Show me the money!

Last week, we discussed Becky’s claim that she could be a good woman if she had 5,000 pounds a year. This notion of morality seems somewhat Marxist, affirming the materialistic idea that action is bound with economics, or simply relative and circumstantial. Thackeray continues to question the concept of morality in a superficial and vain world. The novel does not endorse Becky’s claim, but exposes her utter selfishness which is at the root of her abuse of money.

Becky’s pursuit of fortune constantly tarnishes her integrity. Becky price gouges her carriage and horses to Jos in his panic-stricken state in the midst of the war: “Rebecca measuring the value of the goods which she had for sale by Jos’s eagerness to purchase, as well as by the scarcity of the article, put upon her horses a price so prodigious as to make even the civilian draw back” (320). Becky and Rawdon continue in their toxic irresponsibility to gamble and live on credit. Becky and Rawdon’s abuse of money again shapes their morality as they effectively bankrupt Briggs and Raggles, “….and though the poor wretch was utterly ruined by the transaction, his children being flung on the streets, and himself driven into the Fleet Prison; yet someone must pay even for gentleman who live for nothing a-year….” (372). Becky’s selfishness pervades her environment. Her love for money seems to be greater than the love she has for her own son. He only becomes useful to her at the end of the novel when he financially supports her. Her adulterous and utilitarian relationship with the rich Lord Steyne reveals her lack of dignity. In the midst of Mr. Sedley’s death, Osborne tells George:  “You see….what comes of merit and industry, and judicious speculations, and that. Look at me and my baker’s account. Look at your poor grandfather, Sedley, and his failure. And yet he was a better man than I was, this day twenty years—a better man I should say, by ten thousand pound” (607). Thackeray seems to be making a clear statement on morality standing independent of one’s economic situation.

This notion becomes subverted as Becky likely kills Jos in order to live off his insurance policy and ironically live a life of charity: “She busies herself in works of piety. She goes to church, and never without a footman. Her name is in all the Charity Lists.” (689) In a sense, the novel comes around full circle, as she does “become a good woman”, but her charity is false and unconvincing. Thackeray insists that Becky’s lack of virtue does not arise out of her financial situation, but underlies her pursuit of wealth at the expense of those around her.

 

Feminism in Vanity Fair

The issue of femininity is particularly interesting in the novel. In contrast to Amelia’s “tender-hearted” nature, Becky’s womanhood is practically denied and she is almost reminiscent of a Lady MacBeth figure: “Unsex me!” The narrator states:

She had never mingled in the society of women: her father, reprobate as he was, was a man of talent; his conversation was a thousand times more agreeable to her than the talk of such of her own sex as she now encountered—the pompous inanity of the old schoolmistress, the foolish good humour of her sister, the silly cackle and scandal of the elder girls and the frigid correctness of the governess equally annoyed her—and she had no soft maternal heart, this unlucky girl, otherwise the prattle and talk of the younger children with whose care she was chiefly intrusted, might have soothed and interested her: but she lived among them two years and not one was sorry that she went away (14).

Thackeray seems to endorse the necessity of the maternal bond for a young woman’s development while simultaneously dismissing female society. Without a mother, Becky must pursue marriage, “husband-hunting” (19). She is further characterized as a “viper” with “demoniacal laughter” (15). One recalls the vampire imagery of the New Woman in Dracula. Later in the novel, we see the lack of Becky’s maternal instinct in the coldness she displays towards her own child. This again goes against Victorian convention: “… women are commonly not satisfied until they have husbands and children on whom they may centre affections….” (32). Becky presents a threat to the stereotypical gender norm of the “angel in the house”. She is much different from the traditional woman we have seen: Mina Harker, even Jane Eyre. In a way, the narrator seems to subvert her gender where she appears more fittingly masculine. The power dynamic shifts. This is evident in the portrayal of Joseph Sedley as a foil to Becky with his timidity: “He was as vain as a girl: and perhaps his extreme shyness was one of the results of his extreme vanity” (22). Even his father calls him “vain, selfish, lazy, and effeminate” (52). Thackeray appears to present a gender reversal of the norm in Becky and Joseph. Becky Sharp symbolizes the complexity of shifting notions of gender in the Victorian period.

