The Epistemology of Hospitality in A Christmas Carol

          “Bah! Humbug” has come to be one of the most recognizable and frequently uttered literary allusions, especially around the Christmas season, expressing an often ironical disillusionment with the holiday foofaraw. It is originally, of course, the catch-phrase of the inimitable Ebenezer Scrooge, and it is employed by that gentleman in Dickens’s classic tale most famously to deny the worth of Christmas and his nephew’s Christmas blessing. It is also used later on, however, when Scrooge denies the appearance of Jacob Marley in Jacob’s erstwhile doorknocker. Having double-locked himself into his chamber after this alarming encounter, Scrooge reflects upon the experience with the singular exclamation: “Humbug!” He denies the reality, even the possibility, of what he has witnessed, and this recalcitrance to believe in the reality of his strange spectral visitors persists in Scrooge for a strikingly long time. Indeed, a key part of Scrooge’s dramatic personal transformation could be described as epistemological. He incrementally learns new ways to know and to believe through his encounters with the ghosts of Christmas, gradually accepting the reality of what he at first denied. In such a tightly woven tale as Dickens’s, this element of Scrooge’s change is unlikely to be disconnected from his broader transformation, and so we might wonder how Scrooge’s evolving epistemological position on spooks and spirits facilitates his newfound commitment to loving and caring for others?

We can begin seeking an answer to this question by considering more closely how Scrooge’s ability or willingness to believe in the supernatural alters throughout the story. Scrooge’s initial resistance to believing in the real existence of the spirits is shown clearly in his engagement with Marley’s specter. When Marley’s ghost enters the room and comes into Scrooge’s view, Dickens writes, “the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, ‘I know him! Marley’s ghost!’ and fell again” (51). Contrary to the fire’s epistemological certainty, Scrooge has just before this once again declared humbug of all the ghostly sounds approaching him and even after witnessing and speaking with the ghost, Scrooge is unconvinced. Marley states: “You don’t believe in me” (52), and Scrooge affirms this fact, explaining his disavowal of his own senses’ report by asserting “a little thing affects them…There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” (52). Scrooge recognizes that he is seeing something, but he calls into question what that something is. Strikingly, he denies the strangeness of the ghost by reducing it not only from the supernatural to the natural but from the natural particularly to the psychological. Scrooge attempts to render the ghost as nothing but an extension of himself. He attempts in this encounter to obliterate the other altogether.

This denial becomes increasingly difficult for Scrooge to maintain and quite quickly becomes impossible altogether. Indeed, while waiting for the arrival of the first spirit, Scrooge attempts to convince himself that the ordeal with Marley was mere nonsense, but he is unable to do so fully, such that when the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives Scrooge seems to more or less accept its reality. The supernatural being of the ghost is quickly made apparent through its time-travelling tendencies, and Scrooge’s resistance shifts to an attempt to deny the truth that the ghost reveals rather than an attempt to deny the ghost itself.

Even before the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge then has come to recognize the reality of an other and not just any other but a supernatural spirit. Ebenezer has jumped right into the deep end of the otherness pool, moving from an unwillingness to acknowledge being beyond himself to affirming the stark reality of a strangeness transcending the traditional bounds of reality itself.

Scrooge’s epistemological journey is not complete yet, however, as revealed in the invitation proffered by the Ghost of Christmas Present: “Come in! and know me better, man!” (80). Here, the ghost demonstrates to Scrooge the hospitality that he has persisted throughout most of his life in refusing to practice. Although the Spirit is in fact visiting Scrooge’s apartments, he invites Scrooge into Scrooge’s own rooms and into fuller knowledge of himself. With the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge only needed to recognize the ghost’s existence. The knowledge that ghost imparted to Scrooge was knowledge of Scrooge himself. But the Ghost of Christmas Present challenges Scrooge to go a step further, beckoning him to not merely recognize the existence of the stranger but to actively seek knowledge of the stranger. For this reason, the second ghost leads Scrooge not to scenes of his own life but rather to scenes of others’ lives. Indeed, “Stave Three” emphasizes the wide variety of households that Scrooge visits with the spirit, beginning with others with whom Scrooge is at least acquainted such as his nephew and Bob Cratchit but proceeding to others of whom Scrooge has no knowledge at all, even sweeping beyond Britain and across the sea. Thus, coming to know Christmas is parallel, if not synonymous, with coming to understand others and otherness.

All of this begins to suggest how Scrooge’s burgeoning ability to believe in the ghosts is essential to his transformation into a loving and generous man. The spirits are, in a sense, the ultimate strangers, and they invite themselves into Scrooge’s house. They enter his home as if they are guests, although in fact they have come for Scrooge’s benefit and are truly the ones offering him an invitation, thus exemplifying the mutual exchange of love and hospitality which Scrooge has for so long denied himself. By the time, Scrooge encounters the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come he is ready to greet that ghost with gratitude, even in spite of the fact that that ghost is the strangest and most frightening specter by far! Scrooge has learned to accept the reality of the other and actively seek understanding of that other.

To confirm our suspicion that Scrooge’s decision to practice charity and hospitality was predicated on his epistemological alteration, we can look back to an early incident in the first stave. When Scrooge has uttered his notoriously Malthusian recommendation that the death of the destitute might decrease the surplus population, he then remarks, “Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that” (45). It might at first seem as if Scrooge is denying his pseudo-eugenicist remark, but the gentleman collecting charity retorts: “But you might know it” (45). It seems that Scrooge is denying knowledge of the kinds of suffering and ways of thinking about suffering his interlocutor had described. In response, Scrooge insists that such efforts of knowing are not his concern. His business is with himself and himself alone. This is what Scrooge must grow past. Before he can overcome his selfishness and his greed, he must learn to see others as others and accept that his knowledge of himself and his own experience cannot explain them.

