The “Novel Without a Hero” Has a Heroine without a Prayer

At least for the first half of the book, Rebecca seems to be anti-prayer. For over half the novel, she never appears praying; on the contrary, the narrator suggests that she disdains prayer. First, we see Rebecca feeling constricted by the imposition of prayer under Mrs. Pinkerton’s regime: “The rigid formality of the place suffocated her: the prayers and the meals…oppressed her almost beyond endurance.” Then for the remainder of the first half of the book, she never genuinely prays.

This absence might not be such a big deal, except that she seems to stand alone in this, especially as a woman. We see people praying before meals, we hear the church bells summoning people to pray, and we notice all the servants gathering to pray. Mrs. Major O’Dowd reads her uncle’s sermons and prays from her prayer book as she brews a cup of joe for her hubby in the morning. The narrator repeatedly defines women as pray-ers. While the men fight, the women pray. While the men shed their blood, the women shed their tears as they weep in supplication.

If Thackeray privileged praying, then Amelia would be the heroine. We know she prays for God to strengthen the men, for George to come back to her, and for him to be safe. The narrator comments about her: “How long had that poor girl been on her knees! What hours of speechless prayer and bitter prostration had she passed there!” Rather than being lauded as the model woman for her prayer practices, Amelia is regarded as weak and ineffectual. Soon after she prays “Our Father” on the couch with George, he leaves her. All she can do is try to protect the holy space from Rebecca’s touch, which would ruin the memory for her. At the end of chapter 32, we see her prayers going unanswered: “Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.” Earlier in the book, the narrator (who, let’s be honest, usually doesn’t hesitate to share details), refuses to share what Amelia prays, saying that her prayers “are secrets, and out of the domain of Vanity Fair, in which our story lies.”

Becky is set apart from Amelia and the other women in many ways, one of which is her avoidance of prayer. And as she is set apart, the narrator lauds her as the heroine of the novel. The illustration accompanying the narrator’s praise for her independence depicts her sleeping soundly after her husband leaves. She doesn’t need anything. She gathers her things together and doesn’t ask for help from a higher power. And she’s praised for it.

In “Thackeray and Religion: The Evidence of Henry Esmond,” John Peck notes that few critics have closely examined Thackeray’s religion, but that the author’s skepticism is evident in his works. (Not only was Thackeray a skeptic, but he also apparently abhorred religious tracts…don’t tell Charles Reade). Perhaps this skepticism prompted him to set apart as the heroine the one who sees no need for prayer.

The Sound of Silence

In her article “’The eagerness of a listener quickens the tongue of a narrator’: Storytelling and Autobiography in Jane Eyre,” Vicky Simpson argues among other things that “storytelling is a way to reclaim one’s existence” (9). As I consider Jane’s power in telling her autobiographical story, I am also confronted with just how much silence is present in her account. Is silence anything more than the absence of storytelling? I argue that characters also reclaim their existence through silence.

Throughout the novel, the words “silence” or “silent” appear one hundred ten times. That’s a lot of quietude. Initially, this absence of sound occurs as punishment. Mean-spirited adults repeatedly demand silence, giving it a negative connotation. Silence also is associated with Jane’s loneliness, as we see her crying silent tears and thinking silently rather than speaking openly with others. In some ways, imposed silence might be viewed as a muzzle from which Jane needs to be released in order to tell her story and be whole.

At the same time, Jane seems to be master of her silence. As the narrator, she announces at the beginning of chapter ten her intentional silence about eight years of her life. Jane discusses her writing in terms of slavery—“I am only bound to invoke Memory where I know her response will possess some degree of interest.” By contrast to the discipline of her childhood, which often involved lots of shushing and people ironically yelling “Silence!,” now Jane seems to operate under a different system, one that binds her to speak. When she has the opportunity to remain silent, she takes it.

