After Dark

Mary Reilly follows the titular character in her role as a housemaid to the enigmatic Dr. Jekyll in a retelling of the tale the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Her given status as a servant would say a lot about her; she is subservient, loyal, and caring for her master. But it would seem that Valerie Martin takes that to a different extent. When she writes in her afterward, Martin had this to say:

“I have also taken great liberties with Mary’s punctuation and spelling. She rarely used punctuation at all and her method of capitalizing proper names was erratic, though it is interesting to note that she always failed to capitalize the world ‘i’ and never failed to capitalize the word ‘Master.’”

The word “master” is interesting. In servitude, it’s much more common for a servant to call their master “sir” or “madam.” So why the word “master”? The word carries a certain connotation to it, not unlike the slave trade in the past. “Master” implies that the relationship between the servant and their employer is much more than respectful – it is a command of respect. Mary’s relationship with Dr. Jekyll would place her in this context. She sees him as a powerful force within her life – someone who has given her so much life and so much to look forward to professionally and relationally. So when she refers to Dr. Jekyll, she would call him “master” according to Martin; she believes that his role in her life is that powerful.

But what of the word “I”? Martin writes that Mary does not refer to herself as the capital “I” but as the lowercase “i.” In a novel where identity plays a major role in the development of the characters, as well as the distinction between the internal good and evil of a person, this is an intriguing question. When we think of the word “I”, we think of who we are. “I did this” or “I did that.” The word “I” allows the person to take ownership of who they are. Mary however, is not written that way. Her word is “i” – it is smaller, subservient, and provides just enough identity for someone else to impose an “I” on to them. In other words, Mary’s usage of “i” keeps her in that servant role while still retaining her own internal identity.

So the question becomes this: why does Mary want to be in a subservient and thankless role? Why does she actively try to suppress her own identity and prop up Dr. Jekyll’s identity as her caretaker? In the last section before she discovers Hyde’s body, Mary narrates this:

“The blackness seemed to press in tight all about me…no sooner was I up than I felt a movement at my shoulder, so that I gasped, whirling around where I stood…but it was my own reflection I found gazing back at me…”

This passage shows us that there is darkness within Mary, and that her reflection as she explains is just as tortured and manic as Jekyll’s. The difference is that while Jekyll obviously lets his dark side loose, Mary decides to suppress it. This could be why she allows for the social and professional hierarchy to solidify: so that it gives her a reason to keep the darkness in. It terrifies her, as it did in the chapter, but she realizes the truth about Jekyll and about herself as well. For “if we cast our shadows, are they not always a part of us?” In the mind of Valerie Martin, the answer seems to be “yes.”

The Dark Side

The nature and relationship between science and mysticism has long been a topic for debate: do we believe in science more than mysticism or the other way around? But what happens when the two become blurred? How do we approach the notion that some of the world’s darkest truths are exposed?

The penultimate chapter in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, titled “Dr. Lanyon’s Narrative,” brings this conversation to a head. In the chapter, Dr. Lanyon describes his last encounter with Henry Jekyll and how the experience shaped and changed him. Dr. Lanyon was asked to retrieve vials from Jekyll’s home and return to his own abode with them while waiting for a man to come back and get them. Lanyon’s gradual shift in his words and his mindset give the reader an insight into Stevenson’s mindset as well.

This passage is the first hint of Lanyon’s narrow, scientific mindset when he questions the situation: “but till [Jekyll’s insanity] was proved beyond the possibility of doubt, I felt bound to do as he requested” (Stevenson). For him, understanding the situation and getting every single detail – the facts, the questions, the solutions – is crucial to being able to fully comment. “The less I understood of this farrago,” he continues, “The less I was in a position to judge of its importance.” (Stevenson).

Stevenson writes Lanyon here as a true rationalist; each line of description is rich with detail, as if Lanyon were writing in a lab notebook rather than being a character in a story. For instance, he says “I found what seemed to be a simple crystalline salt of a white colour. The phial…might have been about half full of a blood-red liquor…contain phosphorous and some volatile ether.” However, when he can’t make sense of the notes, he says that “all of this, though it whetted my curiosity, told me little that was definite.” The definitive answers become that much more important for him. Clear, precise language.