Indeed, we might even read Scrooge’s education in Christmas love as a partial repudiation of the doctrine of sympathy. Scrooge at first tries to reduce the ghostly other to a projection of his own digestion-muddled mind, and similarly he refuses to extend charity because his own self-knowledge does not enable him to know the reality of the sufferings the charitable gentleman describes. Scrooge grows in the tale not so much by recognizing the sameness of himself and others as by embracing others in their otherness. He could hardly have come to accept the Ghosts of Christmas by virtue of the humanity he shares with them, since they are not, in fact, human. Rather, they are just about as strange as a stranger can come and it is in learning to see and seek them as such that Scrooge becomes “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew” (123).


Crucifiers and Crucified: Questioning Christological Identity in Mary Barton

For much of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, religion seems to play a fairly marginal role in the novel and in most of the characters’ lives (with the notable exception of Aunt Alice). However, in the climax of the story, this relative silence on religion is, in a way, identified as the primary source of the societal and personal problems at the heart of the novel. In the moving final exchange between John Barton and Mr. Carson, both men see each other anew through the Christian gospel and discover that gospel anew through one another. After this event, the reader, looking back at the novel, is led to read many of the characters through a Christological lens, identifying some characters with Christ through their suffering and some characters, often the same characters, with Christ’s crucifiers through their violence or neglect of others. This crucifier/crucified duality transcends the boundaries between the rich and the poor, between the workers and the masters, showing Christ and thus humanity in all of them. However, the titular Mary Barton does not seem to fit into this paradigm of crucifier/crucified as tidily as many other characters, particularly the male characters. This leads to the question of whether this Christological connection is reserved for male characters, while female characters enter into the Passion of the novel differently or whether Mary too can be read, in a subtler way, as being linked to Christ in her suffering.

After Mr. Carson states that he would rather bear the burden of unforgiveness himself then extend forgiveness to his son’s murderer, Gaskell writes: “all unloving, cruel deeds are acted blasphemy” (342). This is what John Barton has come to understand in the light of the murder he has committed, especially after witnessing Mr. Carson’s anguished suffering, and it is a truth Mr. Carson realizes, to some degree, after this first brutal exchange between himself and John Barton. Carson’s revelation is inspired by the example of a little girl forgiving the rough young lad who knocked her over and especially her words “He did not know what he was doing,” which send him back to the gospel account of Christ’s salvific suffering (345). In thus seeing Christ through the little girl’s action, Carson comes to see Barton’s humanity through Christ, finding the strength to forgive the dying Barton in his final moments. It might seem arrogant to say that Carson sees himself linked to Christ through his own suffering, thus extending forgiveness to Barton who has inflicted that suffering on him, but the words through which he offers forgiveness simultaneously recognize his own need for forgiveness of trespasses: “God be merciful to us sinners.—Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us!” (346). Carson’s later actions reveal that he has not only seen himself as linked to Christ through his suffering but has also seen others, the poor whose needs he has neglected, as equally human by virtue of their shared connection to Christ through suffering. Thus, Carson and Barton are united as crucifiers and crucified alike.

In light of this climactic revelation, we are led to read Jem Wilson through a Christological lens as well. Jem, innocent and falsely accused, standing trial before a hostile court, is characterized particularly by his silence, much like Christ before Pilate and Herod. Indeed, Mary interprets Jem’s gaze as questioning, “Am I to do for what you know your—” (306). The unfinished words her are presumably “father did,” but the ambiguity suggests the possibility of connecting Jem’s sacrifice to the more broadly substitutionary sacrifice of Christ.

So then what about Mary? She is our protagonist after all, so it might seem odd that we do not seem to be clearly led to locate her in this Christological framework, which comes to almost define the novel and in which each of the major male characters can be situated. There are a few different possible answers to this seeming issue.

One possibility is that Mary is actually linked thematically to Christ through her suffering after all. Even as Jem acts as a Christ-type in court, Mary is arguably sacrificing herself for him in turn. Mary’s successful efforts to prove Jem’s alibi, push her to a point of physical and psychological exhaustion that seriously threatens her life after the trial. While Jem, unlike Christ, goes free after his trial, it seems that Mary comes close to fulfilling the Passion by dying, and her recovery from that state of near-death resembles, perhaps, a kind of resurrection.

However, Mary’s return to life can, probably more compellingly, be read as a rebirth into new life. To be sure, this too is a kind of resurrection, a resurrection of the believer with Christ in traditional Christian theology, but the language of new birth is associated with the role of the Christian rather than Christ, the saved rather than the savior. When Mary first wakes up after her long feverish delirium, Gaskell writes, “Her mind was in the tender state of a lately born infant’s” (324). Gaskell continues to describe Mary in this way, remarking later that “she smiled gently as a baby does” and describing her gaze as “infantine” (325). Clearly, Mary’s recovery and return to life are linked to a rebirth and, given the religious reading suggested by the climax, it seems natural to link that language to the idea of spiritual rebirth in Christian soteriology.