Helen Burns often chooses silence of her own accord, and perhaps she might be the inspiration for Jane’s changing thoughts about silence. Marked by tranquility, the child repeatedly determines not to defend herself when she is spoken against, and she also stays mum when others try to put words in her mouth. For instance, when Jane tries to supplement Helen’s description of their teacher by remarking on her cruelty, Helen remains silent, firmly yet graciously refusing to speak. On several other instances, Helen works, plays, or thinks silently, perhaps not because she is trying to make a statement but simply because she can.

Though silence is demanded as a punishment, taking away Jane’s voice in the beginning of the novel, Jane learns through her friend Helen’s example to harness its power in defining herself. Silence becomes a preferable state at times as she escapes the noises of the house for the refuge of silence on the third floor. By embracing silence, Jane does not necessarily yield to the control of others; rather, she appreciates and masters quietude, using it for her own purposes.

Can’t Buy Me Love?

I agree with Richard Fantina and others who see It Is Never Too Late to Mend as somewhat disjointed, and I appreciate his insight regarding possible reasons for its disjointedness. In his chapter “Saying ‘No’ to Power: It Is Never Too Late to Mend and Hard Cash,” Fantina elucidates the book’s relatively spastic nature, explaining that publishers likely required Reade to make his story fit a standard three-volume structure. Reade released parts of the story on the stage, first without the prison descriptions and later with apparently horrifically realistic inclusion of the jail scenes in another dramatic version. While the novel may appear patched together, some recurring threads may actually link it together in effective ways. One theme that seems to repeatedly crop up is money’s importance to relationships.

In the beginning of the novel, George sets off on a quest to buy his beloved’s hand in marriage; his social system requires that he prove himself by paying a bride price. He’s so confident in the power of money to secure their relationship that he distances himself a little—moves across the world to Australia—in order to obtain it. This may seem a bit drastic, but he does it for a love, a noble purpose.

Thankfully, after some crazy adventures and man-hunts, he finds a monstrous gold nugget that will solve all his problems. Actually, take that back. Jacky discovers a monstrous gold nugget, but he yawns and decides to share. Very friendly of the chap. Robinson then warns Jacky: “Don’t you have anything to do with yellow stone, it would make you as great a fool as we are,” having personally seen the disaster that riches for riches’ sake can bring (625). But using gold to solidify relationships, as Jacky does by helping George pay the bride price, is totally kosher. Later, when they show up on Susan’s wedding day, Tom reports George’s fidelity to her “When we found the great nugget he kisses it, and says he, ‘That is not because you are gold, but because you take me to Susan’” (694). His focus on the gold as relational currency rather than a competing love helps prove his faithfulness.

For a moment after they first claimed the nugget, though, Tom focuses on the gold and is made “a fool” as he relationally distances himself from others. Luckily, the nugget is so large that they can’t hide it from those close to them for long. When their friend Jem sees it, he reacts to it almost as if they’ve punched him: “the sight of it almost knocked him down” (625). Robinson laments that “the great nugget already made him wish one friend away” (625). Despite Tom’s tendency towards isolating himself by hoarding or (or stealing, which put him prison), Jem bears with them and chooses to continue guiding them rather than leaving to find his own gold.

Reade produces the novel for reform, and the rest of the novel might be a sort of gold nugget that allows him to meet his publisher’s three-volume requirement to get there. I’m not saying the other plots present aren’t important or artistic in their own right, but since they’re already represented elsewhere, they can be seen as currency that buys communication.

Fantina, Richard. “Saying ‘No’ to Power: It Is Never Too Late to Mend and Hard Cash.Victorian Sensational Fiction: The Daring Work of Charles Reade. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Reade, Charles. It Is Never Too Late to Mend. Miami: Hard Press, n.d.

Everybody Needs a Spokesperson

In Michel Foucault’s “Panoticism,” he explains the ineluctable individualism found in the prisons he describes. “The crowd, a compact mass, a locus of multiple exchanges, individualities merging together, a collective effect, is abolished and replaced by a collection of separated individualities.” The prisoners in Charles Reade’s It is Never Too Late to Mend certainly deal with such separation from others. Doors and walls block conversation between Eden and Robinson and later Josephs and Robinson.

