The Necessity of Tess’ Execution

The events of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles are spurred by the concepts of equality and inequality. Hardy crafted this novel as an obvious social commentary on said concepts, and although the novel begins and spends much of it time within the realm of inequality, by its end, true equality is reached. Disclaimer: I run the risk of coming off very heartless in this post; let the record show that I am no Tin Man. I do have a heart.

To be clear, Tess was inarguably a victim of inequality. In fact, she was a victim, period. She was grievously wronged by Alec, and then by Angel, and she suffered consequence after consequence for an event she had no control over. Alec raped her, and society blamed her. That is inequality, and that is wrong. For his part, Alec gets what he wants and moves on with his life, never repenting, never asking Tess for forgiveness or anything of the sort. He even goes so far as to blame her for his actions, making her promise to stop “tempting” him (Ch. 41). Tess, on the other hand, lives underneath the shadow of his actions, and her life is irrevocably changed. She lives in shame, guilt, sadness, and anger… but then Angel comes along, a light in the dark, and she begins to feel the glimmer of hope. Then Angel proves less than angelic, and leaves Tess for the same exact “sin” that he himself had just confessed to also doing (Ch. 34). What’s more is that her “sin” was nonconsensual, and his was very consensual. That is inequality. Clearly, Tess was a victim, and I pity and feel for her. More Alec/Angel drama follows, and her life is still burdened by the inequality of the repercussions that befall her after the night in the woods with Alec.

Then, in a plot twist I certainly did not see coming, Tess kills Alec, and in this moment, Tess stops being a victim, and starts being a murderer. I will never in my life defend Alec. I don’t even feel sorry for him. But two wrongs do not make a right, and despite the countless wrongs Tess endured, her actions were not right, and certainly not justifiable. She tells Angel that she “had to” kill Alec (Ch. 57). I admit that my purely emotional response to the murder was akin to “hey that’s cool,” but logically, Tess made just as bad a decision as Alec did when he raped her, and she took a life. Even though Alec’s mother did not particularly like him much, Tess robbed a mother of her son. She took all of her agency and bundled it into the one action from which there is no return – murder. An eye for an eye, a life for a life, and Tess is executed. That is equality.

Thomas Hardy, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, presents two opposite ends of the spectrum – inequality and equality – and while Tess is pitiable for the majority of the novel, the fact of the matter remains that, logically, if the reader blames Alec for raping Tess, then the reader also needs to blame Tess for killing Alec. Both people made conscious decisions to do their respective wrongs, and, again, two wrongs do not make a right. Where inequality won the first go around, equality wins the second time.

Cool Hand Mrs. Luke

As its title would suggest, George Gissing’s The Odd Women features many female characters, all of whom come with their own set of characteristics which set them apart from the others. Even in the late nineteenth century, women were funny that way, beginning to form their own personalities and almost – almost – becoming close to human. Mrs. Luke Widdowson, sister-in-law of Monica’s Mr. Widdowson, is one such female character, and a peculiar one at that, with a large and independent presence that is entirely fitting of her, but entirely unfitting of the woman of that time period.

Immediately upon her (late) arrival to Herne Hill in Chapter 12, Mrs. Luke becomes the strongest force in the drawing room, in which wait Mr. Widdowson, Monica, and Virginia. The room, which only moments before her appearance seemed empty even with the other three very much present, is “filled and illumined” by Mrs. Luke “in her sole person.” If the reader learned nothing else of the woman, this one sentence alone would suffice in delivering her characterization clearly and unmistakably. Mrs. Luke is a grand, calm, cool lady. Gissing reports her to be “imposing,” describes her garb, despite it being mourning garb, as that which “inspired awe” in women around her, and portrays her act of bowing as being grand even from a distance. Mrs. Luke is something else, and she knows it.

If such adjectives were not enough, another single sentence concerning the act of her tardiness, and her response to it, communicates the depth to which Mrs. Luke is so different from the other female characters: she “had no thought of apologizing for the lateness of her arrival.” The importance of such a statement cannot be stressed enough. In a time period when women are governed by social norms, when their every move is influenced in some way by good mannerisms and proper femininity, a woman who not only is tardy to a get-together, but who also has no thought of making an apology is just odd. It is rude, yes, and befitting of her condescending nature, but still odd. To be fair, though, her wealth undoubtedly has something to do with her near-dismissal of good manners, but now, perhaps because of said wealth, those characteristics are concrete. They are who she is.

Mrs. Luke fills the drawing room at Herne Hill, and the hole she leaves behind following her departure is one of relief; everyone else can breathe again. Monica and Virgie agree that Mrs. Luke is “personally detestable” and even the next day, Mr. Widdowson tells Monica that he does not necessarily like her, but what follows is where I will conclude. Widdowson tells Monica that Mrs. Luke “is a very difficult person to understand.” Notice, he does not say she is a difficult woman to understand, perhaps in part because women should not be difficult to understand. Mrs. Luke is her own larger-than-life person, and she thrives in being so.