Might Mary then be thematically related to one or both of the two major Mary’s of the gospel accounts: Mary, Mother of God, and Mary Magdalene? Mary’s appearance in the court is compared not to any madonnas but instead to Guido’s Beatrice Cenci, an interesting connection in the ways that it positions Mary as a potential victim of her father and of a detached aristocracy. However, the choice to describe Mary’s melancholy beauty in terms of the Guido painting, when plenty of madonnas could fit the bill, suggests that the Marian connection is not one Gaskell was particularly pursuing. Mary Magdalene, however, seems to offer a more promising parallel. After Jem’s arrest, many try to cast Mary as sexually wanton. She is judged and denied grace by others, linking her perhaps to the reputed backstory of Mary Magdalene. This, in conjunction with the emphasis on Mary’s baby-like birth into new life, might seem to connect Mary to Christ in a more removed and more passive way, linking her to a woman adjacent to Christ rather than to Christ himself.

However, we might be falling into something of a false dichotomy if we reach this conclusion. Carson’s and Barton’s connection to Christ through their suffering and to his crucifiers through their cruelty does not conflict in any way with their simultaneous identities as believers, being born again into new life. To the contrary, all of these aspects of identity are part and parcel of being a believer, and thus we are not constrained to choose one of these several options for reading Mary’s identity. Mary can be linked at once to Mary Magdalene and to Mary Magdalene’s redeemer, just as Mary Magdalene herself was before Mary Barton ever entered the scene.


Works Cited:

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Ware, UK, Worsworth Editions, 2012.

Wherefore the Sybil?

If a reader, frantically eager to begin reading Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, were to inadvertently skip her prologue she would not intuit that she had missed anything. Admittedly, the same could very nearly be said for a number of other, not unsizable, portions of the novel throughout, but it is particularly true of the prologue, which feels awkwardly fitted to the succeeding story. In the prologue, Shelley, or a fictional persona she adopts, claims that she stumbled upon the scattered Sybil’s leaves while flagrantly flouting the directions of her Italian tour guides, and it is through the fruits of this transgressive spelunking that the author manages to piece together and then relate the tale of humanity’s end which makes up the novel proper.

The result of this peculiar framing device is a rather complex layering of narration in the novel. Lionel Verney is the narrator of the novel proper and the titular “last man,” but he is writing this account well after the time at which the author finds (apparently) a transcription of Verney’s future book recorded centuries earlier by the mythic Sibyl. Certainly an odd turn of affairs! Verney’s narration is told through the Sibyl’s leaves as translated by the author, and the author makes it clear that she performed a significant work of interpretation in piecing together the leaves, claiming, “Certainly the leaves of the Cumaean Sibyl have suffered distortion…in my hands” (7). Presumably all of this business is meant to somehow shape the reader’s experience of and engagement with the novel, but answering exactly how it is supposed to shape that experience is not easy. The prologue might seem insignificant or even distracting upon first glance (and possibly still after further inspection), but considering the influence of the multi-layered narration does suggest some possible ways that Shelley might have hoped to alter the reception of the text by the reader.

One effect of the author-Sybil-Verney narration could be to render Verney’s account ambiguous enough to make the novel a warning of potential danger rather than a statement about a certain future. Frequently, futuristic and dystopian novels seek to depict a terrible outcome in the future in order to warn about errors in the present. As a forerunner of the dystopian novel genre, Shelley would not have been drawing on this generic tradition as such, but she might nonetheless have tapped into a similar impulse. Perhaps she hoped to write about a catastrophic future for humanity without removing all hope of changing that future, so that her audience might feel compelled to act in order to change the outcome of humanity.

However, this reading is complicated by the fact that the novel does not seem to be primarily, or even very significantly, focused on highlighting humanity’s errors and warning about their destructive tendencies. To be sure, Verney has his fair share of critiques leveled at human foibles and follies, and Shelley does use the collapse of civilization to point out the absurdity of class distinctions and other such distinctions (although the protagonists remain rather distinctly aristocratic in their own perception). But it is never suggested, explicitly or implicitly, that human error is the catalyst of the catastrophe. To the contrary, the origins of the plague are entirely unknown and human conduct, good, bad, or somewhere in between, is all equally incapable of speeding or slowing the spread of the disease. Those who band together in the face of disease, die. Those who selfishly take advantage of the disease, die. Human action is not highlighted as an agent initiating or exacerbating the apocalypse; instead the novel emphasizes humanity’s lack of agency in relation to the plague. The point is not that humanity could have prevented the plague; the point is that they could not have done so.

Thus, rendering the account of the future ambiguous might play a part in Shelley’s motivation, but it does not seem to be a major part. So why else might Shelley employ this complex, rather unintuitive, narrative structure?

Well, perhaps she was simply trying to find a way to write about potentially “unbelievable” events in a future world. In the mid-nineteenth century, the novel was still a relatively young genre, and many novelists had chosen to somehow couch their story in the guise of a true account in some way. Shelley employs such a technique but is hampered by the fact that she cannot very plausibly present the text to her readers as an authentic recording of true events if those events take place in the future. And who better to relate the future than the Sibyl? There is no point dealing with second-rate future-gazers when you can just send your author straight into the Sibyl’s cave. This practical strategy for evoking a sort of “truthiness” might well explain Shelley’s layered narration in part.