The punishment prisoners fear most is the black hole, a dark, isolated room that threatens to strip them of their reason. That the isolated prisoners need someone to represent them and talk to them is no surprise. What surprises me, though, is how often those who aren’t living in prison seem to require messengers. The prevalence of messengers in It Is Never Too Late to Mend denotes a ubiquitous isolation begging for community.

At the beginning of the book, men repeatedly gallop up on horseback, interrupt whatever is going on, and announce “Tell so and so this,” before jetting off. We see letters being written to explain what people cannot in person because they are physically distant or the writer someone is ill (61). And we see our furry friend Carlo the Pointer chasing after George to communicate William & Co.’s love for him since they couldn’t go with him all the way to Aussieland. For understandable reasons, the family and surrounding community seem to use messengers quite a bit.

Those associated with the prison rely on messengers even more. As Hawes seeks to divine Eden’s physical condition, he opts to send others in his stead. “I see I must go myself—No, I won’t, I’ll send Fry. Ah, here is Hodges. Go and see the parson, and come back and tell me whether he is like to live or like to die” (240). Understanding that these men come as messengers disguised as sympathizers, Eden sends a clear, impassioned message back to the prison authorities that their existence has brought him back from the brink of death to save the prisoners from injustice.

Sometimes communication causes great pain to the characters. Eden grows nauseous as he braces himself for the grueling task of rewriting a supposedly lost letter. When he finds that Susan sent it while he was asleep, he can hardly believe the news: “What letter? What letter?…You don’t mean you posted that letter?” (221).  His shock quickly metamorphoses into gratitude to Susan: “You don’t know what a service you have done me!…You have spared me this most unpleasant task” (221). Eden’s physical condition necessitated that he have a messenger—both someone to post the letter and the letter itself.

Texts themselves act as messengers repeatedly; besides letters, two other examples are Eden’s copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the tracts Eden gives to Robinson. In both cases, the messenger-texts are, at least on the surface, ineffectual. Messenger Mrs. Davies refuses to give the book to Fry because she distrusts his thief-like appearance, thereby widening the communicative breach between Eden and Fry. Eden had hoped to send a message of sympathy by way of Harriet Beecher Stowe, but the messenger is forced to stay mum. Similarly, the tracts meant to speak to Robinson’s soul are repurposed into artistic playing cards before they can speak a message to him. He recolors them to declare a message quite different than the one Mr. Eden sent.

In and out of the prison, isolation abounds, requiring individuals to rely on messengers to communicate meaning.

Gypsies, Peasants, and a Castle Full of Gold

Jonathan Harker writes of his visit back to Transylvania after a seven-year absence: “Every trace of all that had been was blotted out” (419). When I read this, I pictured total destruction, a once lush landscape replaced by ashes, an uninhabitable post-apocalyptic world. Essentially, I imagined that when Dracula turned to dust, his whole world did, too. However, just as that mental picture began to solidify, Harker informs us that the castle still stands. Though all around is waste, this emblem of domesticity, albeit perverted, looms as ever before, prompting me to wonder what happens to the other inhabitants of Transylvania.

Harker’s description of total desolation contrastsed with his acknowledgement of what still exists captures Stephen D. Arata’s attention as well. In his article “The Occidental Tourist: ‘Dracula’ and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization,” Arata addresses Harker’s Note, insightfully exploring several meanings. He poses that just as Dracula himself has been “blotted out,” Jonathan’s old view of Transylvania is erased. Similarly, he shows that all the journal entries, letters, and other apparently inauthentic writings about their experience are rendered untrustworthy; their validity has been “blotted out” (Arata 644).

These explanations clarify Harker’s note for me, but even these points leave a giant question mark regarding the state of the locals.