That changes once Hyde enters the picture. Stevenson’s language and writing style shifts to become a lot more narrative based, and when he notices Hyde’s mannerisms and intensions, he claims to “believe the cause to lie much deeper in the nature of man, and to turn on some nobler hinge than the principle of hatred” (Stevenson). In this sentence, we already see the shift from Lanyon’s ordered structured mind to the more mystical realm that he fears to understand. When it finally comes to him at the end of Hyde’s transformation, he exclaims that “my life is shaken to its roots; sleep has left me…I feel that my days are numbered, and that I must die” (Stevenson). These are no longer the words of a scientist but of a frightened man who just witnessed a horrible event.

Lanyon’s behavior has a precedent: in a previous chapter, he states that “I sometimes think if we knew all, we should be more glad to get away.” His answer to what we do when confronted with dark truths is to get away. Instead of answering the question as a scientist (with an ordered mindset), Lanyon is forced to answer it as a man, which frustrates, frightens, and follows him in the aftermath of his discovery. Lanyon now knows that some dark truths, those that help us “know it all,” may not be worth discovering, including those found by scientific means. Stevenson does not explicitly state which one he prefers, but through the language he uses here, it would seem that for him, knowing the truth about the world’s dichotomy is much better than denying it.

Mr. Utterson

Who is Gabriel Utterson? Or, better yet, who is he meant to represent?

In the beginning of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, we are treated to the narrative point of view of Mr. Gabriel Utterson. He is the lawyer of the eponymous Dr. Jekyll, and is the central protagonist of this novella. Everything that we see is from his point of view. In fact, Stevenson starts his novella by giving us a description of Utterson himself.

“Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable” (Stevenson).

In the second section, “The Search for Mr. Hyde,” Stevenson also includes a short segment about how he had a Sunday tradition that follows:

“It was his custom…when this meal was over, to sit close by the fire, a volume on his reading desk, until the clock of the neighboring church rang out the hour of twelve, when he would go to bed” (Stevenson).

The structured routine of his monotonous life and the physical details that Stevenson uses to describe him give us a slight understanding of the type of person that he is: Mr. Utterson is, quite literally, utterly unexciting. His physical features are bland, and his habits and hobbies are depicted as just simple. In our modern context, this would be a rather boring character.

While this is one reading of his character, another look suggests that Utterson has a bit more to his personality than we believed. He has a good heart and a compassion for others, which is shown in the beginning of the novella where the narrator states that “it was frequently his fortune to be the last reputable acquaintance and the last good influence in the lives of downgoing men” (Stevenson). As a lawyer, it is his job to respond and defend those who are accused of crimes. In most lawyers, that would result in cynicism, but in Utterson, it’s compassion.

So we have a sensible, kind, and overall simple man who guides and leads this novella. The question is why?

Could he be a contrast to the socially and physically alluring Dr. Jekyll? If we look at how Stevenson describes Jekyll himself as having a “large handsome face” and a “blackness about his eyes.” These details clearly fly in the face of Utterson’s initial treatment of a bland countenance. A certain “blackness about his eyes” gives the reader hints to Jekyll’s inner darkness and reveals that there is something inside of him that Utterson does not have. If his thoughts and impulses are left unchecked, in the form of Hyde specifically, it could lead to disaster. Jekyll does not have the same control or the same stability that Utterson has.

If he could be a foil for Henry Jekyll, then he can also be a foil for the reader as well. Utterson’s plain introduction but ultimate care for the story that unfolds reads very much like the reader who has picked up the novella. Anyone can place themselves in his shoes and see this sort of “de-evolution” of the Victorian man (Jekyll) firsthand. Here, Utterson becomes a literal everyman in order to account for every man. If we say that he is the reader themselves, then his curiosity towards Hyde and his fondness for Jekyll make sense. In all, Stevenson loves playing with the dichotomy of the two characters. While Utterson doesn’t display a dark side to his life, he is drawn towards it just as we are.

The Uncertainty Principle

What makes the “good life”?

In Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, we see the idea that the nature of what makes the “good life” is challenged by several characters throughout the story. For instance, Joe, Biddy, and Mrs. Joe all have a very set view of life as being a more humble existence, while Pip, Estella, Mrs. Havisham, and even Jaggers all see life as the accumulation of wealth and the outside validation that comes with other people. Because of the way in which the novel ends rather abruptly, we never get to see just which side Dickens prefers. He is vaguer about what makes the good life for his characters there.

Peter Carey’s reimagining of that novel, Jack Maggs, continues that same theme of what makes the good life by examining the lives of two men: Percy Buckle, the upper middle-class grocer who takes pride in the smallest and most inconsequential items in his house, and Tobias Oates, the famous writer who seeks to be a respectable gentleman. Both characters display differing ideals on what the “good life” means. Percy is more in line with the idea that material possessions, no matter if it is faux or not, provide meaning and life. Tobias is more in line with the thought that social validation and status provide, whether arbitrary or not, provide meaning and life. Carey unravels both men’s story to possibly say something how being uncertain about life’s path may be a good thing.

In Chapter 49, Carey begins by saying that “Mr. Buckle loved his house” (Carey), and goes on to talk about how his house is less spectacular than it seems. However, Percy knows this but remains in denial about his status simply because it’s his. Carey alludes to this when he sees the nails and splinters that Jack Maggs left behind. He “tenderly laid back the splinters inside the wounds, but the hurt was too savage for such ministrations” (Carey). Percy is not oblivious to the wears and tears that his house has, but he resists against that nature and, seemingly, against anyone who threatens that nature including Oates and Maggs.

For Tobias Oates, his wealth is in his status. When he was growing up with nothing to live for and barely anything to his name, he dreamed of becoming somebody that mattered. So whenever he writes for The Morning Chronicle and “makes” the city of London, he is living his dream and is proving himself to the world around him and he “invented a respectable life for himself: a wife, a babe, a household” (Carey). The problem is similar to Percy: it’s all a front. It’s an act and an illusion that he doesn’t want to let go. It doesn’t become a reality for him until “his fun and games had killed a man.”

In neither case does Carey seem to agree with their motives. For Percy, Carey states that you could have done anything else wrong, but if you didn’t polish the floors or dust the mantelpiece then you were in trouble. For Oates, he states that he “invented” this life for himself and that this invention is a fabrication and a lie. Readers may interpret this differently, but for Carey, the certainty that these men have established in their own lives do not give them a sense of fulfillment: instead, it seems to cause more stress and more anxiety to maintain that front and keep people from seeing who they really are.

The Curious Tale of Mr. Oates

Who is Tobias Oates?

In his retelling of Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations, Peter Carey introduces us to a very peculiar character: Mr. Tobias Oates. The addition of this character into the world of Great Expectations may raise some eyebrows and some questions: “who is he” and “why is he important to the novel?” From the first time we meet Oates, he is already seen as a prominent and important figure. In the first few chapters, here is how Oates is described:

“’Tonight we have Mr. Oates – Mr. Tobias Oates – coming to our house to dine.’ She looked at him as she said the famous name, but his features did not soften. ‘It is Mr. Oates,’ she said. ‘Mr. Tobias Oates. You’d pick a pocket for Tobias Oates, I know you would.’”

 To the mind of the characters in the story, Mr. Oates is the highest on the totem pole. Eccentric, rich, and a creative mind, Oates displays all the qualities of a famous writer and novelist. However, when Jack Maggs looks at him during his first meeting, he has a different opinion:

“Tobias Oates did not seem, to Jack’s mind, to warrant any of the excitement his name had stirred up in Mercy Larkin’s imagination…so unsettling was this character to Jack Maggs that he later devoted almost one hundred words to describing him…”

 Clearly, Maggs is unimpressed by Oates’ appearance or status. However, the premise of the novel is set up by the meeting between these two men. Jack Maggs wants to find his son, and Oates wants to write his story. Their deal drives the plot forward.

However, could it be that Tobias Oates is more than he claims to be? Could he be Charles Dickens himself?

If we go with this viewpoint, then we could see Peter Carey’s interpretation of Great Expectations as more of a metafiction. If Oates is indeed the stand-in for Dickens, then Dickens is in the process of writing that novel and becomes inspired by Jack Maggs’ story. However, Carey presents a more negative and manipulative side of Oates that could mirror how he viewed Dickens himself.