However, we ought also to consider the inverse of the first possible answer we pondered. We have asked whether Shelley might have wanted to make Verney’s account questionable by the ways in which she drew it from the future to the present, but she might also have wanted to obscure her novel’s biographical elements by pushing present and recent past into a far-off future. Clearly, Shelley is not laboring to conceal the parallels between Lord Raymond and Lord Byron or between Adrian and the similarly sailing-accident-prone Perce Shelley. However, she is also not writing a straight biography or some kind of biographical allegory. She could have expressed her complex feelings about Byron and her somewhat perplexing feelings for Shelley by writing about them as themselves, but such writing is, in some ways, uncomfortably confined by facticity. To simultaneously write about and not write about the passing of the Late Romantics, who made up so significant a part of her life, she may have had to create enough distance between her fictional subjects and factual friends so that her readers would not draw too direct a correlation between them. Lord Raymond resembles Byron in many ways, but he is not Byron. As such, he can be better than Byron, while still modeling his faults and his fall. And the divorce between the angelic Adrian and the errant Perce seems much greater. Perhaps, by placing these departed figures in the future, Shelley was able to not only reflect on what they were but also imagine what they might have been. In some ways, dark though her plague-wracked future is, it at least allows her drowned Perce a chance to shine in a new light.

Shelley’s novel is many things. It’s a bit of biography. A bit of tragic romance. A bit of social critique. And a lot of apocalypse. And perhaps that variety is, in the end, what her framing device enables her to accomplish. The novel feels a bit oddly patched together at times, but then she frames it as something almost literally patched together from leaves and scraps of leaves gathered off the floor of an Italian cave. Her layered narration secures her freedom, and, while there is probably much more we could say about what Shelley might be doing with that freedom, we could at least perhaps conclude that that freedom is likely, to some extent, an end in itself.

Stepping into Secularism: Complicating Jean-Luc Marion’s Post-“Charlie Hebdo” Advice to Muslims

Jean-Luc Marion is best known for his influential works of philosophy, phenomenology, and theology, but, after the massacre at “Charlie Hebdo,” he wrote in a far less (although still somewhat) abstract vein, identifying the tragedy as an incident in a long-ranging conflict and recommending a path forward for followers of the Muslim faith in French society. According to Marion, the most essential step for the Muslim faith to take, in order to successfully step “into the secularism that the other religions embrace in France,” is to open “itself up to a close analysis” (Marion). Marion sees this “opening up” as a necessary step for Islam to be incorporated as a peaceful and functional part of French society, positioning the analysis as temporally and causally prior to the “secularism.” With respect to Marion’s eminence as a philosopher and his emotions in the moment of this response’s composition, I would like to argue that Marion’s recommendation to French Muslims (and Muslims generally) is impossible to realize, because of the way he inverts the necessary causal relationship between secularism and the kind of analysis he describes. This does not necessarily indicate that Marion’s end-goal of integration within a secularist framework is not a worthy one, but this complication of the means he recommends does force us to reconsider how (if at all) that end can be attained.

Marion’s description of the analysis that Islam must undergo implies the operation of a certain critical mindset. Marion refers to this process, one already undergone by Catholic traditions, Protestant traditions, and Judaism, as “tests of their religious validity” (Marion). This testing of Islam should include “philological analysis to understand how its texts came into being, an assessment of the interpretation of these texts, in-depth research into their actual religious history, etc.” (Marion). Such a process might sound quite natural to those shaped by traditions that have already undergone it, and the component steps laid out by Marion might sound to many of us essential to any such study. And indeed they are, but in order to embrace, or even make sense of, such a study certain assumptions about the nature of belief and truth as applied to religion are necessary. The kind of analysis Marion speaks about here cannot be undertaken unless one adopts a critical lens that holds simultaneously the possibility of a religion’s truth or falsity. Even if one already believes in the religion under investigation, the intellectual process of analysis must be understood as causally, if not temporally, prior to belief. The religion in question must be viewed as a thing, like many other things, that may or may not be believed, contingent on the results of analytical inquiry. Reality apart from the religion must be conceptually accepted as a possibility before such an analysis can be begun.

However, according to the eponymous Charles Taylor and those who follow his influential definition of secularism, the mindset that I have described above is precisely what constitutes secularism itself. In Taylor’s A Secular Age, he offers a hefty analysis of the origins of that titular phenomenon, finding that the critical difference between secularism now and secularism as it has been understood in the past is the fundamental assumption that belief in a particular religion (as well as non-belief in any religion) are equally viable possibilities. Not believing in the religion in which one believes is always understood as a possibility, and belief is thus seen as a choice. This way of thinking, as we have seen, underlies the kind of analysis and testing that Marion contends Islam must undergo to become a thriving participant in secular society.

But this is a problem since it means that, before undergoing the kind of analysis Marion mandates for induction into secularism, the mindset of Muslims (a rather nebulous body referred to by Marion) must be secular. In other words, secularism becomes a prerequisite for secularism. Marion identifies the problem underlying the discord between secular French society and Islam as the fact that Islam is not secular, but his plan for bringing Islam into the fold of secularism requires a condition which, by Marion’s own reasoning, cannot be fulfilled. Further complicating the issue is the fact that Marion might well be roughly correct in his diagnosis of the problem, even if his solution is lacking. Saba Mahmood has pointed out, in her incisive analysis of the Muslim response to the depiction of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, that responses of this kind arise from a Muslim understanding of faith that stands in contrast to the secular conception of faith as a choice (Mahmood 844). Indeed, Mahmood goes on to consider the ways that imaging Muhammad can affect Muslim believers, ways that are reminiscent of Taylor’s distinction between the porous self and the modern, secular buffered self.

