out to be wrong, I would argue, though Deronda’s vision is the finer of the two. His perceptiveness with Gwendolen continues throughout the narrative, using “his usual directness of gaze—a large-eyed gravity, innocent of any intention” (280). Moreover, we see Deronda’s clear vision of Mirah’s human worth, even when she is in despair and near suicide (159). In fact, he is enraptured by her beauty, hearing her sing for the first time is a representative example, where he positions himself to watch her sing, but must avert his eyes “to seclude the melody in darkness” (314). Finally, the narrator alludes to his “prophetic vision” as he embarks upon his relationship with Ezra Cohen (320).

Gwendolen’s gaze is often turned inward. We see this throughout the first book, though we see it later in the story as well; for example, when she is about to speak with Klesmer about becoming a singer, she gazes at herself in the mirror (214). Because of her mother’s “habit of indulgent tenderness” with her, can she be entirely at fault for her selfishness? (233) Do we not feel inclined to root for her transformation because of the suffering she endures, both at the hands of her gem of a husband and through the guilt she feels toward Mrs. Glasher?

One matter this gazing seems to effect is gender. Klesmer’s “terribly omniscient eyes” allow him to view Gwendolen as a whole person, not simply a beautiful woman (215). Moreover, Eliot seems to depict Klesmer as a character subverting gender norms, through his music, which is a feminine concern, for “French and music, the two justifying accomplishments of a young lady” (31). Yet he keeps his eyes focused on his music, which is the cornerstone of his relationship with Catherine Arrowpoint. Catherine is similarly subversive, as she marries for love and below her station, something that gentlewomen rarely did. Moreover, the respective gazes of Gwendolen and Deronda add complexity to their gender identity. Gwendolen’s vision of the world gains complexity through her suffering, ”Her griefs were feminine; but to her as a woman they were not the less hard to bear, and she felt an equal right to the Promethean tone” (235). Deronda’s gaze “moved by an affectionateness such as we are apt to call feminine, disposing him to yield in ordinary details, while he had certain inflexibility of judgement, an independence of opinion, held to be rightfully masculine” (271). It seems, then, that part of Eliot’s vision was to add dimension to the depiction of gender.


Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.

Poovey, Mary. Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

From Bobbins to Proper Top*

It is only a matter of time before we see Mary Barton as a major motion picture. I mean, we have the lovable, suffering underdogs (everyone not named Carson), the villains (everyone named Carson), romance that is long deferred (Mary and Jem; Margaret and Will), a shoot-first maverick who does bad things that we come to love in the end (John Barton), and so on. If this film were set in contemporary Manchester, imagine the possibilities with the Mancunian dialect. Mary talking to Job about traveling to Liverpool to find Will might say: “Ah, Job, me heads in biscuits. Am I off my trolley to look for Will? Will the search be a proper top, or will it be for nish?” To which Job would reply, “Ah, stop your skriking, child. You are no knapper, but will the Scousers aid you in finding that bowat is beyond me.*”

All slang aside, language has a complex relationship with action in Mary Barton. There is ample evidence. John, on his death bed, mentions several times not understanding the “text” of the Bible in earlier days. The other texts he reads, people, act incongruously to what he reads in the text of the Bible (456). John does not have anyone to interpret either texts, for he was “asking the meaning of this or that text, an [sic] no one told me” (456). Therefore, John then chooses vigilante action, which produces a great chain of events and suffering.

Before Mary leaves for Liverpool, she and Job, fall to fighting when they are attempting to formulate a plan of action to find Will. They soon reconcile, where Job blesses her, to which “the old man’s blessing came like words of power” (354). Once in Liverpool, there are examples where language loses its meaning because she becomes so distressed. When she realizes she has lost her directions to Mr. Bridgenorth’s after seeking Will, the words in her mind fail her as she cannot remember the address, “everything passed away, and it did not signify,” (376) and her world becomes meaningless.