Plain Jane Speaks Out…Again

(Shamelessly stealing our colleague’s title! Thank you, Andy)

In his article, “What Did Jane Eyre Do? Ideology, Agency, Class and the Novel,” Chris R. Vanden Bossche, writes that the novel “invites analysis in terms of the repression model of ideology.” He differentiates between repression as a novelistic trope and the narrative as an act of repression (52). In thinking about the theme of repression in the novel, I cannot help but go back to one of my favorite quotations, in which Jane passionately declares her self-worth and equality:

Do you think I am an automaton?–a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!–I have as much soul as you,–and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;–it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,–as we are! (338).

Jane’s gumption and confidence allow her to fully express the strength of her feminine. She is “a free human being with an independent will” (338). Jane asserts her individuality outside of class and gender restrictions by invoking the reality of spiritual truth. She draws on biblical language and speaks of her “morsel of bread” and “living water”. She acknowledges her ordinary and poor status, but this does not diminish her sense of self because she understands that the customs and conventionalities of society do not define the truth of her being. She rejects the narrow restrictions imposed on her by Victorian culture by acknowledging a higher truth.

In responding to critics who argue that Jane is repressed by cultural norms to marry, I find her refusal to marry Mr. Rochester while he is married and her refusal to marry St. John out of love for another, as evidence of her freedom. Her decision to marry does not repress her or symbolize her submission to cultural norms, but brings her great happiness. At the conclusion of the novel, she writes: “I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest—blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine….All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character—perfect concord is the result” (554). Jane’s happiness and freedom is evident.

 

 

Feminism

As I read Charlotte Bronte’s novel, I could not help but find myself endeared to Jane Eyre’s character. While I admired Helen’s meekness and acceptance of suffering, I was drawn to Jane’s inability to refrain from speaking against injustice, her deep love, and the quiet strength of her femininity. Mr. Rochester’s attraction to Jane’s beauty lies in her goodness. Jane’s moral force is not reminiscent of the dry, stereotypical womanhood of Mina Harker, but rather a lively presence grounded in truth. Jane’s integrity inspires Mr. Rochester to examine his own masculinity and honor.  Jane speaks the truth unwaveringly. Mr. Rochester confides in Jane:

…. imagine yourself in a remote foreign land; conceive that you there commit a capital error…. Bitter and base associations have become the sole food of your memory; you wander here and there, seeking rest in exile, happiness in pleasure—I mean heartless, sensual pleasure –such as dulls intellect and blights feeling. Heart-weary and soul-withered, you come home after years of voluntary banishment: you make a new acquaintance—how or where no matter: you find in this stranger much of the good and bright qualities which you have sought for twenty years, and never before encountered; and they are all fresh, healthy, without soil and without taint. Such society revives, regenerates: you feel better days come back—higher wishes, purer feelings; you desire to recommence your life, and to spend what remains to you of days in a way more worthy of an immortal being. To attain this end, are you justified in overleaping an obstacle of custom—a mere conventional impediment, which neither your conscience sanctifies nor your judgment approves? (300).

Of course, Jane remains her firm in her conviction. She echoes Helen’s earlier sentiment to rely less on the love of human beings: “a Wanderer’s repose or a Sinner’s reformation should never depend on a fellow-creature. Men and women die; philosophers falter in wisdom, and Christians in goodness; if any one you know has suffered and erred, let him look higher than his equals for strength to amend, and solace to heal” (301). Rather than accept Mr. Rochester’s thinly veiled confession as flattery, Jane recognizes that one’s conversion cannot simply rest on another human being, but must return to the form of goodness itself, God. While Mr. Rochester reacts in prideful sarcasm and unfairly toys with Jane’s emotions as he speaks of spending time with her on the night before he marries Miss Ingram, she holds her head high.

While Nancy Armstrong endorses a wider view of feminism in “Gender Must Be Defended,” I would argue that through the irresistible figure of Jane and her moral integrity, Bronte upholds her heroine as a model for authentic womanhood. Armstrong finds that “….traditional femininity produces the negative femininity that identifies certain people as those who can be allowed to die…” (546). While I am not sure if the death of the characters can be attributed to the play’s exclusive attitude towards gender, I would maintain that Bronte’s concern with moral truth is universal.

Reade and the Novelist

In his brief survey of literature, R.V. Young asserts that the great nineteenth-century Russians achieve the essential task of the novelist: “to shape a complex, compelling narrative, peopled with convincing characters, and transfigured by profound spiritual significance” (40). While It is Never Too Late to Mend shares the verbosity of a Tolstoy or Dostoevsky novel, Reade falls short in his capacity as an artist to reveal the humanity of the prisoners. He instead settles for moralizing which incited his contemporaries, but fails to have lasting significance.