If we go back to how Maggs viewed Oates, he mentions that he “didn’t warrant any of the excitement his name had stirred up.” There is no doubt that Dickens is well known in the modern era, but that doesn’t mean everyone was a fan. Carey’s perception of Oates/Dickens may well be a mockery or a parody. By having Oates strike a deal to use Maggs as a muse for his novel while promising him the safe return of his son, Carey portrays Dickens as someone who followed the story no matter what the cost may have been. We’ll have to continue to see if this slight and subtle criticism of Dickens’ work is what is driving Carey’s narrative and what Oates’ end goal is: the story or the people?

Fate

Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations has the main character, Pip, fall into a source of fortune, live his life with that fortune, and attempt to find out who gave him the fortune. Until Pip learns the identity of his benefactor, he has an unhealthy obsession with the idea of fate which manifests in his relationship with Estella. He believes that Miss Havisham is his benefactor from the very beginning, and for years he operates as if this is the case. Because of that, he seeks to marry Estella, even though he finds himself in bad company with her. For instance, this passage shows how Pip is beginning to think about how she treats him:

“In Mrs. Brandley’s house and out of Mrs. Brandley’s house, I suffered every kind and degree of torture that Estella could cause me…I know too certainly that it almost maddened me.”

We know Pip is not inept; he is a rational thinking young man. But his willingness to follow Estella and to “honor” Miss Havisham brings to light the idea of why he gives in to fate. Several 19th-century novels cover the idea of fate in a less nuanced way; fate is usually described as the “happy-ever-after” part where the two characters are not meant to be. However, Dickens does not go that route in Great Expectations. He leaves the fate of Pip up to Pip himself. Clearly, Estella does not want to be with Pip and is trying to warn him that she is not right for him. In Chapter 29, here is what she says directly:

“’Oh! I have a heart to be stabbed in or shot in, I have no doubt,’ said Estella, ‘and, of course, if it ceased to beat I should cease to be. But you know what I mean. I have no softness there, no – sympathy – sentiment – nonsense.’”

With her bad company and her direct deliberate warnings to Pip, we have to wonder what is going through the young man’s mind. What is Dickens trying to say to us as modern day readers?

I think that these passages are trying to break the mold of the 19th-century love story. Throughout many of those novels, characters are often thrust together by circumstance and fall in love through fate not by choice. In Jane Eyre, Rochester and Jane fall for each other after only a few months in their shared house because she got a job there. In Wuthering Heights, we see the budding relationship between the different characters based on their close proximity in their shared house. And yet in Great Expectations, Pip and Estella spend quite a bit of time together, years even, and Pip learns that the romantic idea of how “love” plays out will not go the way he thinks it will. Estella does not reciprocate his feelings and directly tells him that she won’t. Estella is breaking up her fate of becoming Miss Havisham and is trying to tell Pip to not do the same.

However, Pip is determined and headstrong to do this because he truly believes that his life is determined by fate. As we saw in the beginning chapters, he has chance meetings with virtually every important figure in the novel and becomes attached to them because of his status. It’s understandable why Pip would believe in fate, but we know the truth: that fate does not define one’s life. Dickens wisely uses Pip to create a more nuanced life and to show us that you cannot force anything to happen if it was not meant to happen, including love.          

Home

 

The idea of a “home” is a place of comfort, stability, and prosperity. In our current world, we enjoy the luxuries of having a home. In literature, home is both physical and metaphorical. In a written work, we can find a home in a person, place, or an ideal. In the case of Pip’s life, it’s the latter.

Throughout the initial few chapters of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, the central character is presented with some options as far as what home means. Initially, it was the physical space, where Pip grew up with Joe, Mrs. Joe, and Biddy in the house. But as Pip ages, he becomes much more aware of the home that he wants rather than the home that he has. In other words, he becomes aware that this is not his home.

In Chapter 14, Dickens has Pip rationalize his stay with Joe in this phrase:

“Home was never a pleasant place for me…but Joe had sanctified it.”

When we read this line, we see Pip’s intuition and determination to get out of that house and into something new. It’s a character trait that is consistent with Pip’s personality and actions in this part of the novel (such as his snobbery towards Joe and Biddy). Here, Pip displays his first sense of the ideal home – a physical and pleasant place that doesn’t have Mrs. Joe in it and where he doesn’t have to solely survive on someone else.

