Interpretive Problem: Is Tom’s Happy Ending Governed by Fate, Chaos, or is Justice Served by the Goodness of Man?

 

John Dennis states that in a just fable “the Good must never fail to prosper, and the Bad must be always punished: Otherwise the incidents, and particularly the Catastrophe which is the grand Incident, are liable to be imputed rather to Chance, than to Almighty Conduct and to Sovereign Justice”. Is the ending of Tom Jones reminiscent of some ancient idea of divine justice, or is this justice more incidental and dependent on the choices of humanity?

The humorous misunderstanding of Mrs. Waters as Tom’s mother and the near fatal altercation with her husband, the reader is called to think about Oedipus. Oedipus Rex, being the model for Greek tragedy, could be the antithesis to Tom Jones. After all, Tom Jones is a comedy in which events could be seen as maneuvered by the choices characters make. Mrs. Waters discloses Tom’s birth which grants him the position to attain his happy marriage. Characters like Mrs. Miller and Square reveal the true innocence of Tom to Allworthy. Fitzpatrick admits to provoking the duel that put Tom in jail. Characters are also responsible for punishment. Dowling informs Allworthy that Blifil held back Tom’s true parentage, causing Allworthy to see him in a new light that leads to his banishment from Allworthy’s life. In this way, punishment and reward are delegated by the actions of the characters.

Perhaps Tom is meant to parallel Oedipus in that his destiny is governed by fate alone. Although characters have the power to turn things around for him, Tom himself is powerless no matter how good he is to others. Events seem to happen to Tom. His downfall occurs due to a string of random events, such as seeming to have slept with two different women that he surprisingly had not had an affair with. The chance meetings of all of these characters such as Mrs. Waters, who happens to know Tom’s story, and Partridge who seems to just show up are all examples of very incidental events that lead to this chance happy ending. Maybe justice is served, but perhaps not by the characters, but by chance or even fate. The unity of the plot hints that there is a higher order governing the events other than the characters themselves.

Is fielding trying to support the Greek idea that fate is not on the side of good or bad? Unlike Oedipus, Tom just happens to find out his parentage just in time to have a happy ending. Even if there is some form of justice that is given by fate, is Fielding agreeing with Sophocles that humanity cannot control his own destiny? Or is Fielding overturning the Greek belief in fate? Is Fielding saying that it is up to honest people such as these to bring about a happy ending for their fellow man?

Nixon, Cheryl L, ed. Novel Definitions: An Anthology of Commentary on the Novel 1688-                     1815.       Peterborough Ontario: Broadview, 2009. Print.

How Selfish is Moll Really?

 

Larry Langford warns us that to read Moll Flanders we must “continually engage in a process of discrimination, so that we can hear two voices instead of one” (Langford 173). He claims that we must be aware of the “double perspective which Defoe has built into his novel: that of Moll and that of her editor” (Langford 165). The editor’s voice is heard in the times when the narration of Moll’s life becomes uncharacteristically righteous such as when she claims, “how much happier a life of virtue and sobriety is” and “sometimes I flatter’d myself that I had sincerely repented (Defoe 201). This critique of Moll’s character could very well be, as Langford argues, the attempt of the fictional editor to shape the narrative into a moral lesson (Langford 172).

If this view of Moll’s repentance is true, does this mean that Moll does not grow and she is no longer a redeemable character? I do not believe so. During Moll’s stay at Newgate, she makes it clear that she was not penitent, “I was a penitent as I thought, not that I had sinn’d, but that I was to suffer” (Defoe 276). Her selfishness is the root of her remorse, only until she reunites with her Lankashire husband when she says, “I was overwhelmed with grief for him; my own case gave me no disturbance compared to this” (Defoe 282). This hint at selfless emotion occurs before the, perhaps edited in, religious prayer and apparently the “first time [she] felt any real sign of repentance” (Defoe 287). The sight of her husband does not cause her to feel any kind of higher moral responsibility for her actions, after all, she pleads not guilty at the arraignment (Defoe 285). She even continues to lie when she pretends to have been robbed so she can speak with her husband (Defoe 295). This evidence supports Langford in that Moll’s religious repentance may be a fabrication by the editor.

Her act does not reflect honest religion, but only honest care for her husband, which I believe, she always had. If this editor wants to reflect higher morality, he would not feel the need to reflect Moll’s sympathy with a criminal, especially after he attempts to scam her. She admits that she would have been enraged with him if she had lost a fortune to him, not an unconditional love which the editor would call righteous, but I believe that it is undoubtedly the true Moll who feels selflessly for her husband and is honest in saying, “I really lov’d him most tenderly” (172).

Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. Toronto : Broadview, 2005. 45-334. Print.

Langford, Larry L. “Retelling Moll’s Story: The Editor’s Preface to ‘Moll Flanders’.” The Journal of Narrative Theory. 22.3 (1992): 164-179. Print.

Be afraid, be very afraid!

 

J. Paul Hunter discusses the moralists concern for the novel rooted specifically in young women readers. He says of the lower class women in particular that their “heads might be turned and their passions inflamed” (Hunter 22). At least this was the reasoning behind the moralists’ fears, but how valid were their fears? Novelists themselves attempted to defend their writings by claiming to recommend high morals (Hunter 21).