So where does all of this leave us? The answer might seem to be “nowhere particularly good.” It appears that Marion might be right insofar as he suggests that traditional Islam remains incompatible with key aspects of French (and generally Western) society, because that society is secular and Islam, traditionally conceived, is not. However, secularism cannot be tidily manufactured through the process Marion recommends, nor through any similarly timely and intentional program. Western secularism evolved over centuries through a very particular series of events, culminating in a mindset incommensurable with many other modes of thought. Of course, Marion rather ignores a great deal of scholarly analysis of Islam already being undertaken by individuals who have accepted the necessary secularist positions, so perhaps we could look toward such trends as a potential solution. On the other hand, such academic inquiry, like most academic inquiry at present, is far removed from the lives and habits of most people and thus from most sincere followers of the Islamic faith. At present, the best that seculars and non-seculars can do might be to simply agree to disagree, but even such a goal as that is a fraught one when the very idea of “disagreement” itself is understood fundamentally differently within a secular or non-secular framework.

Works Cited:

Mahmood, Saba. “Religious Reason and Secular Affect.” Critical Inquiry. Summer 2009.

Marion, Jean-Luc. “After the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Massacre: Islam Must Open Itself to Critique–Jean-Luc Marion.”

Readerly Vanitas

After reaching, at long last, the final page of the many pages of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, many readers might find the novel’s resolution (or lack thereof) to be a bit unfulfilling. After all, it seems reasonable to think that with more than eight hundred pages to work with Thackeray should have been able to tie things up pretty tidily. We might expect to be devastated by a crushingly tragic outcome or to be sated by a graciously comic reward of virtues (such as we can find them). And we do see a bit of both. But, on the whole, the ending feels rushed, following from some climactic (more anti-climactic) crisis and resolution for Amelia and none at all for Becky with whom we have spent a majority of our time.

We seem to have a pretty satisfactory wrapping up of things with the marriage of Dobbin and Amelia, and in several ways their union does curtail the tragic direction which the novel seemed to be heading for a while, by putting young George on the right track (or at least edging him off the wrong one) and by rescuing Amelia and Dobbin from their stupidity and “spooney”-ness respectively. But Rebecca remains in a decidedly ambiguous position socially, a somewhat obscure one financially, and a pretty dismal one morally (having profited from if not orchestrated the great Waterloo Sedley’s demise). Nothing has been resolved for Rebecca, and Thackeray undercuts even our resolution concerning Amelia and Dobbin, by hinting at the imperfections of their marital state on the final page! The very last thought we hear from Emmy, or from any of the novel’s characters, is her reflection on Dobbin’s fondness for their daughter: “Fonder than he is of me” (809). Clearly, Thackeray does not intend to let marriage stand as a shining signifier of the long-sought happy ending.

In short, the novel does not seem to end so much as it does simply stop. As such, we might pause to consider whether this sense of some incompleteness, even arbitrariness, is a failure in Thackeray’s masterpiece or an essential part of his novel’s structure.

It might be particularly useful to ponder this question in light of D.A. Miller’s “Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel.” Miller considers the difficulty which every novelist faces in ending her novel which arises from the non-narratable happy ending. Miller argues that because the movement of a novel arises necessarily from conflict, trouble, or problems of some kind the happy ending cannot be narrated in the same way as the preceding plot. In fact, the novelist must be careful not to attend to her happy ending too closely or its imperfections will inevitably be disclosed, since any presentation of life requires the implicit recognition that life is a process of change and the reality of change reminds us that happiness can go as quickly as it came. Thus, a novelist can only really resolve her story by a sort of sleight of hand, defining the happiness against the conflict which came before while distracting the reader from the many perfectly apparent ways in which the happy ending could be, or already is, problematized.

However, Miller’s “problem of closure” is not a problem for Thackeray at all. If we consider the stated context of the novel along with Thackeray’s narrator’s final words it becomes apparent that the lack of resolution in his novel is no accident but rather an essential part of the novel’s plan. After describing Becky’s rather paltry and unstable success and problematizing Amelia’s marriage by noting her jealousy of her own daughter, Thackeray concludes his novel by reminding us once again that what we have been observing all along is merely the foolish play of Vanity Fair:

Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?—Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out. (809).

Here, Thackeray recognizes with Miller the impossibility of really resolving a novel. There is no ending which can really bring full satisfaction. Or, at least, there is no such ending in Vanity Fair and thus, correspondingly, in Vanity Fair. The very meaning of “vanity” includes the inability to provide ultimate satisfaction or meaning. Thackeray has shown his characters in quest of satisfaction for eight hundred pages, and, while his ending is by no means tragic, it could not be called comic either. Amelia and Becky are still in pursuit of their happy ending, and the readers are shown that that pursuit will likely continue forever uncompleted.

Thackeray not only explicitly denies his readers a happy ending to his story but actually denies them a happy ending in their own lives as well! The narrator’s rhetorical questions clearly imply that it is not only Becky and Amelia who cannot achieve finally satisfying desires but also each of us reading this novel or watching this “play.” We, as readers, might all along have been waiting for, perhaps expecting, satisfaction of our readerly expectations, and Thackeray achieves his ends by purposely flouting those hopes. We have been led to identify, sometimes uncomfortably, with the characters throughout the novel, and now we identify with them in their experience of that nagging feeling that something is still missing.

And if a frustrated reader were to splutter out that, after all that time and effort spent, he felt as if he’d gotten nowhere, we can imagine that Thackeray might well smirk and satirically query, “Do you mean, perhaps, it was all in vain?”