However, another passage comes to mind when we read this too. After Pip learns that he is going to inherit a great fortune and will finally move up in society, Pip narrates this part of his mindset:

“Dissatisfied with my fortune, of course I could not be; but it is possible that I may have been, without quite knowing it, dissatisfied with myself.”

 This is the psychological space that Pip would inhabit in his ideal home. Now, with the earlier context, it is not only a space where he can be alone but also a space in which he can be satisfied with himself.

Coming from the streets and having virtually nothing to your name gives you an “idea” of what home or prosperity can be. For Pip, home is a sense of achievement. Having fortune, having a stable place, and becoming a gentleman are all different ways of achieving that dream. This does not mean that he doesn’t value Joe and Biddy; it means that while he appreciates their virtue and love, he wants to be able to take care of himself and be stable on his own. This concept creates a complex literary character that makes Pip that much more relatable, albeit somewhat dislikeable. When we have a vision in our minds of a certain thing, we tend to chase it until it is no longer there. Home is something that our modern selves takes for granted, but Pip is after the physical and the mental peace that comes with the home.

 

The Looking Glass

“They are more alive than you are, lazy or not, and they can be dangerous and cruel for reasons you wouldn’t understand.”

This quote comes from Jean Rhys’ 1966 novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which features the fleshed out story of Antoinette Mason, known as Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. In Wide Sargasso Sea, we get the viewpoint of Anoinette, the wealthy white Creole heiress to a large fortune. Her story, her family history, and her relationship with her servants drive the narrative to let us see what it’s like to live on the other side. The novel takes place in the 1800s, in the aftermath of the Emancipation Act of 1833 (the act which outlawed slavery in the British colonies). Unlike the usual narrative of slaves in bondage and of black people being oppressed, we have an interesting role reversal here where the quote above states: that the black citizens, despite their freedom, are less passive and more aggressive towards the white Creole residents.

It is helpful to note this when we examine race in this novel: the author herself, Jean Rhys, is a Jamaican woman having been born in Dominica. Her background informs her worldview of the tensions and the attitudes of the blacks towards the whites in that area. This provides a context for us to see the racial tensions from someone who’s lived in Jamaica and who has known about these events unfolding.

One particular instance of these tensions is when Antoinette describes how she feels when talking to the blacks in the Caribbean.

 “I never looked at any strange negro. They hated us. They called us white cockroaches. One day a little girl followed me singing, ‘Go away white cockroach, go away, go away.’”

To a young child, this must have been a harrowing experience. She describes their feelings by saying, “they hated us,” which shows contempt and anger towards the white Creoles. One on hand, it is an ideology perpetuated by years of slavery and oppression by the white British. However, because the British have implanted this mentality into the former slaves, it never left; it only transferred to the white Creoles who now have to deal with it. This leaves Antoinette and her family in a precarious position. She’s not quite the white British and still is under their control, but she does not fit in with the black people in the Caribbean because of her background and skin color.

The uniqueness of that perspective could be what Jean Rhys is trying to get us to see. When you are stuck in the middle both culturally and socially, there is no way that you will feel inherently safe. In the novel, that fact was culminated by the house fire that Antoinette had to endure and the betrayal of her servants; all of which confirmed Antoinette’s earlier suspicions. With her mother’s haunting words, that they are “alive,” “dangerous,” and “cruel”, we see that on the other side, through the looking glass, cruelty and racism can exist anywhere.

The Mystery of The Trapped Queen

“‘—soothe him; save him; love him: tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? Or who will be injured by what you do?’ ”

 In the penultimate scene in Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre, we see Jane take control of her life and of her circumstances. The action being that despite her love for him, and despite her forgiveness of him, she resolves in her heart that she will not marry Rochester because she believes that the marriage will not save her. For the audience, this is a rallying moment for Jane, leading us to cheer and clap for her. But in that moment, the one to thank for her resolve is none other than Bertha Mason, Rochester’s estranged and insane wife.