I believe that this defense could be taken as a confession. It sounds as though moralists are afraid that novels will change these lower class women’s ways of thinking and they will no longer depend on a higher authority for their belief systems such as the church or, God forbid, the moralists themselves! Novelists admit that they write for the purpose of supporting one way of thinking over another, always what the author considers moral. Yet what happens if an author supports a “moral” way of thinking that is not directly from the moral authorities? Defoe hints at strong ideas when he suggests that a woman left on her own, “is just like a bag of money…which is prey to the next comer” (Defoe149). Defoe’s character of Moll not only directly considers the problems in the inequalities for women, but she many times experiences the very effects throughout the novel. Although Defoe considers it moral to put issues of inequality in the heads of his female readers, the moralists would surely consider it as turning heads, though not in the way they may have thought.

I say that the authorities of the time, moral or otherwise, have a valid reason to worry. Their jobs could become obsolete and the “weaker” minds of the time could be swayed against the original intentions of their superiors. Not long after this, women begin to fight for rights through legislation, especially in the next century. Feminist ideas come to a head and women begin to see the injustice of their status in society. Women, as improper as it is, begin to think about their own situation and how to better it without a man’s aid. I wonder how much the novel had to do with that. Since women may have been the majority of readers, how different would women’s rights be today without the novel (Hunter 22)?

Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. Toronto : Broadview, 2005. 45-334. Print.

Hunter, J. Paul. “The Novel and Society/Cultural history. Editor John Richett. 1996. Print.

Why Jenny?

The Return of the Soldier is told in first person by the cousin of the soldier, Jenny. Why does Rebecca West use a seemingly arbitrary character to filter the story of Chris, Margaret, and Kitty?

Jenny could be a third party who allows the reader to better get to know the characters. Chris, being shell shocked with no memory of Kitty, is not a reliable source. Besides his obvious bias, through his point of view the reader would lack half of the story completely. Jenny is the only character to know the recent relationship of Chris and Kitty, but is not too biased to learn the story of Chris and Margaret objectively.

Perhaps Jenny is meant to bring the reader into the story as a character themselves. Jenny does not reveal much back story about herself. She doesn’t even seem to have much characterization besides her relentless prejudice against the poor. Jenny is almost a reader rather than a character as she learns about the story along with us and shares common prejudices at the time. Maybe West means for Jenny to be the embodiment of the reader in a way. West might be creating a character for the reader to relate to as an observer of the story, and in turn makes the reader more invested. Jenny says of love, “So it was not until now, when it happened to my friends…that I knew that it was the most significant as it was the loveliest attitude in the world”, so too does the reader not realize the importance of love until they experience it first hand in the role of a character (West 70).

Source: West, Rebecca. The Return of the Soldier. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

United Nations

In the fifth and final stanza of Eliot’s The Waste Land, the “wasteland” is physically portrayed as a dry mountain area. Metaphorically, this is the world of sorrow and war. This section seems to become more global, since it does not have specific depictions of any one character, as the previous sections had. Therefore, this final section seems to be representative of a universal wasteland rather than any one in particular nation.

One of the most important imageries in this stanza is the water imagery, or the lack of water. As the stanza goes on however, Eliot reveals the wind which he says is, “bringing rain” (Eliot 395). With the rain comes hope. The water in the dry land represents a solution found in man. The dry land, or the warring world, seems natural and unavoidable, yet the key to the rain is in the behavior of man when he listens to natural law, in this case, thunder.

The importance of what the thunder says is revealed in the footnote. The “Da” references an Indian fable in which thunder commands to “control yourself”, “give”, and “be compassionate” (401). The rain in this dry wasteland comes when man learns to be moral, give, and be compassionate. The only alleviation from the drought in this world is for humanity to come together. The rain, for Eliot, is provided by man being compassionate to his fellow man. The drought in the wasteland is the war brought on when men are selfish and uncontrollable.

Although Eliot does imply some sort of hope certainly, the wasteland remains isolated. The prison imagery leads us in to the ending. Eliot leaves us with a reminder that, “thinking of the key, each confirms a prison” (415). He provides an answer saying to unite, but he admits that humanity cannot come together entirely. Even as men and nations work together, individuals will always be locked alone in his own psyche. Coupled with Eliot’s note on Bradley’s quote, “…the whole world for each is particular and private to that soul”, the prison imagery reveals to the reader that even as nations unite, they can and must always be separate, even as individuals are separate (2308).

As in the first stanza, Eliot is speaking to the nations during war. He believes that they must work together, or the world will always be a wasteland. No nation is exempt. He references many different literatures from different languages to tell all peoples that they must be responsible for this natural law, no exception. In the twentieth century the world becomes more global creating new problems which cause world wars. As the world becomes more global, so does Eliot’s fifth stanza when he deals with these issues and states that the nations must make a bond, yet they cannot give up their individuality. No Hitler should bring them together as one nation, but they each have a command, given by nature, to hold true to national responsibility, and only then will there be “shantih”, or a peace above all understanding (434.) Until then, there will always be war.

What is life?