The Problem of Problemlessness in Sterne’s “Sentimental Journey”

Sterne’s brief novel, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, comes pretty much precisely as advertised. The narrator, Yorick, journeys through France and Italy and shares a variety of sentimental experiences with the reader. Especially to the modern reader, however, this formula might seem to present a problem, and that problem is basically the fact that, colloquially speaking, nothing happens. D.A. Miller explains in “Problems of Closure in the Novel” that plot depends upon difficulty and trial, and as such there might appear to be a problematic lack of problems in Sterne’s account. To be sure, the plot does become problematized from time to time, such as when Yorick fears the Bastille due to his passport-less condition, but, as John Mullan explains, the primary interest for Sterne’s readers would simply have been participating in Yorick’s many sentimental encounters. Nonetheless, such attractions offer little to contemporary readers so how does the novel still “work” today? I think that a partial answer might be found in an incident which at first appears to be a problem in itself.

This incident is Yorick’s quite obviously unkind and entirely unsentimental first engagement with the poor monk in Calais. This meeting happens very early in the book before Yorick writes his “Preface in the Desobligeant” where he establishes himself as a sentimental traveler, inviting the reader to join him in a journey not so much of development but of sequential incidents of sentimental sympathy. The sentimental reader is little more nor less than a guided sentimental traveler, one whose experience of the sentimental is filtered through one more additional teller. Thus, as John Mullan makes clear in “Sentimental Novels,” the reader’s primary source of enjoyment comes both from appreciating the sentimental disposition of the narrator/protagonist and from partaking themselves in that disposition by sympathizing with the narrator and the other characters of the book.

However, another important shift also occurs in the desobligeant. It is only at this point that Yorick begins his narrative in earnest. This beginning indicates that the account which we were reading before the desobligeant was conceived differently and, perhaps, intended for a different purpose or even a different audience. Our narrator is the same but his narrative purpose may have shifted. In fact, in the first entry, prior to the “Preface in the Desobligeant,” Yorick makes a direct address to his Eliza which might indicate that he is addressing her in that narrative, perhaps in a letter or at least in a journal intended for her eye. However, the account which Yorick begins to keep in and after the desobligeant is intended, not only by the author Sterne but by the narrator Yorick, for us, for the readers.

The incident of the monk and this shift in narratorial audience work jointly to complicate the relationship between the reader and the narrator. The reliability of the narrator is subtly but continually called into question, such that the reader’s surface level enjoyment of sentimental experience is accompanied by an underlying tension arising from the narrator’s questionable motivations. Thus, Sterne’s story attains greater staying power than later more simply sentimental novels, as Mullan observes, because Sterne compensates for the lack of any consistently problematized plot by problematizing the narrator himself. Just as Yorick is fascinated by the mystery of the man who implores charity from women only, so the reader is fascinated by the mystery of Yorick, as they watch him dance an often very fine line between noble sentiment and not-so-noble sensuality.

The way that the incident of the monk accentuates this ambiguity of motivation can be seen clearly by examining Yorick’s second encounter with the monk. This second encounter where Yorick apologizes for his previously unkind behavior occurs in conjunction with Yorick’s meeting with the Calais lady and the first of his several extended hand-holding sessions. On the surface level, Yorick’s second encounter is a perfect example of an incident attuned to cultivate sentimental enjoyment. As Yorick holds the lady’s hand, the monk approaches them and offers Yorick a pinch of snuff to which Yorick responds by offering the monk his own silver snuff box in its entirety, declaring, “when you take a pinch out of it, sometimes recollect it was the peace-offering of a man who once used you unkindly, but not from his heart” (99). With these words, Yorick suggests that his prior harshness does not detract from his supreme sentimentality on display throughout the story because it was not a natural outpouring of his heart. This account seems to be validated by the earlier incident in which Yorick describes how he formed a premeditated conviction to not be moved by the monk’s story, and the story waxes more sentimental yet as the monk and Yorick exchange snuff boxes and Yorick recalls how sweetly he wept at the monk’s grave some year afterward with his snuffbox in hand.

However, this sentimental sweetness cannot be accepted without reservation. At the very end of the entry prior to the one in which the snuffbox exchange occurs, Yorick is concerned about whether the monk might have told the lady about his cruel conduct, and he declares, “I set myself to consider how I should undo the ill impressions which the poor monk’s story, in case he had told it her, must have planted in her breast against me” (98). This confession casts an undeniable shadow over the snuffbox exchange. Yorick contrasts that action with his prior behavior by implying that his kindness comes from the heart while his avarice did not, but his earlier remark indicates that his kindness, at least in this incident, might be every bit as premeditated as his unkindness was before. Indeed, since he has a particular object in mind for his kindness (the good favor of the lady), it might seem to be more calculated than his unkindness which, to all appearances, actually did arise from an immediate impression.

Furthermore, that aforementioned object of Yorick’s perhaps premeditated generosity, casts even more doubtfulness on the purity of his sentiment. It is only after the shift in narratorial audience which occurs in the desobligeant that Yorick begins recounting the many sentimental incidents which put him in emotionally, if not physically, compromising positions with various ladies. Somehow Yorick’s sentiment always seems to culminate in him holding the hands of attractive women, and it seems unlikely that these incidents would be mentioned so freely were Eliza still the narratee.

Thus, this exchange with the monk aptly captures the tension in Sterne’s novel which solves the problem of problemlessness. The reader, prompted to suspicion by this early incident, is left wondering throughout the account whether Yorick’s sentiment might be more strategic than he claims or if even the natural outpourings of Yorick’s heart might not be accompanied by equally natural outpourings of desire from other less pure quarters.