We learn in Chapter 26 and 27 that Bertha was married to Rochester strictly for money, despite the two loving each other. However, her family’s propensity for psychological problems led her to be insane. She was forced away from the world and given no contact with anyone, save for Mason and Rochester. Bertha’s condition has deteriorated to the point where she even attacks Mason, rips Jane’s wedding veil, and screams and howls in terror. In Jane’s descriptions, she says “whether [Bertha] was a beast of a human being, one could not tell.”

If certain circumstances in Jane’s life went differently, could this be where she was headed?

We have already determined that Jane harbors anger in her heart due to her isolation from the rest of the family. In the beginning of the novel, Jane separates herself from her cousins and talks about Mrs. Reed disdain for her (a fact unfortunately confirmed on the latter’s deathbed). Then, even when she gets a chance to go to school and get away from her family, she is still isolated and hidden at Lowood thanks to Mr. Brocklehurst. One key difference at this point is that she had Helen and Ms. Temple to confide to, which changed Jane’s personality for the better. If she didn’t have those two, then Jane’s transition eight years later into a calmer and vibrant young woman would not have happened.

But think of Bertha in this context: without that contact, without that chance to be rehabilitated, she had nothing else to do but harbor her hatred toward her husband and her brother – and even towards Jane herself. Her isolation went unbroken for years while her “husband” went on every trip he took to find himself a new wife. No one got to Bertha before she became this way and unfortunately, no one cared.

In the eyes of an interpreter, Bertha can be Jane’s darker being. She can be the one who Jane would have been if not for the love and support that she received later on. It is why Jane’s message to herself about “taking care of herself” is so important: she is no longer trapped by the whims and wills of others. She no longer lets her isolation control her and become her. Instead, Jane is determined to make it on her own no matter what. Jane has that choice, whereas Bertha does not. Jane is not only leaving behind her isolation, she is leaving behind her past and moving forward into her bright future with her words:

“…Still indomitable was the reply – ‘I care for myself.’”

Timshel

The character of Jane Eyre is a unique and fascinating literary figure. In the opening chapters of Jane Eyre, Jane is still trying to overcome her childish fears associated with Mrs. Reed’s treatment of her. Much wrong has been done in her life, and she goes into great detail describing it in trying to cope with it. But there are two occasions when she tells her story to two separate characters: Helen and Ms. Temple.

In her telling the story to Helen, Jane explains that she was “bitter and truculent when excited” and she “spoke as I felt, without resolve or softening.” Jane craves the validation: the sense that she is not alone in her pain and in her vengeance towards Mrs. Reed as she is unforgivable. But instead, Helen delivers a touching and intimate answer:

“Would you not be happier if you tried to forget her severity, together with the passionate emotions it excited? Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.”

Why would Brontë have Helen say this? In my mind, Brontë is taking the idea of forgiveness and putting it in context with both the audience and with Jane herself. Jane is looking for validation in her unforgiving nature towards Mrs. Reed from the rest of the world and is asking people whether or not she deserves it. From Helen’s viewpoint, she asks the valid question: why can just she not forgive her past and accept her life as it stands?

In retrospect, Jane actually tries to do so. When she relays the same story again to Ms. Temple later in the opening chapters, Jane gives us her insight into how she told the story this time:

“I resolved, in the depth of my heart, that I would be most moderate…my language was more subdued than it generally was…mindful of Helen’s warnings against the indulgence of resentment…thus, restrained and simplified, it sounded more credible.”

In this passage, Jane is far more accepting, far more “moderate.” She is not just lashing out as she was before with Helen. Now, she holds back her resentment, and she makes herself far more believable. This does not discredit what tragedies she has endured, but it means that the pain of enduring them is no longer her muse. In this sense, Jane is choosing, in part, to forgive.

My favorite novel is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, a sprawling tale that encompasses most of Steinbeck’s real life family history mixed with the fictional patriarchal history of the Trask Family. The result becomes a Cain and Abel retelling, which has one of the characters recite that story. In the middle, he pauses when he sees that the command from God to Cain changes depending on the translation. In some cases, it says, “thou shalt,” but in others it says, “thou mayest.” The latter means that humanity has the ability to forgive oneself for their sins or, in the case of Jane Eyre, forgive the sins of others. If we choose to forgive, as Helen advised, then we can finally be happy and just enjoy life as it was intended. Forgiveness breeds a special type of happiness and a relief that the sins and the choices of others are no longer bond to you. That places Jane Eyre in a far more modern context than most, and makes the audience, and Jane herself, wonder: “can I truly forgive those that have trespassed against me?”