 

Katherine Mansfield’s Garden party reflects on the reality of death through the eyes of a young girl. In the end, after seeing her dead neighbor’s face, Laura says, “isn’t life-” (2356). Why does Mansfield leave this fragment so open ended and what does it mean?

One possible answer is that the comment on life was traumatic. Although the sight of the dead man, is portrayed as a positive image, perhaps the reverse state, life, is now considered negative. The preceding positive statements are followed by a “but”. “It was marvelous. But isn’t life-” (2356). This construction makes it seem as if the explanation that cannot be put into words, is contrasting with the marvelous death and therefore may be conveying the traumatic experience life is in comparison.

Another interpretation is that the line is cut short, just as life is. As many lives, one after the other, start and stop too soon, so does Laura’s repeated fragments. Even though life ends in death, humanity continues its feeble attempt to finish its statement. Perhaps Mansfield is simply saying, there are no words for what life is, because one has to experience it to know. She reveals the brevity of life, but also leaves room for the reader to decide what life is by their own experiences of it. Life is short, life is sorrowful, life is ironic; all of these and more are answers to this shortened question. Mansfield simply lets us know, we can only know it by living it. As it says of Laurie, “No matter. He quite understood”, so Mansfield says of the reader, you know, you also have experienced it (2356).

Source: Mansfield, Katherine. “The Garden Party”. Handout English 3351. Print.

Becky is the Hero!

Thackeray is honest from the subtitle of the work; Vanity Fair is a novel without a hero. When considering one definition of “hero”, he is right. The characters in Vanity Fair are all flawed in many ways. However, in literature, a hero is not always a flawless Superman figure. A hero is simply the redeemer of the conflict that the author has created. In this definition of hero, could Becky be the hero of the novel?

The simple answer is, no. Becky is cleaning up the mess that she herself helped to create. Becky is the catalyst for Amelia to fall in love with Dobbin, but opening Amelia’s eyes to the truth doesn’t make Becky heroic any more than saving a person from a burning building someone has just caught on fire would make anyone a hero

However, even the narrator says, “Rebecca, to do her justice, never would let either of these men remain alone with Amelia.”(679, Thackeray). Therefore her protection of Amelia, in this instance at lease, is redeemable even in the eyes of the narrator. This narrator has high standards for a hero, at any rate. When discussing Amelia’s letters, he praises them, but claims, “she wasn’t a heroine” (123). He goes on to explain that her letters were repetitious and had bad grammar. Even the smallest flaw discredited her heroism. Perhaps Thackeray’s point is not that these characters are all too terrible to be heroes, but that the term “hero” is obsolete, since even the worst villain has the potential to redeem the story.

Source: Thackeray, W.M. Vanity Fair. 1st. New York: WW Norton& CO., 1994. 1-689. Print.

Browning’s Cry Against Men

Why does “The Cry of the Children” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning paint men in a negative light? The poem portrays women as nurturers of these children in poverty. The poem claims that the children are “weeping sore before the bosom of their mothers” (23). Masculinity, however, is not presented in such a positive way. It is the “Father land” in which the children are weeping (line 24). The poem is directed at “O my brothers” (1). In these cases men are indifferent, both society’s men that makes up the fatherland and readers.

This could be because the men of society have the power to change the children’s situations. After all, the men are the captains of industry. Men hold the power to vote and reform the system in favor of these children. Not a single father is mentioned in this poem; perhaps she calls the men of society to be the fathers to these fatherless children by means of practical aid.

Or maybe the male figure in the fathers place reminds us of God to whom the children call saying, “our Father” (115). These children are “orphans of the earthly love and heavenly” (147). Browning could be claiming that the situation of the children is not simply a physical poverty, but a spiritual lack due to neglect from society to show God’s love to these children. Maybe it is not only physical need that society owes these children, but the spiritual love of God. After all, “For God’s possible is taught by His world’s loving” (135).

“Anthology of British Literature (3rd set of readings)” English 3351 course handout. Baylor University. Spring 2012.

The Importance of War In Vanity Fair

Thackeray’s tale about the private lives of English families mingles with details of the war occurring at the same time, but why? Why would he go into such detail about events that aren’t central to the story? He is obviously mirroring the two plots, encouraging the reader to make a comparison, but to what conclusion? I believe that he either wants the one to parody and mock the other conflict or he uses one as a foil to increase the value of the other. In chapter thirty-eight, Thackeray goes from discussing the trifles of his characters, to the history of the war, and directly back into the “business of life” (277). It could be mocking the concerns of the characters, as the characters treat their private lives and love “as if these were the great topics of the world” (277). Yet, the actual description of the war could be seen as much more trifling, since it is only selfish greed: “he had jobbed to himself Poland, and was determined to keep it: another had robbed half Saxony, and was bent upon maintaining his acquisition.” (277). Maybe Thackeray jests at the self importance of his characters, but perhaps he is commenting on human nature, that even our “biggest” conflicts are simply manifestations of the same nature with which we live every aspect of life, and therefore of the same importance.

Source: Thackeray, W.M. Vanity Fair. 1st. New York: WW Norton& CO., 1994. 1-689. Print.