In her essay, “Forgotten Writers, Neglected Histories: Charles Reade and the Nineteenth-Century Transformation of the British Literary Field,” Mary Poovey discusses Reade’s novel in regards to the nature of literature. She notes Orwell’s comment: “[Reade] possessed vast stocks of disconnected information which a lively narrative gift allowed him to cram into books” (435). While Reade’s portrayal of the injustice suffered by the prisoners is undeniably poignant, his overreliance on factual information and his meaningless subplots detract from a unified depiction. Reade’s narrative is complex, but hardly compelling.

One could make the case that Mr. Eden is a convincing character and effects a “profound spiritual influence” within the prison community. There is a sense of humanity restored. However, the characters that surround Reade’s subplots are less convincing.

As a whole, Reade’s novel is successful with his audience, but falls short of its aesthetic potential.

 

Crime and Punishment

The narrator’s comments regarding the inhumanity of the prisons are particularly unsettling. Discussing the contraries of tyranny and the “gospel of mercy” found in Mr. Jones, Reade writes:

“Yet Mr. Jones was not a hypocrite nor a monster, he was only a commonplace man—a thing molded by circumstances instead of molding them. In him the official outweighed the apostle, for a very good reason—he was commonplace. This was his defect….The man was a humane man. It was not in his nature to be cruel to a prisoner, and his humanity was, like himself, negative not positive, passive not active—of course; it was commonplace humanity….But this good soul on being sprinkled laid down his arms; he was commonplace. Moreover, he was guilty of something besides cowardice. He let a small egotistical pique sully as well as betray a great cause….This was a narrow little view of wide and terrible consequences; it was infinitesimal egotism—the spirit and essence of commonplace….Had he loved the New Testament and the Saviour of mankind, he would have fought Hawes tooth and nail; he could not have helped it. But he did not love either; he only liked them—he was commonplace” (139).

Reade’s repetitive use of the term “commonplace” emphasizes the mundane, ignoble reality of the prison system which is defenseless against the monstrosity of Hawes’ power. This tepid environment which neglects any concern for human dignity hardens Robinson and dehumanizes him much more than any crime he committed. I am reminded of Hannah Arendt’s study of the Adolf Eichmann trial in which she describes “the banality of evil,” where evil is not simply found in the cruelty of figures like Hawes, but also in the dull, ordinary cravenness of Mr. Jones.

The solitude which the prison imposes on Robinson alienates him from his human nature and from a larger sense of community. The dark seclusion of the “black hole” is truly hellish. Foucalt writes of the Panopticon structure of prisons which alienates the individual and objectifies him. Rather than punish and rehabilitate the criminal, the prison system further strips the individual of his inherent dignity.

“Don’t go to the castle”

Having recently lived in Slovakia, I could not help but feel a sense of nostalgia in reading of Jonathan Harker’s long voyage across Eastern Europe (“Central”, if we’re being politically correct) in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While I never encountered any barbaric Slovaks with “big cowboy hats,” I did spend many hours on trains, sharing Jonathan’s delight in the beautiful countryside, and fortunately never arrived at such a sinister destination as Transylvania (33). This caricature of the “‘dark places’ of the earth” seems to even persist today. The 2005 film Hostel depicts young American backpackers seduced by beautiful women into a tortuous dungeon outside of Bratislava. Sound familiar? Needless to say, the people of Slovakia were not pleased. Stoker’s use of the distant unknown allows one to examine Victorian cultural preconceptions.

I was struck by the connection between gender, sexuality, and imperialism in the Brantlinger article and the text. Stoker presents a topsy-turvy world in which female sexuality threatens conventional domestic roles and the “backwards,” “primitive” Eastern culture threatens the foundation of Western scientific rationalism. This becomes clear in Jonathan’s sexual encounter with the three seductive women. In his depiction of the hyper-sexualized woman, Stoker severs her from the Victorian feminine ideal by stripping away any connection to motherhood. The women pounce on the bag of a “half-smothered child” (71). Later in the novel, Stoker presents Lucy as teetering on the edge of conventional morality by affirming men’s nobility while simultaneously proposing “heresy”: “My dear Mina, why are men so noble when we women are so little worthy of them?….Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?” (91). Both Jonathan and Mina entertain the idea of multiple partners. There is a sense of the stereotypical Victorian repressed desire.