The Good with the Bad

Sometimes, the darkest of tragedies has the brightest reawakening. We often think that our lives are defined by our tragedies. In a sense, they are. But with every dark day comes a day filled with light. That is inherent in two particular scenes from Allison Case’s novel Nelly Dean.

In Chapter 12 of the novel, we see the unfortunate death of Nelly and Hindley’s baby after Nelly’s mother gives her a purgative from Elspeth. In a harrowing scene, Nelly gives birth to a dead child that is only the size of her palm. Stricken by grief with the secret and the death, Nelly takes the child out to the garden and buries it.

“I crawled a little distance away, wrapped the cloak tightly around me, lay down in the heather, and sobbed. Even through my pain and grief, I felt sleep hovering near. I knew I should get up and go to the house…but I was past caring. I closed my eyes and let sleep take me.”

With this passage and scene, Case explains Nelly’s virtual stoicism in Wuthering Heights – including why she keeps her distance and why she does not do anything more than what a servant’s job is supposed to do. Her grief prevented her from moving forward and from accepting love from anyone else. This is a common response to tragedy; we shut people out in order to keep ourselves intact. The moment someone comes in to tell us how to feel, it becomes a case of what you’re doing instead of how you are feeling. Unlike the parent book, Wuthering Heights, this places Nelly Dean right in a modern context with modern responses to tragic events. In addition to the response to tragedy, Allison Case gives us a modern sensibility to another major event: the birth of Hareton, the son of Hindley and Frances.

Hindley eventually moved on by returning from his trip with Frances in tow. With a rift between him and Nelly, Hindley eventually slept with Frances and the two conceived a child. After Frances is diagnosed with consumption (tuberculosis), Nelly is asked to be the child’s nurse. In a slightly humorous scene, Nelly describes her experiences being Hareton’s nurse, saying:

“I don’t know how I can describe to you what that first week or two was like. He was with me both day and night, and I never had more than a couple of hours when he did not need my care, so of course I slept but little.”

A little later, she visits Elspeth, the “witch,” and brings Hareton with her. As she changes him, Nelly describes her words to him:

“I chattered and crooned to him an ever-lengthening string of pet names: my bonnie nurseling, my wee little laddie, my beautiful boy…Hareton, my little hare, my leveret, my love.”

Doesn’t this sound familiar?

The irony is that Nelly would have taken care of a child like this anyway and that in another world, he too would have also been called Hareton. The blessing for her is that she is virtually Hareton’s mother, and it’s touching to see that Nelly’s love and affection did not die with the loss of her child. For the readers, Nelly Dean reaches all the way into the modern age to show us that there is light at the end of every dark tunnel. Nelly lost a child and lost her love for Hindley, but ultimately gained it back in the form of his second son. Sometimes, you have to take the good with the bad and take the light with the darkness.

 

Forget Everything You Think You Know

The 2016 Marvel Studios movie Doctor Strange has a scene where Baron Mordo tells Dr. Strange to “forget everything you think you know.” In his case, he means the world, but in Allison Case’s case, this quote is much more applicable. In Wuthering Heights, Nelly Dean functions as the servant who tells the story, becoming little more than a plot device in Bronte’s narrative. Here, Nelly is far more involved…in more ways than one. From the opening lines, we see that there is a new connection that she shares with Mr. Hindley Earnshaw. Take this passage for example:

            “And I’ll not say he didn’t love her. But sometimes, if I was by, and her back to me, in the midst of his fussing he would send me a long, keen look, as if all this show was for my benefit.”

 It’s no secret that Allison Case is pushing Hindley and Nelly together romantically. The question is tied to the reason why.

We could always assume that this book was intended for a modern audience, particularly a modern audience that may have never read Wuthering Heights. They would not have had that connection to the original story and would have found themselves saying, “So what?” if Case had just went with the original narrative. Practically, it seems like a smart move for Case. But I think it’s more than just a smart move – I think it’s the reason Nelly chose to stay.