For hundreds of years, the Dracula family has occupied the same foreboding castle, and seemingly an entire culture has been built on superstition surrounding this nearly mythical man. The other people associated with the land are, like Dracula, described in mythic terms, with the leader of the gypsies being likened to a “centaur” (Stoker 416). As soon as Jonathan and Quincey slay the Count, the gypsies “turned, without a word, and rode away as if for their lives” (418). The wolves follow suit, and it seems that all who were once in service to darkness are now freed. Their departure hardly seems to celebrate newfound liberty, though; they can only fear the ones more powerful than their previous master and hope to avoid the wrath of the powerful five who “surrounded” them (416).

Like the gypsies, the local peasants are made mythic by their association with Dracula. Both the peasants who greet Jonathan on his first journey and those who encounter the band of travelers later in the book show great concern and compassion for the wayfarers. Their care stems from their knowledge of the evil surrounding the Count, a knowledge that informs all they do. Though some may have actually encountered Dracula, most have based their lives solely on what they have heard in stories. And while their knowledge is by no means empirical or exhaustive, they survive by it.

What happens, then, when their entire system of belief is shattered with nothing to replace it; or is it? Do the peasants even find out about the Count’s obliteration? Even if the gypsies were to spread the news, the peasants may still live in fear, now of the Westerners who have the power to slay Dracula.

Seven years later, no one seems to have settled around or in the castle, though doing so would be safe after the Count’s death. The gypsies likely still roam in fear; likewise, the Harkers give no indication that the peasants know anything has happened to the powerful force they fear.

Van Helsing boasts: “We want no proofs; we ask none to believe us!” desiring only that young Quincey Harker know of his mother’s pluck (419). Proofs or no proofs, the peasants and the gypsies may have been eager to believe their life-altering story were it told to them.

Arata, Stephen D. “The Occidental Tourist: ‘Dracula’ and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization.” Victorian Studies 33.4 (1990): 621-45.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Ed. Glennis Byron. Toronto: Broadview, 1998.

“P.S.—I need not tell you this is a secret”

As I read Mina’s letters, Dr. Seward’s diary, and Jonathan’s journal, I can’t help but feel slightly invasive. At the same time, leafing through pages that were purportedly never intended for others’ eyes has a certain sneaky appeal that can’t help but intrigue readers. As much as I’d rather not have others perusing my own deep, dark secrets, I’m unashamedly engrossed by the correspondence in Dracula; the private made public attracts people’s attention.

If this story were set today, would it still be presented as it is? (This has nothing to do with recent vampire trends, with which I am entirely unfamiliar). I love journaling and corresponding through letters, but the possibilities for communication have exploded beyond the options Stoker had available in 1897. Technology has given people the ability to be both more public and more private than they could be in Dracula.

I can imagine reading Lucy’s tumblr and seeing how happy she is that people are trying to save her life. Or Mina might have made a meme of Lucy sleepwalking that embarrasses her enough to have a sleep test conducted. Vampire problem potentially avoided. #Giveblood might trend on Twitter, or British kids might tweet: “jus chillin with @Blooferlady on hampstead hill” with an Instagram of a white figure slightly darkened by an artsy antiquing effect. Characters might be more likely to share their private stuff with the world, and some of their problems could be avoided. Conversely, those characters who are serious about security could hide their digital accounts so that they would never be discovered.  If Jonathan still wanted his diary to be private, for example, then he might password protect it so securely that not even his beloved Mina could hack in. The whole issue of privacy and what individuals choose to share with a community becomes grossly important.

My goal is not to make a statement about social media in 2013 but to examine the timeless implications of shared secrecy. Imagining the novel in a different context highlights the voices we are allowed to hear and perhaps the silence of others. Even though I think the Count would be all over Facebook today (his appearance in Hyde Park eerily seemed like creeping on someone’s pictures and he does seem to be obsessed with walls), I think Stoker would delete Dracula’s account.