Job, on the other hand, is the ultimate signifier in the narrative, the image of meaning in the midst of suffering. In part, the seemingly oddly placed story about his daughter earlier in the narrative provides evidence for my claim. I say oddly because scholarship seems to overlook this story as unimportant. For example, Roland Végs, in his “Mary Barton and the Dissembled Dialogue,” briefly discuss it as a “story thrown in by Job Leigh to divert attention from Barton’s gloomy forebodings” (173). The story does this, but it achieves something more. It connects the Job of Mary Barton with the Job of the Hebrew Scriptures. Job is a man of sorrows who knows suffering, for his daughter dies young and he and Jennings encounter trials of the journey home. Because of his knowledge of suffering, others look to him for meaning in the midst of disorder. Furthermore, that Job makes meaning out of suffering is most prominently seen near the end of the novel. Mr. Carson summons Job and Jem to his home, ultimately to help him find meaning in his suffering. Job states, “I have lived long enough, too, to see that it is part of His plan to send suffering to bring out a higher good” (472). He then goes on to articulate what John Barton believed so vehemently, that the rich should lighten the suffering of the poor if they can. He is able to find meaning where John Barton does not until near death. It is therefore fitting that the last words of dialogue in the novel are “Job Leigh” (483).


Bobbins: Really bad

Proper Top: Really good

“Ah, Job, I am stressed out. Am I crazy to look for Will? Will the search succeed, or will it be for nothing?” Job: “Ah, stop your crying, child. You are not crazy, but will the citizens of Liverpool aid you in finding the boat is beyond me.”


Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Literary Texts, 2000.

Végs, Roland. “Mary Barton and the Dissembled Dialogue.” Journal of Narrative Theory 33.2 (2003): 163-183. Project Muse. 28 Jan. 2013.

The Jem Complex

Does Jem have enough complexity to make him a compelling character?

Early in the novel, things do not look good for Jem in regard to this question. He possesses the subtly of Roger Sterling when it comes to his love for Mary, which is not a positive thing. And his lack of ease around Mary repulses her. Indeed, it keeps her focused on what seems the goodly Mr. Carson, until we find out that he is a total blackguard, jerk, scuzzball, ratfink—well, you get the point. I felt mildly sorry for Jem’s awkwardness, but I must admit I was rooting for Henry Carson. I know, I know, as an American I am legally obligated to root for the underdog. But is it so wrong to wish the beautiful Mary to marry the equally handsome gentleman Henry? They did seem to love each other. At least, until we see his lack of complexity when we realize that he is a bully to Mary, Jem, and his employees (186-188, 237, 241-244).

Jem, on the other hand, begins to show his depth in his despair as a rejected lover. When he is speaking with Esther, Mary’s aunt, he makes comments that seem a contrived sort of despair on the surface, “It would be better. Better we were all dead” (218). But then we recall that he has lost his father and the twins. And we remember the Manchester that Friedrich Engels was so horrified to witness, strewn with “refuse, filth, and offal” (584). Jem then considers suicide, but quickly moves on from this thought. He realizes that he must shake his despair and save Mary. This moment shows his great depth as a character in the novel. “He braced up his soul, and said to himself, that with God’s help he would be that earthly keeper” (222). Jem decides to love Mary sacrificially, providing an interesting inversion of the sacrifices that John Stuart Mill, in “The Subjection of Women,” states are forced upon women (593).

What is more, Jem begins to love Mary sacrificially by invoking the phrase, “with God’s help” used in the liturgy for the sacrament of Holy Baptism in the Anglican Church, which is the church he was presumably a part of. The line “with God’s help” is repeated in two sections of the liturgy for Holy Baptism. First, when children are presented for Baptism, the parents and godparents repeat “with God’s help” as they claim responsibility for helping the child grow in the Christian faith. Moreover, the phrase is said by the congregation as they are renewing their Baptismal vows. I argue that when Jem utters this, he is binding himself to sacrificially love Mary, for she has “no other friend capable of the duty required of him” (223). And though he is called by Esther to a brotherly duty, it seems likely that he will be renewing his vows of love for Mary. With this fresh resolve, “peace came into his soul; he had left the windy storm and tempest behind” (223).


Engels, Friedrich. “The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, Concise Edition, Volume B. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2007.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Literary Texts, 2000.

Mill, John Stuart. “The Subjection of Women.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature Concise Edition, Volume B. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2007.