In the context of Nelly Dean, a storm forces Hindley and Nelly to go to a cave to seek shelter. In a tender scene, Nelly and Hindley spend the night together in the same cave that they visited as children. The narrative comes full circle where Nelly’s childhood innocence from her earlier playtime in the cave is replaced by her path to adulthood from her night with Hindley – and the same goes for Hindley as well. In the end, she confesses all of this to Lockwood reading her letter:

“Do I need to tell you what happened next? Remember that we were frightened and cold and far from home. And I loved him. Yes, there on our heathery bed in that little earthen chamber, roofed with stone and curtained by falling rain, I loved him with all my heart.”

 Love is a powerful motivator in keeping someone tied to a certain place. It is a metaphor for the inability of a person to move on from someone or something. We see in the opening chapters that eventually the teenage romance breaks down, despite their seeming love for each other. Because of that, Nelly Dean positions itself as an interesting exploration of what happens when you find love in circumstance and not in truth. Nelly and Hindley were raised together, played together, and did not leave Wuthering Heights for most of their childhood. It was only a matter of time before they fell in love. But I don’t think that Case would say that this is a particularly good thing. In fact, it seems that now Nelly is much more in line with the other family members who chose to stay at Wuthering Heights in Bronte’s novel. Instead of just being “the servant,” Nelly is painted as a jilted lover who is sworn by duty to serve the family because of their kindness towards her and her love for Hindley. In this, Nelly is very much a tortured soul just like the rest of them.

 

Life After Death

What does grief do for the human journey? Nelly Dean, the longtime servant of Wuthering Heights, gives this statement in Chapter 17:

“I used to draw a comparison between [Edgar Linton] and Hindley [Earnshaw]…and perplex myself to explain why their conduct was so opposite in similar circumstances.”

The difference in conduct despite the similarities in circumstances is a key factor in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. In the story, the deaths of major characters is juxtaposed with the resulting responses from their friends and families. The fallout from death becomes the driving force for most of the pain, the anger, and the anguish for these characters. Certain characters use their grief as a way to degrade their life and the lives of others without remorse. Others use their grief as a way to restore what was already starting to take shape. In all cases, grief is the catalyst for the characters’ change in personalities or situations.

Chapter 17 of Wuthering Heights is where I think the idea of change in grief comes to fruition. In the ensuing chapter, Hindley Earnshaw (the patriarch of the family) dies from alcohol abuse – the product of years spent drowning his sorrows in the bottle after the death of his wife. He was virtually mad with anger and drunken rage, troubling those around him. To the readers looking in, we find sympathy with Hindley – a man who is broken and is trying his best to live after a death but cannot find the power to do so. Without his wife, Hindley doesn’t find much to live for. In a way, Hindley was dead before he even passed on. Edgar Linton (the husband of the elder Catherine Linton), on the other hand, finds solace in the Lord and in his beliefs. Instead of shunning his family away like Hindley, Edgar pulls them in closer in the form of his newborn daughter, Cathy. In the last part of the chapter, their servant, Nelly Dean states this:

“Linton, on the contrary, trusted God; and God comforted him. One hoped, and the other despaired: they chose their own lots, and were righteously doomed to endure them.”

Righteously doomed to endure them is an interesting phrase. “Doomed” carries a negative connotation: we think of doomed as a horrible thing. But “righteously” is different: to be righteous means to be so devoted to one’s cause that it becomes a moral grounding rod. If we carry that to Edgar and Hindley, we know that both men were hopelessly doomed to endure the pain of living without their respective wives. As Nelly says: Hindley decided to despair and wallow in that desperation with no hope of getting out, and Edgar decided to devote his life to God and to his child.

The dichotomy in their actions, whether good or bad, seems to be what Bronte wants us to discover. Based on her language, and her equalization of the two men through Nelly’s telling, I don’t think she is saying one response is worse than the other. Rather, she’s giving us a glimpse of the two very human reactions to death and grief – one response that seeks to shut itself out from the world and the other to open oneself up to the world. The idea that trauma will happen and that we are “righteously doomed” to endure it leaves the choice up to us of how we could act. This puts Wuthering Heights in a very real context and helps us see that the characters we read about are far more complex than their surface values.