In his book Victorian Literature and Postcolonial Studies, Patrick Brantlinger addresses the question of subalterns—those who cannot represent themselves—speaking out. He contrasts the change in representation of African slaves after slave narratives began to be published to the consistently harsh treatment of Australian Aborigines. With few exceptions, the Aborigines had their voice taken from them in literature by the writer-as-ventriloquist.

Similarly, Stoker doesn’t give the Count his own voice. In the beginning of the novel, the compiler explains how the following fragments of communication came to be organized. The reader can rest assured that the account is a completely trustworthy “history” and that “all needless matters have been eliminated” (Stoker 29). Perhaps the Count would not have written any letters, but if he had, would they have been written off as “needless matters?”

Brantlinger, Patrick. Victorian Literature and Postcolonial Studies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2009.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Ed. Glennis Byron. Toronto: Broadview, 1998.

*The title quotation may be found on page 88 of Dracula.

Daniel’s Confession

Throughout Daniel Deronda, we see the title character listening, advising, even absolving Gwendolen of guilt. Rachel Hollander likens him to a priest in her article “Daniel Deronda and the Ethics of Alterity.” What happens when the priestly Daniel has something of his own to share?

The characters need each other in order to know themselves, and superman Daniel is no exception. As Hollander points out, Gwendolen cannot delve into her soul to map the uncharted territory there without the help of her counseling friend Daniel. She talks and cries. He listens. She understands herself better. Seemingly more than others, their relationship demonstrates the human need to be known in order to know, but Gwendolen is not the only one who needs others to help her know herself.

Daniel refers to Mirah and Mordecai as teachers who prepare him to understand his identity once he discovers his parentage. He assures Gwendolen: “I had been prepared for it by becoming intimate with a very remarkable Jew”; this “other” enables him to know himself (688). His mother, who writes to inform him of his Jewish heritage, undeniably helps him understand where he comes from and chart the path the rest of his life will take. At the same time, Daniel’s own mother insists that he cannot possibly understand her. She who some might assume would be easiest for him to understand solidifies the unknowability of the other. Leonora causes me to wonder whether all the confession in the book really allows characters to know each other or if it only alerts them to their ignorance.

This leads me to Daniel’s confession, when he tells Gwendolen about his heretofore unknown past and his future plans. Deronda resolves that he “could not make the communication in writing; his tenderness could not bear to think of her reading his virtual farewell in solitude, and perhaps feeling his words full of a hard gladness for himself and indifference for her” (Eliot 684). He needs to talk to her in person because he wants her to understand him. Interestingly enough, other important messages have been shared through letters (remember Lydia Glasher’s curse? Paper didn’t lessen its potency). He’s being a good friend by telling her face to face, but he’s also trying to fulfill his own desire to be understood (and to understand himself better as a result).

Somewhat dramatically, Daniel begins his confession: “‘It will perhaps astonish you…that I have only quite lately known who were my parents.’” He doesn’t expect her to understand, but much to his surprise, “Gwendolen was not astonished” (687). Wanting to understand but knowing she may not be able to, Gwendolen asks Daniel about his future plans: “Can I understand the ideas, or am I too ignorant?” (688). Throughout the novel but especially in the scene of Daniel’s confession, the characters dance back and forth between ignorance and understanding. Can they really know each other?

Daniel’s confession helps both of them to live their lives better, suggesting that even if they can’t fully know and understand the other, they are better off for trying.

Works Cited

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

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

Luck Be a Lady

Gambling, fortune, divination—Eliot likes to keep readers in the dark about who is really in control in Daniel Deronda. I invite you to feast your ears on the toe-tapping crooning of Frank Sinatra while reading, because his cover of the Guys and Dolls song plays in my head every time Eliot reminds us of the roulette episode or calls Gwendolen a “goddess of luck” or “empress of luck” (6, 132). Gamblin’ Gwen is no ordinary woman; resolving to create her own destiny, she insists, “I will not be told that I am what women always are” (266). Though she abhors the idea of marriage at first, she eventually decides to wed, as long as she can avoid reproducing. This horrific lack of motherliness would clearly set her apart as an extraordinary Victorian woman according to W.R. Greg, who argues that “maternal instinct” is “woman’s definitive characteristic” (Poovey 7).