Please note: I did not continue on to characterize Lady Horrocks, a) because 500 words is not enough to do her persona and Mrs. Luke’s persona justice, and b) because they are almost two completely different characters despite technically being one and the same.

Blood Moon Rising

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, while not exactly a Gothic novel, does contain many pointedly Gothic elements as far as setting goes, especially as it pertains to the sky. Because the narrator very clearly takes the time to describe certain settings more so than others, especially the darker, Gothic moments, the reader can read into them a clear foreshadowing of future trouble for our protagonist, Pip. Chapter 53 contains the best example of this concept, where the atmosphere that is depicted does in fact indicate approaching conflict.

The first two paragraphs of this particular chapter waste no time in laying out the dismal setting of the marshes in which Pip enters to meet the anonymous writer of the mysterious letter of “invitation.” Above him, “the red large moon” looms, in no unclear way promising less than pleasant events to soon occur. While the old maritime adage proclaims a red sky at night to be a sailor’s delight, J.R.R. Tolkien has his character of Legolas in The Lord of the Rings claim that a red sun means that blood has been spilled, which is generally the connotative case. Not too far off from a red sun, a red moon, or more commonly called a blood moon, is most often paired with apocalyptic or supernatural beliefs, and as such, is usually linked to bad tidings. To be sure, it perfectly fits the bill for Gothic elements in literature, and, when coupled with the “melancholy wind” and the all-around “dismal” air in the marshes, it does precede the kind of trouble that fits the implications (in Kindle: page 247).

Said trouble is this: in almost no time at all, a noose is thrown over Pip’s head, and a great revelation follows, in that Orlick is “the bad guy.” If this were a Scooby-Doo episode, Orlick would be the man behind the mask. Pip’s ensuing emotions after this unveiling fit the Gothic surroundings perfectly. In other words, the external darkness of the Gothic marshes matches the internal darkness in both Pip (his fear and confusion) and Orlick (his anger and malevolence). The sky does not mirror the Gothic elements in only this scene, either, although here seems to be the most obvious, what with the red moon and all. However, earlier in the novel, in chapter 39 to be precise, the reader does see mention of a dark sky tormented by rain, which aligns with all of the turmoil Pip feels concerning his convict being his benefactor. Earlier still is the gloomy setting in which the novel opens, one almost exactly reflective of that in chapter 53, and both are incredibly paramount to indicating the kind of troubles that lie ahead for poor Pip.

Calling the entire novel Gothic would be a stretch, but to deny that there are Gothic elements swimming amongst the realistic ones would be folly, and to ignore their effect upon the events that befall Pip, even if said effect is a passive consequence rather than an active causation, would be unwise. The Gothic elements of certain scenes in Great Expectations certainly give the reader cause to expect something not-so-great.

 

The Eyes have it

Commonly is it said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. With an exception for those truly disciplined in the art of Stoicism, any given human being’s eyes generally reflect their innermost thoughts and emotions. Maggie Tulliver, heroine of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, is not only not an exception, but is almost a poster-child for this concept. In a book so concerned with the idea of conventional society conduct, especially that of women, our protagonist, Maggie, who does not conform to the idea of the mild, domestic woman, uses her eyes as an outlet for the wild emotion that time has taught her she should not express.

Immediately at her introduction into the novel, Maggie is describe as having “gleaming black eyes,” and that very description is given to the readers multiple times throughout the novel (book 1, chapter 2). This description is key to our introduction to Maggie. Most people do not have what would be called black eyes, so right away, Maggie is set apart from the norm, and with her pale skin, her eyes are all the more noticeable and striking. That her eyes should gleam indicates the kind of mischief and uniqueness that promise to later ensure that her life should be spicier than the lives of the women around her, like mild Lucy Deane. “Bright,” “gleaming,” “shining,” – these are only a few of the words associated with light that Eliot uses to characterize Maggie’s eyes, which is ironic given the fact that it is emphasized that her eyes are dark in color. This dichotomy in description mirrors the dichotomy in Maggie’s character, especially her constant inner struggle between being her own woman and adhering to the wishes of those around her (namely Tom). She is a conflicted girl, and her eyes express this.

Many people remark on Maggie’s eyes, but few do so in a positive light, and no one hit the nail on the head so accurately as Philip. In responding to Maggie’s question of why he likes her eyes, he tells her that they are unlike “any other eyes,” in the same way that Maggie is unlike any other girl, and follows this immediately by saying that her eyes seem as though they are trying to speak (book 2, chapter 6). This furthers the idea that Maggie uses her eyes to express the kinds of emotions and desires that the larger society would prefer her to repress, especially as such emotions are so frank and honest, and not necessarily proper.

Maggie Tulliver is a heroine stuck within the confines of society’s constraints on women and their ability to express themselves with candor. Women like Lucy Deane, who are submissive, gentle, warm, and content to do needlework, are preferred, whereas women like Maggie, with eyes that are simultaneously bright and dark, that speak of her innermost desires, that will not be downcast in the face of pressure to conform, are not. Perhaps the author herself, who writes underneath a male pseudonym, sees herself reflected in the same unwillingness to let a male-driven society tell her what she can and cannot do.