Additionally, in the preface, the editor references Christopher Craft’s reading of the latent homoeroticism underlying the narrative. This seems to fit with Brantlinger’s emphasis on the domain of masculine sexual intimacy within the colonies. Craft gives the example of Dracula’s desire for union with a male particularly upon Jonathan’s shaving incident. One could make the case that Dracula is rather possessive of Jonathan: “How dare you touch him, any of you? How dare you cast eyes on him when I had forbidden it? Back, I tell you all! This man belongs to me!” (70). Craft’s argument is certainly plausible.

Stoker also portrays the stereotypical “primitive” superstitions of the peasants in contrast with the rational, scientific Western practices.  The presence of the crucifix and acknowledgement of St. George’s Day ground the novel’s tension. While Jonathan is naturally skeptical, it is telling that he ends up relying on the crucifix for safety against Dracula. Is Stoker affirming the power of the supernatural? I am certainly intrigued by Stoker’s background as an Irish individual living in England with Ireland’s rich history of Celtic paganism and Christianity.

Enjoy:  http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=285 

 

Gwendolen’s Awakening

“I suppose we faulty creatures can never feel so much for the irreproachable as for those who are bruised in the struggle with their own faults. It is a very ancient story, that of the lost sheep–but it comes up afresh every day.”

Gwendolen’s character does not lend much sympathy during the first part of the novel. It is her universal desire for happiness which allows the reader to not completely dismiss her. As the novel progresses, her friendship with Daniel causes an “ethical awakening” that takes her outside of herself and deepens her personality. Eliot’s conclusion is satisfying because she presents the growth of Gwendolen’s character from a spoiled child to a young woman with self-awareness.

In her essay, “Daniel Deronda and the Ethics of Alterity,” Rachel Hollander makes an interesting distinction between differing conceptions of freedom. She writes: “Somewhat paradoxically, an ethics of alterity would also insist on the idea that true freedom is only to be found in relation to the other, rather than in the free will of the self.” Freedom is not an end in itself. Gwendolen perhaps discovers a deeper form of freedom than she had originally desired. Through her friendship with Daniel, she finds an example of sympathy and moral responsibility that is grounded in the community. This profoundly affects her.

Hollander comments on Daniel’s influence: “Again, Daniel does not guide her sense of morality and truth so much as by his presence he is the occasion for a deeper engagement with herself: ‘‘Had he some way of looking at things which might be a new footing for her—an inward safeguard against possible events which she dreaded as stored-up retribution?’’ (430) Daniel does not force his beliefs onto her, but influences her through his kindness.Through Daniel, Gwendolen can truly see herself.

In a poignant scene at the end of the novel, Gwendolen acknowledges the impact Daniel had on her: “I said…I said…it should be better…better with me…for having known you” (691). Gwendolen’s display of gratitude reveals the impact of Daniel’s friendship on her own development. Gwendolen’s humility is praiseworthy.

Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. New York: Oxford University Press. 2009.

Hollander, Rachel. “Daniel Deronda And The Ethics Of Alterity.” Literature Interpretation Theory 16 (2005): 75-99.

 

“Marriage is what brings us together today”

George Eliot presents a bleak view of marriage in Daniel Deronda. Clearly, we are not in the world of wedding blogs and Pinterest boards anymore. It seems very easy to read the novel through a Marxist lens in which one can constrict agency to the socioeconomic sphere. While the influence of social rank and family obligation cannot be denied, there is room to judge the characters.

Gwendolen is self-consumed and views marriage as restrictive; she denounces its “domestic fetters” (30).  Her mother had been a widow when she married Captain Davilow, Gwendolen’s “unlovable” step-father (18).  Gwendolen asks her mother: “Why did you marry again, mamma? It would have been nicer if you had not” (18). Gwendolen shows her insensitivity and ignorance in the face of her mother’s hardship.