Besides her complete lack of motherly affection, other traits set Gwendolen apart as an oddity, er, rare jewel from a pawn shop. Early in the book, we get the sense that somebody has a sixth sense. When the dreadful painting is revealed during Gwendolen’s performance, Mr. Gascoigne and Miss Merry hypothesize the cause:

“It is very mysterious. It must be the spirits.”

“But there is no medium present.”

“How do you know that? We must conclude that there is, when such things happen” (50).

Not only is Gwen associated with this horrifying supernatural occurrence, but she is also repeatedly linked to divination. Furthermore, her face-to-face encounter with Lydia Glasher is described as a “ghastly vision…in a dream” (128). Her next interaction with the ghost figure occurs through Lydia’s wedding gift and letter, which reduce the blushing bride to a pallid phantom. Sure that “the Furies had crossed his threshold,” the poor groom credits her enfeebled state to some mystic higher power that overtakes her. She’s eerily connected to another world, and she fluctuates between controlling and being controlled.

Let’s face it: the jury is still out on the whole agency issue here, and it’s not just with “the spoiled child” who has special powers. Gwendolen’s uncle tells her: “You hold your fortune in your own hands…a fortune in face which almost takes the question out of the range of mere personal feeling and makes the acceptance of it a duty” (119). So she’s in control of something that’s controlling her? Got it. Later, Daniel (Gwen’s anti-gambling friend), also experiences both sides of the agency coin. He talks about probabilities and how unlikely it would be for him to find Mirah’s family, especially since he doesn’t really want to let her go. Then lo and behold, he finds himself at dinner with them, like he’s one of the family. In one chapter, “he felt himself in no sense free,” but by the next chapter, “Deronda went according to his will” (138, 156). And while Book III is entitled “Maidens Choosing,” one has to question how much of these maidens’ choices were completely theirs to make. Multiple characters waver back and forth between choice and destiny.

Eliot encapsulates these questions about free will and determinism in the roulette ball, where risky decisions and fate commingle. Daniel objects to Gwendolen’s gambling for two main reasons—one, because she willingly places herself in a position to potentially gain from another’s loss, and two, because gambling isn’t feminine. Something about this toying with chance makes gambling a masculine activity, dangerous for the ladies, and Lady Luck herself swings between wielding power and being overtaken by the power of another.

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

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


When Failure Is Really Success

In “Mary Barton and the Dissembled Dialogue,” Roland Vegs states that Jem’s “failure at public self-representation is part of the general pattern in Gaskell’s novel of the working-class failure of dissembled dialogue” (177). I agree with Vegs that Jem does not represent himself successfully, but does that necessarily mean that he fails at what he tries to do and that the working class fails, too?

The point isn’t that Jem fails at representing himself but that he succeeds in representing another.

John Barton loses his voice and needs someone else to speak for him until he can regain it. First, as the official delegate sent to represent his class to those in the authority, John is rejected when his plea is disregarded. The subsequent representation of John’s people is assigned by Harry Carson in the form of a caricature, but this silent paper serves to incite laughter rather than speak change. Next, when John draws the fateful murder card, he is chosen to represent his people once again, but this time incognito. “No one, save God and his own conscience, knew who was the appointed murderer” (Gaskell 251). The representational regression from delegate to caricature to marked paper paradoxically signifies a progression of action to compensate for failed dialogue. John is not a successful representative in the dialogue, and fate would have him jettison words in favor of action.

Enter Jem Wilson. Intentionally or not, John chooses Jem as his representative when he takes Jem’s gun. I don’t think John tries to set Jem up as a villain, but the murder weapon automatically points to its owner. Jim accepts the role assigned him, sacrificing his own right to defend himself by keeping mum about the true murderer. When given a chance to represent himself in the dialogue of the courtroom, Jem relinquishes his personal rights so that he can be a scapegoat for John and the rest of the community.