Wars in the Sky and the Soul

That nature should affect a person’s disposition is not an uncommon idea, and certainly not uncommon in Gothic literature. Mary Shelley’s famous protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, has an interesting connection to nature that is often overshadowed by his monster’s own… issues… with nature. Victor is at odds with his surroundings, having been somewhat different than his peers since his childhood, and it does not seem a stretch of the imagination to suppose that his fixation on messing with nature, culminating in his famous act of creation, would put him at increased odds with his natural surroundings. One scene in particular showcases this; in chapter six of the first volume, Victor’s journey to Geneva contains separate scenarios of natural imagery at almost direct conflict with each other, and instead of feeling what most people would feel at each given natural setting, Victor seems to invert the expected and what is “normal.”

First, Victor contemplates the lake at Lausanne, and initially, “the calm and heavenly scene” – the sublime – restores him to some degree, which one would normally expect at such a pretty sight, but this is Victor Frankenstein we’re talking about, and the reader already knows enough about the protagonist to know that this momentary calm can only be followed by a storm. As Victor nears Geneva, he looks upon the “bright summit of Mont Blanc,” and feels as though it is mocking at his unhappiness. Leave it to Victor Frankenstein to have his own King Lear moment and assume that all of nature is focused on him. He mentions that his beloved country at first fills him with delight (again, as one would expect) but this is soon overshadowed by “grief and fear” as he draws closer to his home (70, in my book). These scenes of serenity and light would be reflected in most people, but they make Victor only that much more aware of his woe.

Then follows the gloomy nature scene, distinctive of the Gothic, taking form in the coming night and arriving storm. Understandably, with nightfall Victor feels “still more gloomily” and foresees himself becoming “the most wretched of human beings.” Normal, right? However, when the storm finally hits, it is almost as if Victor draws strength from it, or at least comfort. He considers it a “noble war in the sky,” which is a beautiful way of characterizing the externalization of the war within his soul. How he feels in his heart and soul is finally mirrored in what he sees around him; the internal matches the external. Where most people would flee and find shelter, Victor, for a moment, finds that the storm “elevated [his] spirits,” and it is only the arrival of his creature that lowers them again (71).

This scene is important because of the fact that it emphasizes not only Victor’s separation from society, but also the warring emotions within himself. The first setting accentuates the disparity in its light beauty and Victor’s heavy heart, whereas the latter setting mirrors and emphasizes said heaviness. Victor feels out of place in the sublime, and at home in the Gothic.

Stellar Reflections on a Clueless Emma

As far as a reader’s emotional connection with a novel’s protagonist goes, there is little by way of empathy in our hearts towards Jane Austen’s heroine in the novel of the same name, Emma. Sympathy, maybe, in some situations, but empathy? Not likely. The two quotes provided that discuss the impact of a novel on its reader both apply to Emma in relatively distinct ways, but Marina MacKay’s quotation I like even better in application to Emma, therefore hers is the quote I will focus on.

MacKay says in her piece, “Why the Novel Matters,” that a novel has the duty (privilege?) of “managing our minds as it moves our emotions,” and at first, I thought “sure, okay” and did not think much more of it. However, this quote in particular now seems to me especially applicable in accurately describing the reader interaction with the protagonist, Emma. The novel manages our minds in that we are told what happens to whom in what order and where. We are puppeteered by the author, as far as plot goes. Emma does this to this person, or this person does this to Emma, or any of the characters. However, we are told that our emotions are “moved,” and herein lies our “ah, there’s the rub” moment. Our emotions are not managed, they are simply moved. We are free to choose how they are moved, and what by. Sometimes, we have almost a hive mind reaction to a certain scene or character. I think most people think that Mr. Woodhouse is a ridiculous character, especially when introduced at the beginning as a feeble hypochondriac of a man. However, we have ample opportunity to come to our own conclusions. For example, when Emma makes that snarky comment in chapter 43 about Miss Bates being “limited as to number – only three at once” after Miss Bates makes a self-deprecating comment – although in good nature – about how she will have no problem with supplying “three things very dull indeed” to amuse Frank Churchill, and later Emma is said to never have felt “so agitated, so mortified” in her life, we as the reader are free to come up with whatever opinions we have on the matter. I am unsure as to what Austen wanted us to feel at that point. Should we feel sorry for Emma? Personally, I felt a judgmental sort of dislike towards her, and although I knew it was a bit misplaced being as one of Emma’s predominant characteristics is (for most of the novel) naivety, I am still free to form my own opinions concerning the actions presented. By the end of the novel, such as when Emma and Mr. Knightly walk in the garden, Emma expresses regret about her behavior, namely that between Harriet and Mr. Martin, and it seems here that most readers would be united in their emotions of acceptance and almost like of this reformed Emma, who, thank goodness, is no longer clueless.