Distance and Sympathy in “Camilla”

Frances Burney’s Camilla is, almost from beginning to end, a long (very long) series of misunderstandings. While personal defects and even deviousness do play a part in the novel, the vast majority of the plentiful conflict arises from well-meant but poorly executed interpretation. Camilla misreads Edgar’s intentions, Edgar misreads Camilla’s every action, Eugenia misreads Bellamy’s professions, and Dr. Marchmont misreads the entire female sex. This basic formula of increasingly disastrous misunderstanding is a common one, especially in comic drama such as Shakespeare’s where it always culminates in a rapid resolution of the near-catastrophe when the disguises are removed and everyone resumes their original genders.

However, while Camilla does at long last resolve in a similar way, the progression toward that point is not experienced in nearly so lighthearted a manner as is typical of a comedy. Unlike the “comic equivalent of fear” which R.S. Crane describes as the result of similar misunderstandings in Tom Jones, the reader of Camilla is likely to feel genuine concern, perhaps disappointment, and almost certainly frustration. I believe that an important reason for this less comical readerly experience can be found by considering the various distances at work in the novel.

In Wayne Booth’s seminal Rhetoric of Fiction, he describes a number of kinds of distance in the novel which shape the reader’s experience. These distances include the distance between the reader and the narrator, between the implied author and the narrator, and between the narrator and the characters. Booth explains how different combinations of these kinds of distances mold almost every aspect of a novel, and one critical aspect of the novel experience determined by these distances is sympathy (particularly sympathy between the reader and the characters). Booth notes that, in Tom Jones, it is the closeness of the narrator and the reader which makes possible the “comic analogue of fear” described by Crane, and he considers how Austen must maintain a closeness between Emma and her readers without letting them ever get too close, in order to maintain Emma’s appeal.

Booth’s observations provide insight into why we experience the complex web of errors in Camilla so differently than similar plots of error in other works. Unlike Tom Jones, the author and the narrator of Camilla both remain fairly undeveloped and unobtrusive. Burney implicitly acknowledges her creative role in the first paragraph of the book, but beyond that point she assumes the voice of her narrator who, while not dispassionate, could hardly be identified as a “character.” Thus, although the reader is close to the narrator insofar as they trust her and hold knowledge in common with her, they are not close to her in a way which shapes their expectations for the characters. The frequent intrusions of Fielding’s narrator in Tom Jones assure the reader that Tom will be just fine, but Burney’s narrator becomes little more than an accurate lens through which to view the characters and their world.

And through that lens we view a large array of characters and the activities of their respective hearts and minds. Indeed, one of the more striking aspects of Burney’s novel is the number of characters who are granted at least some interior exposition in the course of the story. Burney allows us more access to Camilla’s hopes and fears than to the others’, but, within the novel’s commodious narrative, there is still plenty of time spent in Edgar’s suspicious heart, Eugenia’s naively intelligent mind, and the feelings of many other secondary characters as well. Burney uses almost every instance of interior exposition to create sympathy for the character being exposited. In fact, almost the only character of import who is granted no interior exposition is Bellamy, such that all our knowledge of internal motivations is consonant with the overall impression of disastrously entangled good intentions.

This widespread interiority brings the reader fairly close to many characters but not very close to any one. We, along with the narrator, know a little bit about what everyone is thinking, and thus we are always kept somewhat distant from what any one character is thinking since we possess knowledge which allows us to see their frustrating folly or reasonable error. This distance might render the reader’s sympathy for the characters somewhat fragile so Burney’s challenge is to paint every character in as positive a light as possible despite the fact that they all succeed at damaging one another quite prodigiously. For example, if Camilla were to cause trouble with vanity like Emma’s, we would dislike her for it, since Burney does not bring us as close to Camilla as Austen brings us to Emma.

It is this almost overwhelming number of fairly sympathetic characters in Camilla which causes us to experience the plot of errors in a not entirely lighthearted way. The frustration we feel is not so much Camilla’s or Edgar’s, but rather it is our own, the frustration not of one character’s perspective of the overall mess but of our own perspective which puts us in contact with such a vast cacophony of voices, all of which we wish well, that, without direct assurances to the contrary by the narrator, we begin almost to fear that the disaster has gone too far and not even our unobtrusive author can entirely set things to rights.

Pamela’s Extended Happy Ending

Having concluded Pamela’s correspondence and himself recounted the generally happy fortunes of most the characters in his novel, Richardson declares that he has “brought this little History to a happy Period” (500). Richardson’s approach to ending the novel here would seem to be in line with D.A. Miller’s observation that comic novels are necessarily ended when the troubles are resolved and a happy ending is achieved.

However, many readers may find that Richardson has actually transgressed Miller’s formula quite egregiously. Miller argues that, after a happy ending has been attained, the novelist must stop writing since the happy ending itself is non-narratable. Narrative requires difficulty or conflict, but happiness makes for a stultifying story. To the modern reader of Pamela it might appear that the novel bears out Miller’s thesis quite painfully (for the reader) by negative example. The first three fifths or so of the story are driven by Pamela’s battle of wit and will to preserve her virtue from the lustful Squire B, but after the first three fifths of the novel this issue has been rapidly and implausibly resolved and Pamela has been joined in holy and happy matrimony with the now (allegedly) praiseworthy squire.

However, Richardson does not seem to regard this event as adequately constituting a “happy period” and thus sets about a project for nearly two hundred fifty pages which looks an awful lot like narrating a happy ending and which, in this reader’s humble opinion, attains nearly to the levels of boredom predicted by Miller. Nonetheless, if we clear from our vision the obscuring mists of irritation, it may be possible to determine why Richardson chose to include in the narrative several weeks after the joyous (insert sarcasm) wedding of Pamela and Squire B.