This is voluntary forfeiture, not failure. Jem’s very successful sacrifice exemplifies Dr. James Phillip Kay’s concept of “mutual relief,” essentially workers helping workers. (Goodlad 609). In order for John Barton and the rest of the working class to receive representation, one from their class, Jem, had to speak (or cover) for all of them. Thomas Chalmers would advocate that this “abandonment of self to the social” is a necessary step toward change (599). As Jem succeeds in his self-sacrificing purpose to cover for the real murderer, he finds that Mary and Will cover for him. As a result, the dialogue signifying “the final consolidation of the classes”–Barton’s conversation with Job Legh and Mr. Carson—can occur later in the book (Vegs 167). Jem wins a voice for Barton—a voice that can confess and effect change through private dialogue. Success.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. Toronto: Broadview, 2000.

Goodlad, Lauren M.E. “‘Making the Working Man Like Me’: Charity, Pastorship, and Middle-Class Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain; Thomas Chalmers and Dr. James Phillips Kay.” Victorian Studies 43.4 (2001): 591-617.

Vegs, Roland. “Mary Barton and the Dissembled Dialogue.” Journal of Narrative Theory 33.2 (2003): 163-83. Project Muse. 8 Jan. 2013.

Mermaids, Flying Fish, Manx Cats, and Mary Barton

At first, chapter thirteen in Mary Barton seems like a simple diversion from the rest of the novel. Lovesick Mary follows Will to a party, hoping she’ll spot her crush there; when she doesn’t, she’s convinced the night will be a bust. Fortunately, Will saves the evening when he pulls out his traveler’s tales to entertain everyone and distract them from their “dark, heavy, oppressive” lives (Gaskell 209). They all have a great time together then disperse back to solitude and despair.

What does Will’s spiel about mermaids and other oddities have to do with the rest of the book?

Surely Gaskell just inserted the little mermaid codswallop in mad-lib fashion to give the characters some lively conversation before they returned to their rather depressing reality. They could have talked about anything, right? For some reason, mermaids, flying fish, and Manx cats not only entertain but also bring people together; I argue this power comes from their peculiarity.

What makes them so powerfully strange? Since mermaids cannot survive in Manchester, no one in the town has ever actually seen one; the creatures are strange partially because they aren’t an organic part of the community. German sociologist Georg Simmel agrees that the Stranger comes from the outside and is no “owner of soil,” but he also argues that the Other plays an active, positive role in the community (1). Because she only shows up in a story, I was skeptical of her importance in Manchester until I noticed her similarities to Mary. Even as a green-haired, finned woman, her beauty and situation mirror that of Gaskell’s title character. Freshly mourning her own escape from Jem’s pursuit, Mary enthusiastically voices her wish that the whalers had caught the lonely mermaid. Will also jokes about the aquatic woman’s feminine fickleness, a trait with which Mary closely identifies.

Not only do Will’s strange creatures evoke sympathy in Mary but they also unite him, a stranger, with others in the group. Even though naturalist Job Legh scoffs at the sailor’s mermaid talk, he warms up to the young man when Will offers to bring him a flying fish or a Manx cat. The men so bond over their fascination with strangeness that Will starts making Mermaidicus jokes and Job has Margaret sing for him. Of course, her singing wins his heart, and their romance buds from this stem of strangeness.

According to Catherine Gallagher, Gaskell purposely switches around from tragedy to melodrama to domestic fiction in Mary Barton because the form can reveal or hide reality  (75). The unique form of Will’s sailing yarn makes it more than just an interlude; his strange talk makes possible the unimagined.


Gallagher, Catherine. “Causality versus Conscience: The Problem of Form in Mary             Barton.” The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and                        Narrative Form, 1832-1867. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. 62-87.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. Toronto: Broadview, 2000.

Simmel, Georg. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Trans. Kurt Wolff. New York: Free             Press, 1950. 402-8.