Although her character is maddening, one can be sympathetic towards Gwendolen’s fundamental desire for happiness. Her strong will, her refusal to be swept away by the wind is admirable. She is the poster-child feminist, determined to assert her independence and not be tied down by the bonds of marriage and family. When her mother tells her that “marriage is the only happy state for a woman…,” she fiercely replies: “I will not put up with it if it is not a happy state. I am determined to be happy….” (22). And yet, she is not happy. Gwendolen speaks of her envy towards Miss Arrowpoint’s “contended” nature (96). Gwendolen cannot find fulfillment merely through looking inward. I am reminded of Pope John Paul II’s words: “Freedom exists for the sake of love” (135). With a strong material emphasis present in marriages of the day, it is not surprising that Gwendolen possesses such a dreary view of marriage, disconnected from love. However, Gwendolen’s defiant pride makes it questionable that she would be open to a marriage based on mutual love. Rex showers her with affection and tells her “You might do just as you liked if you married a man who loved you more dearly than anything else in the world” (57). He presents an ideal vision of marriage: husband and wife finding freedom through the bonds of sacrificial love. Gwendolen is flattered by Rex’s devotion, but has very little regard for him or anyone other than herself.

Gwendolen’s uncle tells her: “Marriage is the only true and satisfactory sphere of a woman….you will have probably an increasing power, both of rank and wealth, which may be used for the benefit of others. These considerations are something higher than romance” (119). This statement echoes W.R. Greg’s sentiment that a woman’s fundamental identity is tied to being a wife and mother. While some may object to his claim, Mr. Gascoigne is correct to acknowledge the gravity of marriage within the social order.

Gwendolen’s marriage ultimately comes from her desire to not work. She promises not to marry Mr. Grandcourt because of Lydia and her children. Of course, she cannot bear the idea of working and marries him for financial security. In comparison, Catherine and Klesmer, while sincere in their love, are unable to marry because of his low social class. Eliot does not shy away from portraying marriage as a imperfect social institution.

Elliot, George. Daniel Deronda. 2011. Kindle.

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.

Wojtyla, Karol. Love and Responsibility. London: Williams, Collins, Sons, 1981. Print.

 

 

“Gentle Humanities”

In the midst of the tension of the class disparity in Victorian England, I was struck by the manifestation of human solidarity within Mary Barton. In one poignant passage, John Barton goes on an “errand of mercy,” in search of aid for his neighbors suffering from typhus.  As he walks through the crowd, he feels resentment towards the “joyous” people surrounding him (101). He experiences the tragedy of human injustice. The narrator maintains, however, that Barton does not know the interior struggles of those he encounters:

But he could not, you cannot, read the lot of those who daily pass you by in the street. How do you know the wild romances of their lives; the trials, the temptations they are even now enduring, resisting, sinking under? You may be elbowed one instant by the girl desperate in her abandonment, laughing in mad merriment with her outward gesture, while her soul is longing for the rest of the dead, and bringing itself to think of the cold-flowing river as the only mercy of God remaining to her here. You may pass the criminal, meditating crimes at which you will to-morrow shudder with horror as you read them. You may push against one, humble and unnoticed, the last upon earth, who in heaven will for ever be in the immediate light of God’s countenance (101).

The narrator condemns Barton for the “thoughts of his heart…touched by sin, by bitter hatred of the happy….” (101). Despite the clear injustice within the class system, Gaskell insists upon the dignity of the human person; she does not simply reduce humanity into binaries of rich and poor, as Barton does. Barton’s hatred for the rich, the “gentlefolk,” is palpable. He argues that only the poor have compassion for the suffering of their brothers and sisters.  In some sense, Barton is correct. Gaskell portrays affecting moments of tenderness and empathy between the impoverished: the warmness of the Barton’s simple home, Alice Wilson’s selfless kindness, and the close relationship between Mary and her father.  She also shows the lack of compassion on the part of Henry Carson. However, while one can blame social injustice for the action within the novel, Gaskell resists such simplification.  As Catherine Gallagher notes in her essay, “Causality versus Conscience: The Problem of Form in Mary Barton,” Gaskell dismisses absolute determinism for the sake of allowing moral freedom. While the forces of social inequity are inescapable, one still possesses free-will. By recognizing the external forces which encroach on man’s dignity, Gaskell sympathizes with the downtrodden. However, she does not allow these forces to become an excuse for living beneath one’s dignity by surrendering one’s moral agency. She notes Barton’s loss of his nature: “One of the good influences over John Barton’s life had departed that night. One of the ties which bound him down to the gentle humanities of earth was loosened, and henceforward the neighbors all remarked he was  changed man” (58).  Elizabeth Gaskell portrays the tension inherent in the class system, but resists the temptation of dehumanizing her characters by removing their free-will.

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

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. London: Penguin Group, 1996. Print.