I believe the answer is that Richardson understands himself to be following Miller’s formula, but he considers the essential movement of the novel to be not merely Pamela’s preservation of her virtue or her attainment of love in wedlock. Rather, as Nancy Miller recognizes in “How Novels Think,” the essential movement in Pamela is Pamela’s progress from a lower social position to a higher one. To be sure, this movement is one and the same with the testing and rewarding of Pamela’s virtue (it’s in the title after all), but for Pamela’s virtue to be fully rewarded, as Richardson for reasons probably more religious than aesthetic desired it should be, it is necessary to establish Pamela in her duly earned social promotion.

We can see that this is what Richardson is up to in the latter part of the novel through the several minor sources of tension which occasionally raise the narrative from mind-numbingly dull to marginally interesting. These tensions all involve threats to Pamela’s happiness and especially to her acceptance in her newly elevated social status. Much of the narrative is dedicated to revealing whether Pamela was accepted by her Lincolnshire neighbors (no real tension there), by Lady Davers (a refreshing amount of tension!), and finally her Bedfordshire neighbors (little more than a smidgeon). Most of these obstacles are overcome quite simply through the sheer magnitude of Pamela’s virtue, and any confrontation ultimately resolves in an exchange of rather extreme compliments, although Lady Davers’s resistance (by far the most exciting post-wedding event) requires a one-two punch from both Pamela’s virtue and one of Squire B’s stately temper tantrums.

Richardson probably considered each of these events necessary to narrate because, in that period, it would have been very uncertain whether a woman who advanced socially as Pamela does would be accepted in that position by her new peers. In fact, it would probably be rather unlikely for her to be accepted. Thus, the sources of conflict which seem inadequate to some modern readers (like myself) might have been sources of more immediate worry to Richardson’s immediate readership. In attending to their concerns for Pamela then, Richardson is able to not only address these threats which precluded a happy ending but to address them in a way which makes it clear that Pamela’s social advancement is validated only because it is the result of her truly vast reserves of virtue.

If Richardson’s readers were left wondering whether Pamela had only earned a lifetime of social ostracization, Richardson would not have fully achieved either his artistic or his moral purpose. If the novel were merely Pamela perhaps it might resolve earlier, but the subtitle at least requires a more extended exposition.

Resolution in tragedy?

Despite his stated ambition of writing a true history, Henry Fielding routinely (and playfully) reminds his reader of the creative process behind the fiction he presents. In Tom Jones this authorial unmasking (insofar as Fielding ever bothered to disguise his authorial role in the first place) occurs principally in the introductory chapters to each book, where Fielding glibly preempts his critics and theatrically toys with the reader’s expectations.

In the first chapter of Book XVII, for example, Fielding laments that he might never be able to extricate Tom and Sophia from their misfortunes and achieve a happy ending. Fielding’s fear for his characters is, of course, feigned, but he raises an intriguing point about resolution in the novel (or in story in general).

He starts this chapter by stating: “When a comic writer hath made his principal characters as happy as he can, or when a tragic writer hath brought them to the highest pitch of human misery, they both conclude their business to be done, and that their work is come to a period.”

This all concurs strikingly with D.A. Miller’s basic thesis in “Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel.” Miller starts with the fairly apparent reality that it is “unhappiness,” in all of its infinite variations, which makes the stuff of plot. Once happiness is achieved, there is nothing more to say and, as Fielding pertly explains, the “work is come to a period.”

Miller goes on from that point to explore the difficulty of resolving the novel given the inherently unstable nature of the climactic “happiness,” concluding that novelists have been forced, in various ways, to deal with the fact that happiness always contains the seeds of some new disaster or disappointment.

Fielding, however, points not just to happiness as a means of resolution in the novel but also to alternately misery. The tragic author can achieve an ending by reducing the characters to despair, just as the comic author ties things up by dispensing satisfaction and good will all around.

In light of Miller’s point then we must wonder: is the tragic ending of pure despair unstable in the same ways that the happy ending is? If every state of happiness conceals misery in potentia, does every state of (allegedly) pure sadness conceal the possibility of future happiness?

Fielding might seem at first to provide little in the way of an answer to this question, since his concern is focused on his own predicament as a comic author attempting to extricate his heroes from a terrible situation which might have been contrived by “the devil, or any of his representatives” but which was, in fact, contrived by himself.

Nonetheless, in discussing this difficulty, Fielding declares that his hero’s circumstances are so bad that, if he were a tragic author, his work would be more or less complete. In short, he claims that things have gotten so out of hand that he has to find a way to craft a happy ending out of a tragic one!

Might this hint at an answer to our question? Fielding, despite his own purported fears of failure, achieves an unequivocally happy ending for his novel, and, if we are to believe Fielding, he brought his heroes out of a tragic ending to get there. Does this mean that a tragic ending contains not merely the seeds of some small happiness but even the seeds of a straight-up happy ending?

Well, certainly, no reader is likely to actually have experienced Tom’s distress as anything approaching a tragic ending at any point in the novel; but even so the dramatic fluctuation of fortune evidenced in Tom Jones and many other novels is evidence to consider and might well suggest that despair is as unstable as happiness.

The constant factor which propels plot toward either happiness or misery and likewise renders those resolutions unstable is basically change. That is what prompts the reader on every page of the novel to begin to imagine the next page for himself and to imagine an imaginary next page even as he reads the last page of the novel. Perhaps no author could achieve a truly stable resolution, whether of happiness or despair, without subduing the reader’s imagination which conjures hope as much as it generates fear and catastrophe.